Saturday, December 24, 2011

This Christmas Eve

She passed away peacefully today while we played at the beach with our cousins. We were with beloved family members as was she.

***

Grandma came home last Thursday for good and family members decamped to her apartment--a title for her home which inadequately describes the place we celebrated holidays and birthdays and ate summer dinners and congregated, just to chat and check in.

Husband and I hadn't discussed how we'd talk about the plan for his mom with the girls. Big Sis overheard us talking about her going home, though, and her eyes lit up. "She's going home!?"

Going home. A sign that things were better. A sign that we understood her wishes. A metaphor: so many meanings, contradictory and synonymous.

Husband was ready. I was more conflicted. The week prior, the week it was decided, I was angry, not about how this would go, but that she was robbed in the first place. That a stroke turned her life on a dime, irrevocably. Going home should always be good. Instead it felt portentous, momentous, and ominous. What I didn't understand--know then--was that her homecoming would be good, beautiful.

And so Big Sis overheard us talking about her going home, while we were still processing what it meant, what it would look and feel like.

"But it's your Mom!" she pleaded, crying, eyes wide at her dad. It's your Mom."

***

When a family member is ill, in the hospital or convalescing for an extended period, there's an emergency mode you enter and in which you dwell, on a precarious perch bound in part by unceasing worry and also the reassurance of rules, protocols, and safety measures.

But when hospice is in place, practical matters once significant become irrelevant, like her failed swallow tests. Grandma tasted ice cream, apple pie, some margarita with her family.

Other practicalities take on new meaning. She had her hair cut on Tuesday night, because it would feel good. There's a lovely clarity of purpose we too often lack in our everyday lives: comfort, simple pleasures, being with loved ones.

Her eldest son's family, wife and three grown children, were all together for the first time in ten years. They walked Grandma to the beach on Monday.

***

We spent hours each day with family members at her apartment, sitting in her office chair, her beloved blue chair, and on folding chairs and lawn chairs. Temporary relationships were struck with nurses, the chaplain, case manager. Her neighbor and best friend did laundry, dropped off breakfast, lunch, and unexpected snacks. Stories were told. The girls played Go Fish, drew, watched TV, played with Grandma's Beanie Babies. They held her hand and talked with her.

There was time, too, to cook, work, answer emails and phone calls, update Facebook. I imagined ancient cave-dwelling people doing then much like we were: tending to daily life while keeping vigil over a loved one passing through in close, safe, reassuring quarters. It felt so very right.

During a quiet moment, girls drawing, Grandma sleeping, nurse recording notes, Big Sis paused. "I miss Grandma," she shared, and then resumed coloring.

***

Cousins and siblings and aunties and uncles and nieces and nephews reacquainted and connected at Grandma's side. Family members gave what they could and how and when, in a seamless ebb and flow of being with her and together. Sides and strengths of personalities, in many cases dormant for having not yet endured this, emerged and developed. Admiration, love, and respect for one another grew.

***

So few relationships in our lives are unfettered by titles and hierarchies, history and unforgiven deeds, our own selfishness and demands and obligations. Jealousy, mistrust, and hidden agendas. My mother-in-law gave me and us a simple uncomplicated and unconditional love of no demands. Without question, negotiation, or agreement, our family's relationship with Grandma Shirley was organically good, always. I loved her so easily.

***

Our family's holiday traditions include taking Grandma to the Hotel del Coronado to view the giant decorated tree and ice skaters and have a holiday drink and appetizers. We dress up and take pictures. We eat spicy nuts and toast with our hot chocolates and martinis. To enduring love, to family, to little luxuries to count on.

All the things we are appreciating so much this year.

We love you, Grandma. The girls will have your hands in theirs at the Del this season, and forever.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Grandma Shirley

My Mother-in-Law

Shirley who is the anchor in a bustling port
And writes "Hiya" in the subject line
Who is coral and clowns
Who is pelicans and pastels
Whose home is never too small
Is scrambling some eggs
Who tells us we're wonderful
Who tells us not to worry
Whose blue eyes are glistening
Is letting us off the hook
Remembers Little League and sailboats
Is making lists
Is an album of pride and memories
Is grinning tell her a story
Has brought us all here
Who saved it for you especially
Is ornaments and white wine and mysteries
Who validates and cajoles and disagrees and chuckles
Is the forgiving ship in the family fleet
Asking how will you grow from here
How will you grow how?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

'Tis the Season

I'm appreciating my Facebook Friendships with former students lately.  My page is full of college kids counting down days till they return to our hometown, snapshots of the bridge to our small city, and taggings of old friends with new:  "I wish you could meet my roommate/high school buddy; you two would love each other!"  Ahhhh, it makes me nostalgic. 

'Tis the season for lamentations about finals, too.  And I have some sympathy for my modern-day earnest scholar-friends.  I mean, it was hard enough to study in college during the age of doors with dry-erase boards and landlines, the time of no cell phones or computers.  Can you imagine the distractions these days?  The texts?  The TV shows and movies downloaded to the device sitting right there on your desk?  I can't!  Even without those temptations I managed to distract myself in the library, making new friends and talking to lampshades if all else failed.  But I also can't imagine how I found my friends on weekends in college, without phones and "check-ins" and such, what with the whimsy of "maybe I'll hit up that frat party...no wait, I changed my mind; I'm gonna go to the improv show instead."  Nevertheless, I somehow managed a healthy serendipitous social life. 

But I remember final exams.  I remember that when I made my airline reservations in the fall with a return ticket at the end of the semester, I'd always have to book my flight on the last possible day of finals, just in case one of the courses I chose scheduled a final for that 2:00 PM slot on December 22nd.  Most of the time, I had a day or two post-exams to pack and languish in the dorm with the few folks stuck studying, but fall semester junior year, I had the last final on the last day, with a flight out early the next morning.  I would be studying abroad in Italy during spring semester, which meant I had to pack All My Stuff and haul it into the basement that night after my final, where it would await my return fall of senior year. 

I wasn't looking forward to this packing and hauling at all.  I wasn't looking forward to saying goodbye to my boyfriend for an eight-month separation.  The only thing I was glad about was being done with my History of China final, which I thought I had rocked.  That class was my favorite thus far; I had actually read the whole book my professor wrote along with associated readings, and was fascinated by the twists and turns in Chinese politics juxtaposed with the constants of its culture.  To celebrate the end of finals, I planned to enjoy a leisurely Last Supper with friends in the dining hall and then burn the midnight oil packing. 

There's a joke that circulated during finals about a kid taking his exam who didn't heed the warning to turn in his blue books immediately when the exam session was over.  He sat, instead, at his desk and continued to write, even as he was threatened by the proctor that his exam would not be graded.  When he finally finished, he carried his blue books to the front of the lecture hall, where the exasperated T.A. stood beside a table stacked with completed exams. 

"Do you know who I am?" he challenged the T.A.

"No...?" replied the T.A. 

"Good," said the student, as he shoved his blue books into the middle of the pile of exams.  "Have a great holiday!"

Turns out I would have my own blue book mishap, no joke.  After dinner, I returned to my dorm room with my backpack to begin sorting, packing, cleaning, and lugging.  I emptied my backpack first.  I had a habit of grabbing extra blank blue books and using a few for notes or outlining while I was taking exams.  I had turned in the essays and answers and thrown the blue books with notes into my backpack.  Or so I thought.  I recall my gut turning over and blood draining from my face as I realized that instead, I had taken my exam books with me, and turned in my notes.  On the last day of finals.  By this time, hours had gone by, hours in which classroom buildings were being locked, T.A.s were loading up cars and heading home for the holidays, and professors were long gone.  Hours during which I, conceivably, could have been writing exam answers in my room with my course books open, only to claim later that I accidentally turned in the wrong blue books.  I felt completely, hopelessly, irrevocably screwed. 

When I was finally able to stop flapping my arms, pacing, and hyperventilating, I did the only thing I could do:  call my T.A.  She was my discussion section leader, and we had made conversation after class a number of times.  I admired her; she was wise and organized and kind.  She would actually know who I was.  Maybe trust me.  If I could find her. 

Her number was listed in the phone book, miraculously, and I left a long, rambling, and desperate message on her answering machine.  And then commenced worrying and packing and bemoaning my plight and stupidity.  By the time she returned my call I was resigned to failing the class, the class I loved with the professor who was legendary and my cool T.A.  But she returned my call, and she listened to me and believed me and we made arrangements for me to leave my exam books in her grad school mailbox.  I had probably never felt more relief and gratitude combined before. 

Ah, that T.A. with her mercy and trust in me.  Now an educator myself, I've never forgotten the value of those two gifts in my work with growing and developing humans.  But the real moral of the story lies in relationships.  Had I not connected with my T.A., and had she not made herself available to students, I might have had some insightful but worthless essays, short answers, and identification pairs to take home for the holidays, as well as a bad grade in that awesome history class. 

So, my Facebook friends with finals, make yourself known to your professors, T.A.s, deans, and R.A.s (in all the right ways, of course).  Stay connected with old friends (and teachers!) and bring your two worlds--former and current--together when you can.  Pay forward the strong connections you've cultivated by reaching out to underclassmen and younger siblings.  Share your wisdom and mercy.  Be honest.  Don't forget to double-check your tests and exams and slow down a little.

And while I am dispensing free advice, I'll throw in one more helpful hint:  If you happen to enroll in a class in which the professor announces on the first day that your grade will be based on either the midterm and final, or just the final exam--your choice!--TAKE THE MIDTERM, PEOPLE.  It turns out you can't read all the books about U.S. History from 1900 to 1950 in a week.  Trust me on this one. 

Good luck!  A full night's sleep is right around the corner.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Write Gift

I received former student Lindsey's holiday card in the mail yesterday.  Along with being a gifted poet and person, Lindsey creates and sells handmade paper products.  Her card was hand-stamped (read her process here) and included a postage-stamped postcard to tear off and send someone (Lindsey, by the way, was the inspiration behind my post about postcards earlier this year).  How wonderful is a gift which comes with a gift you can turn and send someone?  Pretty niftily wonderful, I should say.

So I thought about gifts of writing and their value.  And about how low cost they are but also how difficult they can be to produce.  Which, nevertheless, should not deter you (despite the fact that I haven't been able to write here on this blog for the past week and a half, due in part to my obsession with Friday Night Lights, and to various and sundry life events alternately inspiring stress, relief, and mental zombiehood).  Creativity often requires a nudge, a nugget.  Thus I am offering you an idea for writing to and for someone you love. 

Personally, I feel a personal letter written on weighty, significant, or beautiful paper with a pen you love, and stamped and sent, is a simple, lovely, and all-too-rare gift. 

Poems win, though.  And one of my favorites to use as a template for writing a tribute to someone is Sandra Cisneros's "Abuelito Who."  I once posted my own version about Big Sis on her birthday, and here is an example I wrote about a former student:

Jared

Jared who is a silent redwood in a willow forest
And asks who is a true friend
Who is songs and docks
Who is camp and a green jacket
Whose smile is genuine
Is writing a story
Who tells us to listen
Who tells us be gentle
Whose eyes are pleading
Is making friends
Remembers summers and boats
Is hopeful
Is a cathedral of joyful voices
Is sad give him a hug
Has moved one time too many
Who hears chords in his head
Is adjectives and verses and tenors
Who soothes and serves and serves and soothes
Is the teaching tree in the listening forest
Asking who is a true friend
Who is a true friend who?

Try it.  I know I'd much rather have a poem (like my husband's wedding vows to me, which are framed and memorialized) than a new water heater.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Don't Stop Believing

Big Sis clearly wanted to talk with me about something. She was looking at me intently, wrinkling her nose, and "ummm"ing.

"Mom, I just don't see how parents could be Santa...so I still believe in Santa, even though kids at school make fun of me about it."

I sort of saw this coming.  I'd been warned that 3rd grade was the end of innocence.  And though I figured the demise of my little fairy follower's naivete wouldn't come easily, I anticipated playground chatter and our daughter's subsequent speculation. 

"Really, honey?  What do they say?"

"Some people say they know Santa is their parents.  And that I am dumb for thinking Santa is real.  But, if Santa is parents, then you'd have to set an alarm clock to get up in the middle of the night?  And that would wake us up, too...so I don't think so.  Also, I think I saw Santa once when I got up to go to the bathroom.  When I was five." 

"I remember when I was a little girl I heard Santa's sleighbells above our house, right as I was falling asleep.  It was one of the happiest sounds I've ever heard." 

"It's the Easter Bunny I really wonder about, though...I mean, how can one bunny hide all those eggs and deliver all that candy?"

"You know we're talking about magic, here, right?  The Easter Bunny is probably not like Spot.  Or...you know?  Maybe he is?  How do I know?"

"It would be so cool if Spot were the Easter Bunny."

"Here's the thing, kiddo.  You're not going to feel sure about Santa until you're a parent yourself, and you realize Santa really does happen.  And Santa doesn't care if you believe in him or not; he comes anyway.  So kids can go ahead and talk about how he's not real...but not believing?  How is that fun?"

"I love you, Mommy." 

Note:  keep your cynical, unbelieving kids away from my ingenue, willya?

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving

This year we ate on Wednesday; today is reserved for visiting Grandma and delivering desserts to Christie's Place

I went on a long run yesterday morning and thought of what I'd say when it was my turn to contribute my words of gratitude at the dinner table.  I concluded that I most thankful for my deep sense of fulfillment and contentment.  And for the relationships in my life which have strengthened.  To have a rich and meaningful life...?  'Nuff said.

Yesterday was spectacular, despite missing our far-flung family members.  We watched a few first-season episodes of ALF  (oh my gosh; still so hilarious!), gobbled turkey prepared three ways, played Catch Phrase, and chowed pumpkin cheesecake. 

I brought a squash dish, and the epic battle between me and tough-skinned gourds was worth it (it's a whole lot easier to cut a squash in half and bake it than it is to peel and dice, yikes). 

Here's the recipe:

Roasted Squash and Sweet Potatoes

Ingredients:
1 each:  kabocha, butternut, and acorn squash, peeled and cubed.
3 small sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed
3 large leaves swiss chard, finely shredded
1 onion
1 tablespoon butter
1/3-1/2 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon garam masala
1 teaspoon pepper
dash cayenne pepper
1/3 cup pine nuts

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Arrange squash and sweet potatoes in a shallow baking dish.  Add swissh chard, and toss with olive oil and kosher salt.

Saute/caramelize onions in butter, garam masala, and sugar until just brown.  Add to pan, mix.

Roast; toss squash intermittently.  Dish is done when squash is soft and bubbly. 

Toast pine nuts in a skillet and sprinkle on top before serving.

Have a beautiful Thanksgiving.

Monday, November 21, 2011

List: First-World Burdens (for Which I Am Ultimately Grateful)

1. I ordered $200 of groceries from Vons.com, including free home delivery and a free turkey, only to have my credit card fraud department cancel the order (seemed suspicious, all those groceries).
2. The duvet cover tumbling in the dryer: swallowing socks, sweaters, and skirts, and necessitating its unrolling every ten minutes.  Drives me a little nutso.
3. Songs by Adele and One Republic overplayed on the radio: It's gonna be a good life when she finally finds someone like you.
4. The kids keep needing feeding.
5. Our freezer is overfull and something cold and hard falls out and onto my toe each time I open it.
6. The remote for our (non-flat-screen) TV no longer turns the TV on and off.
7.  Marcona almonds are pricey.
8.  Pretty sure I can't drink a pint of IPA and drive. 
9.  The Jason Mraz concert is sold out.
10.  One of the sliding doors of our van fills with water every time it rains.  Slosh, brake, sloooooosh

On the flip side, I'm able to buy $200 worth of groceries; own a clothes dryer; can listen to the radio (and turn it off); have ample food for my kids ($200 worth, for now), a full freezer (see groceries), and a TV; can splurge for Marcona almonds and enjoy an IPA at home; saw Jason Mraz live with Colbie Caillat last month, and drive a minivan. 

It is a good life, One Republic.

Monday, November 14, 2011

We Belong...We Belong, We Belong Together

Here's how I entertain myself in a minivan with three girls in the back rehearsing a Taylor Swift song:

Girls: "She wears short skirts; I wear tee shirts...she's cheer captain and I'm in the bleachers..."

Me: "I just don't understand why she wears shark shirts. Why not a dolphin shirt?"

Big Sis: "SHORT skirts, Mom! Short SKIRTS. C'mon, let's keep going."

Girls: "Dreaming 'bout the day when you wake up and find that what you're lookin' for has been here the whole tiiiiiime...If you could see that I'm the one who understands you, been here all along so why can't you seeheeheeeeeeee you belong to meheeheeeee...you belong to me."

Me: "I think it's 'Why can't your sleeves belong to me'."

Big Sis: "No, it's not. It's 'WHY CAN'T YOU SEE YOU BELONG WITH ME'."

Me: "But maybe she really likes his sleeves."

Big Sis: "Pfft. Let's do it over again, and everyone remember their solos."

Girls: "She wears short skirts; I wear tee shirts...(la la la)...why can't you seeheeheeeeeeee you belong to meheeheeeee...you belong to me."

Me: "Maybe it's 'Why can't you sneeze'?"

Big Sis to Girls: "She's just joking. Let's start from the top."

Girls: "She wears short skirts; I wear tee shirts...(la la la)...why can't you seeheeheeeeeeee you belong to meheeheeeee...you belong to me."

Me (parking): "I know what. It's '...your belongings are with me', like, don't worry, they're not in the Lost & Found."

Big Sis: Sighs of exasperation.

Little Sis: Giggling. "Or, Mom, it could be '...your artichokes belong with me...'"

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Check-In

Six weeks ago I entered NPR's Three-Minute Fiction Contest.  I didn't win!   But I am not fazed; I've entered several contests over the years and I am grateful for the challenge and incentive to write.  I once entered an edited version of this blog post in a Real Simple magazine essay contest, and I was a finalist in this blog entry contest

The premise of NPR's seventh contest of this nature was to write a fictional narrative of less than 600 words featuring one character coming to town and one leaving.  My story is not autobiographical, but inspired by a time a friend left me his car at the airport.

Check-In

The car was right where she said it would be, on the fourth floor of the parking garage, midway down the third row from the elevator. My heart skipped with surprise and satisfaction that our wacky plan worked. Now, for the key. She’d duct-taped it inside the right rear wheel well (“Say that 10 times fast,” she texted with a smiley face).

She’d written directions from the airport to my hotel and folded them over the top of the steering wheel (“In case you’re as GPS- and iPhone-deprived as I am”). Back in the day, she’d refused to use the microwave.

She was the first thing I thought of when I read the wedding invitation. I hadn’t been back in years—five, to be exact, since things ended badly, with both of us ready and not in our own ways. I’d moved away. Meanwhile, she remained in our college town, working as a post-doc in a lab at the university. That much I could tell from Facebook, where we were friends but not correspondents.

Still, I could call her, I thought, for coffee. I didn’t not want to. So after I booked my flight I found myself leaving her a message in a cheery, nervous voice: “Hi! How are you? My old roommate is getting married…remember her boyfriend of forever? They’re finally getting hitched, and I will be in town…anyway, I thought maybe we could get coffee, or something…call me if you want.”

She called back within the hour: happy to hear from me, disappointed that she, too, would be at a wedding that weekend, out of town. When we established that our respective flights left no overlap time, she thought of something. “Wait! If your flight arrives after I leave, and you take off before I return, I could leave you my car at the airport…” Before I could protest, she continued, “You would save me finding a ride or taking a cab, and I would save you a rental car…I mean, unless you’re traveling with someone?” “No…” I replied, adding, “And you?” before I could think better of it. “Nope…This is perfect! Parking will hardly cost anything because our flights are close. I’ll just text you the car’s location after I park and you do the same!”

Over the next eight weeks we conversed regularly over Facebook, mainly idle chitchat about my running and her biking and inquiries about our families, and then confirmations that our plan was still a go. Now here I was, in the driver’s seat of her familiar car, turning the key and hearing the CD of a favorite chanteuse in her player. I peered around for evidence she’d changed irrevocably. She still drank Starbucks soy lattes; she still stored bike jerseys in her car.

The wedding events were a blur of reunions and hugs and how-have-you-beens, of helping bride and bridesmaids with hair and having reasonably interesting conversations with other solo guests once or twice removed from the bridal party.

She texted on Saturday to ask how the car and I were doing. “Still running!” I replied, and “Giving myself a dollar for every time someone asks if I am seeing someone.”

“Weddings,” she texted back. “So awkward.”

On Sunday I left the post-wedding brunch early to have her car detailed. At the gas station I popped open the fuel tank door to find a note taped inside: “Thanks for reaching out.”

As I put on my shoes at the end of the security area I realized that if I accidentally missed my flight, I could probably meet her at her gate.

Monday, November 7, 2011

List: Things That Give Me the Heebie Jeebies

1. Used sofas left out on curbsides for free.
2. Crawl spaces under houses.
3. Proximity to fluids I shouldn't but could accidentally drink, like a cup of water soaking dentures, or a retainer.
4. Cars parked in strange places with someone sitting in them, doing...I am not sure.
5. Undergarments abandoned in public spaces.
6. Strangers who stare.
7. Organs as food.
8. The thought of having my palm read or consulting a psychic.
9. The certainty that I am about to encounter a Bad Smell.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

On Behalf of Her Client

I received a voicemail at work from Elder Counsel this morning:

"Umm, Mommy, Little Sis really REALLY wants to wear her sparkly shoes to school today.  So can you just let her...?  Errr...can you call us back and let us know?  K?  Love you; bye!"

I called home.  Big Sis answered.

"Hi.  May I please speak to the lawyer for Little Sis?"

(Giggle).  "It's me!"

"Did you call  to ask me if Little Sis can wear her sparkly shoes today because I told her they're not school shoes?"

"Wellllllll, she asked me to..."

"Uh huh.  So she sort of hired you to be her lawyer."

(Giggle).  "Yes."

"Can you please ask your client if today is P.E. day at school?"

(Muffled):  "Mommy wants to know if you have P.E. today."

(In background):  "I don't know."

"Mom, I don't think she has P.E. because today is a short day."

(In background):  "Yeah, I don't have P.E. because it's a short day."

"Please tell your client that she can choose one day of the week to wear her sparkly shoes, and if she wants it to be Thursday, great, but she can't wear them on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, or Friday.  Okay?"

"I will tell her."

"And, are you wearing your running shoes today?"

"I can't find them.  Do I have to wear them?"

"Your boots are giving you blisters."

"But, Mom, that was because of the fishnet stockings I wore with them for my costume."

"Still, I think you shouldn't wear your boots every day.  Did you look for your shoes in the basket?  In your bedroom?"

"Yes, they're not there!...(pause)...Okay, I will look harder."

"Good idea."

"Thanks, Mommy!  I love you!"

"I love you, too.  Tell your client the same thing."

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Driver's License

It wasn't until I was safely out of my self-involved twenties that I recognized just how terrifying it was for my mother that year I spent in Africa. I knew then that she was often frustrated that I was far away and unreachable by phone or any other means much of the time. I know now that despite their uneasiness, my parents admired my independence and choice of "the road less traveled by."

And now here I am, just a little terrified of the idea of Big Sis riding her bike somewhere, someday soon, by herself. Somewhere that would necessitate her crossing streets with actual cars on them.

But Big Sis can sail her own boat now, on a bay with actual deep water. Watching her sit confidently on that rail, pull in her sails, and duck under the boom gives me shivers of fear and pride. And glimpses of what it might feel like later, when she boards a plane by herself, buckles herself into the driver's seat of the family car, and moves out and checks in at the freshman dorm.

This is what it's all about, right? Providing our children the training and tools to launch themselves and steer around obstacles in the wide world. Even go places we wouldn't, and with more confidence.

I try not to fixate on the potential crashing and capsizing.

It sure is exhilarating (wince) to watch them fly.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Pumpkin Pizza

We invited some friends for dinner last night, and I wanted to make something seasonal.  I love cooking with pumpkin, but my go-to dish, Ravioli with Pumpkin Sauce, wasn't inspiring me.  I had pizza dough, though, and thought, what if...pizza with pumpkin sauce instead of tomato? 

It was yummy (phew).   

Here's Pumpkin Pizza with Sweet Italian Sausage, Shaved Parmesan, and Arugula:


I used pre-made dough, which I bake a little before heaping with toppings to avoid soggy pizza in the middle.

For the sauce, I reduced a cup of port wine (try sherry or marsala) with a teaspoon olive oil, minced garlic, and pinches of sage and garam masala.  I added a can of pumpkin, a tablespoon of rice vinegar (optional), and simmered the sauce for ten minutes.  (You can make the sauce sweeter,  if you like, with the addition of some apple juice or maple syrup). 

I spread the sauce on the already crusty dough, layered the shaved parmesan, and then added dried thyme leaves, cooked sweet Italian sausage, and arugula.  I baked the pizza for about 15 minutes at 425 degrees. 

We munched on pumpkin pizza and slurped asparagus soup.  A nice autumn meal!

Monday, October 17, 2011

Hallowinning

People, it's barely halfway through the month, and I am proud to report that we have halfway decorated our home and have two complete Halloween costumes waiting to be worn.  They're being worn every day, as a matter of fact.  We have a witch and an Alice in Wonderland, and there will be No Changing of Minds.  Instead of changing their minds, our spooky duet is simply planning costumes for 2012 and '13. 

Mama was saved this year from the financial black hole which is Homemade Costumes.  I mean, I was proud of the mermaid costume I sewed in '09, but it wound up costing the equivalent of a prom dress (and I have enough leftover fabric to make one) and my relationship with the sewing machine.  Little Sis already owns a blue dress the perfect hue and style for Alice; however, when I researched "ruffled white apron" online, I found that the whole Alice costume shebang, which includes a plastic noggin-hurting headband, was cheaper than the apron.  And Big Sis can wear her black shirt, black skirt, and black boots post-Halloween.  Or tomorrow, which she is dying to do. 

Meanwhile, "krackle" nail polish is all the rage at high school.  I learn about the latest in accessories and hair styles at long work meetings when my observational skills sometimes shift to the characters in attendance.  A colleague was sporting this spooky lacquer combo, and I had to get me some.  You can layer any color underneath, and the "krackle" polish splinters upon application.  Check it out!


Not cracking under the pressure of Halloween planning


Sunday, October 9, 2011

Insides, Out

There's a children's book I loved called The Man Who Took the Indoors Out.  "The Man" of the title, or "Bellwood Bouse," feels sorry for his belongings, who aren't free to frolic in the sun as he is.  So he beckons them outdoors.  I'm not sure what drew me to this book as a child, but I believe it was a combination of fascination with his parade of furniture and knickknacks and recognition that an opportunity to survey someone's entire catalog of material possessions is both rare and provides a voyeuristic thrill.

I recall walking by an apartment building in Washington D.C. when I lived and worked there in my twenties as a woman threw what I assumed were her ex-partner's belongings out of the window and onto the grassy front lawn below.  That was a rather cringe-worthy instance of perusing another's belongings, one flung boxer short and CD at a time.  Not to mention that there were tangible as well as emotional "insides" being turned out on this occasion.

Blogging, perhaps, is its own form of "open house"--the spilling outward of interior contents, with the aim that a reader may recognize she, too, owns those drapes, or that she may disagree altogether with the matching of sofa and chair but respect the writer's choice nonetheless. 

We had occasion last month to tear out the carpet in our hallway and bedrooms, the very carpet that has tormented me for the ten years we've owned this house, what with its exacerbation of Big Sis's allergies and its designation as the favored site of Dog's and Cat's gastrointestinal adventures.  We felt real fear of what lay beneath, imagining either unfinished hardwood floors or no hardwood floors at all, both requiring financial outlay which never felt like a priority, despite the fact I've whined here about our carpet not once, but twice

What we never did was pull up a corner of the carpet to, you know, just peek.  Not once in ten years until The Bathroom Flood.  The Bathroom Flood necessitated hiring a Restorations expert, who charged us a billion dollars to tear out a section of hallway carpet and leave us with mind-numbing dehydrating fans for four days.  But our prize?  The revelation of gleaming hardwood floors (with no refinishing required!) from beneath that area of stinky carpet.  Worth a billion dollars:  we had only to move all our furniture and tear out the rest. 

So we summoned out our two bedrooms' innards, and stacked and piled and heaped the contents in the living room, dining room, and kitchen.  I admired the bare floors, the clean empty rooms, and promised them more order.  Like Bellwood Bouse, I took stock of all we have, and vowed to use this boon--the rug pulled out from under us--to sift and sort.  To appraise and consider and prioritize and purge. 

Sometime amid this process--the slow return of things that matter to their place, the packing away of items in limbo--I discovered I was pregnant.  An earnest yearning of three years or more unexpectedly satisfied at the eleventh hour, the last month we were to try. 

Suddenly sorting and sifting had new objects.  Information:  sobering risks and statistics associated with pregnancy at 40.  Habits:  out with alcohol and caffeine, in with the low-carbohydrate diet.  I congratulated myself for having squired away the crib, car seat, highchair.  I resumed tidying with the aim of establishing order in the face of potential new chaos. 

But perfect timing, best efforts, and cautious optimism are no match for What Will Be.  And this would not.  Before hope could implant more than its gentlest of tenterhooks in me, Nature commenced her own sifting and sorting.  Engorged breasts turned numb.  Queasy fullness subsided to an empty ache.   My body knew first; my mind adapts. 

As my womb cleanses itself I shed layers of my own expectations, ways of thinking, imaginings.  Hope forgets the truth at times.  My body is turning its insides out, symptoms I can't ignore, but I examine more closely my reactions. 

I recall a favorite scene from the film A Fish Called Wanda, when Kevin Kline's character, expecting to unlock a safe full of diamonds, finds it empty.  "DISAPPOINTED!" he yells, in a moment of comedic anticlimax. 

Empty.  Disappointed.  A bit inappropriately angry, in a car-kicking kind-of way. 

I stake no claim to tragedy, lining up among the ranks of those who've had hopes dashed.  My happy, healthy, blissfully unaware daughters kiss me, hug me, pause to hold my hand. 

I write.  I resume the act of rearranging, resist the urge to throw it all out.  I take stock of all I have. 

My womb has bare floors, but my life is full of promise.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Lanyard Love

Big Sis went to summer camp and came home full of camp cliches--three-legged races, corny and nonsensical (still trying to solve the mystery of Princess Pat and her "ricka bamboo") songs, and lanyards.  Oh, the lanyards!  We invested in some plastic lanyard cord and metal clips for endless braiding and looping and weaving.  We have lanyards as "flair" on backpacks, in the hair-tie basket, and under the couch.  Alas, Little Sis's fine-motor skill development to date prevented her from much success with sophisticated lanyard-weaving. 

Enter the Creative Weavers' Guild.  We encountered them at a weekend art walk, where they were weaving as well as giving away kits for making cool yarn lanyard-y thingies.  The handy little craft was ingeniously simple and somewhat addicting:  my daughters and their friend spent the rest of the day weaving away.  To fashion the kits, a guild member cut a hole in the center of a foam square, and knotted seven strings of yarn and fed them up through the middle with the knot underneath.  Two slits were cut in each side of the foam square, and one string of yarn pulled through each notch, leaving one empty.  To weave the lanyard, one simply counts to the third string to the right (or left--it's only important to remain consistent with direction) of the empty slit, pull that third string out, and pop it back into the empty notch, leaving a new slit vacant.  And over and over again (it's important to run one's fingers through the strings on occasion to keep them from tangling).  A neato braid appears below the square.  We finished the yarn weavings and then made a few out of plastic cord, too.  I imagine these braids could be made from more than seven strands, too, by just cutting more slits in the square.  It's a perfect activity for long car or plane rides...a birthday party or holiday craft...add beads or bells...

Keeping Them Busy, One Braid at a Time
And what do you know?  I even stumbled upon a lovely poem, "The Lanyard," by one of my favorite poets, Billy Collins.  Enjoy. 

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Premiere of Our TV Drama

This new series brought to you by an obscure network on a channel you only happen upon in the middle of long sleepless nights has been reviewed by test audiences as presenting a realistic view of family life--with moments of comedy--but relying too heavily on the whiny kvetching of its protagonist, "Mom" (who is no Seinfeld).  The season premiere has a postmodern approach:  it's a TV episode about...TV, or lack thereof.  Despite the likability of "Dad," the pilot ultimately fails to capture its viewers, with the outcome of the episode's central dilemma elusive and an unsettling sense that no real lesson has been learned.   Critics wonder if this show will continue to revolve around appliance mishaps and misbehaving children, in a kind of Super Nanny meets Repo Man

The series is set in the suburban bungalow of a family which Still Does Not Own a Flat Screen TV.  In the pilot's opening scene, Dad is depicted changing (again) the batteries of the TV remote, which by now he should recognize is almost assuredly broken.  He waits to call the cable company during regular business hours and is promised a new remote by mail.

Coincidentally, the daughters' elementary school is celebrating TV "Turnoff Week" with a variety of activities, beginning with a family picnic on Monday evening.  Dad and girls attend; Mom stays home to watch TV.  Just kidding!  Though it does cross her mind, she admits to the viewing audience:  she always has the last fifteen or twenty minutes of some DVRed show to watch--the part she views with eyes closed, snoozing on the couch.  The parts best watched when no one else is around to register his impatience.

To be real, while Mom expects her family to take advantage of organized "Turnoff Week" activities she is not intending to actually exile the TV.  Husband is portrayed as a guy who likes to have the TV on when he folds laundry, when he's walking through the living room, when he's "turning his mind off," and when he's got a spare couple of minutes and the newspaper is read and the gardening is done.  There's hardly a sport not worthy of his attention.  Meanwhile, Mom grew up in a family in which TV Time was a rare, controlled commodity (a deprivation to which she attributes her weakness for The Bachelor series). 

It appears the kids are too busy for evening TV except on weekends.  In the mornings, however, because their school starts at 9 AM and they wake up somewhere between 6 and 7 o'clock, they are permitted to meander sleepily from their beds onto the living room couch to watch a show or two. They've been hoodwinked into thinking the DVRed list of PBS shows is the range of programming options, so viewers watch them choose between Electric Company, Word Girl, and Maya and Miguel.  Mom maintains that for the most part (her penchant for reality TV notwithstanding), TV and computer time are not issues worth tackling in the household.

Imagine Mom's surprise, then, when after picnic and baths and books and the girls are tucked away asleep on Monday evening, Husband grabs a book and heads into the bedroom to read.  Mom freezes on the couch, malfunctioning remote pointed at the TV. 

"Wha-?"

"It's 'No TV Week', Hon," he says over his shoulder. 

"Really?  We're doing that?" 

"I  am," he declares. 

Mom turns begrudgingly to her iPad and Words With Friends.

The next morning, as Dad slumbers and Mom prepares to leave for work, the girls shuffle off to the couch and their shows as usual.

Husband calls Mom at work a few hours later.

"In case you get home and wonder where the TV is, I put it in the garage."

"Okay...?"

"I had trouble getting the girls to follow through with their chores this morning, and I had to lay down the law."

Hmm, thinks Mom, applauding her partner's follow-through while noting internally that unplugging or hiding the unreliable remote were other strategies he could have employed, and then imagining the dramatic moments around Husband unplugging and lugging the not-a-flat-screen tube out the French doors as daughters stand by. 

"All righty then," mutters Mom, beginning to feel like collateral damage and recognizing that removal of the entire TV means she can't even set the DVR to record some series premieres this week.  Who planned TV Turnoff Week to coincide with Fall season premieres, anyway?  Humbug

Tuesday night is Mom's Book Club, and as she departs for her meeting, she half-jokingly suggests to Dad, "I won't be too disappointed if I come home and find the TV back where it was!"

She returns home to find the same empty space where the TV used to be and Husband curled up in bed, ear to the radio sports station.  I can't very well listen to The Daily Show, though, can I? she grumbles, pouting as she cracks the novel at her bedside. 

On Wednesday the new remote arrives in the mail, which Mom observes is just as impotent under the present circumstances as its predecessor.  That night she plops on the couch and wryly notes to Husband, "Look!  Still no TV!" to which he replies, "Uh huh.  I kind of like it." 

She raises her eyebrows and scrolls through Facebook, commenting on friends' updates about the Glee and Modern Family season premieres:  "Still.  No.  TV."  "What happened to it?" responds a friend and victim of Facebook's new feed.

On Thursday night:

Yep.  No TV.
Daughters kiss Mom goodnight and ask her to wake them if they're still asleep before she leaves for work so they have the maximum amount of time to draw and read before school, activities they've been enjoying in lieu of PBSKids.  Mom feels a little proud and little like she might vomit.

Dad, on his way to bed, suggests that the TV just might return to its regular slot in the network lineup on Friday.

Why now?  Mom mumbles, with the novel in hand that has gripped her attention and the unanswered question of whether or not this week's season premieres are available online...

The pilot ends with a preview of next week's episode, in which the family's ten-year-old laptop dies, and Mom considers sharing her iPad.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Snugglenesters

They were already fighting by the time they found me waiting outside school at the end of the day.  Third Grader had insulted Kindergartner outside her classroom.  Kindergartner had falsely accused Third Grader.  Kindergartner was crying and Third Grader was outraged.  19th grader, or Lifelong High School Student (as I seem to be), commenced the eye rolling and deep sighs. 

They stepped on each others' feet getting in the car, where they took more than their fair share of personal space and argued over grapes on the way to soccer practice.  Little Sis deliberately irritated Big Sis.  Big Sis overreacted.  Mom gripped the steering wheel.

Sibling Nonsense.  It's the parenting challenge du jour. 

And yet, every night for the past few months, after quite possibly another long day of quibbling and quarreling, they crawl into the same bed together to sleep, Big Sis's empty bunk above them.

They giggle, scheme, roll around, read aloud, shriek, tickle, confide, sing, confess, kick, snuggle, and snore in there, in tandem. They talk in their silly voices, doing "The Frank and Toaster Show" or "Hairy Joe," their own homegrown shticks, cracking each other up. Most often, Little Sis succumbs to sleep first, and Big Sis reads on beneath the star lights.

One day they'll abandon this practice, with or without fanfare, but I will never forget it and I hope they won't, either.  Despite the demons outside their doors, despite their mean and nagging parents, despite their own differences and disagreements, they have each other.

Sweet dreams, sisters


Friday, September 9, 2011

Blackout Notes

Southern California experienced an unprecedented and unexpected 12-hour blackout on Thursday and it seems everyone's talking about what they learned.  For example, we learned blackouts can be fun if they're not associated with hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, or terrorist attacks.  Our fun was tempered by the knowledge that Grandma was in the ICU in a hospital running on a generator, and the awareness that there were likely many elderly people alone in the dark and late summer heat.  There are more than enough reasons right now to appreciate first responders as well as the medical personnel who stayed at work long past their shifts were over to help our loved ones.

The blackout was over soon enough for most danger to be averted, but lasted long enough for folks to come out of their homes and bond with neighbors over resources, barbecues, bright shiny stars, and the eerie sense of calm and quiet in the absence of electrical hum.

It helps to be a camping family, we learned.  We have a propane stove and several LED lanterns, as well as flashlights in various stages of battery readiness.  Funny how the brain works; husband and I were so preoccupied with battery, lantern, and flashlight inventory that it was a good thirty minutes before I remembered hey, we have candles all over this house.  Duh.

I figured we'd better grill the chicken in the freezer, which was still frozen solid with no microwave or hot water to assist with defrosting.  In retrospect we were probably better off eating leftovers from the fridge.

I noticed folks outside in their cars, reading, listening to the radio...and here's where I will admit it would have taken me a long time to figure out I could charge my phone in the car.

Kids are only slightly less enlightened than adults in a blackout, thinking of plugged-in activities and then recalling that they're out of the question.  My favorite moment was when Little Sis excitedly announced, "I know!  It's super dark; let's play with Lite Brite!"

We ended our evening in the girls' room, huddled under the bunk bed reading Harry Potter by lantern light.  Power returned around three o'clock in the morning, but much to the dismay of Big Sis, schools remained closed.  The high schoolers I work with?  Not so sad about that.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Beans 'n' Rice Night

We are going to lighten things up around here with some dinner dialogue. Specifically (and all "paleo" diets aside), we've been eating a lot of beans lately.  Because beans are good!  How about them white beans--Great Northern beans?  Cannellini?  My goodness, those are yummy.  Saute them in oil with some greens and garlic and pour over pasta.  Or mash them into hummus.  Make soup!
 
My kids love beans, too, which has encouraged me to keep the cupboard stocked with pintos, chick peas, black and white beans (I'm not a fan of the kidney bean, a result of too much exposure to yucky three-bean salad in my youth).  One of our daughters' favorite dinners is Rice 'n' Beans Night.  I wish I could recall which friend's friend inaugurated this tradition so I could give credit where it's due, but we adopted the idea ourselves, with rave reviews from the Peanut Gallery every time. 
 
Beans 'n' Rice Night is the perfect solution for evenings when the fridge stores are running low; for when you need to feed 'em, fast (as fast as rice cooks); for when you're tempted by take-out but want to save some cash; for when a hearty or warm meal is in order; for when you're in charge of a crowd.  Here's what you do:  cook some rice.  Warm up some beans.  I like to mix pintos with black beans and add a tablespoon of salsa and some cumin to give the beans a little more dimension.  The rest of the excitement is in the condiments.  Depending on what's available, and the extent of your planning ahead, you can top your bowl o' rice 'n' beans with shredded cheese, salsa, diced green chilis, scallions, sour cream, chopped tomatoes, avocado, shredded lettuce, olives, crunched tortilla chips (or serve with warm tortillas). 

Easy, peasy, crowd pleasy!

Friday, September 2, 2011

Catching Our Breaths in a Clearing

I finally felt it yesterday, that irritating and self-righteous sense that the world is full of petty dramas, complaints, and bullshit.  I knew it was coming; it's a phase one passes through on the Roller Coaster of Life and Death Matters.  No one but family and close friends understand that nothing else matters right now except Getting Through This.

Monday was my beloved mother-in-law's grave health emergency, and since then, she's moved out of the ICU and into the realm of hope for full recovery.  Rehab and her increasing understanding of her new reality as well as financial, legal, and insurance wranglings await us.  But we've left the deepest, darkest part of the woods and are catching our breaths in a clearing.

And the clearing is where we lift our heads and see the rest of the world going merrily, pettily, ignorantly on.  There's at once the grim satisfaction of having one's priorities realigned with clarity and the frustration of feeling No Else Gets It.

I remember the drive home from the hospital when I had Big Sis.  It was the Monday of Labor Day Weekend, and perhaps the Baby Blues were already setting in (and maybe that terrible case of post-surgical constipation), but for sure I had a sense of my life never being quite the same.  There was no tragedy--things could hardly have been more wonderful, really--but I recall my head turning this way and that, peering through the window of the car at the Those People who were blithely enjoying their holiday weekend as if the world hadn't suddenly turned completely upside down.  There was the Rest of the World, and then there was I.  We were strangers for that moment.

After you've spent the night wringing hands, weeping, and worrying in the ER, you might return to work the next day, at least momentarily, to take care of unfinished business or tie down loose ends.  Your red-rimmed eyes are a giveaway to colleagues who know not you're not quite yourself.  You might break down and explain yourself when asked.  But over the course of days you don't owe it to everyone, nor yourself, nor your family, not even Grandma, to retell the tale to everyone you meet.  You're somewhere else for a reason, anyway--to work, to spend time with your children, to support someone dealing with something completely else.  And even in this Age of Facebook, you don't need to broadcast every detail and every moment of everything, particularly those things that don't completely belong to you.

So life goes on.  And while you're tired, and distracted, and likely a bit impatient, it's not their fault that they are right where they are, needing what they need, complaining their complaints, sharing their cheery triumphs.  Schmucks will flip you off on the freeway, even steal the sunglasses out of your shopping cart, despite your pain.  This hurtling forward with normalcy, with the endless parade of minutiae, and even with the mild cruelties and annoyances, are part of the gorgeous beauty of living.

We're approaching the tenth anniversary of 9/11, and I can re-imagine what I envisioned as an epicenter of grief emanating outward from New York City in the days after the tragedy.  We were all affected, but  certainly in sunny San Diego, far across the country from the sounds, smells, and sights of those jets, buildings, and lost lives, the rawness was blunted for many.  To what extent and how Americans reacted to the growing comprehension of 9/11's events was differentiated in part by our own experiences, degrees of separation, as well as our individual ways of handling things in general. Our tolerance for demonstrations of levity were variable, too.  People proceeded with birthday parties, with laughter, with births, and deaths of other causes.  But the calculus of What's More Important--attending to the sobriety of mournful occasions versus attending to the needs of the living--is often lost in the reality of forgetting oneself in the moment.  We catch ourselves giggling, performing meaningless tasks, buying something frivolous in the midst of such significance.  Thank goodness for that.

Last weekend, as we approached the hotel we booked in L.A. for our Taylor Swift Concert adventure with the girls, we noticed a woman in her car partially blocking the hotel's parking lot entrance.  Husband exasperatedly pulled around her and parked.  Emerging from our car, we watched the woman get out of her own and begin pushing it from behind.  Husband sheepishly assisted her in moving it around the block to a parking space.  We didn't figure she was broken down.   In our impatience we often fail to imagine the possibilities, and practice forgiving.

The world won't stop for us and our troubles; the world won't always know or understand; in this way, the world propels us all forward.

But I'm thinking we're better served considering one another as fellow commuters, muddling through in our near-broken-down autos, driving to the hospital to visit Grandma, who's still in critical condition but getting better everyday.  We don't have to know to understand.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Eight is Great

Dear Muggy Moo,

Yesterday you marveled, "sometimes I think that I am only dreaming myself and this life.  But then I remember you have to be real to dream, so I think I really am alive." 

You are eight today, and about to enter third grade, the grade they tell me marks the loss of innocence.  The grade they tell me when "kids change."  I squint my eyes and hunch my shoulders and flinch at the possibility that fairies and magic and wonder and pigtails will be abandoned at the side of the road of your growth and evolution.  Yet, because you're you, and always will be (part of being you is your trueness to yourself), I believe in your enduring sense of enchantment with the world. 

You're our "game" girl, up for almost anything:  hiking, bike rides, sailing your own sabot, cooking, gardening, researching, exploring.  You'll balk at the beach with its pesky sand, but at the end of the day you beg to go back.  Your curiosity is among your most gratifying qualities.  We had to pull you away from exhibits at the science museum yesterday; you introduced us to plant species you recognized during a hike in the desert last month.  This summer you learned to dive, weave a lanyard, swim backstroke, play piano, Google, hold your breath (sometimes) before barking at your sister, scramble eggs, and catch and throw a ball with a lacrosse stick. 

We love you for your loyalty to friends and family--you seem to enjoy nothing more than being with your grandparents, cousins, aunties and uncles.  You show them how important they are to you.  You are forgiving and generous with the benefit of the doubt; we hope you sustain your reluctance to disparage people (besides, ahem, your little sister).  No one can make you laugh (or fume) like your Little Sis.  But lately you've been reading books with her aloud at night, snuggling and giggling and sleeping under the star lights together. 

For everything you share out loud, you keep a lot inside, craving time to yourself to read, draw, and play with your dolls and animals.  You enjoy making tea in the morning.  You won't wear a skirt or dress without leggings.  You love soup, mangoes, soft bread, pickles, and tomatoes from the garden. 

If someone asks, you say you want to be an artist someday.  You already are, our little birthday girl.   Dance on, sweet dreamer.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Facebook Followers

What's on your mind?

Just because I don't copy and paste or repost status updates doesn't mean I don't love my mother, breast cancer research, our troops, gay marriage, children with special needs, my beautiful daughters, my friends, the USA, my husband, the earth, baby seals, or you. I love recycling but not as it relates to posts. Let's see who truly reads my status. If you comment, you MUST post an original, authentic sentiment as your own status. Don't spoil the fun! 93% of you will ignore this and do your own thing. Are you brave enough to be in the 7% that follows instructions?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

List: Bookstores I Have Loved

Jon Stewart did a segment on the closing of bookstore chain Borders' retail outlets last night on The Daily Show.  It was funny, of course, but more like a satirized memorial to an endangered species.  Once vilified, even the mega-bookstores aren't immune to consumers' shifting focus to electronic media.  And while I am increasingly "guilty" of downloading books to read on my iPad, I can't imagine a world without bookstores.  Feeling bummed about the closing of our nearby Borders, where the girls and I often went for afternoon field trips of perusing books and selecting birthday gifts, I thought about the bookstores that have been there for me through my various stages of development. 

1.  Perkins Bookworm:  The bookstore in my hometown growing up. We could bike there and grab Baskin Robbins on the way home.  Perkins also sold tapes and records, but the kicker? The bookstore was a Ticketmaster outlet, making it the site of my first concert ticket purchase, for a UB40 show. 

2.  Upstart Crow:  The bookstore "across the bridge" that my best friends and I frequented in high school.  With a cafe and tables in sweet nooks scattered around the shop, it was a great hangout for chatting, conspiring, and journal writing. 

3.  Atticus:  The bookstore/cafe in my college town that I loved so much I thought I wanted to work there.  After a few months of 4 PM-to-midnight shifts on Fridays my freshman year, I reclaimed my social life.  Lesson learned: don't ruin a favorite haunt by working there.

4. Kramerbooks & Afterwords: The iconic Washington, D.C. bookstore in Dupont Circle was a mile-walk from my house and convenient stop on the way home from a night out. Who can't like a bookstore that serves beer? If Kramer's ever closes, it will mean the world is ending.

5. UCSD Bookstore: A huge store with awesome school and office supplies and an amazing selection of books. My favorite bookstore for poetry volumes. College bookstores feature arcane academic works, too...fun to browse.

6. Bay Books: My local bookstore, where I order our book club selections and they sell them at a discount. Where my former students work. For a relatively small store, it boasts an impressive magazine selection. Staff recommendation cards there have led me to some terrific reads.

7. Yellow Book Road: A perfect name for a perfect children's book store. Authors hold workshops for children, and the shop offers summer literacy camps.

8. Used Bookstores: My favorite places to peek when I am traveling; I relied on one to keep me busy reading in Florence when I studied abroad in college. Used bookstores have rare treasures and represent the culture of their environs. I chuckled as I watched the clerk at a shop in Half Moon Bay this summer transcribe the titles of each book I purchased into a black-and-white marbled composition book. Time stands still in used bookstores.

9. Borders: I know it's a major chain store, but I will sorely miss our local Borders Books. The franchise connected with the community, holding kids' poetry readings and hosting local musicians. I loved the music section, with a wide variety of CDs to sample through headphones.

Ultimately, bookstores support libraries and communities of reading, and I predict individuals will have a more narrow exposure to new works available without them, as our electronic media preselects readings based on our interests. Bookstores' book displays and groupings entice us into new worlds in a way online browsing never will. We do judge books by their covers, and jackets, and heft. Bookstores gave us permission to sample and fondle the goods.

I don't think there's any other kind of retail experience more satisfying.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

On Belay

The last time I was strapped into a harness, I cried.  I had spent three years teaching in Washington, D.C., and had returned to my hometown from a year in Kenya.  I scored a new job at my own middle school and the staff development "bonding" activity was at a ropes course.  Adventurous Me was up for anything.  Afraid of Falling Me was excited to conquer her fears.  Meeting New Colleagues Me wanted the impression I made on others to be Fun Team Player.

But wasn't long before I would be lowered face down into the wood chips below, trembling and simultaneously sobbing and laughing after freaking out on the Team Tightrope Walk.  I was never so happy to be lying on the ground, where I remained limp for a good five minutes, kissing the dirt and recovering from one of the greatest frights of my life.  

A manufactured fright, with no real danger, mind you.  No amount of that awareness, Mind Over Matter, or desire to not make a fool of myself was making it better, however.  Turns out I am pretty good at freaking myself out, and an expert at it when there's a potential to fall down.  

I am famously reluctant to stand on chairs or ladders, walk down stairs without clutching a railing, or climb over fences.  The latter presented real challenges in college, when our freshman quad was locked up at midnight, leaving early-morning revelers to scale the scarily spiky Gothic wrought-iron gates.  I required a team of supporters, boosters, and spotters to make it safely over, and perhaps the assistance of the residual effects of the reasons I hadn't made it back to campus on time in the first place.

Then there was the time more recently when I went running a little too close to a rocky border on a paved path.  I fell down and skinned my knees and hands.  About a month later I ran the same route, and approaching the spot of my recent fall, I thought to myself, Hey, that's where I fell down!  And then I tripped and fell down.  Again.

I sort of come by my fear of falling honestly, though I know that it is often my anxiety which precipitates  shaky legs and bad balance.  And I try mightily not to project my fears on my daughters.  Last weekend while camping, though, I had a minor Freak Out when the girls were climbing rocks too close to a scary ledge.

You can imagine my surprise that I scaled a rock-climbing wall on Friday night.  It wasn't technically difficult, but it was tall.  I didn't freeze and I didn't lose it.  I think it had a lot to do being strapped into that harness and feeling the reassuring tugs of my belayer.  If I let go, I wouldn't really fall. I trusted that and him implicitly.

I trust myself in the real world less.

So while I am excited to go rock climbing again, I retain my fear of falling.  The real world doesn't reassure us with an encouraging "Climb on!" and there are no padded floors and tight knots and safety harnesses.  When we take risks, we often fall down, and it hurts.  And some risks aren't worth it.

At the climbing gym, we watched a woman practice deliberately not clipping in her harness at the top of the wall, and letting herself fall.  She screamed the first few times.

I suppose this is what we do with our kids--gradually loosen our reins and challenge them to take the safer risks, while talking them away from the scary ledges.  Avoid freaking them out with our own phobias.

And hope they'll keep letting us know when they're "climbing!"

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

List: Signs of the Times

I was watering the backyard the other day noticing the artifacts of childhood abandoned here and there, and thought to myself, there will be a lot to miss about this special time.

Among the clues that little imaginations are hard at work here:

1. Colorfully-painted nasturtium seeds among decorated pebbles and twigs outside
2. Plastic horses with folded-fabric saddles rubber-banded to their backs
3. Complex ribbon Polly Pocket pulley systems hanging from bookshelves
4. Track numbers from the Taylor Swift CD, listed on scrap paper in order of performance in the most recent "show"
5. Cups of food-colored ice in the freezer, "for a frozen castle, Mommy"
6. Paper-clip chains
7. Half-assembled forts
8. Drawings, paintings, doodles of fairies and mermaids
9. Habitats featuring an amalgam of Legos, dollhouse furniture, and Little People accessories.
10.  Strings of letters spelling gibberish, diary entries, love notes to parents, menus, and recipes.

Squinky Village

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Summer Ain't Over

I head back into the office next Tuesday whilst my children wait another month for their new school years to begin.  Some of you have weeks remaining of travel!  Entertaining children!  Sunburns, late-to-beds, sibling squabbles!  Family get-togethers!  I am vowing not to let work kill my summer mojo.  Summer shall simply commence each day when I drive away from school.  Plenty of daylight hours left for sandcastles, picnics, zoo trips, sails, and cartwheels in the backyard.

We've traveled quite a bit this summer and made it a goal to be out and about in our hometown.  But some quieter days at home have been an important part of free time, too.  We've made pies.  Forts.  Elaborate fairy jungle gyms.  Mostly, we've painted:  rocks, glass stones, paper, shells, faces, and ourselves. 

If you have some summer left, I recommend getting the paints out and letting your kids decorate a cardboard box/house.  I splurged for the castle (below), but my mom had a box at her house that lasted months of kids drawing on and playing in it.  Even the nine-year-old nephew had a piece of that timeshare.  Everyone can claim a side and be design king of that section. 

What projects are keeping your kids busy?

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The World is Too Much with Us

So much sadness recently: a massacre, a young woman's talent and potential wasted, unexplained deaths, children killed in horrific ways.  Summer is the time I spend almost every waking hour (and many sleeping ones, especially when we travel), with my children, and I invariably begin to feel that looming fear and lack of control as we prepare to go our separate school ways in August.  A spate of highly publicized bad news presses in on the fragile membrane of every family's bubble of bliss, reminding us that of course these tragedies remain possible. The fears of threats to my people spike and wane in cycles, with the occasional wide-eyed midnight waking hours worrying about kidnappers and car accidents.  But mostly I feel safe.

I am much more susceptible to the dull ache of daily reminders that we've still got work to do to keep hopelessness at bay.  I was recently reading an essay by Poe Ballantine in The Sun in which he describes a familiar and discouraging landscape:
...families were divided, parents divorced, children drowning under waves of chemical pleasure like flies in syrup.  Why were the mom and dad drunk?  Why did they seem not to care?  Why did they molest and beat their daughters and sons or, at best, leave them unattended?  Why didn't someone clean the kitchen, fix the heater, mow the lawn, have that broken-down car towed away?  Why did everyone give up?  What was the source of all this anguish and despair?  Why, in every house, was the television always on?
Children without adequate resources for enriching camps and family field trips often languish during these long summers and then return to school each fall, where a free public education attempts to provide an equal opportunity for all, despite unequal advantages and privileges.  I often feel daunted by the task before us.

I'd pay more taxes if I knew we could ensure good jobs, clean dwellings, childcare, medical care, rehab programs, counseling, and healthy food for all.

I spoke with a fellow educator about this phenomenon of recognizing our impotence in the face of enduring cycles which provide challenges in our work:  poverty, families in crisis, addiction, illness.

He reminded me of the Buddhist practice of acknowledging reality and recognizing one's limitations, without giving up or feeling helpless (or unhelpful).

How do you cope with and reconcile the realities around you?  How do you stave off fear, panic, and the gloom of enduring poverty, famine, and depravity?  Escape?  Assemble an earthquake kit?  Install an alarm system?  Plant a garden?

Cultivating connections with my people helps, starting with, of course, my inner sanctum--the four of us and critters.  When I feel us spinning out--over-scheduled and overtired--I tend to close our doors and protect our time together.  Family dinners, family walks, and family movie nights, as simple (and cheap) as they are, instill some confidence in me that all is right with my world, and that I am capable of affecting the greater one as well.

I am reading The Future of Success (Working and Living in the New Economy) by former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, who argues that "one way to better social balance might be through a great moral and spiritual 'reawakening' in which people rose en masse to renounce the excesses of acquisitive individualism."  Acknowledging, however, the difficulty of channeling "moral fervor" in any one agreeable direction, he advocates for a balanced society which would help "cushion people against sudden economic shocks," "widen the circle of prosperity," "give caring attention to those who need it most," and "reverse the sorting mechanisms" which create distinctions between the qualities of neighborhoods and schools.  I know many would argue that as an American I ought to be focused primarily on my own bootstraps, but I've come to recognize my sense of well being as highly affected by the well being of those around me.

In the meantime (while waiting for the revolution), I'll keep on keepin' on:  Work on my personal health and the health of my family.  Assist our neighbors.  Offer a meal.  Donate a little.  Give some time.

What does Sarah McLachlan say?  "The world is on fire/it's more than I can handle...I'll tap into the water/bring what I am able."

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Follow-Through is a Bitch

Not to mention that it makes me feel like one, too.

The thing about parenting is that it is fraught with threats. The threats start in the womb, what with the threat of miscarriage and then of developmental disabilities, which give way to threats of catastrophic injury, kidnapping, and cancer. Heck, I was just trying to convince myself the other day that I could probably start relaxing about drowning, when I recalled that a local college student recently drowned in a river while studying abroad.

While the threats may dull, they never fade away completely. And underpinning these fears is the threat of failing at parenting.  Whatever 'failing' is.

Which is part of why we invest so much energy in trying to do it right. Whatever 'right' is. Understanding we can't control the perils of the world and their potential effects on our offspring, we wrestle ourselves instead. Naturally, that desire to control an unruly, entropic universe translates into urges to control our children. Metaphorically speaking, we wrestle with them, too. And some days they tap out more readily.

I've been reminding myself and emphasizing that my job as a parent is to promote the health and safety of my children and help them be the best 'themselves' they can be.  When I focus on these goals, my priorities are intact and I keep my controlling tendencies at bay.  Nevertheless, while eating on the couch is not a threat to health, safety, or good character, I can't let it be okay.  I don't want to have too many rules, but what can I say.  I have some rules.

This summer our daughters and I have spent a lot of time together, traveling, out and about, and at home.      A month in, as I realize that most of time my time has been devoted exclusively to them and their needs, I recognize some signs that helping the girls be their best selves means a little humility training.  These signs include you put the wrong kind of jam on my sandwich, Mom; this isn't the bathing suit I wanted to wear, Mom; why can't we do it right now, Mom?  Okay, how about now?; and, but I don't want to go!


Naturally, ungrateful attitudes and senses of entitlement have been met with the cliched allusions to children without such luxuries as organic jam, swimsuits (and places to swim), available mothers, and fun destinations (not to mention the car we use to get there).  And threats.  Threats, of course!  The threats.  Threats of Time Out, toys in solitary confinement, withholding of privileges.

Years ago, a colleague and parent of two described to me the sad conclusion of a family night out to dinner when his kids were in high school.  Apparently brother and sister were quibbling in the backseat en route to the restaurant, squabbling and being unpleasant as they took their seats and surveyed the menu.  My coworker and his wife looked at each other across the table and asked, "Do you want to be here right now...with them?  Like this?  And pay good money for it?"  No, they didn't.  So, despite having drinks and appetizers on the way, they paid for their order, and calmly left the joint with their kids in tow.  Their children were aghast.  But the parents made their point:  Be nice.  Be pleasant.  Or else.

And I know someone told me about someone they knew who turned the car around on the freeway halfway to Disneyland because the kids were acting like (as my father accused his five children from time to time) ungrateful pigs.  I thought that was big.  I thought that was a real parenting humdinger.  Assuming the parents really wanted to go to Disneyland, too.

Like we wanted to go to Soak City yesterday.  Husband had the day off...a day off in common with me in the summer, a rarity.  And we planned to take the girls to the local water park for a family adventure.  But the morning was a struggle with general lack of cooperation and good cheer, chores were neglected, requests for ponytails and toothbrushing were ignored or met with indolence, and we loaded in the car feeling exasperated instead of excited.  After ten minutes in the car, daughter decided her swimsuit wasn't suitable for a day on the water slides--the same suit I earlier suggested pairing with shorts--and then wouldn't accept her reality and adjust her attitude, OR ELSE, as we threatened.  We watched in the rear view mirror as the car hurtled closer to Splash Nirvana.  Tears were rolling.  Pouting was not concluding.

So we turned the car around.

As a friend who is reading Scream Free Parenting quoted to me later in the day, "Parents, watch what you threaten.  Be prepared to live with it."

Because we wanted to cry too.  We pulled up at home, downcast but resolved, with apologetic yet defiant daughter.  We all needed to retreat to our corners, husband with a magazine, I with cleaner and sponge, daughters to the fairy garden in the backyard.  After some time regrouping, we salvaged our Family Day, which was not to be sacrificed.  We had a picnic and a swim, and everyone was happy, despite the unspoken recognition that we could have been floating together on the Lazy River.

The moral of this story?  I am not sure.  I did not feel the triumph of Ultimate Parenting Follow-Through (there are no prizes for sweeping the family out of the restaurant or canceling plans), wishing instead for a lesser victory earlier in the day, resulting in cooperative, cheerful children and the day unfolding as envisioned.

Were our daughters ultimately contrite and conscious of their choices and consequences?  Yes.  Will they continue to test limits?  Invariably.  Will they believe us next time we threaten to call their bluffs?  Surely.

But here's to not getting there again, anytime soon.

I'm off in search of a mutually agreeable jam for sandwiches.  But ultimately, you'll get what you get and you won't throw a fit.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

A Piercing Dilemma

I had my ears pierced at 13, but I don't remember feeling like I was the last of the hole-less ears to be impaled on my block. Big Sis, however, is fairly surrounded by friends, neighbors, classmates--and now relative, as her cousin just got hers done--with pierced ears. Our little girl who was formerly a little frightened of the process is suddenly feeling very left out.

But I don't want to budge on making her wait on this "milestone." Actually, I already budged. In a knee-jerk compromise, I promised she could have her ears pierced when she finished elementary school. She'll be...eleven? Twelve? That's less than thirteen, our original threshold, after all...

Nevertheless, I find myself examining my rationale for delaying the inevitable. It's not a moral debate. I don't think ear-piercing is dirty or inappropriate or scandalous or that she can't take care of her ears or earrings. My reluctance comes from deep in my gut...from the same place that spawns overwhelming urges to scoop her up and hold her tight and stunt her growth, somehow.

I just don't want my child to have holes in her skin...yet. She's my child...still a child. There's only so much time for being one, and for looking like one. For sporting kids' clothes and flat shoes and pigtails and a gap-toothed smile. She feels too little and unmarred for now. I can't want her to have earrings.

I am very comfortable upholding and maintaining parenting stances that go a bit against the grain, even if everyone else is doing it, Mom! And I know my daughter will accept the limits we determine.

Still I can't help asking myself if this is more about me than about her. About ideals of Peter Pan and elusive innocence I am transferring to my daughter. Is this a hill to die on, especially when Big Sis has already packed up her big guns in favor of silent longing? Should there be a reward for sweet acquiescence?

Your thoughts are welcome; I'm all ears (with five holes).

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Beer is Nice in Oregon, and So Are the People

I just blogged about preferring to crash at your place, didn't I? Be glad we didn't land on your doorstep the other night, when we derailed from our overnight train (Portland--->Oakland) in Eugene after Big Sis lost her lunch on the seat next to her, and in the aisle, and on her shirt and on my jacket AND in the plastic Amtrak kids' goody bag with the box of crayons remaining inside.

No one on the train even looked horrified. Or made that face of ewwww. I don't care where they were from; I am giving the credit to Oregon. Because besides the guy on the road who flipped off my sister, everyone in Oregon has been remarkably kind. Not disingenuous, sticky-sweet ingratiating, but nice. Like it's normal to be concerned about people and willing to go out of one's way. Even the strung-out looking woman we encountered today near the "Parole/Probations" building who was fighting with her boyfriend thoughtfully shushed him with a "there are little kids!" when she saw us coming.

When it seemed a better solution for everyone concerned that we get off the train in Eugene and hope that the 24-hour waiting period wasn't the same as incubation for next kid's bout of flu, the conductor helped reserve us places on the next night's train, and a helpful man at the depot pointed out that the Hilton was within walking distance. "It might cost you $50, though," he warned me.

If only! At least Big Sis thought the joint was "like the Disney Hotel," (where we've never stayed), and she could have a bath and throw up somewhere with towels and laundry that doesn't belong to any of our friends.

We woke up in Eugene the next morning feeling A-OK and with a day to explore before we re-boarded the train. More Oregonian helpfulness: when the hotel manager saw me plugging my cell charger into every available outlet before determining it didn't work, he promised me a functional one from the hotel's stash of left-behinds. And the bellhop offered us a ride to the train station, only three blocks away, but saving this Mama/Sherpa the agony of three blocks of whining as my daughters dragged their suitcases.

Which reminds me of a story about when I travelled to Morocco and joined a truck camping tour. Our group mates were to meet at the Iqbal Hotel after taking the plane or train to Casablanca. I arrived by air and caught a cab to the hotel. In the hotel bar that evening, members of our tour got acquainted and compared travel stories. Our Canadian friend Matt shared that he had arrived by train and hailed a taxi outside the station. His driver pointed out various Casablanca landmarks en route to our hotel, conveniently located...across the street from the train station.

"Hey...!!" exclaimed Matt to his cabbie, when he looked outside the taxi and noticed both the Iqbal and train station in his line of sight. "You didn't tell me the hotel was across the street!" The driver shrugged and demanded his fare.

Sometimes the ride is worth it (and the story to tell, too).

So glad we didn't drive to Oregon. So glad we waited a day to sleep on the train. So glad to be on this trip with my daughters.

Even if the unexpected costs of this trip make me want to throw up a little.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Hotel "Your House"

Oh, there are so many reasons I would rather crash at your house than stay at a hotel!

First, there's the check-in: The warm, personal greeting accompanied by a sincere "We've been waiting for you!" The kids run off to play and you offer me a drink. I can leave the luggage by the door for now. I know you cleaned your house for us because places in your home (floorboards, windowsills) are spic and span in a way ours have never been. We'll help you mess things up in short order, starting with leaving our shiz all over the place.

Oh my goodness, you have an ice maker. Your water tastes better than ours. Your toys are cooler, too. Hotels don't have toys. Lame! We are so happy to be here! Especially because the long drive up here gave us hemorrhoids and headaches.

I love your towels--so soft and fluffy! I check their brand on the tag, just in case I actually replace the towels we use that my mom sent me in college. Can we talk about your detergent, too? It smells yummy in here. I think our washer must suck. Our laundry is not capable of harboring such good scents.

You welcome us to all your food and snacks. No mini-bar, this is real life and it's awesome. The kids agree you have better bread; your vegetables are fresh and you make some wicked chicken. I become convinced I need a rice cooker (which I can't afford when I get home and buy new towels and mattresses and detergent) and then your other dinner guest teaches us her fail-proof tips for preparing perfect rice. Not gonna learn that in a hotel.

I realize most people don't have as many dishes and silverware as we do (why we don't have to empty our dishwasher daily, and why our cupboards and drawers are overstuffed). We try coconut milk and almond butter sandwiches. You sprinkle brewer's yeast on popcorn. Brilliant!

We read your books (and you recommend some); you introduce us to a new kids' science show, light sabers, and spray bottles.

You have a flat-screen TV. You help me with my iPad--two fingers on the screen to scroll in a text box! Thank you.

I marvel at your functioning toilets (You have more than one; take that, hotel!). You offer to watch the kids while I go for a run, and your hills are forgiving and the air tastes more oxygenated. Your shower is hot and stays so; the water pressure makes me sigh. I try your shampoo. All natural. Not the cheap kind. Goat's milk soap! Luxury.

We take in tourist attractions and fit in a few errands; I admire your efficiency. We feed kids, bathe kids, read to them, let them watch a show so we can chat. I watch your parenting and am alternately inspired and validated. I feel at home in your house, so much so I fear I didn't leave things neater than I found them. I sacrifice tidying for talking with you. I take for granted you'll forgive us when we leave a wake.

No mints on our pillows, but you offer chocolate-chip-loaded graham crackers and the best ice cream in the world, you swear. I snuggle with my kids in bed and read my book to the flashlight you find for me. We sleep in because the sun sets later here and we're tired from the laughing and playing and shouting and shrieking (ssshhhhh!) and running around and driving around and love, love, love. Your kids are my kids now, again.

And you are giving us all your space and time and we don't want to leave. Except we have to, so that we can come back again welcomed with open arms and so we can check in at the next Somebody's House, before we return to our own home which is a little bit more boring than where we've been this trip. But we hope you won't think so the next time you come by.

I might have new towels by then.