Saturday, February 11, 2017

Vitus Bering

"What explorer did you get?" I asked my son, showing him that, however out-of-the-loop I appeared, I was up to speed on what was happening in his fourth grade class.

"Coronado? Cortez? Sir Francis Drake?"

"Vitus Bering," my son said.

"Who?" This sounded suspiciously like someone in a Harry Potter novel. Genetically prone to living in a fantasy world, my son had drawn a Marauder's Map of his school as if it were Hogwart's School for Wizardry. He hung around the house in a Hufflepuff robe, whittling wands of out sticks. I did not put it past him to do his class project on Severus Snape or Lord Voldemort, because this was the type of half-human, malevolent being he liked to think about.

 Or Vitus Bering, whoever that was.

"He discovered Alaska," said my son.

"I thought you were studying California explorers."

He shrugged. Vitus Bering had been -- for whatever reason -- thrust upon him, and he was going with it.

"Alaska makes sense, because there is a Bering Strait. What nationality was he? "


"Oh! Well, tell me something else about him."

Crafting a flying golden snitch out of paper, my son had better things to do. He wanted me to go away and leave him to his wizarding labors. So:

"He discovered the octopus."

"Oh, come on!"

"No, he really did, Mom. They lived in the ocean around Alaska, and he was on a ship, and -- "

"The Bering Sea?"

"Yes. He and his shipmates -- not him exactly, but one of his guys -- discovered the octopus when he looked overboard."

"It's true, Mom!" my daughter chimed in.

Ninety percent sure this did not happen, I paused. What did I really know about explorers, the octopus, or anything? In elementary school, like my son, I went through the day in a haze of my own obsessions. Facts didn't stick, I didn't care. I looked out the window waiting for the 3 p.m. bell and thinking my thoughts.

Now, after nineteen years of school, I knew virtually nothing. I could discuss the things I liked -- The Abbess of Crewe by Scottish novelist Muriel Spark, for example -- but after that came a steep drop-off in general knowledge. A cobwebbed, seldom-visited pocket of my brain held snatches of geography, biology, math, and so on. But mostly I relied on faking it and Google.

The only historical figure I ever studied in depth was the Empress Theodora, who'd been a circus performer and prostitute before marrying Justinian the Lawgiver. In the library I found an old, surprisingly frank book about her life and decided to make her the subject of my tenth grade history presentation.

Standing at the podium in front of my class and teacher, I sensed that no one had expected me to report on the public indecencies of a social-climbing whore in sixth-century Rome. But I was simply trying to engage my audience: a group of rural fifteen year-olds, some of whom would soon become pregnant out of wedlock. To them, my message was: Don't worry about it!  You can still be ANYTHING.

I got an A on my Theodora report, delivered with a certain zest. Everything else I know about history was gleaned from costume dramas and dentist office magazines.

"Surely the octopus was discovered before then? I don't think they even live that far north. I think they live in the, in the --"

"It's true, Mom! He called it the Beringpus."

"It was never called the Beringpus! It has eight legs, it's called the -- "

"I swear, Mom!"

"He's right!"

"Look it up!"

"You guys, Vitus Bering did not discover the octopus. That is just crap. Now tell me something real about him."

"Beringpus!" said my son.

And to this day, that's all he'll tell me about his fourth grade history project, in the same way captured soldiers disclose their name, rank, and serial number.

"Mom," he said today, sitting in the front seat on the way home from karate.  "Do you know the definition of 'cow' in the Urban Dictionary?"

"Please don't tell me," I replied, driving.  "I don't want to know."

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Wild child

No words can capture the raw life force of my seven-year-old daughter, a child whose preferred weekend activity is to fill a pit with water, take a full-body mud bath, and then climb a tree.

On a recent trip to the school library, she scored big time: Animal Atlas of the World by E. L. Jordan, Ph.D. (Hammond Inc., 1969), a large green hardback, was being discarded by library staff, probably to make room for more princess books. Their loss was her gain, because she got to take that wonderful book home . . . forever!

After school, she sat on the couch poring over its pages with a highlighter and pen. As a rule, I am against scribbling in hardback books.  Then she explained she was not "scribbling," but annotating the text with her own thoughts. Well okay, then.

Flipping through Animal Atlas later, I was in awe that a small girl could imprint her very essence on a fifty-year-old reference work. A sampling of her comments:

Animal: Tasmanian Devil

Description: In its native land, this creature is regarded "with a mixture of annoyance and admiration." People "acknowledge the courage with which it attacks animals larger than itself" and devours them with its "splendid bone-crusher teeth."

Animal: Tasmanian Wolf

Description: These animals roam the "uninhabited wilderness . . . pursing their prey indefatigably until it is exhausted and surrenders."

Animal: Gorilla

Description: Usually "shy and retiring," this powerful primate "does not attack anyone without reason." However, it is "unmanageable as a pet; it may act well behaved until in periods of anger it drops all restraints normal to human beings."

Animal: Fennec

Description: "One of the most handsome of all animals, with fluffy, soft, long fur and big dark eyes. Its baby-like appearance is enhanced by the whimpering calls it utters when disturbed."

Animal: Dingo

Description: "The only flesh-eating non-marsupial in Australia."

Animal: Arctic Fox

Description: These icecap-dwellers "feed on whatever edibles come their way, dead or alive, lemmings and fish, young seals and whales washed ashore, or the leftovers of the polar bear's meals."

Animal: Gray Wolf

Description: "In general not nearly as bloodthirsty as it is reputed to be. It is adaptable, intelligent, loyal to its mate . . . " This animal "hunts in packs . . .  killing deer, elk and moose," and occasionally, under famine conditions, human travelers. Cubs are "born in a lair dug by their mother."

Is it just me, or is it time to get this kid a dog, already?

Monday, May 9, 2016

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Pioneer Days

Spring -- the season of field trips, class parties, and mandatory paperwork concerning same -- is here.

At a recent parents' meeting, I learned that the third graders' spring was kind of a big deal. In May and June, they would learn to swim, re-enact olden times at a historic mansion, dress up on certain school days ("Pioneer Days") for role-playing games, and perform an original musical play about -- if I heard this correctly -- "biomes."

My memories of third grade were of an orange-haired old woman shushing us while we tried not to punch each other and/or wet our pants. How things had changed! Third grade was now a magical journey through the elements and Time itself.

Busy practicing a series of throat-kicks for a martial arts tournament, my son took this in stride. He was accustomed to a certain amount of educational razzle-dazzle. When I mentioned I'd spent third grade sitting alone on a stump, reading library books about The Boxcar Children, he was like: "That's sad, Mom. Can I borrow your phone and go watch YouTube now?"

Well, I for one was jazzed about all the upcoming opportunities!

First, I volunteered to be a driver for the field trip to the historic house. Putting aside disturbing memories of last year's spring field trip -- when, blinded by eye-watering allergies after a farm tour, I had to drive three boisterous boys back to school ("Be quiet! I can't see!") -- I indicated on the form that I could take three kids. No problem!

Next, I began plotting to secure the best job offered to parents that day: churning butter. Oh, how I wanted to churn butter and not be stuck in some "barn scavenger hunt" nonsense! The hell with the barn! We'd all seen a barn! Perhaps if I arrived in period dress, it would give me an edge?

Third, I considered killing two birds with one stone and getting married at the historic house. Dave could take the day off work, and we could do it in a flashmob. Just let me put down this churning stick and -- hey, Mom! glad you could make it! -- stand before these splendid columns while I recite my vows . . . Then I imagined my son's eyes pleading me not to embarrass him with a flashmob wedding, but just to show up, take my post in the barn, and hand out snacks like all the other moms. Oh, all right!

After the field trip came the pioneer party. On a yellow posterboard on the classroom wall, I signed up for the task of making corn cob dolls for two hours on party day.

Two hours! It was one thing to make a corn cob doll (how hard could it be?), but quite another to guide a rotating cast of nine-year-olds through the process until my hands blistered from cobbing.

One thing was certain: After two hours dressing corn cobs, I would be a master of the form. Increasingly, I would sneer at the children's pedestrian efforts ("That's a very derivative cob, Dylan. I've seen that one a thousand times!") while pushing out in bold new directions.

My cob dolls would start out insipid -- buttons for eyes, a scrap of calico -- but soon evolve into Impressionist cobs, Cubist cobs, Dada cobs, cobs that problematized the arbitrary and oppressive binaries of male/female, black/white, and corn/carrot.

Meanwhile, the third graders would be grubbing around in my bucket of cob bling. No! I must have peace!

From across the room, I would summon my son for a private chat.

"Can you get these kids out of here? I'm working on something -- not to brag, but -- I think it could be pretty important."

"Sure thing, Mom."

Biome performance? I got nothing.

I don't even know what that word means.

(Image: Churn by Pearson Scott Foresman [public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Sunday, April 24, 2016


As anyone with a nine-year-old boy knows, Mjolnir was the name of Thor's hammer, and Thor was the hero of Asgard, a celestial city of Viking gods.

He fought giants and rode in a carriage pulled by two magical goats.

His sometime enemy -- or "frenemy" -- was his half-brother Loki. They battled for control of Midgard, which sounds like a women's undergarment but actually was Earth. Thor's beautiful wife Sif could stir things up between the brothers, but mostly she just brushed her gold (literally, it was made of gold) hair.

Though I know a lot about Thor, the idea of owning a hammer never excited me. That all changed a few weeks back, when I came upon the perfect hammer.

It was a meat hammer, silver and brilliantly gleaming like the moon.

* * * *

I was doing my Saturday morning lap around the Fancy Grocery Store, where I buy hand-rolled sushi, organic chicken, saffron threads, and highly-specialized kitchen gadgets made by the Swiss. (This is followed by a trip to the Inexpensive Grocery Store, where I round out the week's shopping with white bread, canned soup, Cheetos, and a Kardashian-themed tabloid.)

My plan was to make chicken parmesan and do it properly: with uniformly flattened chicken.

That's when I saw THE HAMMER. (Technically, a meat tenderizer.) As the kids say, it was sick.

For a while, I carted it around the store, admiring its heft and weight.

Then I posed it on a stack of raisin loaves, took a picture of it with my phone, and texted it to Dave with the message: "Check out this bad boy."

The hammer made me feel vital and powerful, like I was finally going to cook meat, for real. I feel like men must feel when they fire up an outdoor grill the size of a small car, with a pile of raw steaks and a giant fork at hand.

Eyeing the chicken breasts -- which had lived a wonderful, expensive life somewhere in Napa County -- now in my grocery cart, I thought: You are GOING DOWN, my friends. You will be [evil silent laugh] UNIFORMLY FLATTENED with my SILVER HAMMER.

Once home, I rinsed the hammer and peeled off the tag. It was ready to fly!

* * * * 

Did I mention I have been eating a lot of chickpeas lately?

As it turns out, chickpeas in an Indian simmer sauce are delicious served over jasmine rice. Cucumbers are good on the side, or oven-roasted cauliflower with a sprinkling of cumin and chili powder.

And almond milk actually tastes better than real milk! It's crazy.

Halfway through pounding four raw chicken breasts, the obscure and idiosyncratic figure we'll call my conscience piped up. There was a piece of pale flesh on the counter, and I was banging on it -- pretty hard! -- with a large metal hammer. The chickens were long-dead: defenseless. And here I was, mutilating their corpses!

The chicken parmesan was good and flat. But chewing it, I experienced a certain ambivalence . . . (Lesson: NEVER OVERTHINK MEAT. Just eat it and don't think about it!)

The silver hammer makes a fine addition to my kitchen tool set. I'm sure I'll use it again, or Dave will, while my conscience covers its eyes and whistles.

In the meantime, I will sadistically run zucchinis through the Spiralizer. Maybe I'll pulverize some chickpeas and make hummus!

You just never know.

Saturday, March 12, 2016


A few years back, global capitalism glitched or broke down, and the above product appeared on the shelf of a Northern California Target.

No American kid wanted this item. They wanted Frozen, they wanted Spider-Man, they wanted to blend in with the crowd and not be kicked down a flight of stairs to the sound of mocking laughter.

And what kind of mother would buy this lunchbox for her (presumably loved) child? "Good-bye, darling! I'm off to the office in DKNY and a salon blow-out. But here, you take this hideous thing designed by a thick-fingered halfwit and made in a third world chemical plant for fifteen cents. Have a great day!"

Because my kids have two houses, one lunchbox each is not enough. At any given time, half their possessions are "probably at Dad's." So I was excited to find an extra lunchbox marked down to $2. The store would just about pay you to get it out of there, as it was bringing down the tone. Sold!

Honestly, my reaction to this lunchbox was love at first sight. And because I think in hashtags: "#globalcapitalismfail"

* * * * 

Quickly, the lunchbox became a test of the love and character of those close to me.

After a series of leading questions, my son agreed that it was funny. He was willing to take it to first grade once in a while in a spirit of hilarity, and to please Mom.

My daughter was stuck in full-day preschool. Every afternoon found her on the swings, singing Frozen songs at the top of her lungs in a fugue state until I finally showed up to rescue her. The lunchbox was amusing, sure, but the salient issue was that I did not pick up her up at noon like certain other mothers. If I thought a cheap-ass lunchbox could bridge the chasm of this betrayal, I was mistaken.

Dave and I had not been dating very long when, one morning, I packed up some leftovers for his work lunch. Handing him the Leering Abomination, I explained that I loved it, but he didn't have to take it. I could put his lunch in a paper bag, no problem.

"Are you kidding? I would be honored to take this lunchbox to work."

Well played!

A few months passed, or maybe a year. At lunch-packing time, Dave gently expressed his preference for a paper bag.

"But I thought you were honored to take that funny lunchbox!"

"I was honored. On that day."

The lawyer in me respected this carefully-parsed answer.

Sadly I put the Mistake That Should Never Have Seen Daylight back in the cupboard.

* * * *

The other day, it was in the backseat of the car. Of poor quality to begin with, it was now smelly and stained.

Inside were the remains of a peanut butter sandwich and a bag of carrots. That was all it could hold. Even a juice box would have split its flimsy seams.

Yet its primitive, electric-blue face was perky as ever. It seemed to be calling out to someone, saying: "Hello, friend! Remember me? I'm not a dinosaur, or any identifiable creature, because the person who designed me was too stoned or insane to give me any features besides two vertical slits for eyes and a gaping red mouth. Ha ha! How 'bout that? Friend? . . . Bye, friend!"

I washed it out and put it back in the cupboard for next time.

Best lunchbox ever.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

In Memoriam

If you can possibly avoid it, don't be pregnant in San Francisco.

Every able-bodied man on the evening train will remain seated and looking at his phone while you stand in the aisle, huge on swollen feet, for thirty minutes.

If you fall down while crossing the street, a sea of young professionals will part around you and keep walking while a homeless person offers a hand up.

In public discourse, you will be described as a "breeder," and people will deplore your horrible child -- ruining restaurants! airplanes! -- even before it's born.

Your only consolation during all this will be -- what else? -- the food.

Thus at lunch, I would often end up at the Miette patisserie in the Ferry Building, mentally working out how many cupcakes I would need to survive the day.

Between stress and prenatal hormones, I was turning into a hoarder: I could eat one cupcake now, but what if -- back at my desk -- I wanted another one? And what if, after that one, I desperately craved another one? I had better get three. But what if . . . ?

"Four chocolate cupcakes to go, please."

Even now, years later, I am occasionally seized by the instinct to collect as much food as possible, like the industrious ant in the fable. This explains why, the other day, I found myself ordering an entire pizza topped with tater tots and bacon.

Arriving at Whole Foods at 10 a.m. ablaze with purpose, I was informed they no longer served breakfast pizza by the slice: It was "not popular."

Turns out, the kombucha-buyers at Whole Foods were not too keen on breakfast pizza: everything on a Denny's menu baked on a thin, crispy crust.

As I struggled to recover from this news, the nice young man behind the counter offered to make me my own breakfast pizza for pickup the next morning. Would it have tater tots on it? 

It would.

Would it have bacon, scrambled eggs, cheese, onion, and bell pepper? 

Yes, of course, whatever I wanted!

I glanced over at Dave, who had the distant, slightly troubled expression of a man watching his future wife order a 16" tater tot pizza.

Fifteen minutes later, we were playing Scrabble after a non-pizza breakfast. A terrible clarity descended on me: I was no longer hungry and could admit my folly.

"I need you to go over there and cancel that pizza I just ordered."


Even the counter boy seemed relieved: Both of us had been temporarily caught up in a swirl of madness. Tater tot pizza?

Back in San Francisco, the other thing I loved to get at the Ferry Building was a spicy beef curry, served daily over white rice at a Japanese cafe called Delica. I owe a lot to this curry, which many days was the only thing standing between me and a mind-shattering insight into the pointlessness and misery of human life: "I just can't possibly. . . It's just too . . . Wow, they have once again achieved perfection with this curry. Bravo!"

I can't say a slice of breakfast pizza ever helped me out of a tough spot, per se.

But I will always remember it fondly.

(Image: Baby Shower Cupcakes by Clever Cupcakes from Montreal, Canada [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons)