Saturday, December 26, 2015

Christmas List: Part 3


Christmas Gratitude List (2015), continued: 

6. Minecraft. This crazy game has given my son a thousand hours of flow. On the Xbox, on the computer, at the library after school, he spent the year building ever-more-fantastical houses in the Chinese style -- complete with libraries, dojos, and indoor waterfalls -- block by block.

With the devotion of a Talmudic scholar, he pored over Minecraft cartoons on the Internet, discovering clips the whole family could enjoy. Christmas with the Villagers, for example, includes the following exchange:

Minecraft Santa: Come sit on my lap!

Minecraft child: Hey, you're not the real Santa! You're just a fake!

[Pause]

Minecraft Santa [gruffly]: Get in the bag. 

This makes my kids laugh every time -- to be specific, 58 times and counting.

7. Nana Claus. While some families excel at singing around the piano at drunken soirees, my family excels at the most important Christmas activity: giving presents. Not that I'm awake at midnight on Christmas Eve -- because of course, I'm in bed waiting for Santa -- but if I were, I would be moved by all the thoughtful presents under the tree. I am especially grateful to my mom, who sends each gift pre-wrapped -- with exquisite care and attention -- by herself. When these magical-looking presents arrive, I simply lift them out of mailing box and put them aside till Christmas, after changing the kids' gift tags to say "From Mom."

8. Amazon.com. Every Christmas, I renew my pledge to support whoever is in charge of Amazon.com -- or, if s/he is busy, a senior executive -- for President of the United States. It is the most stunningly effective organization since . . . well, there is no human precedent. I feel certain that, over at Amazon, it is a no-excuses culture: If the Prime team were on the job, ISIS would be a smear in two days -- or your money back. (But nobody listens to me, do they?) Thanks Amazon, for giving everybody everything they want every day, at a reasonable price, delivered to their doorstep. Too bad you are "not qualified" to be President.

9. Mr. Right. Years ago, when I began to think about post-divorce dating, I had no idea what kind of person might fit the bill. I was forty years old with two kids, weary of every type of man I'd met in the entire state of California. He could be the nicest guy in the world, but a sharp dresser with a demanding job who was always on his phone, mulling Yelp! reviews of farm-to-fork restaurants, was not going to work: "I'm sorry, I just can't . . . Sorry."

I longed for a 50-foot banner to unfurl over my head, in the sky's vastness, that read -- like the Monty Python film -- "And Now for Something Completely Different."

Miraculously, it happened. Dave's basic character is so noble and decent, I sometimes compare it to "a bar of gold." Despite being genial and handsome, he is not cool or on-trend. He is old-fashioned yet unique, and completely defies classification. This is my favorite type of person, as it turns out.

I am so grateful for him and all our happy times together.

Merry Third Christmas, honey.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Dark Side


We took the kids to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It was really good!

While The Force seemed like so much nonsense in a popcorn movie about outer space, the perennial allure of The Dark Side seemed more real. In one character especially, it was unsettling and sad.

As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said: "The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being."

And as my kids have said: "I will destroy you, Mom." And: "It is death time, Maggie."

* * * *

Horror movies about creepy kids abound, because even nice kids can be creepy as hell. Countless times, a shadowy figure has descended upon me in the middle of the night, whimpering and chanting "Mom mom" in a tiny voice. When it turns out all this creature wants is to crawl into bed with me, put its cold feet on me, and sneeze in my face, I feel strangely relieved.

In addition to scuffling around pre-dawn like the undead, kids can be so gleefully disobedient that they are, for all practical purposes, possessed. The other night, I was trying put them to bed, since it was bedtime.

This was not rocket science: Bedtime. Bed. Both have the word "bed" in them and are about bed and the proper time therefor. Used in a sentence: Get in your bed right now, and go to bed. It's bedtime! 

The kids responded like crackheads who'd never heard the English language. They jumped around, goading each other into fights, screaming and cackling.

To get my point (BEDTIME) across, I was forced to behave like a grizzled beat cop in a rough neighborhood, and not the "good cop" either. The other cop.

The kids looked baleful and hurt. Then, something in their expressions changed. You could almost see it happening: They were going over to The Dark Side.

One of them grabbed a piece of paper and a pen, and within seconds produced a giant, hairless face, crumpled in rage, saying -- presumably from both of them -- "I WILL DESTROY YOU MOM."

It is important not to seem rattled when things like this occur.

"You've already destroyed me," I replied crisply, suggesting a glamorous self in the distant past. "Now go to bed."

* * * *

A few days later, my daughter asked if she could start calling me "Maggie."

From her birth until the present day, I have called her so many ridiculous nicknames (Bunch, Buncher, Blumper, Blumpy -- I could go on), I couldn't decently say no.

"Okay, Maggie," she said. And, at night: "Rub my back, Maggie."

Calling me Maggie seemed to embolden her. As Mom I was an authority figure, sort of, but as Maggie I was just some chick with an -ie name whom she could lord it over.

One afternoon she was mad at me about something, or just bored. Standing at the table with a Magic Marker and a Dark Side glint in her eye, she penned a page-long criminal threat that began, "It is deth time Maggie" and ended ominously: "Biye biye." Next to these words was a figure with a sword in its teeth.

"That's me," she explained.

We had dinner and watched a movie about Santa Claus.

Later that night, possibly out of some vague sense of having crossed a line, she wrote me another message -- "Merry Crismas Mom" -- in her childish scrawl, illustrated with a happy elf.

I took it to work and hung it on my door, because it was literally the cutest thing in the world.

Everyone said so.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Christmas List: Part 2


Christmas Gratitude List (2015), continued:

4. Finitude. On a rainy winter's day, few things are more satisfying than a toasted cheese sandwich. It can be assembled in two minutes, while refereeing a cage match between cooped-up children. Fast on the heels of this first, all-too-brief sandwich is the follow-up sandwich. At this point, having crashed through whatever flimsy parameters were in place, you might as well just keep eating sandwiches, with a molasses-cookie chaser -- but wait! There is only one slice of American cheese left -- so, never mind. Instead of gorging on an endless supply of cheese until you never want to see cheese again, you have been saved by the grace of finitude and left with a delightful memory.

5. Divorced women. How awesome are divorced women? We have all the good stories. As referenced in John Mayer's alt-country ballad, "You're No One 'Til Someone Lets You Down," divorced women tend to regard non-divorced women as the Junior League. Until you have gracefully hosted a party in which your ex, your children, your ex's significant other, your own significant other, and your significant other's children, mingle in a pleasant and civilized fashion, you are not going to impress us with your maturity, because we are a freaking Master Race where that's concerned. More wine?

[To be continued]

Christmas List: Part 1


Like all Californians with a wedge of fine cheese and a bottle of champagne chilling in the fridge, I can be a bit "entitled." There are certain things I expect from life and even take for granted: shelter, clean water, on-demand streaming video, a large array of commercial hair products from which to choose, and the ability to buy lunch at the Macy's cafe, because that is just -- as they say -- "chump change."

What problems I have fall squarely in the First World category. Most days, my biggest gripe is that "gas station robots" are not a thing, or that my kids somehow acquired a dog-shaped guitar that plays songs "sung" by barking dogs.

Though mostly oblivious to my good fortune, I have been feeling -- as Christmas nears -- a few stray pangs of gratitude. Before the moment passes, I will jot down the following:

Christmas Gratitude List (2015)

1. New Christmas tree stand. My old Christmas tree stand was forged by the Devil's minions in the foundries of Hell. It was so hard to use, it was -- for all practical purposes -- anti-Christmas. Just the sight of it, leering down at me from a high shelf in the garage, made me resolve to get a plastic tree this year. Long story short: I got a new stand, invented by people who don't loathe humankind, and a real tree after all.

2. Healthy children. At a recent pediatric visit, we discussed the fact that my daughter was not quite as tall as expected. Perhaps it was because she just turned seven and was being compared to seven-year-olds who were, on average, older. Perhaps it was because she was a "late bloomer" who would shoot up at thirteen, or perhaps it was because she was living on Twizzlers and Gatorade, with the occasional potato thrown in for fiber.* The luxury of this conversation, in the absence of  anything else to talk about, was not lost on me. In gratitude, I will be doubling the kids' potato ration in 2016.

3. Lena Dunham. While I don't endorse everything Lena Dunham has said and done, I'm enjoying her show, Girls. To anyone wondering what I'm doing alternate Friday nights: I'm watching Lena Dunham plumb the mysteries of the human heart, like the time Adam took up with a new girl while still in love with the old girl, hospitalized at the time due to a self-inflicted injury to her ear. Thanks, Lena!**

[To be continued]
*Just kidding.
** Thanks also to my sister, also named Lena.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Cluckington Island


Yesterday my son brought home his school project: a clay sculpture of mountains, rivers, and other natural features, shaped and painted like a chicken's head, with a black volcano for an eye.  He called it Cluckington Island.

Prior to this, "Cluckington Island" had been mentioned around the dinner table, but as I had no idea what he was talking about, I simply nodded and moved on.

Now seeing the thing for myself, I was impressed. My son had used a topography lesson to make a chicken-shaped world, populated by chickens, in which all human-imposed labels were irrelevant. Cluckington Island!

Nature is a big theme this school year. For months his class studied "the wetlands" across a variety of platforms. They journalled about the wetlands after viewing wetland-themed documentaries. They took a field trip to the wetlands to see, firsthand, the storied interplay between water and land. Their math problems began, Two ducks and a cormorant walk into an estuary, or maybe those were their little wetland-nerd jokes, swapped merrily amongst themselves.

"Aren't you done with the wetlands yet?" I'd ask. No, there was still much to be learned!

I tried to summon every fact I myself knew about the wetlands. It came down to a single Onion headline -- an off-color joke about "federal wetlands" --  but that hardly seemed an appropriate subject for third grade.

Anyway: Cluckington Island. It sounded like a place Thomas the Tank Engine would let off passengers before resuming his loop around a pastel-colored postwar Britain.

Back in Oakland, where my three-year-old son watched a lot of Thomas & Friends, I began to develop "feelings" for the human chief of the railroad, Sir Topham Hatt. He was so powerful and confident, so dapper in his eponymous top hat! Through narrowed eyes I regarded the potato-shaped Mrs. Hatt, who lived in a beautiful house by the railroad without a care in the world! If only Sir Hatt would turn his gaze from the tracks and see my heroic struggles, perhaps I could lure him away, for he could not bear to see me suffer in this manner . . .

I was sleep-deprived, and my thinking tended toward the dissociative. Every time we visited a place, I would speak -- jokingly! -- of running away from home and beginning a new life there under an assumed identity. If I could not be Lady Hatt, I would be someone else -- anyone else. Of course, I would -- after a period of recuperation -- send for the children, and we'd live a pastel-colored life, far away from Oakland, California, on Cluckington Island . . .

And it has worked out just that way.

"Your island is fantastic," I remarked to my son, now almost nine, as we walked across the school playground with his sister.

"Thanks," he said.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

No news


After the massacres in Paris and Mali, the downing of a Russian passenger jet, the first months of the 2016 presidential race, and various dust-ups on American college campuses, I am taking a break from the news. I feel like I have heard it all -- every angle that can possibly be expressed on every topic, repeated in a thousand variations, every day -- and I have had enough.

Until November 30, I will not so much as swipe a fingertip across my phone to read the news. Unless a town crier from a Renaissance Faire wanders by screaming the headlines into a bullhorn, I will know nothing about anything happening anywhere, all week.

(My six-year-old just came in and informed me, in detail, how she washed her hair in the sink, sprayed detangler on it, and combed it. Here was a bulletin from my world. Editorial spin: Great job!)

* * * * 

Back when I was riding the bus into San Francisco, I sometimes read from a tiny book called The Pocket Thomas Merton.  An idiosyncratic monk who died in 1968, Merton was an endearing figure: At some point, the hustle and bustle of a Trappist monastery became too much for him, and he retreated to a tool shed on the monastery grounds to think and write in PEACE AND QUIET.

Having lived a normal life as a college student in New York City, he had a great many acerbic observations about normal life. In a chapter called "Events and Pseudo-Events," Merton had this to say:

 Nine-tenths of the news, as printed in the papers, is pseudo-news, manufactured events. Some days ten-tenths. The ritual morning trance, in which one scans columns of newsprint, creates a peculiar form of generalized pseudo-attention to a pseudo-reality. This experience is taken seriously. . . . 

My own experience has been that renunciation of this self-hypnosis, of this participation in the unquiet universal trance, is no sacrifice of reality at all. To 'fall behind' in this sense is to get out of the big cloud of dust that everybody is kicking up, to breathe and to see a little more clearly.

In "Events and Pseudo-Events," Merton was distinguishing, as usual, between the real and unreal. What made a person or event "more real"? What existed but was "not real"? For Merton, these were not matters of opinion. They were matters of fact.

My own life existed all right, but very little of it seemed "real." Merton's confident parsing of lived experience -- real/unreal, real/unreal, real/unreal -- was fascinating, like a coin trick. How did he do it? Based on what?

Between long moments looking out the window -- sailboats on the Bay! -- I tried to figure out the trick.

* * * * 

This morning, after three hours of not-looking-at-the-news, I felt good. It was 10 a.m. on a Saturday.  The world could be in flames for all I knew.

I was sitting in a Vietnamese nail salon, awaiting my turn and not reading the magazines.

With nothing to think about, I gazed at the shelves of nail polish on the opposite wall. There was a painted mural of a tropical scene with a parrot in it. The bottles of polish -- pinks, reds, and purples -- shone in the sunlight from the shop window. Jewel tones.

A red goldfish swam in a nearby tank. Asian music -- a bow sawed moodily across a two-stringed instrument  -- played on the stereo.

On my occasional trips to this nail salon, the waits annoy me. After about ten minutes, the place feels like purgatory. Enough with the music already! Is it my turn yet? Aren't there any better magazines?

Today I felt at peace. Alive! How lucky I was to be at a nail salon!

Later this afternoon, I went to the kids' room to fold laundry. Normally I would put off this task by scrolling through the latest updates on my phone, but today -- again, with nothing to think about -- I simply lay down and dozed off.

For fifteen minutes, I took -- literally -- a cat nap, as like a cat I had been staring at a spot of sunlight on the wall. It seemed interesting for ninety seconds, before I succumbed to oblivion.

Then I woke up, and the rest of the day was awesome.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Operation China


At the risk of offending several billion human beings: I have never had much interest in China, or (except for a few pockets of relatives) the Eastern Hemisphere.

My idea is of a nice vacation is eating chocolate in a lace-curtained chalet, followed by a cheese plate, followed by a walk down cobbled streets to an immaculate 18th-century church, followed by probably a nap at that point. I would like to visit India -- to be overwhelmed by the scale of human suffering and attempt to reach my dad's hometown via a hideous train trip -- but am fine giving every other country in that neck of the woods a pass.

In an unforeseen twist, however, my son is obsessed with China. And Japan. And "Korea." Drawn by the martial arts and a high-minded, vaguely Asiatic approach to life (comprised of honor, ritual, and every maxim ever uttered by The Karate Kid's Mr. Miyagi), he often announces his plan to "move to China" as soon as he reaches legal age.

In near-total ignorance of what I am talking about, I either (1) tepidly support this idea, or (2) try to suggest, gently, that living in China isn't "that great."

"Is it like here?" he'll ask.

"No. It is not like here. The government is very different. You don't have the same kind of freedom you do here. But I'm sure the culture and people are very nice!"

"Okay, then. I'll move to Japan. Is that like here?"

"No. I don't think so. It's a small island, and it's crowded."

"What about if I move to Korea?"

"Well, you should know there's a Good Korea and a Bad Korea. The Bad Korea is very bad. Just . . . incredibly bad. The Good Korea is okay, I guess."

"Is it like here?"

"No. No place is like here."

"But in Korea they have a special 'birth ceremony' -- "

"Okay, but why do you have to move to Korea and all these places? Can't you just visit them?"

"It's my life, Mom!"

Looking back, there is some family precedent for this sort of thing.  My dad wrote his Ph.D. thesis on Sino-Indian relations (executive summary: not good), and my son's dad researched Chinese history when co-writing a book about a suspected Chinese-American spy who was eventually set free.

As someone who has practically worn a "China: Who Cares?" t-shirt all my life, I am beginning to think I should acquaint myself with this vast, ancient land and its people, or by the time he's ten years old, my son will realize I have nothing of value to say about, oh, half the world.

(And no, recounting the plot of The Painted Veil, in which a British socialite is hauled off to China by her husband as punishment for adultery and comes to like it there, in a way, after taking up with a coterie of French nuns, probably won't cut it. Was my B.A. in English literature good for anything?)

When I lived in Oakland, a Chinese-American writer just up the way in the Oakland Hills won a MacArthur genius grant for her novel, The Vagrants, which "depicts life in a provincial Chinese town during the turbulent years following Mao’s death in the late 1970s. The novel opens on the day a young woman is to be executed as a counter-revolutionary and proceeds to trace the intersecting fates of a wide-ranging cast of townspeople. In these and other works, Li crafts deeply moving fiction that offers Western readers a window into unfamiliar worlds as well as insights into human nature that transcend ethnicity and place."

Even back in Oakland -- with two kids under three, a demanding job, and an all-consuming preoccupation with my own problems -- that sounded like a terrific book, not that I'd ever have time to read it.

Now, since my son's thinking about moving to China, I think that time has come.

(Image: Chinese sugar painting by Anna Frodesiak (own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons)

Friday, November 6, 2015

The afterlife


My dad died twenty-two years ago this week, in Lubbock, Texas. Growing up, I associated Lubbock with trips to mall, family restaurants, and a small airport, but for the past two decades, it's also made me think of hospitals and dying.

Lubbock is one of those places people hear bad things about and have no desire to visit. But it is not so bad if accepted on its own terms.

Born many years later, my kids sometimes speak of their "granddad" who cannot visit them in person. They know that he (1) came to America from India, making them one-quarter Indian, (2) was a teacher at a college, and (3) was my dad when I was a kid with parents and a brother and sister, long ago, in New Mexico.

On questions of the afterlife, I have been vague. My style, on this topic, is to take the children to the cemetery and engage in open-ended dialogue: "Some say . . ." And: "No one really knows, but . . . "

Unsatisfied with this mealy-mouthed approach, they have developed their own ideas. Let us call these The Terrible Joke and The Morbid Preoccupation.

1. The Terrible Joke

How does one discuss the Hindu religious practice of open-air cremation with a small American boy without the conversation going off the rails? I don't know.

All I remember is that one day, when my son was about six, I found myself matter-of-factly describing the ritual of putting a loved one's corpse on a barge, setting it on fire, and sending it down the Ganges River, vividly aflame, until nothing of it remained. It was called "cremation," and it was more or less what they did to my dad, per his wishes of course, and his dad before him.

Stupefied, my son took this in.

Cut to a few months later, as we walked out of the local donut shop one Saturday morning.  My son lingered by a trash can with some cigarette butts in the top.

"Stop playing in the ashes!" I said. "Don't put your hand in there. It's filthy. Come on."

As we neared the car, he lifted up a sooty index finger, E.T.-style, and said in a gnarled voice: "I'm Grandpa!"

This time, I was speechless.

"Don't tell me what to do, Daughter! I'm your dad! I'm gonna get my gun!"  The ashy finger waggled imperiously at me. "Yeah, that's right. My gun!"

"Stop doing that," I managed to say in a scandalized whisper. "That's just . . . You can't . . . "

His sister was catching on now. "Is that supposed to be Grandpa?"

"Yes, I'm your Grandpa, little girl! Bring me a cookie!"

Having lost the capacity for speech, I drove the children to their dad's. From the backseat, "Grandpa" continued to provoke and threaten us with wicked glee: a tiny patriarch back from the shadowlands to show us who was boss.

"What?" said the kids' dad, surveying the three of us.

"You won't believe what he just said." I described it. My son held up his sooty finger.

"Oh my god. What the . . . ?"

The zany genius of this joke began, finally, to sink in. To date, I think it is the most our post-divorce family has ever laughed.

2. The Morbid Preoccupation

For months now, every mention of death has made my daughter sad. She is six. 

"Don't talk about it!" she'll scream at us, as my son and I innocently discuss ghosts or heaven or a lost pet.  "It reminds of me of . . . you know." 

"What?" I'll say.

"We were just saying that, if it ends up at the pound and no one claims it, they may have to --" my son will reasonably begin.

"I SAID DON'T TALK ABOUT IT!"

"It reminds you of what?" I'll say again.

And she will whisper forlornly in my ear: "My granddad. You know? Who . . . before I was born . . ."

That is a very sad moment. "Oh, right. We're sorry."

Sometimes she will start crying. "I never even got to meet him!"

"I wish he could have met you," I say helplessly. "I know he would be so proud of you. Maybe, in some way, . . ."

3. The Tooth Fairy

My mom sent my daughter a skeleton dog for Halloween. His name was Bones.

Despite the ghoulish associations, my daughter was delighted with this dog.

One day, my son saw that Bones was sleeping on one of his shirts. As he tried to take the shirt back, his sister grabbed and held it with her teeth. My son yanked on the shirt, and as he ripped it out of her mouth, her two front teeth (which had been slightly loose) came with it. There was some blood. The babysitter sent me a text . . .

So: Two teeth lost unexpectedly, in dramatic fashion. This was a job for the Tooth Fairy!

Except I didn't have any cash. 

After she fell asleep, I remembered that I did have two $10 bills up in a closet. I had been saving them so long, I barely remembered where they came from. Did my dad send them to me in my 21st birthday card? I think he did.

I found the box and fished one out. It was printed in 1988. 

The Tooth Fairy put it under my daughter's pillow.

Days later, as we decorated for Halloween, my daughter somehow got the idea that my dad had sent her Bones. She had been talking to Bones and learned that he had known my dad in heaven. And my dad sent him down to her, to be her friend! Wasn't that great?

She wrote my dad a thank-you note and tucked it into the suit of a Frankenstein hanging in our yard, confident that he would receive it.

It said "To Granddad" and showed him, her, and the dog, standing together, smiling.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Batman



Not to get all TMI, but yesterday I had a routine mammogram.

"I'm not worried," I had remarked to Dave, days earlier. "I honestly don't think I'm going to get breast cancer. Nobody in my family's had it, that I know of. This is not how Batman dies."

I was referring of course to The Lego Movie (2014), in which Batman -- the most arrogant Lego, preoccupied with the romance of his own Batman-ness -- is in a spaceship under enemy attack. While the other characters run around trying to fix things, Batman simply announces, outraged: "This is not how Batman dies!"

I love that guy.

And, indeed, he does not die. At the end of the movie, he is still very much alive and fabulous.

In perilous circumstances -- like the log ride at the state fair, or any ill-considered carnival ride for which you are, you realize too late, too old -- TINHBD is a bracing rallying cry. Not this day, log ride! Not this Batman!

* * * * 

When I was a child, my parents told me I would live until age 96. It was that specific -- not "a long time"; 96 -- and based on Vedic astrological calculations.

Since then, with my own eyes, I have witnessed the fallibility of Vedic astrology. My parents were supposed to die in 2007 and 2009, respectively, but the actual date (in one's case) was 1993.

Yet I was assured of this fact (96!) so many times, by my own parents, some part of me thinks I will probably just go ahead and survive till 96. As I have a long way to go, I may as well start hitting the gym and flossing, or by the time I hit 80, I will be a hot mess . . . for 16 years!

Dutifully, then, I went to my annual mammogram: for the non-news. As the x-ray machine mashed and beeped, I thought idly of other things. How many Halloween sandwiches would I need to make for the potluck? Was the new Brad and Angelina movie out yet?

What, done already?

As I put my hospital gown back on, the radiology technician informed me there was a small bowl on the table filled with "breast cancer awareness keychains," and I was welcome to take one.

"Do you have a bat symbol?" I asked.

"Excuse me?"

"Do you have one with a bat on it? Like the Batman logo? Or a miniature Batmobile? Or some kind of commemorative black cape -- you know, like Batman wears?"

"No."

"Okay, I'm good then. Thanks!"

"You'll receive a card in the mail in two weeks with your results. If you have any ques--"

"Whatever."

(Image: "The Joker is Back!" by Bruno from Roma, Italia [CC BY-SA 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons)

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Keeping up


Two Friday nights a month, when the kids are with their dad, I settle in for a quiet night of "emotional eating" and bad TV.

These are carefully planned events: Like Mardis Gras or a controlled burn, they take place within set parameters so they don't wreck everything in sight.

Sometimes it's sushi, a small cheesecake, and the entire first season of Girls (which, in fairness, is great TV). Sometimes it's tikki masala and eight slobs' worth of What Not to Wear.

Last night (Goldfish crackers and Keeping Up with the Kardashians) represented some kind of peak. I never thought I was the target audience for KUWTK, but not only did I like the show, I liked the Kardashian/Jenner clan as people.

Rather, I liked them as a family, whose members were always dropping by each other's houses (read: mansions) and confronting each other -- through steely, heavily-mascaraed gazes -- about minor upsets. Not for the Kardashians the indifferent shrug or the tactful silence, the thin-lipped retreat to another part of the mansion, or a different mansion. Instead, they were always "up in each other's business."

While a typical, repressed family would make for dull TV, the Kardashians -- alive to the dramatic possibilities of daily life -- were constantly tossing their long, black hair and having it out.

Although they all looked alike and had "K" names, the sisters' personalities were distinct. Kim -- whose surgical enhancements gave her an over-the-top, drag queen quality -- was a know-it-all and busybody, goading her sisters to divorce their husbands while maintaining a prim silence about her own marriage to Kanye West.

Kourtney was the dim bulb sister who got by on her looks. She was married to a fool who, occasionally -- in fits of manic energy or drunkenness -- got in a good one-liner about another member of the family.

Khloe was the feisty one with a heart of gold. She continued to love her estranged and troubled husband, Lamar Odom, despite Kim's disapproval and Kourtney's blank expression with nothing behind it. It was Khloe who rode into the breach to confront Caitlyn Jenner (formerly Bruce, her stepdad) about her unkind remarks about the family in Vanity Fair. 

Bruce Jenner was a sweet old guy who sent his teenaged daughter's car to the shop on a pretext just so he could drive her around, like old times. The daughter (Kendall?) rolled her eyes, called the shop, and got her black Range Rover back.

Caitlyn Jenner seemed unprepared for the complexities of the bitchfest she had entered, as when one of the girls stopped by, tossed her hair, and cooed "Nice purse!" as an opening power play.

Maybe it was all for the cameras, but the Kardashians seemed to genuinely care about each other -- within reason. "I hate to see my sister living like this," said Kim to Khloe in one episode, referring to Kourtney's rocky marriage. "If I think about it, I'll start to cry." She dabbed a few times at one smoky eye.

"First thing in the morning," she remarked to Khloe, pulling herself together. "With a full face of makeup. I'll cry at the end of the day."

Khloe nodded, because that totally made sense.

See you in two weeks, ladies.

(Image: Khloe Kardashian Odom in Sydney, by Eva Rinaldi (Flickr: Kim and Khloe Kardashian) [CC BY-SA 2.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons)

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Edgy humor

Yesterday I was driving downtown with my daughter when she said from the backseat: "It's the Stop and Go lady."

"What?"

"I saw the Stop and Go lady. From my school."

After a second, I realized she meant the crossing guard who directs traffic at school pick-up and drop-off times. For this important job, she wears a traffic cone on her head like a witch.

"Oh. What was she doing?" I asked, before a rogue impulse made me say: "Knocking back a brewski?"

There was silence from the backseat. Then I heard a small titter:"Hee hee."

"Hee hee," I snickered.

"Hee hee hee," she snarfed.

Good times.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Good dog

To me, the most important part of owning a pet is naming it. (This is also true about having kids, and let me just say, I nailed those names.) 

Something about naming brings out the braggart in me, such that I have been known to refer -- not once, but many times -- to my "gift for naming."

To be honest, aside from the kids' names, my record is spotty. It began long ago with Twinkle (parakeet), hit an early high mark with Wallis (cat named for Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor), lost steam with Daisy and Oscar (short-term dogs), ventured into the literary with Seymour (parrot named after Seymour Glass in Salinger's Franny and Zooey), and finally achieved distinction with a couple of cats in my twenties, named Pick and Meter for no reason except that I was done with dull pet names, forever. 

In this, I was strongly influenced by a Dorothy Parker biopic that showed the authoress slinking around New York with a cigarette and a boozy drawl, having affairs (oddly this part had no influence on me at all) while carrying a terrier named Rags. This seemed like the best possible name for a dog.

The resulting Rags Theory of Animal Naming had two rules: 

1. No human names. To name a dog "Mabel" or a cat "Jack" was to insult its animal nature. Names like "Misty" were borderline, since no human being should have that name.

2. Names should be offbeat and poetic, with only a loose association with the pet. "Rags" was perfect because a hairy white dog looked, just a little, like a pile of rags. 

[Bonus rule #3: Ironic old-school names like Spot or Rover were better than human names, but marked you as a hipster with no real ideas of your own.]

These days, my kids and I can endlessly discuss naming the dog. We do not have a dog. We are just putting in the legwork for that day. 

(In much the same way, my mom used to sit around talking dog names with us. Her favorite name was Go Away, allowing the owner to say: "Go Away! Come here!" This not only met the Rags criteria, but suggested an entire model for human relationships. Though when we actually got a dog, we didn't name it Go Away. We named it Trouble.)  

So the kids and I kick names around. Because my son likes Asian culture, his choice is always something like Yin-Yang. Because my daughter is six years old, her choice could be anything: a random series of sounds, the name of her teacher's dog, a four-word catch phrase from a TV show, a food she ate for lunch, or she could simply say: "Let's name him . . . Puppy!"

Not to boast about it, but my dog names are much better than theirs. I am just operating on a "different level." 

While puttering around today, I thought of another good dog name. The kids' first dog(!), it would be Uno. Their second dog, Dos.  And so on.  

As we collected dogs over the years (the old ones dying off or running away), we would soon get to where we could say: "Quatro! Cinco! Sit!" That would be fun.

I have not poll-tested these ideas with the kids, but there is plenty of time for that. Till then I will just bide my time, inventing and stockpiling names . . . 

When we finally get a dog, I wonder who's going to take care of it? 

Huh. 

(Image: Franz Marc, "Dog Lying in the Snow" [c. 1910, public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]

Friday, October 9, 2015

New boots?


One of my all-time favorite movies is the Shrek spin-off Puss in Boots (2011), starring Antonio Banderas as Puss, Salma Hayek as his enemy/love interest Kitty Softpaws, and Zach Galifianakis as his treacherous stepbrother, Humpty Dumpty.

As far as I'm concerned, it is Banderas's role of a lifetime. If he were revealed tomorrow as a zany Hollywood type who believed in astral projection, 9/11 as an inside job, and "green" colonics, I would still consider him a great guy  -- all is forgiven, Antonio, you nut! -- because of his fantastic work in Puss in Boots.

Eventually, my young children (both in preschool at the time) grew weary of the jokes in Puss in Boots, but I never did.  At one point the camera pans to a bar sign that says "Dance Fight: Tuesday Night," and then Puss and Kitty (in disguise) fight a duel while doing a gravity-defying Latin dance.

For a while the kids and I would announce: "Dance Fight: Tuesday Night!" and cue up our favorite scene. I'm not sure they realized what was funny about a bar posting a "dance fight" sign, or even what a bar was, or that a dance fight was not a real thing that people did, on Tuesday nights. As a bit of visual humor, it worked for us on different levels.

Similarly, the complicated relationship between noble Puss and his conniving brother Humpty was mostly over the kids' heads. Meeting Humpty again after a long estrangement, Puss wants to believe his brother is reformed . . . but is he just "playing" Puss again?

"You look good, Puss," Humpty says awkwardly, trying to ingratiate himself. "New boots?"

"No," says Puss with barely-contained rage. "They are the same boots I wore when you betrayed me!"

Is there a medal I can award to the person who wrote these lines, draping it over his/her chest like Princess Leia in a distinguished public ceremony at the end of Star Wars? No?

Anyway, I got some new boots. They arrived today in the mail and are fabulous.

The only thing that would make them better is one person to whom I could say, in a withering Spanish accent:

"They are the same boots I wore when you betrayed me!" 

Memo to self: Wear boots & learn Spanish & get betrayed.

(Image: Fierce cat dressed as a swashbuckler by Archibald Tuttle (own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons)

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Soup & sandwiches


Not long ago, I added a "soup and sandwich" night to the dinner list. Between the chicken terriyakis and beef-and-broccolis, the raviolis and flatbread pizzas, my kids -- I realized -- would be happy to have Campbell's Chicken Noodle-O's for dinner, plus whatever I guilt-served on the side.

That thing was sandwiches, which seemed to make it into a recognized "meal."

I worked out the math as follows: Each child would have noodle soup and half a sandwich, according to preference (son - turkey, daughter - grilled cheese). I would have a bowl of split pea soup and both the other halves of their sandwiches. This was a lot of food, but I felt I could handle it.

Next to each combo, except mine, I would throw a few baby carrots, as if to say: I'm feeding you three things! Message: I care. 

It worked out perfectly, except that the kids would only eat a few bites of their sandwiches (message: they didn't care), despite my protestations that both sandwiches were delicious, were they kidding me?

Then they would take their bowls to the kitchen -- "No, no, leave the plates," I'd mutter -- and scamper off, while I devoured the remaining two halves of their sandwiches in a voracious spray of crumbs, like Cookie Monster.

Then I would have to go lie down.

Obviously, S&S night needed some tweaking. Could I perhaps not make the sandwiches quite so yummy? Could I omit the grilled cheese -- my greatest nemesis -- altogether? "You kids are having soup. Ya hear me? Soup."

Chances are, the only change to S&S night will be that I serve homemade soup (sausage and white bean: coming up) so that the kids eat neither their soup nor their sandwiches, but only three carrots, which they will supplement at 9 p.m. with a sleeve of crackers.

Cookie Monster will be very pleased.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Lady Marmalade

Last night, while fooling around with a thumbtack she'd found on the floor, my daughter sang a little song that went:

I love to say marmalade, everybody does.
I I love to say marmalade, everybody does.
I LOVE TO SAY MARMALADE, EVERYBODY DOES.
I love to say marma-laaaaaade, everybody does. 

She sang this song with such drama, variety, and depth of feeling, it sounded like "Bohemian Rhapsody" by Queen.

Just as I was wondering what her deal was, I realized it was true:

Everyone really did love to say "marmalade."

Monday, September 28, 2015

Supermoon


Last night there was a rare confluence of a lunar eclipse and a "supermoon." By 7 p.m., the time the moon would rise per the newspaper, I'd handed the kids off to their dad. They were planning to find a good viewing spot and take binoculars -- like everyone else in town, scheduling their night around the moon.

At 6:45, loading the dishwasher, I thought: "What am I doing?"

I called Dave and suggested we go see the moon, right now.

Ten minutes later, heading out of town with a bottle of wine and glasses in the car, I felt a pang of sadness that I wouldn't see my kids see the moon.

Ever since their dad and I split up, we've been loosey-goosey about birthdays, holidays, significant events of all kinds, so that I've never had to miss one because it wasn't "my day." During the last big moon a year ago, I drove them out to a field and let them run around screaming -- literally, like lunatics -- until their dad pulled up next to my car and we watched them a while before sending them off, still in a festive spirit, to House #2.

Still, you can't share custody for every celestial anomaly that makes the papers. Getting divorced means your young kids will sometimes see the sky without you.

(The previous night at my house, we'd had our own little event. Because my kids sleep in their underwear like savages, I noticed as my son climbed into bed that his underpants had holes in them.

"When you take those off tomorrow, you can just throw them out," I told him.

But the situation (underpants! holes!) struck my son as hilarious. He began ripping the small holes into larger, connecting holes, uttering words lost in a giggle.

"What?" I said.

"All for one and one for all!" he shrieked, tearing a giant, butt-sized hole in his underpants.

"Okay, just . . . take them off," I said. "They're not even . . ." The shredded remains were no longer serving any purpose. "Just throw them out."

"No! I want them!" my daughter screamed, starting a fight over the tatters clinging to his form.

When he started ripping up the front, I had to shut it down, for real.

So, like other people have Paris, the kids and I will always have that version of the 2015 Supermoon.)

Dave and I watched the moon come up over a field, happy as could be. Then we went out for pizza.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Bookless


The last book I read was an 800-page novel about two English magicians in 19th century London. It involved forays into Venice and the Faerie realm and described a fantastical counter-reality in a tone like Jane Austen's:

"Can a magician kill a man by magic?" Lord Wellington asked Strange.
Strange frowned. He seemed to dislike the question.
"I suppose a magician might," he admitted, "but a gentleman never could."

I toted the hardback edition back and forth to my job in San Francisco during the fall of '05 or '06, riding the Transbay bus over the bridge in fog and drizzle. For forty minutes a day, my life was perfect.

I never understood San Francisco, or what I was doing there, or why other people seemed to like it. Riding the bus in every day was a form of mental and spiritual preparation. I read several religious books on suffering, a subject in which I was keenly interested at the time, and enjoyed a great many insights into the nature of reality before I was forced to disembark and, you know, go to work.

These were the most vivid reading experiences of my adult life -- including, too, The Wapshot Chronicle and The Collected Stories of John Cheever -- and always seemed to take place in fall and winter.  November was the ideal reading month (overcast, wet, sad for no reason), but January and February, in their existential bleakness, were close runners-up. I must have read books in spring and summer too, but it was not the same.

How many years ago was that? Nine? I'm sure I've read a few books since. But my attention span is shot, thanks to years of kids and the Internet.

When my daughter was a baby, I began reading The Diary of Samuel Pepys and, about fifty pages in, gave up forever. (And now this same daughter, wearing an octopus costume, has plopped down next to me to play Coin Monkey on my phone.)

What have I read lately? That Caitlyn Jenner and Kris Jenner have had a falling out. (Thanks, phone!) Also, using Amazon's "Look Inside!" feature, some recipes from a cookbook of baking sheet meals: entire dinners prepared on one rimmed metal tray. Salmon! Fennel! The works!

I probably should start reading books again.

Maybe just one.

Let's not get crazy.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Priorities

"Thanks, Mom.  And thanks for the advice.  I'll remember it if I ever get married -- if I do.  It's a low priority."

-- 8-year-old son, after I praised him for cleaning the bathroom (including the toilet) without being asked, and told him "the way to a woman's heart is to clean the toilet."


Thursday, September 3, 2015

Fifty Shades of Corn


School has started, and there's a nip in the air, California-style: The temperature has dropped to the low 80s. This can only mean one thing: Summer is over (boo!). It's fall.

There are a few things to look forward to (not Pumpkin Spice lattes, which are cloying and undrinkable): Halloween. Soups. Halloween soups.

And of course, the 60-acre corn maze off the highway, by the pumpkin patch, open after dark (obviously) because corn mazes are all about DATE NIGHT!

Unless you are my children reading this in the future (stop reading, kids!), we are all adults here. So I hope no one will "clutch their pearls" when I say that solving the corn maze is a seriously good date -- assuming you are with someone who can solve it, and you don't both die there.

In 2014, it took us almost three hours -- and when I say "us," I mean Dave. Five steps into it, I knew I was one thousand leagues out of my league. It was pitch dark, the stalks were elephant-eye high, the maze was insanely complicated, and some young wags had decided it would be fun to rearrange the location markers -- already low to the ground and hard to see -- so they didn't match the map.

If I miss an exit on the way to work, I have to be talked down off the ledge by my phone. I have no sense of direction, and when I don't know where I am, I panic. So it is no exaggeration to say that The World's Largest Corn Maze would be my "worst nightmare times a million" if I were in it by myself.

Dave found a pencil, sketched a route in thirty seconds, and was like: "This way!"

As a modern American mom, I am in charge of job, home, family -- the works. I spend entire days in the imperative tense, writing crisp legalese and then telling my children what to do. When a problem arises, my instinct is not to turn to another human being for succor and protection, but to Google it, fix it myself, or Google someone who can fix it. Often it is just me, the kids, and a search engine contra mundi.

It's totally fine. But when someone -- occasionally -- takes charge of a situation, so that your only role is to hold the flashlight, be quiet (because you have nothing useful to say), and not trip over the corn and twist an ankle, that can be super-duper, also.

People who do not have access to a giant, seasonal corn maze have turned, instead, to a bestselling series (now a major motion picture) about someone else being in control, for once. I've passed on these, as the whole plot seems patently ridiculous. (Also, "fifty shades of grey" is the color I associate with my children's socks. When someone writes an escapist fantasy called Sparkling White, Paired & Put Away By Someone Else, let me know.)

Make no mistake, solving the corn maze is a lot of work. Two hours into it, when the uncommitted and inept had faded out, an elite corps of navigators was left in the final stretch of the maze. College students, families with sleepy kids, one intrepid mom and her teenagers (that will be me, never), and guys from the various groups consulting each other about switchbacks, dead ends, and deceptive markers -- all under the stars, in a cornfield in the middle of nowhere.

By this point, I was in a daze -- a daze of trust. Vividly I could picture the discovery of my bleached bones in the maze, yet I knew my boyfriend would get me out of it and I would go on to resume my life. Stunned by this fact, I could not stop saying: "You are amazing. Get it? A-mazing? Sorry."

Last month, we were driving by the corn maze on the way to San Francisco. Dave seemed on the fence about doing it again.  What was the point?

I explained that it was a "key experience for us" with after-effects that "reverberated" over time. I spread my hands to suggest waves in a lake, rippling outward. Dave was like: "Okay, but we should start earlier this year, so it's not so dark."

No! Let's not!

It should be difficult and terrifying! And I should be useless!

We should wear costumes and play the Phantom of the Opera soundtrack!

Fall is weird.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Avoidance blanket

Yesterday was so hot, the only thing we did was go to The Dollar Store. We were there to get my daughter a plastic cheerleading baton, which would be (inevitably) weaponized, but it was Saturday afternoon and we were low on options.

Feeling expansive because everything cost $1, I put two "chore charts" and two composition notebooks in the basket. This ominous event was not lost on my son. School started in less than two weeks, and dreadful changes were afoot. There would soon be -- according to me -- fifteen minutes of "homework" and one "chore" before anyone could flop in front of the TV and demand takeout from the kitchen. And about that takeout . . .

Really, the chore charts were for me, as I am trying to step up my game. It is all too easy to let the kids do whatever they want. (Per Myers-Briggs: "INTP parents take a relaxed, intellectual approach towards their children . . . Having no interest in exerting control over other human beings, . . . INTP personalities are not particularly demanding parents . . .")

Still, I appreciate the value of "forming good habits," etc. Most other parents seem to think such things are kind of a big deal.  Okay, okay!  As Shakespeare's Portia puts it: "Happy in this, she is not yet so old but she may learn."

* * * * 

Cut to today, when the chore charts are still in a bag on the table, and my son is following me around, asking me to buy some Minecraft-related thing from Xbox Live.

After a whole day indoors with Minecraft, I am Minecrafted out. His speech comes through like this: "Blah blah . . . texture pack . . . blah blah . . mod . . . blah blah . . . I need . . . "

He followed me into my bedroom, where I put a down comforter over my entire body and said: "I'm at the store."

". . . Blah blah?"

"I went to the grocery store to get some milk. I'm not here. You're in charge."

Working entirely from my own mothering playbook, I proceeded to explain to him that I was in my Avoidance Blanket, i.e., "at the store."

He laughed and crawled under there with me. "Avoidance Blanket," he repeated.

"You try it!"

As he cowered under the blanket, I pretended to call his name. "Where are you?  Come out!  It's important."

A tiny voice squeaked: "I'm in Japan!"

Hilarity ensued, and this is -- for better or worse -- my style.

It is not a straightforward winner like the chore chart. But I believe its benefits will bear out over time. Because avoiding unpleasant things is human nature, and also funny, and making jokes about avoiding things is an exercise in self-awareness, I would be happy to joke about the Avoidance Blanket with my kids for the next ten years.

I like to think that, by college -- after a childhood of playful dialogue -- they will not be the ones demanding "trigger warnings" or banning speakers with whose viewpoints they disagree.

Hopefully, my kids will see those kids and be like: "Um, okay. Enjoy your Avoidance Blanket. With the excellent study habits I've formed, I'm switching to a science major right now."

(Image: Portrait painting of Princess Auguste Wilhelmine Maria (1765-1796) with children (public domain) via Wikimedia Commons)

Friday, August 14, 2015

Lente, lente

My freshman year of college, I took Latin. It was a tiny class -- four students -- and met in the professor's office. One boy had been in my fifth grade "gifted" class, where he conducted a yearlong investigation into the Loch Ness Monster. At eighteen, he read a lot of Tolkien and was fluent in the language of elves. We were both branching out.

Despite some vague idea that Latin would "come in handy," I was doing it for my own reasons. In my rural state college, a sense of lofty intellectual endeavor was hard to come by. Our professor was out of central casting -- an absent-minded gesticulator in a Fair Isle sweater -- and there was something satisfying about parsing Latin verbs at 8:30 a.m. It felt like school. 

We read Cicero, Tertullian, Ovid, Horace, Bede. Today I could not tell you the first thing about Latin grammar, but something of its rhythm -- the sound of the pithy aphorism -- stayed with me.

Abyssus abyssum invocat. 
(Deep calls to deep.)

Veritas odium paret.
(Truth creates hatred.)

Tarde venientibus ossa. 
(For those who come late, only the bones.) (Modern equivalent: You snooze, you lose.)

And one of my favorites;

Lente, lente currite noctis equi!
(Run slowly, slowly, horses of the night!)

* * * * 

For a long time after I graduated college, my actions seemed -- even to me -- to be of very little consequence. I could change jobs or move, go out or stay in, master the ancient Japanese tea ceremony or stay in bed all day with a tabloid and a bag of chips, with no discernible effect on anyone or anything.

Life was a weightless, dreamlike drift from one thing to the next. I was free to make snap decisions and act on any passing whim. Who cared?

All that changed when my son was born. From that day on, every life decision was important. Things were not going so well, and the motto I seized upon was "Lente, lente": No sudden moves. Or as Carl Jung put it:"Hurry is not of the devil; hurry is the devil."

The other day I was discussing this philosophy with Dave.

"I prefer tiny, incremental changes over a long period of time," I explained.

"That sounds like the frog in the boiling water," he remarked, "where the heat gets turned up so slowly, it doesn't realize it's being cooked."

"Yes," I agreed. "I want to be that frog."

(Image: "Sousse mosaic stud farm detail 01" by Ad Meskens - own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Scents and sensibility

The man at the perfume counter was trying to sell me a new scent.

My previous perfume, Sì ("a tribute to modern femininity"), had run out.  And though I liked it, I was a little sick of Sì.  I know nothing about perfume, but I know when I am tired of a thing, its blackcurrant top notes notwithstanding.

So: onward.

The man was very nice, extemporizing at length about this perfume to me and Dave when we stopped by the department store on our day trip to San Francisco.  He told us about the humble Cuban-American background of the designer, his unlikely rise through the cutthroat world of perfume, his beloved mentor, and his prize-winning homage to same.  It was all very interesting, and I kind of liked the perfume.

Plus, it was made with an unusual ingredient: Egyptian musk.  Few perfumes contained it, as it was considered cost-prohibitive.  But this scrappy Cuban-American boy had said what the hell and thrown it in.  (Here I considered asking what Egyptian musk actually was.  Did it come from a plant?  A musk ox?  Why was it "Egyptian," especially?  Wasn't there good old American musk growing in some swamp in Louisiana?  USA!)

The perfume man had moved along in his rhapsody by this point.  His wife was also in perfume, so he knew twice the amount of normal information: a one-man perfumepedia.

Mimicking the act of dabbing something behind his ears, he explained that the Egyptian musk lent an uncommon quality to the scent that registered in the human subconscious.  Wearing it would cause people to pause -- moments after you'd walked away -- and, for reasons they could not explain, think there was something "memorable" and "interesting" about you.

The perfume man talked on, circling back to this point a few more times:  Memorable!  Interesting!

Dave and I left the counter with some of the scent on my arm.  It smelled nice.  Still, something about the experience bothered me.

"Why did he keep saying that perfume would make me 'memorable' and 'interesting'?"  I asked Dave.  "I have a personality for that."

Dave agreed this was so.

"Dude," I said to the perfume salesman (i.e., Dave) with l'espirit d'escalier, "I just want something that smells good.  I've got the rest covered."

I think we next made a joke about "mansplaining."   It was such a great day.

Then we walked out of the store and did something else.

(Image: Advertisement for eau de Cologne from the almanac of La Nouvelle Chronique de Jersey 1891, public domain (U.S.) via Wikimedia Commons)

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Things someone did

1. Got out of tub before her shampoo

2. Tied dog leash around her waist, not wearing clothes

3.  Put on neck chain with I.D. cards, taken from "FREE" box outside neighbor's house

4.  Attached stuffed black cat to dog leash

5.  Walked around, dragging cat

6.  Insisted I make an eye patch out of a plastic nipple shield that fell out of someone's dress in a public area, which she found and claimed

7.  Put on eye patch (cunningly fashioned, if I do say so)

8.  Ate shredded cheese in bed as snack

9.  Before falling asleep, put cheese shreds in my ear

This girl is going camping with Dad for three days, and I miss her already. 

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Tiny house: The process


When I am not watching TV with the kids, buying bags of shredded cheese "for cooking," or eating handfuls of shredded cheese, I am often thinking about how to write something The New Yorker might publish -- specifically, a humor piece about the tiny house movement.

It is a vexing technical problem: How to get published in The New Yorker by mocking small houses?  (I realize this is a quixotic dream: If 80 percent of life is showing up, getting published in The New Yorker is the sought-after 0.01 percent.  Because you can't frame "showing up" and hang it on your wall.)

First, it requires some research.  Except for an article here and there, I know very little about "small footprint" living.  I think the idea is that you build a cabin from recycled trash and transport it to a forest or the spacious backyard of a rich friend.  Then you hire a photographer and pitch your story to the lifestyle section of a newspaper.  And then you are a hero!

But let The New Yorker explain:

[O]ne of the more enigmatic modern micro-trends is the decision to live in the smallest space possible, in a structure known as a “tiny house.” The occupants of tiny houses tend to be committed, and slightly self-regarding, citizens, who cook on little stoves and have refrigerators like wall safes. They shed years of possessions and keepsakes to get by with two shirts and two pairs of pants and two mugs and two forks, in order to occupy what amounts to a monk’s cell, for the sake of simplicity, frugality, or upright environmental living. They often embody the zeal of religious converts.
Tiny houses are built on trailer platforms. Typically, they are between a hundred and a hundred and thirty square feet, roughly the size of a covered wagon.

("Let's Get Small," by Alec Wilkinson, July 25, 2011.) 

Second, it requires a clever "take."  You cannot just be like: "Ha ha!  Who are these people, living in tiny houses?"  While that might work in some Midwestern bar, or the bowling alley of a state university, or your own mind as you suppress a chuckle while standing in line at the DMV, it is not going to fly at The New Yorker.  (I know, because I've triedRejection rate for submissions beginning "Ha ha!": 100%.)

My current idea is: "What to Expect When You're Expecting in a Tiny House."  This marries two richly comic phenomena: off-the-grid living and potty training. 

Also, I happen to have personal experience to draw on.  When my kids were babies, my then-husband and I lived in a one-bedroom apartment in the Bay Area.  Though we probably would have divorced anyway, it was hastened by the fact that neither of us got any sleep for three years straight.  Every time I had to find six quarters to do a load of laundry, two floors down, I was stupefied by my predicament.  Hadn't I grown up in a normal house?  What happened?

By the time my daughter was born, it was so crowded I had to push furniture out of the way to cross a room.  (Luckily, some of it was on wheels.)  We gave the cat away because the only place to put the litterbox was a window ledge four stories up, encased by a Victorian cage-like structure.  This not only put it at eye level with the nearby couch, but posed the risk that the cat would be blown to her death by a strong gust of wind. 

The whole set-up was simply crazy.  At one point, there was a hole in the bathroom floor that our son -- then just learning to walk -- nearly fell through.  Until then, we'd both considered it a minor inconvenience, but when I saw my child's bootie-clad foot hovering above the neighbor's rug ten feet below, some primal instinct kicked in and I was like: "We have to get this fixed right now." 

Now the kids and I live in a not-tiny house, though still quite small.  I think of it as a cottage or vacation home, and us on permanent vacation from the past.  In the evenings, I sit out back and it is quiet, peaceful, and green.  I put my feet up and soak in the absence of conflict.  Nothing beats it. 

One day, we'll upgrade to a bigger house.  That will be an exciting thing to do.  And if The New Yorker buys my "tiny house" piece, the espresso maker's on them. 

(Image: "Tiny House, Portland" by Tammy (Weekend with Dee) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.)

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Tig / Amy / August


Last night, I was planning to see the new documentary about Amy Winehouse

But when the time came, it just seemed too sad.  Much as I would like to see talented little Amy grow up into the brilliant singer and songwriter she was (and I always thought she looked fabulous, if too thin), I knew how it would end.  At age 27, she would die alone of alcohol poisoning.

So I stayed home.

Instead, I found myself watching a Neftlix documentary about an obscure comedian I'd never heard of.  Tig Notaro was 41 when she was hospitalized with a life-threatening stomach infection, went through a breakup, and her mother died -- shortly after which she was diagnosed with breast cancer.  Things were so awful that, after this last straw (cancer), they suddenly struck her as hilarious.  She wrote a stand-up routine about it all that immediately went viral and made her famous.

After that, a lot of good things happened to her, and a few bad things.  The documentary of these years is suspenseful in the best way -- you cannot wait to see what's going to be thrown at her next, for good or ill. 

The pinpoint on which it all turned was the moment her problems started seeming funny.  This tiny, invisible shift marks a great triumph of the human spirit.  Unlike a lot of stand-up comics, who seem weird and obnoxious, Tig comes off as such a nice, normal person.  But it takes a special quality to drop out of high school and do stand-up comedy while living in your car.  The word is grit.

I've been a little off this month, but by the end of this movie, I felt better.  I recognize that light bulb moment where circumstances need not have the upper hand.  Seen in a certain light, they're just a funny story you've (so far) survived!  Unlike poor Amy's, Tig's movie is a master class in being a grown-up.

And I, for one, am glad it's a new month.

I think today I'll clean the garage.

(Image: Derby Theatre Auditorium, by Derby Theatre (own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons].) 

Saturday, July 25, 2015

P & R


While winter was all about The Office, this summer belongs to Parks and Recreation.  If we were feudal aristocrats, our family crest would be a Roku remote control with a question mark over it, accompanied by the Latin phrase: "Who had it last?  Did you look in the couch?"

This show is about city hall workers in the small town of Pawnee, Indiana.  They are all cynical or inept, except for perky, ambitious Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler).  Midway through the show's seven seasons, Leslie is running for city council against the charming but idiotic Bobby Newport (Paul Rudd), heir to the Sweetums candy fortune.

This plot may seem over the heads of the under-nine set, and in many ways it is.  However, the other night my son laughed so hard at an attack ad by the Newport campaign, he almost started crying.  Sometimes we quote a Team Knope campaign ad for no particular reason.  One recent morning at the donut shop, my six-year-old growled in her most sinister voice: "Bobby Newport never had a real job in his life."  That's my girl!

Maybe bonding over sitcoms is a single mom thing.  When I was growing up, we watched so much Cheers -- and then its spin-off, Frazier -- with our mom that my brother-in-law refers to NBC's Frazier Crane as "Uncle Frazier."  Say what you will about TV, but the jokes on those shows shaped our brains more than anything in school.  (Also, NBC taught us that romantic relationships were essentially absurd and set to a disembodied laugh track, which is often the case.)

We love all the characters on P & R (which also happen to be my kids' initials, so that a typical night is about P & R & P & R), but our favorites are Ron and Andy.  For all those who enjoy the hunky new action-hero Chris Pratt, I much prefer the former, fat Chris Pratt who's always falling down (Andy).  He is a sweet, wholesome mess, like a scoop of vanilla ice cream melting on the floor.

Ron (the great Nick Offerman) is a manly type who eats steak, whittles, and brooks no nonsense.  I like to think Ron is a good influence on my kids, except when his ex-wife Tammy comes into town and he becomes a sexually rapacious lunatic.  That's when we hit "fast forward" and I apologize to the kids for subjecting them to this awful, disgusting show.  Boo Tammy!

So that's what we're doing this summer, in addition to all the other things.  The other day my son remarked that he wasn't sure who to "vote" for: Newport or Knope. 

"What do you mean, you don't know?  Knope of course!"  I said.

"I know -- I want to vote for Leslie, but Old Man Saggy wants to vote for Bobby," he replied. 

Thereby winning the prize for the most "Mom's House" sentence anyone has ever uttered.

"Let's go outside," I said.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Sandwich heaven


To my surprise, I am enjoying my 6 a.m. fitness class.  It' s not easy, but by 7:15 it's like all the lifting and lunging never happened, and I feel refreshed and energized. 

By the time I get home from work, it's like another person went to that class. This phenomenon suggests I could do anything between 6 and 7 a.m., before I am really awake, and by that evening have full moral and legal deniability, as the entire thing, "if it indeed occurred, long ago faded into the mists of oblivion."  The defense rests.

The recommended meal plan, however, is another matter.

Because the class is part of a bells-and-whistles program, you get your measurements taken at intervals, and a prescribed meal plan.  I was theoretically willing to give the plan (aka "diet") a try, on the theory that a zebra can -- possibly -- change its stripes.  Not so.

It is a perfectly nice plan, but I can't follow it for even one day.  For one thing, however wonderfully healthy they may be, I have an aversion to trendy foods like coconut oil and Chia seeds.  I simply cannot "jump on the bandwagon" of eating these foods.  If, five years later, they are a mainstream side that comes in a steamer bag at Target (hello, quinoa), I will enjoy them quietly, without fanfare.  By then, they're just like peas.

Second, I've concluded that only two people are going to decide what I eat and when.  The first is me.  The second is my physician, after explaining that if I do not stick to the prescribed meal plan, my death is imminent. 

Having tossed out the current, non-dire meal plan, I have to clean up my own act.  Doing a healthier version of my usual diet isn't rocket science, so I'm trying that. 

The thing is this: I'm happiest when I've found one food that's going to "solve all my problems" -- a food I can eat a thousand times and never have to think about again.  Whether it's smoked salmon on toast, a microwavable burrito, tuna salad on a tomato with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar, or -- in dark times -- a grilled cheese sandwich with a side of the-hell-with-it, I'm always sure my latest obsession is my Best Food Forever, really and truly this time.

Right now, that food is the Awesome Smoked Turkey Sandwich.  It's so delicious!  The key was buying really good lettuce, "washed three times" so it's super-clean.  This lettuce does not come in a raggedy head but in a fancy see-through case, where individual romaine leaves are nestled side-by-side in perfect, dewy crispness.  Like some people are "gay for" people, I am a "foodie for" this lettuce.

And don't even get me started on the Dijon mustard and lightly-salted tomato slice.  This sandwich is amazing! 

If I can hold myself to one or two a day, plus low-cal lemonade and other reasonably healthy foods, I think I'll be just fine. 

Now that's my kind of plan.

(Image: Healthy Eating Food Guide Pyramid by Kjplant (own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons)

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Reality bites


Occasionally, I think it would be nice to have a pet.  Each time I look into it, however, I conclude that pet owners are a little "off" -- never more so than when they try to get rid of said pets on Craigslist.

The following are taken verbatim from a single day's worth of ads:

 July 14   Rehoming Female Bearded Dragon

"We have a female bearded dragon who is in need of a good home. . . . We currently have her housed with our other female bearded dragon.  We were hoping they would be a good match [but] it turns out our female is aggressive. . . . We would like for her to go to her forever home since bearded dragons live a long time."

Unspoken subtext: "Please take this insufferable b---- of a  dragon off our hands, forever!  What was our first mistake, we wonder?  Was it not understanding the word 'dragon'?  Was it the flawed logic that two dragons would be better than one?  Just get her fanged ass out of here, and good luck, friend.  Oh, and if you don't reach us immediately -- we are out dragon shopping." 

July 14   Pedigreed Netherland Dwarf Show Bunny

"Out of grand show champion stock."  [Four photos of black bunny on snow]

Unspoken subtext: "This bunny is sooooo adorable!  Just look at it!  Right?  But we are over it and wish we'd spent that money on an Xbox.  What do bunnies do, anyway?  Look cute?  Nothing?  We don't know.  Some cultures eat them.  One thing's for sure: This darling bunny will delight you for four to six weeks!  After that: Not our problem." 

July 14   PIT BABIES

"8 week old pups very energetic." 

Unspoken subtext:  "Okay, okay, so we forgot to spay our pit bull.  Now we have six tiny pit bulls making our lives just . . . Never mind.  Want one?  Take two of them!  Seriously, what could go wrong?"

July 14   TALKING MACAW

"SHE TALKS ALOT ALL DAY LONG, SHE'S GOOD WITH CATS AND DOGS, SHE'S NOT TAME, SHE HAS FULL WINGS, THEY LIVE UP TO 90 YEARS . . . $1000."

Unspoken subtext:  On balance, I find I no longer wish to share my home with this macaw.  DID YOU HEAR THAT?  SORRY, CAN'T HEAR YOU!  WHAT?  I SAID 'I DON'T WANT THIS MACAW!'" 

Sigh.  It's very sad that there are so many unwanted pets.  But just reading these ads makes me feel like the couch is covered in dog hair, the house smells like rabbit droppings, an exotic bird is squawking over the dialogue of Parks and Recreation, and an antisocial lizard is in my bedroom, menacing its cellmate. 

In this way, Craigslist functions as the "Scared Straight" of animal ownership.

I think I'm good for six months.

(Image: Unitarian Church Bearded Dragon, by Tomwsulcer (own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons)

Monday, July 13, 2015

In the Matter of Saggy


As a former intellectual property lawyer, my ears perked up when my children began a spirited debate -- in the backseat of the car -- about whether my daughter could "be" a "person" her brother invented.

In short, they were fighting over the rights to Old Man Saggy.

My son's frail, elderly alter ego is a beloved figure in our home.  His signature gesture is to stick out his elbows and perform a spry dance in which his upper body moves side to side and his feet shuffle in rhythm.  Because of this, I consider Old Man Saggy a throwback to the vaudeville age, full of twinkly reminiscences about the Ziegfeld Follies and the showgirl he married in a shotgun wedding.

But his main purpose around here is getting my son out of things.  As in: "I [Old Man Saggy] can't walk to the park with you.  I'm old and tired, and my legs are broken!"

Though occasionally annoyed by Old Man Saggy's infirmity, my daughter and I are quite fond of him.  Sometimes we make up songs about him, or indulge his terrible knock-knock jokes, or hang out with him until my son re-emerges to play Minecraft and wants us to scram.

So when my daughter found a plastic smoking pipe somewhere, she wanted in on the Old Man Saggy action.

"Old Man Saggy!" she sang in the backseat, waggling her elbows, with the pipe in her mouth. 

My son reacted with the speed and ferocity of the Disney Corporation's legal department.  Old Man Saggy was his!  She could not "be" him!  Only my son "was" Old Man Saggy!

Driving, I tried to recall the principles memorialized in the federal law of copyright.  Failing that, I made a judicious attempt to "split the baby" -- or rather, the Old Man. 

"How about you can sing about him, but you can't be him?"  I suggested.

"You can be Old Granny Saggy," my son chimed in.  "You have to be a girl!"

This was completely unacceptable.  How dare we insult her like this!  Old Granny Saggy?  She had the freaking pipe

It seemed to me she had a point.  "You really can't tell her who she can 'be' or not 'be,'" I informed my son.  "Just let her play the way she wants."

"But I invented him!" came the retort. 

Yeah.  I got that, too.  If, as a child, I had gone to the trouble to put on a purple beret, pencil a thin mustache over my lip, and make arrogant pronouncements in a French accent to create a character called Pierre, mostly to amuse my mother, not that I ever did this, and a younger sibling had tried to "be" Pierre, I would have been like: "Mom!!"

As I tried to recall the factors weighed in the "fair use" defense, we pulled into the driveway.  My son went inside while my daughter sat in the car, mulling her options. 

When she came in five minutes later, my son was in his room.  "Mom," she said, entering the kitchen.

With the pipe in her mouth, she crooked her elbows and did a little soft-shoe, singing: "Old Man Saggy!" 

"Wonderful!" I said. 

This seemed to mark the end, for now, of the Old Man Saggy debate.  A few minutes later, she came into the kitchen again, "making a call" on an old cell phone. 

"I have a friend who's a policeman.  Did you know that?" she piped up. "He's going into San Francisco, and I'm calling him to tell him there's a donut shop there that's open at night, Monday and Tuesday." 

(Image: Albert V Bryan Federal District Courthouse - Alexandria Va, by Tim Evanson [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons)

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Life-changing magic


Today at the library, there were 42 people on the waitlist to check out a book about cleaning the house.  Dave put us down as 43rd.  He estimates it will be our turn "around Thanksgiving." 

I have few opportunities to impress Dave with my frugality, so rather than just shell out $17 for the paperback edition, I am prepared to virtuously wait five months to learn how to declutter my house.  If the first chapter is called "Clean Out the Bathroom Drawer Full of Old Toothbrushes, Hairbrushes, Lice Removal Supplies, and Floss Picks," I'd like to think that, by November, I'll be able to skip to Chapter 2.

We started talking about the book because it has such a good title.  Whoever's idea it was to take an essentially dull subject ("tidying up") and preface it with the phrase "life-changing magic," I'd like to shake that person's hand.  My assumption is that it was some mini-Don Draper at a New York publishing house, but it could have been the author herself.  If so, she can add it to her list of accomplishments, which include being an adorable Japanese woman with perfect bangs and the ability to wear (I'm almost certain) horizontal stripes and tiny white shorts, and look great.

Also she seems to have written an international bestseller about -- as far as I can tell -- throwing things out.

The fact that we are 43rd on the waitlist is interesting.  I'm turning 43 this year, and when my mom was 43, every time she looked at a clock, it was 43 past the hour.  She'd glance up at random moments to find it was always 10:43, 1:43, or 3:43 -- even in the middle of the night.  None of us could explain it, but it did not seem good, not at all.  At fourteen, I concluded that 43 was a spooky age, when a malevolent universe began at last to take notice of your existence.

Now I am forty-two, and -- whoa!  That day is coming pretty fast!  Suddenly it seems important to start hitting the gym at 6 a.m., cooking healthy meals, organizing the house --in short, to have my act together.  I have always chased the dream of doing things right (at one point, my goal was to write a how-to book called Exemplary Living), so that even while banging the drum, blowing the horn, and squeezing the accordion in the one-man band of single parenting, my instinct is to try to add juggling and card tricks to the mix.  Because that would be better.
 
I'd like to go into 43 with the excellent habits of writing, exercising, menu planning, and -- yes -- keeping the house neat in swift, powerful strokes like a Zen master.  If not, though, Dave will still like me quite a bit -- clutter, takeout pizza, and all.  And I'll still like me quite a bit.

And that is the real life-changing magic.