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].)