Monday, March 31, 2008


Lately I've found myself drawn to writing by women who have experienced great pain like children who are severely disabled, children who died. I don't think I'm being voyeuristic in the way I imagine people stopping to stare at accidents are. I feel inspired by these women's strength and perseverance and grace. And I try to put myself in their place, imagine myself there, wonder how I would react, what I would do, if I had what it would take to keep moving forward with life. I can never quite get myself there, either through a failure of imagination, or a block on the mind’s ability to conjure pain.

Last night one of C’s oldest friends was severely injured in a fire in his house. Today he is on life support in the hospital. All day I have been trying to imagine—the wife, standing in the snow, in pajamas, with two kids, watching her husband being rushed away in an ambulance to a place where the helicopter can land, wondering what to do next, who to take care of first. The children, bewildered, wondering where there daddy is and when they will see him again. The mother, at the bedside of her son, unconscious, burned, kept alive by machines at what should be the prime of his life. The man, fighting to put out a fire, to save the house he built, his family’s home.

My mind goes close, but it doesn’t get there, because I haven’t been there. My heart goes near, but scuttles back when it senses the pain. And I get selfish—I can’t wait to get home and tell C, “If our house is on fire, save the kids and let it burn.” I’m going to order a second-story fire escape ladder—which I’ve been meaning to do since we moved here six years ago. When what I need to do is imagine what this family needs, and what we can do for them.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Buy Just One Book Year

I broke the Buy Nothing rules this week and bought a book. Although it wasn’t technically breaking the rules, because I knew before I started the Buy Nothing Year that I would buy one book, because I had a coupon from the local, independent bookstore for $13.95 (the average price of the last 10 books I bought), which is money you just can’t throw away. I saw this book reviewed in a magazine and thought that it would be a good choice for my book purchase—something educational, that the whole family might enjoy, that might be hard to find in the library system, that you might want to have around as a reference. And I’ve always wanted to know what insects make all those buzzy little noises all summer long.

This week was also parent-teacher conferences at M’s school, the week that the library holds its twice-yearly Scholastic book fair. While I totally support the library’s efforts to raise money and expand its collection, I don’t really care for the book fair. The Scholastic books, while containing some classics, are overwhelmingly commercial, with many toy-, movie-, or TV-based books and racks of posters, erasers, toys and other not-exacly-book-like items. At the first book fair when M was in kindergarten, I bought a book for each kid, because I love books. At the next one, I just bought a book for M. At the fair in November, M and I negotiated a deal where we each paid for half of a Bone graphic novel, and C bought him a book on dragons. This week, I didn’t even enter the library when I went to M’s conference.

But yesterday morning, he asked me if he could check out his wallet (after I found out he had it at school, with $63 inside, I started to keep it on a high shelf during the week and allow him to “check it out” when he needs it) so he could take some money to buy books. He took $20 and bought another Bone book and two Captain Underpants books. This morning he asked for more money so he could buy two more books—another Captain Underpants and a how to draw Justice League characters book. I offered to give him an advance on his $1 allowance, plus another dollar and suggested he ask C for an advance on his half of the allowance. With that and his $2 change, he would be able to choose one of the books to buy. I also mentioned the possibility of finding one of the books at the library or at a used book store. He showed me the new book, with the smooth, shiny cover, “I only want books that look like that.”

I’m delighted that M has decided to use his cash to buy books, instead of cheap plastic toys. Last fall he spent all his money on Matchbox pop-up sets that he rarely plays with (but prevents his brothers from playing with at all costs). The books are an improvement, in my opinion. But still…there’s that sense of amassing stuff, without valuing what you have that still pervades (read the two Captain Underpants you have, then worry about getting the next one…). Of course I don’t have a leg to stand on, with shelves and shelves of books I’ve read once, or I mean to read someday. Returning to the fold of the library has been liberating in many ways…I can greedily read as many books as I can squeeze in during my limited down-time, without having to pay for them or find shelf space. But I do have to do it within the library’s time limit, and some books I want to read, I just can’t get, even through interlibrary loan. And then there’s The Songs of Insects, which is the only new book I will buy in a 12-month period, and it’s really silly, because, having listened to only half of the CD so far and glanced through the book, all of the crickets sound the same or markedly similar, and I’m not entirely sure how you tell a grasshopper, from a katydid, from a cricket (these, apparently, are the families of singing insects, along with cicadas).

I have visions of exploring the pages of huge, clear insect photos with the kids, and racing home after we hear a chirr in the grass, if summer ever returns, and putting on the CD to figure out which bug it is. Maybe it will give us all a greater appreciation for nature. Although I’ve bought yoga books before, in the hopes that they’ll make me do more yoga, and meditation books with the hope that they’ll make me meditate, or cookbooks, hoping they’ll cause me to cook delicious meals, when really only actually doing yoga will get me doing yoga, or meditating will make me meditate or cooking will get me cooking. And only getting out in nature, looking at and listening to the bugs will get us in touch with nature.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Why Mother?

A few years ago, I had occassion to work with a fascinating woman who had grown up in Hait Ashbury, dropped out of college, where she was studying to be a teacher, just months before graduation because the state where she lived instituted a standards-based education system, served a brief stint in the army managing to convince them she was crazy enough to be let out before being sent to Iraq, and moved to DC. She wore short skirts and high heels and had a huge dragon tattooed on her calf. She worked for an organization that coordinates the efforts of my state agency and those of others along the East Coast. I would see her once or twice a year at meetings and conferences and we would go out for a drink in the evenings and she’d regale me with tales of her romances in a level of detail I would not share with my oldest friend, let alone someone I saw twice a year. I was married, with a kid, living in rural Maine, my days of that kind of adventure long behind me, so I was fascinated.

She usually did most of the talking, but she asked me once why be a mother, and the best response I could come up with at the time was, “It’s so incredible to watch this little blob that came from your own body grow into a person.” She was clearly not convinced. Even now, several years and a couple of kids later, I still can not put into words what it is about being a mom that should make anyone on Earth want to enter into the enterprise.

I was thinking about this yesterday, as I watched Z, who was wearing a t-shirt that hung to his ankles, (because M had dressed him up as a Jedi Knight earlier in the day so they could fight with the light sabers they had made out of Tinker Toys), standing at his little table, carefully, meticulously sawing an apple into bite-sized pieces with a butter knife (because of course he had refused to eat Easter dinner) with his little blond head gleaming in the setting sun, his cheeks round and red from a day of devouring candy and running and shrieking through the house. And I thought about it again last night while M talked on the phone to my mom, about how much money he has saved up for going to Colorado, and how much she has saved up for coming to Maine, and I saw the little dimple, that I didn’t even remember he had, appear at the corner of his mouth when he smiled. And again this morning, when E, who had been sleeping in my bed, woke up and came over to me as I was getting dressed and I picked him up and he settled his head in the place where my neck and shoulder meet, tucking his hands between us.

I’m not one of those people who goes around declaring what a “joy” parenting is—because I really think it is mostly a chore, interspersed with little moments of joy. But there is something about those funny, odd, beautiful little moments—when Z sings “C is for Cookie” or “Grandma’s Glasses” in the voice of the possessed woman in the Exorcist, or when M startles me with a phrase or a word or an insight too big for a six-year-old’s mouth, or when E somersaults across the bed after his bath—that holds the mystery of it all, that, at risk of using a hackneyed phrase, makes it all worth it. The why of motherhood is something I can’t put into words. It runs too deeply for that, something primordial, perhaps, in my reptilian brain, too intimately entwined with senses and instinct to be penetrated by language.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Short and Tall of It

This morning we missed the bus--again--and I had to take M to school. He likes me to walk to his classroom with him, rather than drop him off in front of the school, and I like to catch this occassional glimpse of his classroom, root around in the lost and found box and say "hi" to his teacher. As we walked through the hallway toward the first grade room, I couldn't help but notice that many of the boys--seventh and eighth graders, I assumed--wandering the halls before school started were taller than me. Which doesn't make sense, because when I was in seventh and eighth grade, I was taller than all the boys. I can come up with only four possible explanations:

1) Motherhood has diminished my stature significantly (breastfeeding slouch anyone?).

2) Bovine growth hormones in dairy products and meat are increasing the stature of today's boys (although my mom used to monitor the playground when I was in early elementary school, and I remember the eighth grade boys being taller than her, and she and I are the same height).

3) There was a rash of freakishly small boys born in metro Denver in 1973.

4) I engaged in a bit of hyperbole when, as a pubescent middle schooler I compained that all the boys were short.

Monday, March 17, 2008


This weekend I participated in the most exhausting and ridiculous democratic process known to mankind--the Town Meeting. I’m no big fan of the quaint New England institution, and I’m not particularly community-minded--but I feel like I should be community-minded, so I torture myself yearly--in fact the only two meetings I have missed since we lived here were last year, when we did not have a full-blown meeting (because it had been done away with in an extremely confusing ballot vote the previous fall) and I forgot about it altogether, and the year the twins were babies.

Town meeting involves three separate trips to the school or town office. First, we had to go and cast our votes for selectmen, planning board, school board and road commissioner before noon on Saturday. I called my neighbor, who is community-minded, on the school board and reads the paper, to find out whom we should vote for. C went first, since he was on his way to the recycling center, then I went, pulled the red-white-and-blue curtain behind me, x-ed my boxes with a sharp yellow pencil and placed my ballot in a wooden box (I used to think this method of voting was charmingly old-fashioned and kind of backward, until the recent electronic voting scandals. Now it seems downright cutting edge).

At two-o-clock, we headed back to the school, en famille, for the town meeting proper. This is where every line item in the town budget is debated and approved aye or nay. C, with M and E were ahead of me in line and headed straight for the top of the bleachers. Not much relishing the idea of sitting on bleachers with three kids, Z and I went for the folding chairs and sat next to our neighbors. The first items on the list were the salaries of the town clerks, where a meager raise and their health insurance benefits were hotly debated. I know that this takes place with my salary as well, before the legislature, but I have a union (as self-serving and ineffectual as it may be) to represent my interests, and my salary stands alongside 10,000 or 15,000 others’--not alone, under my own name. We moved on through the various town operating expenses, the volunteer fire departments and so-on--every item somehow incited discussion, but all were approved, except for some money that was to be set aside for a future plan for the townhouse property, with no clear explanation of exactly why it needed to be set aside now. The big issue was funding the repair of a dam, to the tune of at least $200,000. The dam issue had been voted on in November, at a special town meeting, at which repair costs were estimated at $60,000, and also at which lots of supporters showed up, but very few who supported removal (including myself--forgot to go, at 6:30 on a school night in November). The dam was zero-funded, sending the committee back to the drawing board.

All of this took until 5:00. Z had sat on my lap contentedly munching an apple for a good 30 to 45 minutes. When he started getting restless, I sent him to find his papa at the top of the bleachers. Then E came down to see me. He too was eating an apple, but he has a hard time with the skins, and spat a whole mouthful of them out into my hand. Then he did gymnastics on my lap for a while, before returning to C. Then Z came back. Then E. Then Z. Up and down and up and down. The only other kids there were two middle-school-aged girls (also twins). I saw one of M’s teachers, who has young kids, but here husband was not with her. Pretty much the audience consisted of people 50 years and older--with very few young families, those who should be most interested in the future of the town, and the next big issue on the list--school funding.

By the time the dam vote was settled, and the school board was trading places with the select people, Z and E were running around and shrieking. I had managed to change both diapers in a shower stall in the girls’ bathroom, and had appeased them by quietly reading books and coloring what they dictated (moon! More moon! Broke moon!), but they were fried and so was I. C packed them off home, I secured a ride with the neighbors and sat through another hour-and-half. The school discussion was much less contentious than usual--everyone was worn out from the dam discussion--but it was also fraught with much uncertainty. The state school budget has yet to come out, and they have so far threatened big cuts, which could render the town’s school budget moot--and could increase local property taxes drastically. Another damper on the discussion, I think, is that the whole thing goes back for yet another vote--up or down--thanks to new state rules. So tomorrow I’ll pick M up from school, head to the townhouse, vote for the third time in less than a week, and keep my fingers crossed that my kid’s school doesn’t get screwed in a secret ballot vote without the benefit of the discussions held Saturday.

So what do you think? Democracy at its most basic? Quaint New England tradition that is about as appealing as boiled dinner or witch trials? Disenfranchising waste of an already dreary Saturday?

I forgot to mention, the moderator makes it almost all worth it--I think he must be a professional auctioneer, and he’s really entertaining to listen to, especially when we voted to lump together the final 20 or so warrant articles and he had to read them all together, verbatim, at auction speed. He even mentioned the twins once, during a down moment, saying they were “doing great.” (That was before the running and shrieking commenced).

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Funky Frittata

I’ve been trying to think of a metaphor for my life lately, and, of course, because I’m a mom, the image that came to mind was of a toy—blocks. Old-fashioned wooden blocks with letters of the alphabet engraved on the sides, the kind of blocks that go together haphazardly, making towers that become more unstable with each additional cube, and crash down in spectacular and noisy explosions, not their modern descendants that are made out of plastic and link together in a patented way that results in more complex structures and avoids most gravity-related collapses. On the bottom of my tower, I have allowed for an A block, for me, with a C block on top of that for my husband, followed by M, Z and E blocks for our children. Onto those I’ve added an H for home, and all that entails, a W, for work, and another W, for writing. To this already shaky structure I’ve lately stacked E for extracurricular activities and a T for teaching a class.

All it took to send this already shaky edifice crashing to the floor was I, for illness—a non-specific malady whose main symptom can be described as feeling like sh*t, with a little bit of fatigue and a general malaise thrown in for good measure. I would have attributed it to a chronic and/or terminal condition, if it did not appear C was suffering from a similar complaint. Neither of us is capable of feeling or expressing sympathy with the other’s maladies, because we each already feel so overloaded that picking up any additional task that the other has dropped is more than we can take.

I arrived home last night at a quarter to six, after making the long and ridiculous gymnastics run after work, to find said husband sitting on the couch, complaining of the above-noted symptoms, and not cooking dinner. So, already exhausted and crappy-feeling, I proceeded to throw together a dinner that NO ONE ATE. Let me start out by saying, I love to cook…I love to cook elaborate meals that have lists of exotic ingredients longer than my arm, take hours to prepare and result in culinary delicacies (or would, if I had more skill in this area) that cannot be found in a 50-mile radius of our home—mung dal with sweet potato parathas, cheese enchiladas in simmered tomatillo-jalapeno sauce, roasted vegetable-stuffed crepes. Needless to say, these are things my kids don’t eat. I hate to cook when it involves coming home from work late in the evening and throwing together spaghetti and butter or boxed macaroni and cheese, while three hungry kids hang shrieking from my person.

So I was not sympathetic, when, 45 minutes later, I threw a frittata on the table that was both, somehow, undercooked and slightly burnt, and C just rested his oh-so-ailing head on his hand and stared at his plate. “You could have mentioned that you were not in the mood to eat,” I hissed. “I could have just heated up leftover spaghetti!” I did heat up spaghetti, for M, who refuses to touch eggs, and even though I have sworn off cooking multiple meals, I just did not want to deal with his complaints. He ate up his plateful in record time. E and Z begged for ketchup, licked it off their plates and cried for more. I went upstairs to run the bath.

Sitting in the bathroom, waiting for them and doing a Kakuro puzzle, I could hear the ketchup battle continue to wage downstairs. “Serves him right,” I thought, but I could tell they were hungry, but not going to eat the crunchy broccoli in runny eggs with blackened and slightly funky Swiss cheese over the top. Who could blame them? I went downstairs, dumped the frittata in the compost, gave them each half a banana, a tangerine and sections of grapefruit—their favorite kind of meal anyway—took them up to the bath, and started stacking blocks again.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Still Marching Toward Spring

I swore (to myself) that I would not complain about winter until winter was actually over (on the calendar) but it was seven degrees when I left the house this morning! Seven! I don’t know why I should be surprised by this when this is what it looked like last year in early April:

And on Easter (April 8):

And the day after Earth Day (April 23):

It’s just that seven is really, really seven. That’s all.

In other news, check out the latest Brain, Child magazine, for my first-published seven words, in the Back-Talk section. I sense this is just the beginning of a long and illustrious literary career.

And this morning I found on my desk a candy wrapper all neatly smoothed flat, with the words “Find Your Passion” printed inside. Hmmm, does someone around here suspect that writing air quality regulations is NOT my passion? How could that be? Although the message mighthave been even more effective if it were still wrapped around chocolate.

Edited: So I found out that this little note that I thought was divine inspiration for me to figure out what to do with my life and move on, already, was really a reminder from a co-worker for me to order Passion tea from the co-op. How depressing.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Dome Day

Yesterday was a snow day—again. I haven’t been keeping track, but I think we’re into the double digits by now, and school will be in session until the Fourth of July. I just couldn’t face rounding everyone up, releasing my car from its ice encasement and risking my life on treacherous roads just to end up in my cubicle, so I stayed home too. I thought it might be fun—a bonus day of playing, snuggling, reading and bonding.

It started out well—we played with the dollhouse, did puzzles, listened to music. I tried reading to M, but E and Z interrupted us every sentence. We watched Sesame Street and ate cream cheese and jelly sandwiches for lunch. After lunch, I got all inspired to make peanut butter cookies, which involved a lot of, “Why don’t I get a turn? There’s no place for me? Why do my brothers get to do everything? I want to do that! I can’t see!” from the verbal one and a shoving handfuls of dough and sugar into their mouths by the less verbal ones. After we put the cookies in the oven, I put on a movie in hopes that E and Z would fall asleep. They might have, if I had sat down and snuggled with them, but instead I took the opportunity to call a friend. They spent the whole time I was on the phone running around the house, getting into things they shouldn’t and getting hurt (I have read that “sugar makes you hyper” is a myth, but I’m not so sure).

I sat with them through the end of the movie, and then they got out some books, but M kept interrupted us every sentence with various questions and complaints (I’ve got to reread that part in Siblings Without Rivalry about how you give each kid your full attention and don’t let the other ones interrupt). I suggested that since he wasn’t at school that day, he should get out a book and read for 20 minutes or so, which went over like a baby in a bucket. He headed up to his room and E and Z and I sat down at the kitchen table to draw, which mostly involved them trying to sharpen the colored pencils, saying, “Mama codr (color),” and, when they got tired, coloring on the table and throwing pencils and markers across the room.

By this time I was reminded of a question on a form I filled out at a recent trip to a massage therapist, to whit: “Where in your body do you hold stress?” My response, “Yes.” I scanned my body for tension: forehead, eyebrows, forehead, ears, jaw, neck, shoulders, lungs, back, shoulders. I tried taking a couple of yoga, “breaths of fire,” much to E and Z’s amusement, but to little effect. We went in the livingroom and Z got out the big floor piano, which he and E immediately started to fight over. I held E on my lap for a time-in and Z went running across the piano, and fell flat on his face. I applied a cold washcloth to his split lip and put on the Muppet Show (is it starting to sound like we rely heavily on the TV-sitter?) and E and Z both started to doze off—it was after four by this time and way too late for a nap, so I kept tickling and blowing on them to keep them awake. M came downstairs and asked if we could watch a certain episode. “We’re watching this one now.” “But after this!” “After this will be dinner time and you’ve watched enough TV today.” “But my brothers have been watching this for like 11 minutes and I only just came down here and…” on and on and on.

I sometimes fantasize about staying home full-time with my kids, hanging out with the hip un-schooling mamas, teaching math through bread-baking and woodworking and knitting. I imagine us like those pictures in the Nova Naturals catalog, all dreamy and soft-focused and surrounded by hardwood and beeswax and wool. And then I have a day like this, when I literally do not get one moment to myself (unless I lock the bathroom door, in which case they stand outside pounding and wailing), and it’s too miserable to go outside, and M alternates between shutting himself in his room, fighting with his brothers or carping at me.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Sweet & Sour

I got a hankerin for eggrolls a couple of weeks ago, and the greasy logs filled with fluorescent pink pork and doused with MSG that pass for eggrolls in the "Chinese" restaurants in these parts were not going to cut it. My mom made eggrolls about once a year when I was a kid, along with battered and fried zucchini (one of the few methods of making this vegetable edible, in my opinion), with this fantastic sweet & sour sauce that I will present to you at the end of this post. As he was stuffing the rolls in his face, C remarked that I hadn't made them before, but I know I have made them at least once--back in our old apartment in Englewood, 1996!!!

In preparation, a week ahead of time, I handed C a jar of mung beans and said, "see if you can sprout these." (Growing sprouts is his big wintertime indoor gardening activity, and our major source of green vegetables). Then I gathered the ingredients and followed the recipe on the back of the Nasoya package (at one point un-mixing the vegetables because I hadn't noticed I was supposed to stir-fry the tofu first), rolled them up and shallow-fried them in a cast iron skillet.

The eggroll recipe is pretty basic and though somewhat time-consuming, not difficult (although if anyone posesses the secret to rolling the eggolls up tight, let me know). My mom's sweet and sour sauce takes only a couple of minutes and blows any pre-made sauce out of the proverbial water. It tastes great in stir-fry too!

Sweet 'n Sour Sauce

In a saucepan, combine:

1/2 cup packed brown sugar

1 T corn starch

Stir in:
1/3 c red wine vinegar

1/3 c pineapple juice (drained from a can of pineapple chunks or rings, which you can add to stirfry or use as garnish)

1 T soy sauce

1 clove garlic, pressed or finely minced (or 1/4 t garlic powder)

1 t grated fresh ginger (or 1/4 t ground ginger)

Cook and stir over medium heat until thick and bubbly.

I made, I don't know, a mazillion eggrolls. E picked his up, devoured half and then wouldn't touch it. Z drank a small dish of sweet & sour sauce. M spent an hour poking it and asking what is it? what's inside of it? what does it taste like? Finally he nibbled a tiny crumb of the wrapper, plunged in for an infinitessimal bite of the filling, declared he liked it and wouldn't take another bite. So C and I had to eat a mazillion, minus one-half and one crumb. Tell me again why my jeans are snug?
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