I don't know how she does it

I thought, "Well, since I don't have to teach tomorrow, maybe I'll read a little Proust." (I really do need to read Proust.) Now, two hours later, I am still trying to fill out those beginning of the year forms. "Which package for school pictures? And if I get package B with the $5 sibling discount, how much is the check for?"


I am reading I Don't Know How She Does It on my Kindle. it's very very funny and so close to home that it's almost unbearable. 


I hope that my madeleine for these years is a madeleine and not the sight of a reminder stapled to the front of the homework folder: "Pumpkin patch form and $ DUE MONDAY! : )"

Summer Mix, 2011—Heat wave edition


Here is the track list for our 2011 summer cd, the 6th we’ve made as a family:

Lovely Day--Bill Withers
Eet--Regina Spektor           
Boogie Nights--Heat Wave           
Chic C'est La Vie--Countess Luann
Montezuma--Fleet Foxes
Police On My Back--The Clash
Like A Rolling Stone--Bob Dylan
You've Got a Friend in Me (para el Buzz Español)--Gipsy Kings
Firework--Katy Perry
Dancing Queen--Abba
What a Wonderful World--Louis Armstrong
Thunder Road--Bruce Springsteen
Right as Rain--Adele
Candombe Del Olvido--Alfredo Zitarrosa
The Cave--Mumford & Sons
Sugar Mountain--Neil Young
Town Called Malice--The Jam
Viva La Vida--Coldplay
Maybe I'm Amazed--Paul McCartney
Doña Soledad--Repique
Mountain Greenery--Ella Fitzgerald

Perhaps not surprisingly, Uruguayan music is represented as never before. Of the three kiddie pop songs that emerged after a weekend with our Vermont cousins, Justin Beiber and Taio Cruz didn’t make the cut, but Katy Perry turns out to be a crowd-pleaser. And, in honor of a genius tribute video by one of my husband’s colleagues, we have our first ever track from one of the Real Housewives, Countess Luann. As Izzy (5) says, “It’s silly, but it’s fun to dance to.” Coldplay makes its third appearance, one of only three artists to do so in six years. The other two are Stevie Wonder and Pink Martini. That trio captures, I think, what it is we’re up to here: picking great songs that are fun to share across generations. 

Five

My youngest turned five today. It makes me sentimental and sad. For her part, she opened everything, very businesslike, with a shrug and a "that's nice" or a thank you or, sweetest of all, turning to her sister, we can share this!

Then, when they were all opened, she let loose a LOUD scream--an Arrrmphh-- jumped Really High five times, coming down Hard and said, loudly "Best Birthday Ever!"

Crumbs


I had never read Julia Stephen’s Notes from Sick Rooms (1883) until last week. It’s a short little book and a strange one. Written when Woolf was one, it’s Woolf’s mother’s long, impressionistic essay on nursing, or rather, on tending to the sick when a nurse or doctor is away or otherwise occupied.

The voice is amazing: brisk, efficient, and full of care. It made Woolf’s mother—and her resemblance to the fictional Mrs. Ramsay—clearer to me than anything else I’ve read. She trips along, associatively, from one subject to the next, beginning in praise of nursing as a practice and ending in the humble pride a nurse can take in her role in nursing someone to a good death. Along the way, she explains how to make a bed when the patient is too ill to get up, describing that amazing process I have occasionally witness of rolling a patient gently onto his side, removing the dirty and adding the clean sheet, and then completing the operation by rolling him back.

She loves nursing because “ordinary relations between the sick and the well are far easier and pleasanter than between the well and the well.” That impatience is wonderful, isn’t it? You can hear, in the book’s opening lines, this strong, practical preference for defined human relationships: none of this petty bickering, this nattering on and on about this and that. Give me a role and I will happily play it, nurse or patient, both are fine. Hardly sounds a bit like what Bloomsbury would become.

I leave you with two gems on crumbs, and hair:
“Among the number of small evils which haunt illness, the greatest, in the misery which it can cause, though the smallest in size, is crumbs… the origin of crumbs in bed has never excited sufficient attention” (5) 
“Hairs are not so bad as crumbs, but they are very tormenting bed-fellows, and there is little excuse for any nurse who, after brushing the patient’s hair, allows any stray hairs to remain on the night dress or bed-clothes” (20)

Wishbones


We had our turkey with my mother-in-law in Utica and then came back down to Jersey with the carcass. I boiled it down to make stock and used that for a turkey soup. The wishbone has been drying on our sill since last Saturday.

Tonight, I let the children break it, explaining the principle of the wishbone to them. They wanted to know if they had to make a wish before or after breaking. Before, I said.

“I can make a quick wish!” boasts Izzy (4½). “I make the princess wish, the pony, and the unicorn. And that’s it. That’s three wishes. I can do ‘em quick.”

And off she scampers to brush her teeth.

Still holding the wishbone, I am joined by Livie (nearly 8). “Can I tell you my wish? That everything goes all right with moving in to our house and that I have a nice birthday. ‘Cause I don’t really need anything, right?”

And in comes the little one, teeth brushed. They grab the bone and pull.

To everyone’s surprise, the big girl won.

Oh, Charles

The errands continue to proliferate. Between the move and an unusually busy semester, I find myself swimming upstream in turbid waters at all times.

My husband and I have been working as hard as we can to make our new house into a home. Still, each box unpacked is mitigated by a new surprise. A bit of water damage at my little one’s new daycare led a mommy to call the city with a worry about mold. Suddenly, the daycare was shut down for a week and, desperate, we had to ship the little one off to my in-law’s. Then, the former owners left us with a filthy oven and, in cleaning it, I put the racks into the sink to soak. Alas, the weight of the racks and the water caused the under-mounted sink to break free of the counter, so now it sits, ¾ of an inch below the marble, on its plywood frame. You can imagine three or four more of these and you’ll have a sense of the domestic side of our lives lately. Add to that a similar set of comic mishaps, all leading to more work for each of us, at our respective jobs, never forgetting, of course, that there are two young children to feed and bathe on occasion, and you’ll have a snapshot of our life in November.

At the moment, my stamina is on low, and, though my mouth runs on as ever, I find myself wanting to channel Ma on “Little House on the Prairie.” As my beloved continues to find the energy to unpack, as I just really want to curl up in a corner and read, I need to talk less and express more. What I remember most of Karen Grassle’s Ma was the many, many inflections of “Oh, Charles.”

“Oh, Charles” could mean “thank you so much for replacing the waxed paper in the windows with real glass.” It could mean “I’m both pleased and embarrassed that you’re flirting with me in front of the children.” It could mean “I’m so grateful that you brought home four new chickens, but where are we going to put them?” Or it could mean “I’m so proud and happy that you’re willing to make this run into town in the blizzard, as we have neither food nor fuel, and yet, it’s terrifying to me that you propose to leave me alone here in the prairie with three young children and no food or fuel.”

Oh, Charles.



Megan Kelso’s Artichoke Tales


The Kelso girls were my good friends in high school. They had a great big house and the best parties in Seattle. I remember going over there on a Saturday night, dancing to the Psychedelic Furs, The Police and Grandmaster Flash while helping Jenny stir up a batch of chocolate chip cookies. These were the parties you dream of: really fun, really wholesome, where sometimes one of the cute boys actually asks you to dance (which, in the 80s meant jumping up and down like a pogo stick in his vicinity).

Megan was younger and smart and mysterious, with a very cool bulletin board covered with gnomic Dylan quotations.

Now, she’s all grown up and coming back out to New York (there were some Brooklyn years in there) from Seattle to celebrate her new graphic novel, Artichoke Tales. I loved her girlhero comic books so much! The ‘zines were sized just like comics and came with paperdolls to cut out on the back. They were masterpieces of 90s girlpower. Then, I gave them to a newly out dyke friend of mine and never saw them again: they are just the kind of books that a feminist covets and wants to keep. Megan writes about strong, independent women, gay and straight, navigating the landmines of war and family strife. It’s deep, powerful, political, and beautiful. Don’t look away. Run toward it.

She is giving a slideshow & booktalk at the Strand this Thursday, June 24, at 7:00 with Kim Deitch. She will also be speaking at Desert Island on Friday at 7:00. I so wish I could go. You should!!!




Another Persephone Book

Once a month or so, my mom asks me “Have you read Someone at a Distance yet?”

So, when I packed my suitcase to go to Seattle for Easter, I popped Someone at a Distance in my bag, confident that her presence would prompt me to get started on the book. It did and I have. What a lovely novel.

Dorothy Whipple’s 1953 book, reprinted by the amazing Persephone Books, is a really lovely, quiet, devastating bit of domestic fiction. Ellen North, the sweet and generous 43-year-old wife, is at the book’s heart, but the omniscient narration keeps her at a distance. And those very English, decorous distances are a theme of the book, beginning with the twin beds, three feet apart, that furnish the bedroom she shares with her husband Avery. Distances can signify comfort or discord and they do both here.

The book explores the devastation that just one unhappy person can wreak on the lives of the contented middle class. At first, that unhappy person is Ellen’s mother-in-law, a widow who feels that she is far from getting her due in attention from her son, daughter-in-law, and their two teenage children. But, when Mrs. North hires a French girl to live-in as a companion, the plot really sets in motion: Louise's unhappiness is the serpent in Mrs. North's beloved suburban garden.

For the long, slow (but not dull) first half of the book, Whipple spools out, Louise’s grudge against the world and her icy quest to get her due alternating with Ellen’s happy, middle-aged contentment in her garden, her marriage, and her growing children. When Louise finally strikes, the devastation is swift and total. From there, the plot picks up, and the denouement is every bit as riveting as the exposition.

The writing is straightforward, not showy but always apt. There are some occasionally really elegant and deft phrases and Whipple goes into the motives and reactions of each of her characters, major and minor, with tremendous sympathy. The book is a masterpiece of middlebrow fiction: not aspiring to the status of literature, but miles better than most plot-driven psychological novels that keep your local Borders stocked and your neighbors’ reading groups talking. This would be a wonderful book to talk about with a friend.

Or your mom. I’m waiting for mine to call me now so we can…

A Movie and a Journey

I’m not quite sure why I still get Parents magazine: it was reassuring when the babies were young toddlers, but I’ve pretty much outgrown it now that they’re 3 & 7. All that advice about pregnancy fitness and how to tell your boss that you’re not coming back to work after all (ha!) or how worried you really should be about the hidden perils of [insert your kid’s favorite food or activity] feels very distant, thank goodness, from my life now.

Still, I was really excited to see a short feature in the March 2010 issue on great foreign films for kids and families. I depend on DVDs for some family quiet time and I’m always looking for cool stuff to show the girls. They got The Red Balloon, White Mane (on one DVD) and Paddle to the Sea (about our beloved St. Lawrence River!) for Christmas. It’s true that they prefer iCarly and Yo Gabba Gabba! (who wouldn’t?), but still, I feel better about screen time if some of it is imaginative and beautiful. (Yo Gabba Gabba is pretty awesome, I must say…)

Less excited to read this, about My Neighbor Totoro (Tonari no Totoro; Japan 1988): “You can explain to your child that the Japanese culture is rich in superstition.”

Really? Is superstition the big lesson about Japan that we’re taking away? I understand that it’s hard to write a “Cultural Highlight” for each of six films in 20 words or less, but I think we can do better than that.

And don’t bother trying to find the list on the Parents magazine website which is so cluttered with ads and surveys that it’s like descending into the Sunday supplement of your local newspaper only to find the comics are missing.

Still, the movies recommend sound great and my girls will be getting a couple for Easter, I think. I wish they had included a Spanish film. I combed the web for suggestions, but all the most popular Spanish films are dubbed Disney movies. I found a big list of Spanish-language films here, and, combing through it, some

Here are the recommendations:
  • My Neighbor Totoro (Japan 1988) best for ages 4+
  • Rabbit-Proof Fence (Australia 2002) 10+
  • Children of Heaven (Iran 1997) 6+
  • The Red Balloon (France 1956) 4+
  • The Cave of the Yellow Dog (Mongolia 2005) 4+
  • Azur and Asmar (The Arabic Middle East [? I have no idea what that means?!] 2006) 6+ (imdb tells me it’s a Belgian film) 

I’d love to hear any others you’d add to the list—Spanish or no!

Still Three: Big Yesterday

This is perhaps my favorite coinage yet: big yesterday for a while ago.

In the car
3 y.o.: Mommy, mommy, yesterday, big yesterday we went there [McDonald’s] with Miss Jackie [the babysitter].
Mom: Oh, that’s nice, honey.
6 y.o. [aggrieved, righteous]: We did not go there yesterday. Miss Jackie didn’t even come yesterday. She took us there a long time ago.
3 y.o. [also aggrieved, righteous]: Yeah, I said big yesterday.

A. A. Milne, women, and moving through modernity

I’m working on a little something on Woolf and taxicabs—an outgrowth of the Woolf and the City conference--and so have been thinking about women moving through the modern city: all the dangers and possibilities of walking, bus-riding, and taxis that the modern city suddenly opened up for women. Think about it: for centuries, moving through the city, for a respectable woman of the working, middle or upper middle class was severely circumscribed: to and from work, to and from the market, chaperoned or subject to being accosted when alone.

This led me, through a circuitous route (with, clearly, a detour to my children) to a favorite poem from my childhood, A. A. Milne’s “Disobedience”:
James James
Morrison Morrison
Weatherby George Dupree
Took great
Care of his Mother,Though he was only three.
I remember finding this poem deeply upsetting and moving as a child. Once you ask yourself what kind of mother would want to leave her child, it’s not a very far leap to imagine the heretofore unthinkable: my mommy might want to leave me for an afternoon. It’s not just that she’s a bad mother, careless about babysitters and urban danger, but that she has desires that are not about caring for her children. The poem seems to lift a veil from adult life.

And then, there is that strange notion that James “Took great | Care of his Mother, | Though he was only three.” I was very aware that I needed caring for as a young child and I see that same awareness in my children now: they remind me (as if I needed reminding) constantly of what they can and cannot do on their own, what they need help with. Assertions of “I do it myself” are followed, in mere seconds by “Can you help me, mommy?” Surely, then, I thought, this poem must be one of my first encounters with literary irony.

So, I thought, how would I explain the puzzle of the poem to my daughters? Defining “irony” is, clearly, the least promising route, so the idea must be approached through questions: can a three-year-old take care of his mother? Isn’t it really the other way around?

Or is it? (I give you my thoughts as they came to me, as Woolf says.) The first stanza continues:
James James
Said to his Mother,
"Mother", he said, said he;
"You must never go down to the end of the town,
if you don't go down with me."
This is a masterfully ironic patriarchal poem: a little ditty about a (bad) woman chafing under the demands of home and childcare and paying the price with her disappearance. I'm not fully sure where Milne's sympathies lie, but he nails the dilemma. Its humor and power and creepiness comes from the way in which Milne captures the tyranny of children and family responsibility. In a way, James does “take care” of his mother, for the demands of motherhood circumscribe a mother’s desires. Suddenly, a once taken-for-granted freedom—like running an errand when one wants—becomes a brazen liberty. When I am home alone with my kids, I cannot just run out and get milk—even if the store is only a block away. So, yes, James maybe does take care of his mother for, in making women into primary caregiver and then in setting up small households consisting in nuclear families only, we make it impossible for women to “go down to the end of the town” if they don’t go down with their children.

How to Paint a Dead Man, by Sarah Hall

I may not be here, but you can find me here, participating in Ed's roundtable on Sarah Hall's lovely new novel of four interconnected narratives, How to Paint a Dead Man.

Click to read my thoughts and, more to the point, those of Sarah Hall herself.

Then, if you're interested, click back through to read the prior parts. The roundtable is long, sure, but it was really interesting and it's full of smart and funny--and varied--opinions about the book.

It's a lovely book, very accomplished, moving and strange.

As for me, I'm buried in all the transitions that come from a new school year for all four of us: four people in this family, four different schools; three first days. If ever a woman were working the second shift, it is I. But all is well and we'll be back to our irregular schedule soon enough, no doubt.

More Glories of Three

Every time my daughter sees or hears the word “three” she puffs out her chest “I’m three!” The three-month-old dog, the three blueberries she needs to eat to get a popsicle, three o’clock.

She loves to ride the elevator, which she calls “the alligator.”

We have a bath towel with a little hood on it. These are common silly middle class things: you wrap the child in a hood and she looks like an animal. I put the elephant towel on her the other night and suddenly she was reciting a little poem I’d never heard, complete with hand gestures:
The elephant goes like this and like that.
He’s very tall and very fat.
He has no fingers, but he sure has toes.
And, goodness gracious! What a nose!
I wish I could describe how it came pouring out of her. It wasn’t fast; her concentration was intense, but she was possessed with the need to recite the whole thing, pausing, utterly still, to recollect the next word. When she was done, she didn’t even look at me for praise. She just looked down, clearly amazed and deeply proud that she had done it. I waited, burst into applause, and she beamed.

Last night, reading Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, she was deeply skeptical of the blue horse: “Horses can be white or brown or gray or black. But not blue, right?” Then, the second time through, she noticed a second oddity: “Birds don’t be red!”

Oh yes, they be, honey. Yes, they be.

Stevie Smith & Betty Miller

I’m reading Frances Spalding’s biography of Stevie Smith and every chapter brings me a little gasp of excitement. Her Novel on Yellow Paper is a favorite book of mine.

Yesterday’s find was the strong speculation that the woman Orwell bragged about having sex with in a public park was likely Smith.

Here is today’s: Smith was a libelously autobiographical writer. Novel on Yellow Paper begins “Good-bye to all my friends, my beautiful and lovely friends” and she did, indeed lose many friendships over her thinly veiled accounts of marital spats and her confusing frankness (and anti-Semitism) toward her Jewish friends. One such friendship sundered was that with Betty Miller, author of Farewell Leicester Square (another of my discoveries this summer). Smith spent the weekend with the Millers and then commemorated it in a short story portraying the Millers as burdened by the sense of English anti-Semitism, Miller herself as a suppressed wife, and Miller’s son Jonathan (the Jonathan Miller) as a brat.

Betty was not pleased.

I don’t doubt it.

Six

Six, too, is full of charms. One aspect of being a parent that I most longed to experience, from before I was pregnant, was living with a child old enough to read on her own.

I am now mother to such a child.

It is just as magical and mysterious as I expected. She goes to bed with The BFG and I come into her room at 8 to rouse her and she’s nearly done. What’s next? After reading just a little here and there all spring—Frog and Toad, Junie B. Jones, she has burst into reading the first classics of childhood. So far, this month, she has read The BFG, Half Magic, James and the Giant Peach, the first three books in the My Father’s Dragon series, The Fantastic Mr. Fox. She also read the first 125 pages of Gertrude Stein’s Ida.

She doesn’t much like to talk about her reading, much as I like to hear about it. Still, when I was remarking on this to someone, she asked “How much do you really think she understands?” A good question. So I pressed a little: “What is happening in James and the Giant Peach right now?”

“Well,” she said, “you’ve read it, right? [Yes, in 1972...] So they’re flying over the ocean, but it’s full of sharks who are going to eat the peach, so the silkworm and the spider make all these strings and then they send the earthworm up, but not too high, so that the seagulls will try to eat him. They’re trying to trick the gulls. But they have to be careful so that the gulls don’t eat the earthworm, so the grasshopper holds on tight and pulls him back just in time. Anyway, James takes the little strings and throws them up around the seagulls’ legs. He does this lots and lots of times till there are a whole bunch of seagulls pulling on the peach…”

I think she gets it, don’t you?

As for Ida, I must say, she got about 100 pages deeper than I, but she didn’t have anything to report.

I think she gets Stein, too.

Three

Three is such a lovely age and our three year old is full of charms. This is not a mommy blog, of course, but one of the joys of motherhood is all about the joy of watching a child come into language and that's the reason for this little celebration of three.

She is trying to memorize her favorite song, “Ma-ma-ma-Mexico,” as she calls it, requesting that one track on every possible occasion.

Last night, walking down the gravel road from Grandma’s cottage to ours, she had her blankie on her head. Then she put it around her face like a shawl or a hood: “I be a little girl [gull, in her Jersey accent]; you be da wolf.”

“Roar!” I say.

“No, you be a wolf like a grandma, remember? You lie in da bed. I come to you, right?” And she proceeds to dramatically skip down the road, “La-la-la-la-la.”

I have never read Little Red Riding Hood to her.

It’s such a wonder when they learn things from unknown sources.

And the Jersey accent is, in itself, a source of great merriment. My husband and I were imagining a scene from The Sopranos that would make use of two of her recent expressions:

“Oddawise, it gonna float away” and, upon seeing the night’s green vegetable: “I don’t want no ‘cchini.”

Farewell Leicester Square

Betty Miller’s novel about being Jewish in London in the 1930s is far, far better than I expected. I set out to read a book of considerable historical interest, a worthy book. I found, instead, a really expert novel, written by a very young Betty Miller (in her mid-twenties) centering on Alec Berman, a Jewish man from Brighton who longs to work in film, becomes a celebrated director and marries the daughter of his mentor.

Throughout, the novel offers astute glimpses of all kinds of casual moments of wounding anti-Semitism: the wife’s friend, also a schiksa, comments that the son’s name, David, is inevitable, combining, as it does, Jewishness with fashion; Alec and his old friend Lew Solomon walk through Trafalgar Square to hear a newsboy touting the only “non-Jewish controlled paper” in the city; Alec’s brother-in-law, refined and repressed, withdraws from his sister’s life when she marries a Jew; there is even an offstage playground fight. These scenes, scattered across this 300-page novel, offer a kind of taxonomy of what it might have been like to live as a successful Jew in London during the years of Hitler’s rise to power. (Hitler himself is in the background throughout, his voice on the radio.)

This was Miller’s third novel but Victor Gollancz, the usually wonderful progressive English Jewish publisher refused to publish it in 1935; it eventually was printed in 1941: at that point, sadly, Miller’s exposition of the effects of casual, domestic anti-Semitism and the strains of a “mixed” marriage had been eclipsed by the events of WWII. I put “mixed” in quotations because one of the novel’s strengths is that both Alec and his wife are self-consciously rueful about the oddity of that term; Catharine muses that al marriages are “mixed,” that any marriage brings together strangers. Still, it’s not hard to see why, in 1935, a Jewish publisher would have hesitated to publish such an honest account of how far most non-Jewish English people had to come to overcome their prejudices.

Then, there is all the interest of the film industry itself. There is verisimilitude in the possibility of a Jew’s rise to power, respect and prominence in British film: many English Jews did work in film. The opening scene, of Alec and his lover, Hetty, a movie star, riding in a car through traffic to a premier is wonderfully done. And the second chapter, flashing back to his boyhood ache to get out of Brighton and work in film is fantastically right about adolescent desire and the ways that the movies attract (or used to attract) that kind of longing for something glamorous, something apart from the claustrophobia of home.

Miller’s writing is wonderful and she is at home with all kinds of scenes: she gets the mood of a boy smoking and staring off to sea right and then, pages later, she gets right the feeling of a new mother getting up from a dinner party to nurse her baby. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book that moved among classes, cultures, genders with such grace.

As I guess you can hear, I’m a little gobsmacked by this book: so much better than I had any reason to guess.