Archive for June 2007

Family Dinner

Lisa Belkin takes on the topic of the family dinner in today’s New York Times, so anyone out there feeling guilty at not gathering the kids round the table every night, take heart: there are other ways, other times, to connect with the family.

Of course.

It’s easy for us now: Tony and I both work flexible schedules so that we can be home for dinner, the kids are young enough to do what we tell them to do (mostly) and don’t have loads of activities crowding their schedules.

And it’s not easy for us now: Ben bolts his dinner and asks to get back to drawing, or he fidgets and fiddles and sticks his feet on the table until we insist he leave the table until he remembers how to behave; Eli eats a bite, climbs down from the chair (oh, how we miss the straps on his booster and high chair!), walks around to say “hi!” to Ben, climbs back up, takes a bite, climbs down, runs into the living room for a cuddle with his lovely, climbs back up… You get the idea.

But still, more often than not, all four of us manage to sit at the table and enjoy the food, and have a few moments’ conversation about the day, about what new number Ben learned (he’s into big numbers now: quadrillion and quintillion and so on), or what Eli did at the playground with his friend, and even if it only lasts a couple minutes and it takes some effort, it’s important to me to try. I like to cook, and I like to eat, but more important than those to me is the community formed around the table.

So, although I won’t feel guilty if we can’t, I hope we can keep this up even when the kids are racing off to soccer and band practice and friends’ houses and part-time jobs. I hope sitting together round the table will matter to them as much as it does to Tony and me.


Ben is off from school this week, and although I have plenty of work to do, I have to shelve it and pretend that I’m on vacation, too. Tony’s doing the same, so we took the boys to Train Town yesterday. We’d been once before, when I was pregnant with Eli; it’s a low-key, hokey kind of place, with a big steam train meandering through woods and past waterfalls and miniature replicas of 19th century Sierra mountain towns. That first trip, we rode the train once and then went into town for ice cream.

This time, as we rode the train and tried to keep Eli from falling out (he was leaning over the side, intently studying the train’s pistons and couplings), Ben noticed the amusement park rides. These hadn’t made any impression on that first trip, but there’s a small carousel, a Ferris wheel, a plane ride, even a miniature roller coaster. Ben kept eying those planes, and after our train ride, asked to buy a ticket for the airplane. “But you have to go on by yourself, you know,” I cautioned. “It’s too small for Daddy and me, and it’s too big for Eli.” Ben went over and read the sign himself: “Children only. No adults allowed.” “That’s ok!” he answered brightly. “I’m up for it!”

Well! My cautious boy is spreading his wings. He rode once, doing his air traffic controller play-by-play the whole time, then jumped off the plane, beaming, and asked to ride again. So he did, and in a day with two exceptionally happy boys, the best part for Tony and me was watching Ben, flying that plane.

Mama at the Movies: Field of Dreams

I wanted to write about a father this month — Father’s Day month — for my movie column, and with all the baseball going on in our house lately, I thought a baseball movie would be appropriate, too. Besides, everything I know about baseball I learned from my dad.

But baseball + fatherhood + Hollywood = sappy, sentimental, movies. I could not get past the first twenty minutes of the first several baseball movies I tried. Then I watched Bull Durham (for the fifth or sixth time) to get the bad taste out of my mouth. Then I tried to write about Susan Sarandon’s Annie, who — when she’s not tutoring young ball players is tutoring writers — but the motherhood angle there is an impossible stretch and Kevin Costner’s Crash as a father figure really doesn’t work either.

But Annie the writing teacher and Kevin Costner triggered a memory for me, and I checked out Field of Dreams. Yes, this is another sentimental baseball movie but it does have a writer in it, played by James Earl Jones, and he proves instrumental in helping Kevin Costner’s baseball-loving character reconcile with the idea of being a dad. So this, ultimately, is what I came up with; check it out and let me know what you think!


(no spoilers here…)

I never would have gotten hooked on The Sopranos if it had started after I became a mother; my ability to stomach violent television is virtually non-existent now. But I got hooked, and then even after Ben came along changing everything, I kept watching because the characters were compelling, it was well-written and funny, these screwed-up families held my interest.

And, you know, just when it got too hard, the show would go on hiatus for a year or two.

Still, I’d been sort of anticipating these last few episodes with a mix of relief and dread. I’m done with the show. I can’t watch it anymore. I’m glad it’s over. But I didn’t want to see all these great characters go out in a terrible blood bath.

There were some moments that were pretty hard to watch (so in fact I didn’t; I’ve gotten really adept at using a throw pillow to cover my eyes while I plug my ears, because often the soundtrack is worse than the visual). But the last five minutes of the last show tonight captured everything I loved about the show: a normal-looking family gathering for a meal, talking about their days, heart-pounding tension building as you’re led to believe something terrible’s going to happen, nothing resolved, all of it set to the perfect song.

Now I can exhale and move on with my life.


My paternal grandmother, a steely bird of a woman who’d been advised not to have kids lest it damage her already weak heart and then went on to have four, apparently used to say that it’s not a family until you have more kids than you can grab with your two hands.

She was up to the challenge, and so were my parents, who produced four of their own. Tony and I –having started our family when we were ten years older than my parents or grandparents– have stopped at two. But this week we’ve had a good dose of four, as we’ve helped out good friends by babysitting their pair for hours while they pack and move. We had two full mornings and then today, moving day, their kids arrived at 8:30 a.m. for the day.

I went to sleep last night, thinking “I should plan some activities for the day,” then of course promptly fell asleep. So much for planning! But we’ve been doing this parenting thing awhile now, watch the kids in our babysitting co-op a lot, and are helped, too, by our co-op preschool experience (weekly work shifts with 30-odd kids). By noon we’d made muffins, a pan of enchiladas to deliver to our friends later, decorated t-shirts to commemorate the day, and fed the four children an assortment of snacks and lunches. Sadly, Eli didn’t nap for very long this afternoon, but otherwise everybody held up well and we didn’t need to resort to videos, computer games, or ropes.

Still, obviously I paced myself today for a sprint, not a marathon. I can gear up for a day or two of being outnumbered, but I wouldn’t want to do this every day.

Literary Reflections: Essential Functions

We’re celebrating Father’s Day all month long over at Literary Mama, including a Literary Reflections essay by Lisa Gates titled “Essential Functions.” Here’s a blurb:

At 7:30 a.m., as I drive my son to school, he asks, “What are you thinking about, Mom?”

“Oh, lots of things.”

My son grins. “You always get that far away look when you’re inventing something to write.” My heart falls on top of itself. He wiggles out of the back seat and before he slams the door, he says, “You should call Grandpa, Mom.”

Click on over to Literary Reflections to read more!

MotherTalk Blog Book Tour: Writing Motherhood

Very early on the morning of July 4th, 2001, I climbed out of bed and took a pregnancy test. As I waited for the result, I left the stick resting on the edge of the bathroom sink and sat down at my desk to write a few lines on my computer. A few minutes later, I went back and added some more thoughts, trying to absorb the fact that I was pregnant.

That was the start of my mothering journal.

I’d kept journals sporadically in the past: a small, cream- colored book my aunt gave me before a high school month in England; a cloth-bound book I bought before my junior year at Oxford University. But when I didn’t have a discrete period of time to document, I could never keep a journal going. I’d get fed up with myself for using it as a dumping ground for my complaints about adolescent life, or I’d get hung up with worry about someone finding it.

But this time was different. I’d just started a new job, I was pregnant, Tony and I bought a house: my life was changing fast, changing permanently, and I wanted to keep track of my thoughts.

That January, my computer crashed and took my journal with it. I lost teaching notes, syllabi, years’ worth of emails, but it was the journal’s loss that made me cry. It took me a few days to regain perspective (I hadn’t lost the baby, I kept having to remind myself, only the writing about the baby), but when I did, I took myself to a good art supply store and bought a nice journal with lined pages and an elastic strap to keep it closed.

And now I have a neat pile of six on the bottom shelf of my bedside table, with the current one, a pen in the middle holding my place, on the top shelf next to my lip balm, the current New Yorker, and a water glass.

I’ve kept it going.

The problem, though, was that before long the journal was not enough. I’d start something, jot down a funny thing Ben did or make an observation about my new life, and then it would sit there, undeveloped. I didn’t have any compelling reason to develop my thoughts into an essay. And after years of steady writing in graduate school, culminating in a nearly 300-page dissertation, I didn’t really even know how to write an essay about myself. I cast about for a year or so, writing unfinished essays during Ben’s naps, not knowing what to do with them. Eventually I lucked into a writing group and from there landed a position at Literary Mama and, between the gentle pressure of my monthly turn to present at writing group and the inspiration of the essays I edit, I found my way to a regular writing gig, a book, and a new life as a writer.

But it all would have been much simpler if I’d had Lisa Garrigues book, Writing Motherhood, back then.

I confess, I haven’t read any other writing books, so I have nothing to compare this to. Well, that’s not even quite right; I haven’t finished any other writing books. I’ve poked around Bird by Bird (and found it quite useful when I do), read a few lines of Writing Down the Bones, but I’ve always gotten a little impatient with the books, always had a moment when I realized, “Wait… no one’s asking me for snack, no one needs a dry diaper, I should be writing!” and put them down. So one of the things I like most about Garrigues’ book is that she invites you to do just that. It is not a book to read cover to cover (although I did, for this review, and it holds up perfectly well to that sustained attention), but one to pick up and read for twenty minutes when you have an hour free, or five minutes when you have ten: pick it up, find your inspiration, put the book down, and write. Because just as no one learns to parent by reading parenting books, no one learns to write without writing.

I like the bold orange cover of this book, which won’t get lost on my desk; that bright flash will always peek out from under the messy pile of drafts, bills, and Ben’s latest train drawings, and remind me to write. I like her tone, which is encouraging and friendly throughout; she leaves behind any kind of authoritative teacher voice and comes across as a woman you’d happily share a coffee with. Garrigues calls her writing prompts “invitations,” another subtle way that she manages to lighten up the task of setting down to write. And I like that she gives you lots and lots of good stuff to read, because the most important work in becoming a writer, after writing, is, of course, reading. Garrigues gives you her own short essays (on topics ranging from copying other writers, to marriage, to mama playdates); some of the little essays are hardly about writing at all, but about mothering, and then as she comes to the end and crystallizes the feeling that she’s expressed in the essay, she neatly raises a question for your own writing. She provides sample “mother’s pages” (essays written by her students), and she offers loads of great quotations from other writers. She also offers concrete advice on everything from buying a writer’s notebook to setting up a productive workspace. I have both of those things, but I still picked up a couple good ideas from her. She closes the book with an entire section on moving from new writer to a writer seeking connection and publication, with ideas on setting up and maintaining writing groups and taking one’s writing public. And then, in case there weren’t already enough ideas to keep you going in the text of the book, she offers a list of 99 writing starts and a bibliography.

I am keeping this review short because, inspired by Garrigues book, I want to get back to my writing! But I want to leave you with a couple quotations. The first, from Annie Dillard, resonated with me right now as I struggle to clear space in my days to write:

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days.

And now here’s Garrigues:

This book is, in part, a story of growing up and into a role I claimed for myself.

Is she talking about mothering or writing?! The point, as she claims throughout the book, is that the two are not mutually exclusive but complimentary roles that feed and develop each other. We should take advantage of that fact, and make time to write our lives.

Garrigues teaches writing classes, and those of you in the NY/NJ area should check them out. For anyone looking for on-line writing classes, I highly recommend Susan Ito’s parent lit workshop (which I have taken) and the new poetry workshop led by Violeta Garcia-Mendoza (my editorial assistant in Literary Reflections). Literary Mama will soon be offering monthly writing prompts, with personal feedback from th
e Literary Reflections editorial staff, as well as listings of workshops and other resources for writers. Get writing!

The Things He Sleeps With

His first year, he slept in a sling, in a cradle, in the car seat, in our arms, in the stroller, swaddled or not, blankets or none, wherever he dropped off.

Last year (pictured) he slept solo.

Now, he sleeps with a crowd:
His flannel and satin lovey blanket
A knit mole (Mole)
A small gray bear, knit by his aunt (New Bear)
A piglet with a bell inside (Jingle Pig)
A blue plush cow (Moo)
A plush giraffe (Giraffey)
A plush lemur (Ringo)
A plush gorilla (Gorilla)
A fabric dachsaund (Doggie)
A toy hard hat
A toy screwdriver
My car keys (when he can get ’em)
Maisy’s Favorite Things
The polka-dot blanket
The Pooh blanket
The bah-bah black sheep blanket (knit for him by a friend)
The shark blanket
The moon and stars blanket (a hand-me-down from his cousins)
The cow blanket

I’ll keep letting him add things, I don’t care, as long as he still finds room for himself, as long as sleeps…

A Nice Cup of Tea

It was one of those days…

At 6:30 a.m., after Eli and I had gotten up and cuddled on the couch a while, I got a mug off the shelf, got a box of tea down off the shelf, then got distracted.

At 10:00 a.m., after breakfast and a run and a shower, I put the tea bag in the mug and filled the kettle, then got distracted.

At 10:30 a.m., I turned the gas on under the kettle, but then Eli noticed and started to clamor for his own cup of tea: “Tea? tea? Li-li tea??” And while he’s perfectly welcome to join me occasionally in a cup of lukewarm decaffeinated tea, this time I just wasn’t up for the supervision: he wants to have his tea in the little personalized ceramic mug my parents gave him; he wants to get an ice cube out of the freezer (all by himself; one day I fear he’ll tumble headfirst into the low freezer drawer and be lost among the frozen edamame, berries, tortillas and the mason jar of limoncello I made 2 years ago and haven’t touched) and plop it, repeatedly, into the cup; he wants to “duhnk! duhnk! duhnk!” the tea bag and put in the “shuh-shuh” all by himself, stirring, stirring, stirring with the spoon he gets out of the drawer all by himself (after hauling the stool over to the silverware drawer, pulling the drawer out so hard I’m afraid he’s going to brain himself, and then half-falling off the stool because he forgets that he’s actually on the stool). It all quickly devolves into water play which sometimes is fine, but today I just didn’t have the strength.

So I took both boys outside to play baseball instead.

At 3:00 p.m., during Eli’s nap, I boiled the water and poured it into the mug over the tea bag, but then I got distracted.

At 4:00 p.m., Eli having woken up, I took the tea bag out of the mug, added some milk, and put the mug into the microwave, but then I got distracted.

At 4:30 p.m., after Tony took Eli to collect Ben from school, I got the mug out of the microwave and finally sat down to drink my cup of lukewarm tea. It really tasted pretty good.

Calling All Mama-Poets!

The fabulous Violeta Garcia-Mendoza, one of my editorial assistants over at Literary Mama, is going to be teaching a 10-week workshop for beginner mama poets. If you’re an expecting, new, birth, step, adoptive or grandmama wanting to learn more about the joys of poetry, as well as create and present your own poems in an encouraging and inspiring workshop format, this is the place for you!

Among others, topics will include: reading & writing as a poet, poetry of remembering & remembrance, forms and how to make them relevant, and the rigors and rewards of revision.

The workshop will run from July 1st to September 9th. Cost is $250. Class size is limited. For more information or to register, please write violeta724 at earthlink dot net