Archive for May 2008

A Summer Evening, in two takes

As you may know, San Francisco is sweating through an unusual heat wave this week. Even here in the fog belt, the temperatures are in the 90s. I love it — I get to wear the sun dresses I buy (against my better judgment) each year and which then hang in my closet, mocking me. Don’t I know by now that I only get to wear sun dresses once or twice a year? But when the weather’s like this, I revel in it: we ride bikes after dinner; we barbecue on the deck; we go out without jackets and scarves.

But much as I love the heat, I know it throws us all off. Tony doesn’t really like it, the boys aren’t used to it. And when it’s this hot, even I can get a little crabby.

And so tonight was glorious and hot and we went out to dinner — but, you know, family life… it’s not always such smooth sailing. It was a good night with some bumps along the way, and on nights like this I wonder how we’ll all remember it down the line. Here are two possibilities:


I pick Ben up from t-ball, where he and his buddies sweat good-naturedly through their one hour practice, and tell him Tony and I think we’ll all go out to dinner in the neighborhood tonight.

We park the car at home and get Ben’s bike and Eli’s trike out of the garage; the boys bike happily the several blocks to the restaurant, ringing their bells and waving to passersby.

We sit at an outside table, and the boys’ food (plain pasta and roasted artichokes) comes promptly. Tony and I enjoy salads–butter lettuce with asparagus and green goddess dressing– and pizzas (mine’s topped with arugula, goat cheese, sweet peas and mint; yum!) and big glasses of cold wine.

We walk and bike home. Tony bathes the boys while I sit on the couch watching a Tivo’d episode of Nigella Lawson’s cooking show.

I pick Ben up from t-ball and say we’re planning to eat out. He asks first to eat at the local tacqueria (ok for take out, but I didn’t want to eat there), then suggests Chinese. The Chinese place is fine, but we’ve gotten take out from there too often lately, and I’m not in the mood. I tell him where we’re planning to go–the casual Cal-Italian bistro–and he grumbles and sulks all the way home.

As we pull into the driveway, I try to cheer him by suggesting maybe he and Eli could ride their bikes to the restaurant. He loves the idea. We go inside to get Eli and Tony, who mishears my plan and somehow within a minute I’m sniping at him about I don’t know what.

We get the bikes out and head to the restaurant, a 10-minute trip that restores everyone’s good mood.

At the restaurant, the waiter is harried and inattentive. He brings the boys’ food promptly (big points for that), but the rest comes in slow waves, and my salad comes sprinkled with the speck (smoked ham) that I’d asked him to leave off. By the time my speck-free salad comes back, the boys are done with their pastas, and the wine still hasn’t come. The pizzas arrive; Eli says “I’m done here!” and I take him out for a walk while the pizza cools a bit.

On the walk home, Ben’s so busy waving and ringing his bell that he runs right into me. I yell in surprised pain, Ben starts to cry. I storm off–pushing Eli’s trike harder than necessary–my foot throbbing, leaving Tony to talk to Ben. There’s still a 4″ tread mark on my calf.

When we arrive home, Ben apologizes and asks softly if he can ride up to the end of the block and back, “super-fast.” I finally soften and say sure; he and Eli race down the sidewalk.

We all go inside, Tony takes the boys up for a cool bath. I sit on the couch and watch Nigella make a fondue.

Writing Motherhood Paperback Giveaway!

Part of my wonderful Mother’s Day this year involved attending a reading/writing workshop with Lisa Garrigues, with whom I’ve corresponded since I reviewed her book, Writing Motherhood, for MotherTalk. She was in town to celebrate the paperback release of her book, and so a friend and I drove out to the event, where everyone got a chance to write a bit, share their work if they liked, and offer feedback. Somehow within just a few minutes, under Lisa’s guidance, small groups of strangers were offering thoughtful feedback on each other’s work. It was a great way to spend the afternoon.

Today, when I got home from collecting Ben at school, I found the paperback in the mail, courtesy of Lisa’s publisher. Now it’s a beautiful book, and if I didn’t already own the hardcover (now signed!) I’d keep it, too. But that just seems greedy. So, lovely readers, I’m hosting a giveaway. Leave a comment on this post by the end of the week and I will pick a winner at random.

And in case you missed my earlier review, here it is again; it still holds up–though now my copy of Lisa’s book is a bit battered from use. (I’ve updated the final paragraph to reflect changes at Literary Mama.)

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 poetry workshops led by Violeta Garcia-Mendoza (an editor at LiteraryMama). Literary Mama is now offering monthly writing prompts, with personal feedback from the Literary Reflections editorial staff, as well as listings of workshops and other resources for writers. So get writing!

A Short Story

Eli made up his very first story today (and then repeated it all through lunch, chomping his carrot at the end for emphasis):

“Once upon a time there was a rock in the water, and a dragon came to eat it. The end.”

A Good Day

#1: Sleeping in (yes, there was the 1-3 AM visit from Ben and the 6:00 AM visit from Eli, but I remained horizontal)

#2: Breakfast in bed–including freshly-baked scones from Tony– with the Sunday Times

#3: A gift of new lip stuff and chocolate

#4: A mama-centric special at Ben and Eli’s cafe (see photo above) and a most excellent mother’s day banner (if you look closely, you’ll see the letters are all train cars)

#5: A workshop/reading by the wonderful Lisa Garrigues, attended with a new mama-writer friend of mine

#6: Dinner at one of my favorite pizza places, with my three favorite guys.

I hope all you mamas out there had equally lovely days!

New at Literary Mama…

My latest movie column, on Autism: The Musical, is up now, and I urge you — even if you think the movie has nothing to do with you — to take a look. It’s a terrific and eye-opening film. Here’s a blurb from my column:

Elaine, Hillary, Roseanne and Dianne are some of the mothers of autistic children we meet in the stunning new documentary, Autism: The Musical (Tricia Regan, 2007). Elaine brings them together at The Miracle Project, a theater and movement program she has founded to help her son Neal and other autistic kids learn to communicate their feelings and to control their impulses, but most of all, “to have a great time, [to] feel great.”

Also, check out “A Vinyl Batgirl Notebook” by Mama, PhD contributor Jessica Smartt Gullion; the essay offers a funny glimpse into the daily balancing act of being a writer and a mother (I don’t know a thing about that). Here’s a blurb:

“The kids are fighting again: ‘She keeps goin’ in my room!’ ‘He hitted me!’ ‘She push-ted me first!’ ‘Mama!’ ‘Mama!’ I wipe a Clorox-coated rag across the blue paint-splattered pattern of my kitchen counters and wonder for the thousandth time what kind of person would choose this design.”

Mama, PhD at InsideHigherEd!

I am thrilled to announce that InsideHigherEd is launching a new Mama PhD blog, and seven of the book’s contributors — Libby Gruner, Megan Kajitani, Susan Bassow, Dana Campbell, Liz Stockwell, Anjalee Nadkarni and Della Fenster — will be blogging regularly there. This is a tremendous opportunity to bring the discussion of academic work/ family life balance issues out of the book, into the blogosphere and from there into classrooms and campus administrative offices.

Please check out the blog, leave your comments, and send questions to Megan (for now, via; the blog will soon list a more direct address) who will be writing a weekly advice column. And then please spread the word! Tell your friends, add the link to your blogroll, and help us build an audience for these fabulous bloggers.

6 Things

Libby tagged me for this meme, and while it’s not required to have any thematic focus, I found an entry forming in my head as I went about the morning. First, though, the rules:

Here are the meme rules:
1. link to the person who tagged you
2. post the rules
3. write six things about yourself
4. tag six people at the end of your post by linking to their blogs.
5. Let them know they’ve been tagged by leaving a comment on their sites.
6. Let your tagger know when your entry is up.

Now on to the meme, which covers what’s on my mind today:

Six things I am grateful for today, while Ben is home sick from school (the annual Track Day at Kezar Stadium) with a fever and stomach bug:

1. NASA tv

2. apple juice

3. a patient little brother, happy to hang on the couch with his feverish brother (the bug started with him, so I didn’t mind their cuddling)

4. Tony running to the track meet to record “Feel better!” videos from Ben’s classmates (we’ve watched it twice and it still cracks him up)

5. laptop computer and a wireless internet connection

6. children’s tylenol

Finally, I tag Mama(e) in translation, Multi-Culti Mami, Marmee’s Corner, Fertile Ground, Having Enough and LoveBug and Rolley Polley.

Speaking of Music…

If you happen to be in San Francisco Saturday night, check out this rare local appearance by Sharmila Roy Pommot, a well-known singer of Bengali music who has sung on the soundtrack of Satyajit Ray films, worked with Peter Gabriel, been sampled by underground house musicians, and happens to be the aunt of a friend of mine.

The concert is at the Cultural Integration Fellowship, 2650 Fulton Street at 3rd Avenue. Contact for more info.