Archive for October 2006

Vacation index

50 years since my dad was ordained to the priesthood, the celebration which inspired our trip

45 minutes waiting for our friend, stuck in Oakland Raiders post-game traffic, to pick us up from the airport

40 minutes spent waiting for a Chicago bus one night before we gave up and took a cab, Ben and Eli’s very first unbuckled car ride ever (quickly followed by 2 more in the following days)

35 submissions to Mama, Ph.D. which I carried cross country and back but did not read (potential contributors, fear not; I’m reading them this week!)

30 pounds of mail waiting for us at home (no, I didn’t weigh it, but with 30 pound Eli on my other hip, I was nicely balanced)

25 pounds of magazines that I will never have time to read (time to cull the subscription list…)

20 days until we go out of town again

15 glorious, peaceful minutes when Ben and Eli played together on the plane

10 days away

9 hours travel to get home

8 family members we visited at our family reunion (Muzz, we missed you!)

7 years since our friends R&L; were married, our “who needs an excuse?” excuse to stop in Chicago and toast them

6 trips on Chicago’s El, to Ben and Eli’s great delight

5 trips on Chicago buses, to the boys’ equally great delight

4 long hours on the plane home

3 memorable dinners in Chicago: at the corner trattoria, where the host looked like a character from The Sopranos; at Frontera Grill, where my pomegranate mimosa made it ok that Eli wouldn’t stay at the table; and at Gourmet’s best-in-America Spring, which thinks perhaps it’ll keep kids out by not providing high chairs, but Eli picked the great northern beans out of Tony’s vegetarian cassoulet, R&L;’s son ate roasted Brussels sprouts with pancetta, and Ben ate one of the three just-in-case pb&j; sandwiches we’d brought while the rest of us focused on the beautiful, delicious food

2 tired, wired boys at the end of the long trip, torn between playing madly with all their toys and collapsing into sleep

1 happy family, glad to get away, and glad to be home.

Little Miss Sunshine

Road trip! My new movie column is on Little Miss Sunshine; check it out at Literary Mama.

The Psychic on the Bus

“He has good ears,” said the woman sitting behind us on the bus.

“What?” I turned, unsure if she was talking to me, about Ben, or about or to someone else entirely. We were on a busy Chicago bus, and I was catching bits of conversation from all directions. But this was, apparently, directed at me.

“Your son. He likes music, doesn’t he?” she said, pointing now at his ears. “I can tell from the shape of his ears, he’ll be a musician.”

“Sure, yes, he likes music. Most kids do, though, right?”

“Oh, no, he’s special. Look at his ears!” Now she was speaking as much to her companion as to me, going on about the shape of his ears, the tilt of his nose, the shade of his eyes. Ben, happy to have someone paying attention to him, turned to kneel on the seat and face her, mugging as for a camera while the woman studied his features and annotated them to her companion. Meanwhile, Ben chatted to her about his musical instruments, his favorite songs.

“You need to get him a teacher, a good teacher,” the woman insisted. “I can recommend one here in the city.”

“Oh, but we’re from out of town,” I said, intrigued, but also trying to get out of the conversation; “From California.”

“No, Mama,” Ben interjected. “We’re from San Francisco,” he told the woman, and proceeded, over my quiet protest, to announce our address to the entire busload of strangers.

But she was more interested in his facial features and then, because by now Ben was being free with all kinds of personal information, on figuring out the impact of his natal chart on his potential musical career. She was a little bit stymied; Ben doesn’t know exactly what time he was born, and I pretended to have forgotten (9:14 A.M.) Still, she proclaimed him a “particularly sensitive Pisces” and recommended I keep an eye on the growth of his nose, which will, she claimed, determine whether he can make a living from his musical talents or whether he’ll languish in poverty.

It’s good to ride the bus. Stuff like this just doesn’t happen when you’re stuck in the car.

The Red Eye

Time was, I flew the red eye to stretch my vacation dollars (cheaper flights) and vacation time (no days lost to travel). In those pre-laptop, pre-baby days, I’d board with my New Yorker or a stack of student essays and read (or not) and doze (or not) — it didn’t much matter, I just hoped the other passengers in my row woudn’t talk to me. I’d take a sudafed when I landed (the only stimulant I’ve ever needed) and power through the day.

We stuck with the red eye for the first couple years of Ben. We’d nurse and doze; he was a good traveller, and jet lag can’t touch someone on a 3-hour sleep cycle.

But then Ben got too interested in planes to sleep on one, and Eli arrived, not such an easy traveller. We abandoned the red eye in favor of daytime flights with videos and lots of books.

Till this vacation, when somehow the red eye made sense again. I noticed as we boarded that everyone else on the flight was traveling childfree, and I eyed them with some nostalgia, envying their fat novels and coffee, or their undistrubed eye shades and neck pillows.

But then Ben conked out with his head in my lap, and Eli flopped heavily on my chest, mouth open, fingers clutching his blanket. And although my arm fell asleep from Eli’s weight, and Ben’s head seemed to be putting a dent in my hip bone, for a few moments I forgot my discomfort and just watched them sleep.

And there’ll be no reading in the library, either

On a recent classroom visit (seemingly number seven hundred in my tour of the local elementary schools) the kindergarteners were reviewing the rules for a new student:

  1. Sit quietly at circle time.
  2. Hang your jacket in your cubby.
  3. And at recess, no running on the playground.

That’s right. All 250 students (K-5) use the playground at the same time, and apparently the 5
teachers assigned to supervise the chaos spend it reminding kids to walk.

There must be a better way.

Reading with Eli

A couple years ago, friends gave Ben a copy of Ruth Krauss’ sweet book, The Carrot Seed. It quickly became his favorite bathroom book, an appropriate choice, I thought, given its themes of patience and optimism.

Now, at nearly 17 months, Eli is at last becoming a reader and The Carrot Seed is at the top of his list. He’ll grab it out of the bin (no neat shelving in this house right now), scamper over and flop into a lap. And so we begin:

A little boy planted a carrot seed.
His mother said, “I’m afraid it won’t come up.”
His father said, “I’m afraid it won’t come up.”
And his big brother said, “It won’t come up.”

We get a few more pages, until we get to the picture of the whole family, with the line: “Everyone kept saying it wouldn’t come up.”

Then the pointing begins, as Eli jabs at the picture, moving from mother to father to brother to little boy, insisting that we name each one. This goes on for a couple minutes until, suddenly bored, Eli grabs the book and flings it aside.

So much for narrative resolution.

Pumpkin Pancakes

I know I have already blogged plenty about pancakes, but a) ’tis the season and 2) this is a particularly good recipe. So, another pancake recipe. The batter is pretty thick, so make them small so that they cook through; they are light as can be, and even people who don’t really like pumpkin much (including me!) think these are delicious.

They taste great served with applesauce, yogurt, ricotta cheese, or of course maple syrup.

1 c flour
3 T sugar
1 t baking powder
1/2 t baking soda
1/4 t salt
1 t cinnamon
1/4 t nutmeg

1 egg
1 c plain yogurt
1/4 c canned pumpkin puree
2 T butter, melted and cooled

In a large bowl, beat the egg and then stir in remaining wet ingredients. Blend well. Whisk the dry ingredients together in a separate bowl, then stir into the egg mixture until just combined.

Heat a skillet and add a dab of butter. When the skillet’s hot, pour about 1/4 c batter per pancake. Flip when the tops bubble and the edges seem dry. Cook until the other side is golden brown, 2-3 minutes per side.

Movie Minutes

Watching Sherrybaby is a bit like driving past a traffic accident: hard to look at, but hard not to. Maggie Gyllenhall is compelling and sympathetic as a young mom who’s just gotten out of prison and is trying to pull her life together for her daughter and herself.

The Illusionist was pure entertainment for me — it didn’t raise many questions while I was watching, and I didn’t take much away from the experience. Great acting, an interesting story, beautiful setting, the kind of good, unassuming movie that seems rare lately.

Little Miss Sunshine is so fabulous that I’m writing my next column on it. For now, I’ll just say, don’t miss the chance to see this family of misfits dancing to “Superfreak.”

I Do But I Don’t: Walking Down the Aisle Without Losing Your Mind

Marriage is a public institution, intended to compel individuals to take responsibility for each other. It is a civil pact and a social system, and individuals who choose to partake in it are not expressing rugged individualism, they are acknowledging the ties that bind.
–Kamy Wicoff, I Do But I Don’t

I wear a diamond engagement ring my husband bought for me.

I got married wearing a white dress.

I changed my last name to my husband’s.

I call myself a feminist.

There are plenty of people that would argue that my fourth statement above doesn’t jibe with the previous three, that I have been thoroughly brainwashed, completely co-opted by history, by tradition.

I insist that my choices are personal, but of course they don’t exist in a vacuum. I live in a socially constructed world. So what to make of my choices?

How can I justify these things, to myself, to my family? Do I need to? That’s what I came down to, the summer of my wedding, and my answer was no.

Around me, friends were refusing church weddings, foregoing name changes, marrying in red and pink and yellow, refusing engagement rings or choosing stones other than diamonds. Does this make them more feminist than I? Is it a contest? Definitely not.

But it was interesting recently to think back on all these wedding decisions, inspired by reading Kamy Wicoff’s smart and thoughtful memoir-cum-social analysis, I Do But I Don’t: Walking Down the Aisle Without Losing Your Mind (her original subtitle, “The Uneasy Marriage Between Modern Women and Weddings,” more accurately reflects the book’s content and tone, but her publisher apparently thought it was a “downer” and suggested the how-to angle). Wicoff was motivated to write her book when her wedding planning failed to fill her joy and excitement; in fact, she kept being brought up short by dissatisfaction, guilt, and ambivalence.

Now, historically, the wife’s gotten the short end of the marriage stick, so a certain amount of ambivalence makes some sense. If you’ve read Marilyn Yalom’s A History of the Wife (and you should), you know that for most of history, marriage served as a business arrangement, or a political alliance, not the “love match” that we look for now. And while we reject that old system’s rigidly limited roles (one of you provides shelter, one of you makes babies) certainly expectations were clearer. Despite an expansion of women’s roles in society and in marriage, today, troubling studies report that marriage shortens a woman’s life span, and that married men and single women both report far greater levels of happiness than married women.

And yet we keep on walking down that aisle.

And this brings me back to Wicoff’s book, for while the prospect of marriage appealed to her very much, and the ability to form an equal partnership with her future husband seemed quite feasible, wedding planning itself turned out to be sadly one-sided, disappointingly fixed in out-dated gender roles. The experience of planning a wedding to the man she loved left her puzzlingly dissatisfied. And although of course the wedding is a single day, the planning can take months and I agree with Wicoff’s ambitious claim that how we negotiate those months can set the tone for the years to come: “It is in our private relationships that change begins,” she writes, “and thinking about the way we wed—and changing it—may not only impact our marriages but our world.”

Wicoff neatly breaks down the elements of the modern wedding, from the proposal to the rings, the clothes to the pre-wedding parties, and offers suggestions for ways to make them more equitable. Many of these suggestions involve simply spending less money, trying to resist the modern wedding industry that has sprung up in the last couple decades and which is focused (so far) primarily on the bride as consumer. Some of her suggestions involve reverting to older, largely abandoned traditions, for instance, the couple marrying in their best clothes, outfits suitable for wearing again and again, rather than one-time outfits. Some are more radical; my favorite of these is proposal month. Since by now most of us come to marriage as a series of discussions, even negotiations, why keep up the farce that someone has to “pop the question?” Instead, a couple agrees to a month in which they will both propose to each other. The element of surprise, the element that most of the time simply keeps the woman suspended in a state of passivity, waiting for her partner’s initiative, is reduced and reimagined. Instead, both partners get to give their speech and present their gift. Both partners, for a change, get a turn taking the active role and the passive.

Wicoff is fearlessly, often almost uncomfortably candid, whether describing “lying on a hotel bed on [her] stomach sobbing, yanking Kleenex by the fistful out of a box on the floor so that [her] nose didn’t run all over the sheets” when her boyfriend gave her earrings instead of the expected engagement ring, or narrating each painful pluck as she spends $35 to have her eyebrows shaped, and not really being able to tell the difference afterwards. For readers more interested in social commentary, Wicoff’s astute use of writers from Arlie Russell Hochschild to Barbara Ehrenreich, will help make the personal more palatable; others, of course, will delight in scenes like the karaoke bar, where she drunkenly insists on the irony in Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.”

The mix works for me. Wicoff’s book is perceptive and well-researched, a genre-mixing blend of cultural criticism and memoir. And despite the publisher’s subtitle, it’s a book that offers as much absorbing reading to those of us who’ve already walked down the aisle as it does to those who are still considering the journey.

Edited to add: I’m linking again to Wicoff’s website, where you can read the first chapter of the book. As she writes:

By incorporating the experiences of the other eighty-plus women I interviewed for this book, even as I relate my own, and by weaving research (both of the scholarly sort and of the People Magazine’s One Hundred Greatest Weddings variety) into the narrative and into the arguments I make, I hope to fulfill my most passionate wish for I Do But I Don’t: that smart women find themselves drawn into an intimate discussion of the most intimate and tricky of issues—the relation between the sexes—because they have been offered a funny, honest, readable narrative as the spoonful of sugar to make my brand of feminist medicine go down.

Look at her website, read that opening chapter, and see for yourself whether, as she puts it, her brand of feminist medicine makes
you spit or swallow. Either way, it’s well worth having a taste.

Kindergarten Tours Thus Far

The kindergarten search stats: 4 down, 14 to go (did I mention the crazy lady who looked at 19 schools? Not me!). There are so many ways to compare these schools, but let’s just focus on the snacks.

School One: self-guided tour with my own water and luna bar.

School Two: water bottles offered at the start; cookies and more water offered at the end.

School Three: coffee offered at the start.

School Four: water, coffee, mulled apple cider, and banana bread offered at the start and end of the tour.

Now, I’m not suggesting that a piece of banana bread puts a school on the top of the list, but it doesn’t hurt to help a busy mom remember a place.