Archive for November 2006

Cross That One Off The List

We’re looking at a lot of schools this fall, trying to decide which will be the best fit for Ben and our family. We’re trying not to fall in love with any one place, because the school district places kids by lottery and the private schools are as exclusive as Harvard. Most of the schools make it hard, though; elementary school looks like fun, after all, with the brightly-colored cubbies, the reading nooks, the art on the walls.

And then, some of the schools make it easy not to fall in love. The facilities aren’t great, or the teachers aren’t welcoming. Or, you see a sign on the door like this:

Welcome, Kindergartnrs!!

Moving right along…


Ben’s low-key, co-op preschool has a casual relationship with an occupational therapist named Alanna, who is available to assess the kids when concerns develop about their motor skills and other developmental issues. The relationship is so low-key that I didn’t know about her until very recently (over a year into Ben’s preschool experience), when someone at school, commenting on Ben’s development from a very grounded guy into a climber and jumper, asked how we’d enjoyed working with Alanna. “We didn’t,” I said, “He’s just growing up.”

But he’s going to kindergarten next year, and apparently people want to know if he can stack blocks, hold a pencil, and walk in a straight line. So Alanna comes to preschool a couple afternoons and plays “kindergarten games” with all the older kids, and reports to the teachers so that they can write their recommendations for the kindergartens and let all the parents know if we need to be concerned about our children’s kindergarten “readiness.”

We didn’t have advance notice of Alanna’s first visit. We got to school to see lines of kids trooping over to meet her, but Ben wasn’t interested. His teacher tried to make it sound enticing, but he was busy with some project or other and wouldn’t be budged. So we figured we’d try again next time.

Yesterday morning, I glanced at the calendar and spotted my reminder: “Alanna.”

“Ben! Guess who’s going to be at school today!?”

He looked up from his book, but he could obviously tell from my tone that I was trying to make something he didn’t want to do sound appealing.

“Alanna’s going to be playing kindergarten games with the big kids! Remember? Don’t you want to play kindergarten games with her?”

“No. I don’t know her. I’m shy of her.”

Fair enough. Except, as I pointed out, he’s not particularly shy. He’s dropped his pants at the playground to show off his skateboard underwear, after all. But that’s a different situation, to Ben’s mind, and my tactic met with no success.

At some point, Tony came in and reminded Ben that he likes to show people things he’s interested in, like his engineer’s cap or his muni t-shirt (not to mention those skateboard boxers). No dice. We backed off to regroup. We’d made ourselves anxious by this point; if Ben didn’t see Alanna at school, we’d have to make an office appointment with her, we’d have to get babysitting for Eli, we’d have to delay the kindergarten applications.

And then, with a flash of inspiration that makes me think I am kind of a good mom, I remembered the allure of role play.

“Ben!” I asked. “Do you want to pretend that I’m Alanna, and you’re coming to my office to play kindergarten games?”

This, amazingly, worked. We walked to the bottom of the stairs, where I introduced myself to him as “Alanna-mama.” Then we went up to his room, took turns stacking blocks, drawing shapes, and building train track. After 10 minutes or so, I made him a construction paper certificate noting that he had successfully completed his day of kindergarten games. He went to school that afternoon, met with Alanna, and we’ll get her report next week (at this point, really, who cares what she says? I’m just glad he went).

But now, I’m stuck. Ben keeps asking to play with Alanna-Mama. We don’t play any differently than we normally do, except that I have to pretend not to know him very well.

I’m still pondering the implications of this. Plenty of kids have imaginary playmates. Adam Gopnik’s daughter famously had an imaginary playmate who was too busy to play with her. But when your child prefers playing with an the imaginary version of his mama, one who doesn’t know him, what’s the real mama to think?

Mama at the Movies

This week, a Thanksgiving column, of sorts, on Transamerica, about a woman who discovers she’s a father and meets the son she didn’t know she had.

Here’s a taste:

It took me one month to get pregnant.

It took me 38 1/2 weeks (gestation), 5 hours (labor), and 37 minutes (pushing) to become a mother.

My route to parenthood, that is, was just about as quick and direct as it gets.

But whether a child lands in your arms as a wet and squalling newborn, or arrives on your doorstep with baggage both literal and emotional, once you become a parent, you need to learn how to be a parent. And that, we all discover eventually, can be a matter of continual reinvention and recommitment.

In Transamerica (Duncan Tucker, 2005) we witness the complicated road to parenthood taken by a woman named Bree (Felicity Huffman, in a remarkable departure from her role on Desperate Housewives), who learns how to parent while driving her new-found son from New York to Los Angeles after she bails him out of jail.

Read the rest here on Literary Mama, and leave me a comment!

A Week at the Beach

We’ve embarked on our biennial Thanksgiving week in Stinson Beach and life is good. So far:

Within an hour of our arrival, both boys were so wet and sandy they had to be hosed off before re-entering the house.

Ben has played with his favorites of his uncle’s various cool things: the carousel full of poker chips and the electronic card shuffler.

Eli has “woofed” at his uncle’s new puppy approximately 73 times (every time he walks past Dusty’s crate…)

The refrigerator is so full there’s no room for the turkey (good thing we have a few days to eat down the food supply before, um, we make a ton more food…)

And as I type, Ben and Eli are, for the first time, sleeping in the same room, so that Tony and I don’t have to share with either of them. Here’s hoping this is the first of many peaceful nights of the brothers sharing a room.


Years ago, when Ben was a baby and my mom-friends and I started up a Monday playgroup, our husbands started gathering with the babies on Saturdays, and “Dadderday” was born: a break for the moms, social time for the dads, happiness all around.

Today was an inadvertent Dadderday. I’d spent the night up with a stomach bug and was in no shape to handle the kids, so Tony took over (though without the support of any other dads) and I laid in bed, first reading, then watching a movie. And my choices, really just the nearest things to hand, portray a couple men who are a sharp contrast to the dads I know.

First I read Geraldine Brooks’ March, a novel that imagines the story Louisa May Alcott refers to, but does not tell, in Little Women, about the father gone to war. She bases her portrait both on what’s known about Bronson Alcott and plenty of other historical research, so it’s very detailed and quite plausible but I was so put off by the flowery writing and melodramatic tone that halfway through I had to put it down, drag the computer into bed and email my sister to ask if it would get any better. She advised dropping the book, but I was too stubborn (and didn’t have much else within reach) so soldiered on, irritated both by the writing, and increasingly, by the portrayal of this man who abandons wife and family to assuage his guilt over slavery. Marmee gets a word in toward the end of the book, but it was too little, too late, for me. I finished the book glad I’m not a nineteenth century wife and mother.

Fast forward over a century to my movie choice, Sydney Pollack’s documentary Sketches of Frank Gehry. Now, this is a fascinating movie. Two men, Pollack and Gehry, at the top of their game, talking about art and architecture. Often there’s a second camera on Pollack, so we can watch him filming Gehry while they talk, look at sketches and models, or walk around the incredible spaces that Gehry has designed; it’s a terrific portrait of two artists at work. And we see others: the plainspoken, regular-guy Ed Rauscha, as clear as his paintings, who contextualizes Gehry’s work for someone like me, makes the neophyte understand just what is so radical about it; or the flamboyant Julian Schnabel, resplendent in his white robe, gesturing with his brandy snifter; Dennis Hopper and Bob Geldoff and an array of other men (yes, with one exception, all men) all with interesting things to say about Gehry’s art.

But like many such portraits (Rivers and Tides, about the artist Andy Goldsworthy, comes to mind), I began to wonder about Gehry’s personal life. We hear about his childhood, the grandmother who played blocks with him (whom he credits for the idea that he could be an architect), how he changed his name (from Goldberg) to duck anti-Semitism. And then, in an interview with his therapist, we learn that early in Gehry’s career, he was at a crisis, financially and emotionally bankrupt, and the therapist advised Gehry to choose a path: leave work and devote himself to his wife and two daughters until he’d sorted himself out, or leave the family. And for a moment, I indulged a fantasy of Gehry as an artist who buried himself in his family and then emerged after a time, renewed, rejuvenated, ready to contribute again to the art world.

Like I said, a fantasy. He left the family. A second marriage is mentioned, in passing, later in the film, and that’s all we hear of the artist’s personal life.

So fine, not everyone’s cut out to be a parent, and certainly it’s difficult to combine a passionate commitment to anything (to political ideals, in March’s case; to art, in Gehry’s), with any kind of commitment to family. I’d just like to see more representations of men who try. In the meantime, I am newly grateful for Dadderday and the dads who make it happen.

20/20 Update

Well, give ABC credit for trying, but their 20/20 report on working mothers was not the hard-hitting call for action one would hope for. Elizabeth Vargas hosted a toothless overview of the issues working mothers confront: the need for safe, affordable day care; paid maternity leave; flexible work schedules.

The interview with Joan Blades of MomsRising must have been cut, so the remaining experts included Senator Christopher Dodd (D, Connecticut) who is plain-spoken and compelling, reminding viewers that the government provides more oversight of pets and cars than daycare centers. But his voice was fairly well drowned out by a conservative talk radio host giving airtime to people who think mothers simply shouldn’t work, and the (female) deputy assistant Secretary of Labor, a bootstrap conservative who believes that individuals are responsible for saving their own money as a hedge against times when they cannot work, since the consequences to businesses for offering family benefits would be “dire.”

In fact, the statistics show that the 12% of companies offering paid maternity leave report increased profits and productivity when they do. It’s discouraging that these benefits need to be sold as “good for the company” to be adopted, but if that’s what it takes, I’ll take that as a start. Even the (female) VP of Human Resources at IBM downplayed the company’s apparently excellent benefits, including paid leave, flextime, and on-site daycare: “We don’t do these programs because we’re doing good for society, we do them because they’re good for IBM and good for IBM’s business.” Goodness, no, we wouldn’t want to do good for society!

Change will come, I hope, but it won’t come quickly with outlooks like those expressed on 20/20. The panel of “regular moms” concluded that advocating for corporate and government change is just “asking for help,” and added that women aren’t good at asking for help. “Well,” noted Vargas cheerfully, “that might need to change.” Still, her conclusion was less upbeat, characterizing work for change as just adding one more task to “our endless to-do list.” With that attitude, the U.S. will remain awhile longer in the fine company of Lesthoto, Papua New Guinea, and Swaziland, the only other nations in the world without a national maternity leave program.

Pear Pecan Bread

Yes, we’ve got a lot of pears these days, and since I’ve got lots of writing projects to juggle, I’m doing a lot of baking. This one’s simpler than the Pear-Rosemary bread, and possibly even more delicious. The recipe’s straight out of the no-longer brand new Joy of Cooking (not the super brand-new Joy of Cooking, which, so far, I don’t feel the need to buy, but that may change…)

Preheat oven to 350 and grease a 9″ loaf pan.

Whisk together:
1 1/2 c flour
1 c sugar (I used brown, which gives the bread a delicious carmel flavor)
1 t baking soda
1/2 t salt (forgot this)
1/2 t cinnamon
1/4 t nutmeg

Whisk together in a large bowl:
1 egg
1/2 c vegetable oil
1 t vanilla
grated zest and juice from 1/2 lemon
1 1/2 c peeled, grated pears, with their juice

Add the flour mixture to the pear mixture and fold until the dry ingredients are almost all moistened.

Stir in:
1 c toasted pecans (I didn’t have pecans, so used my Dad’s hickory nuts. Yum!)

Fold until the dry ingredients are just moistened. Scrape the batter into the pan and spread evenly. Bake until a tester comes out clean, about 1 hour and 15 minutes (put a piece of foil over the top of the bread if it’s getting too dark before the bread is cooked through). Cool on a rack 5 to 10 minutes before unmolding to cool completely.

Tune in Friday!

I don’t think I’ve ever watched the news program 20/20, but I’m tuning in tomorrow night: To mark the return from maternity leave of ABC correspondent, Elizabeth Vargas, 20/20 is airing a program about motherhood and work. The show features an interview with Joan Blades, co-founder of MomsRising. Tune in on Friday night, November 10th, at 10 p.m.

In the meantime, head on over to 20/20’s website and vote on whether you think mothers deserve paid maternity leave. I’ll be curious to see the final tally on the program tomorrow night.

The Queen

Ah, The Queen… A good election-week movie choice! The story, which focuses on how Queen Elizabeth and Tony Blair navigated the tricky week after Princess Diana’s death is interesting enough, and it’s wonderful to watch Helen Mirren’s nuanced performance.

I didn’t expect it to get me thinking much about motherhood, but in fact it did, as Prince Charles and his mother politely, quietly dispute over what makes a good mother and the Queen uses her wish to “protect the boys” as her public justification for remaining isolated in Balmoral, far from London’s clamoring crowds. She sticks to one model of motherhood (remote, formal; no doubt necessary for one who was continually on public view from the time she was a teen), and Diana presented a very different one. They were bound to clash.

I don’t know, of course (nor really care) what these people are really like, whether the Queen really is a concerned grandmother or just a cold-hearted slave to protocol. She’s likely some combination of both. What I loved watching depicted in the film was the dynamic between the Queen and her mother, a woman that she has to refer to as “Her Highness.” In my favorite scene, the Queen, worn out by the demands that she return to London, make a statement about Diana’s death, appear in public, fly the Union Jack over Buckingham Palace, stands outside her mother’s door, finally seeking her advice. She squares her shoulders, takes a deep breath, and knocks once on the door, calling quietly, “Mummy?” Because even the Queen is just somebody’s daughter.

Pear Rosemary Bread

I don’t normally buy single-ingredient cookbooks (with an inventory of over 100, I’d be seriously jeopardizing my shelf space if I did), but years ago I found a small, beautiful pear cookbook on a remainder table. For $2, I figured if it had just a couple good recipes, it’d be worth the money. In fact, it has several good recipes, but this one is my favorite, a sweet-savory loaf that’s delicious with a smear of mascarpone or cream cheese.

2 c flour
2 t baking powder
1/4 t baking soda
1/4 t salt
1 pound Bartlett, Comice or Anjou pears (about 2 medium), cored, peeled, and chopped
2 t chopped fresh rosemary
grated zest of 1/2 lemon
1 T lemon juice
6 T buttter
1/3 c plus 1 T sugar
2 large eggs
1 fresh rosemary sprig

Preheat the oven to 350, and butter and flour an 8″ loaf pan.

Whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl, then set aside.

Use a food processor or blender to puree the pears with the chopped rosemary, lemon zest and lemon juice.

Beat together the butter and 1/3 c sugar until creamy. Beat in the eggs, one at a time (don’t worry if it looks a bit curdled). Now add the flour and pear mixtures alternately to the butter mixture, mixing just until the flour is incorporated.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 20 minutes. Dip the rosemary sprig in water, roll it in the remaining tablespoon of sugar, and place the sprig on top of the loaf. Continue baking for another 30-40 minutes, until the loaf is brown and springs back to the touch.

Let cool in the pan on a rack for 15 minutes, then unmold and cool completely before slicing.