Archive for January 2007

See the Comet?

I’m not sure we did, either. Two of us saw a slim white vertical streak in the sky right after the sun dropped into the ocean. Tony, who really cared, and the kids, busy racing around on the sand, never spotted it. But it was worth the try, a good excuse to zoom out to the beach for the hour before dinner. When spotting a comet promises to be so easy — just look in the sky right after the sun has set — who can resist?

Not me. As a kid, I remember being woken up for celestial events. My grandmother had a star chart and could identify all the constellations. She’d pull us out of bed on a summer night and we’d sit in the meadow to watch shooting stars or once, a rare flash of the northern lights (in Connecticut!). Even earlier, my parents woke us all for a fuzzy telecast of the moonwalk (though I was two: can I really remember this? or do I just remember the story?).

Tony and I have also gone out of our way for celestial events. When I was pregnant with Ben, we rose at 2 a.m. and drove halfway up Mt. Tamalpais for a particularly amazing meteor shower. We were directed away from the summit — too many cars already ahead of us — but found a good spot to pull over on the side of the mountain. I loved the party atmosphere, the hundreds of star-gazers: some true astronomy buffs, with their high-powered telescopes; plenty of hippies with drums; families with sleepy, confused children. All of us bundled up in sweaters and scarves against the chill. We spread our sleeping bags out on the hood of the car and started counting, but we quickly passed a hundred and gave up, just gazing at the lights streaking yellow and pale pink across the sky. We drove home after an hour or so, and spotted two more: one sailed over Geary Boulevard and seemed to shoot into a gas station; the second lit up our backyard for a moment, which seemed a promising omen, somehow, for our baby-to-be.

Comet McNaught has headed off to the southern hemisphere now, so we won’t see that again anytime soon. But we’ll keep our binoculars handy for the next one.

Remembering Tillie Olsen

When Tillie Olsen died New Year’s Day at the age of 94, the world lost not just a singular writer, but a woman who tried to combine motherhood and writing long before “mom-lit” became a publisher’s marketing label. Her writing is spare and strong, her work as a feminist an example for us all.

I’d been getting reacquainted with Tillie Olsen via her granddaughter, Ericka Lutz’s, wonderful column at Literary Mama; her latest is a moving portrait of saying goodbye to a sometimes difficult, always beloved grandmother. There’s also a wonderful tribute to Olsen by Marjorie Osterhout on the Literary Mama blog.

I first read Tillie Olsen’s work in high school; I remember particularly a fruitless debate about whether the mother in “I Stand Here Ironing” is a “good” mother. I wonder now about the teacher engaging sixteen year-olds in such a dialogue; it’s an easy way into the story, but where does it get you, really? Who’s to say what a “good mother” is? We were way too young and green to fully understand the story’s complicated truths. Still, I’m glad that teacher introduced me to her story, because of course her writing stayed with me. Thanks to him, Olsen became a name I looked for in college, in graduate school; she became a writer I read, and reread, and taught myself. And if I did no better teaching her complex story than my high school teacher, at least, I think, I’ve planted her name in my students’ heads, and they can return again when they’re older.

Tillie Olsen’s family has asked that on her birthday, this Sunday, January 14th, we commemorate her life and her work with gatherings and readings of her writing. You can find more information about how to honor this extraordinary woman at the Tillie Olsen Memorial website.

Three Hours

Normally, having the boys on my own for the evening would be nothing remarkable; Tony and I got in the habit as soon as Eli was weaned of giving each other the night off whenever we could. So when I got Tony tickets for tonight’s Warriors game, I didn’t even think twice about the long spell on my own. Maybe I’d take the boys out to dinner, maybe we’d have friends over. Who knew? It’d be fine.

I wasn’t counting on getting sick, of course, and on losing my voice. I’ve lost my voice only once before since having kids, when Ben was about two, and it seriously freaked him out. He kept crying and pulling on me, acting as if I was torturing him on purpose. When I woke up this morning with only a whispery squeak, I wondered what Eli’s reaction might be. Typically different from his brother, he just got mad at me. “Mama! MaMA!” he kept shouting, as if the louder he got the louder I would get. No dice, kid.

I whispered my way through the morning, till Ben went to school and Tony took Eli off to the playground. I slept my way through the afternoon, hoping I’d feel better when everyone got home. I woke up when they returned, took my temperature (100), took some advil, and headed downstairs to take over. Tony staying home wasn’t a possibility for me; he doesn’t get out too often, and it’s not every day Dwayne Wade comes to town. I’d have the next 3 hours on my own.

4:30 Tony leaves the house. The boys look at me expectantly. I wonder if it’s too early for dinner. Ben, who’s been whispering all day himself, the way people do around those with laryngitis even when they don’t have sore throats, asks quietly, “Computer time?” I nod, and he trots off and loads up the San Francisco Symphony website. One down.

4:33 I get out the playdoh bin for Eli. I liked playing playdoh with Ben; he would sit quietly at the table and roll out plates and plates of soft cookies for me. But poor Eli, second kid, I’m over playdoh. So he’s positively thrilled that I’ve volunteered this, and we push rolls of dough through the playdoh “table saw” for several minutes.

4:43 We’ve worked up a thirst. Eli and I practice drinking from a cup. I’m not ashamed to say that I’m better.

4:45 Snack time. Eli pulls the stool up to the pantry shelves and we while away several minutes rummaging. I reject the luna bar, but let him eat a small pack of peanuts and then a pack of airplane crackers (saved just for such times like this). He’s delighted. He shares with Ben. I’m thinking the evening might be ok.

4:55 Too early for dinner? Maybe snack was a strategic error. Eli and I have a tea party; Ben continues composing music on the symphony website.

5:04 OK, it’s not too early to get dinner started. I offer Ben scrambled eggs or leftover stir fry from last night. He chooses stir fry. Somehow it takes me more than 10 minutes to reheat it in the microwave.

5:15 Dinner time! Ben’s new job is setting the table, and he makes painstakingly careful choices of fork and spoon (for the rice) while Eli hangs from the silverware drawer, rummaging blindly and getting in the way. By the time we get to the table, the food is lukewarm. No one cares.

5:25 A quiet dinner. Eli’s frustrated that he can’t stab hunks of tofu with his plastic fork and tries spearing them with his spoon instead. Sometimes I wonder about his instincts.

5:32 “Dessert?” whispers Ben. I nod and head to the kitchen: ice cream with chocolate syrup for everyone, extra bonus candied orange peel for Ben and me.

5:35 Dinner’s over; what next? I sit on the floor and Eli clambers onto my back. OK, that’ll do. For the next half hour, I give myself over to rough-housing. All I have to do is lie on the floor and make sure the boys don’t hurt each other climbing over and onto me.

6:05 “Circus time!” shouts Ben. “What do I do?” I whisper. “Oh, Mama, you’re the audience.” I’m suffused with love for my firstborn. I sit on the floor while Ben and Eli take turns “surprising” me with the jack in the box toy. I could do this for hours, really.

6:20 “Can we have a bath?” Ben asks. “Ba! Ba! Ba!” shouts Eli, running for the stairs. I guess it’s a bath night.

6:25 Boys happily splashing in the bath, mostly obeying the one rule: Don’t Get Mama Wet.

6:45 Out of the bath, into pj’s, time for books. I’ve been wondering how this would go, and of course this is one of those nights when they want a bunch. It’s been a nice few hours, so we cuddle up in Eli’s room and I summon up my loudest squeak to read them a pile: In the Night Kitchen, The Baby Goes Beep, Rolie Polie Olie, Henry Hikes to Fitchburg, George and Martha. Ben helps me out a bit with the big words.

7:05 Maybe my favorite part of the night: the boys run down the hall to Ben’s room and leap onto his bed, cuddling up together like puppies. When Eli outgrows the crib, we’re planning to put the boys together in this huge room and reclaim Eli’s room as an office; I wonder if we should even bother buying Eli his own bed, he likes Ben’s so much. Once when we mentioned bunkbeds, Ben became probably the only older sibling in history to claim the bottom bunk.

7:10 Goodnight, Ben. Time to settle Eli. I grab my computer and settle into the glider to start this post while Eli drifts off.

7:25 One down. I go peek in on Ben. Still awake. I cuddle up with him. He’s quiet and drifty, but asks, as usual, that I tell him the story of the day he was born. “When you were in my belly, I was a teacher,” I begin. My labor with him was quick, but still, he’s asleep before the story’s over.

7:35 Two down. I made it!

Top of the List

Today was my last school tour, and I think I’ve found my favorite public school. It’s been on my radar a while: Tony used to live around the corner when we were first dating; the architect for our remodel renovated it; and a friend who used to work for the school district was in charge of choosing its color palette, fixtures and furniture (L, it looks good!)

But I’d never been inside, met the principal, seen the students in action, nor any of the rest. It’s close to home, got a varied student population, involved parents, dedicated teachers — everything you want in your child’s first school. But what caught my attention was, amongst all the other fabulous student art, a series of little books stapled to the wall, produced by second graders, titled “If I Were In Charge of the World.” I opened one, expecting to find the predictable proclamations for world peace, ice cream every day, and the abolition of younger siblings.


“If I were in charge of the world,” I read, “I’d cancel alligators.”

I just like the sheer brio of that statement.

Back in the Saddle

Several months ago, Ben announced that his bike was “too tippy” and stopped riding. We hadn’t taken the training wheels off, he hadn’t fallen down; something just changed in his thinking about bike riding and he was not to be budged.

So, we haven’t been riding bikes. He sees his friends bike and trike and scoot about, in parks and at playgrounds, with and without training wheels, but Ben’s never been one to bow to peer pressure. He was happy to watch.

Then the other day, as we were driving home past Crissy Field, I suggested that maybe we could go bike riding there again someday. “But my bike is too tippy,” came the expected reply. And I didn’t have an answer different than I’d ever had — “That’s just how bikes are, sweetie, they’re a little tippy, but you don’t fall off”– but somehow that day, it led to more discussion.

“Why can’t bikes have a little wall around the seat, that keeps you from falling off?”

“I don’t think it’d be a bike then, anymore, would it? With a little wall, it’d be more like a car. And besides, you don’t need a little wall to keep you on the seat; you’ve got good balance.”

He fell silent for the rest of the drive home. But when we got home, he said, “Mama, it’s such a nice sunny day, why don’t we ride bikes?”

And we’ve been riding every day since.

This Month in Literary Reflections…

A funny essay by Lockie Hunter titled “Your Toddler: Socrates in Training Pants.” Here’s an excerpt:

When Francis Bacon first postulated that truth is learned through experience, he must have had the toddler in mind. Their thought processes are vastly different from adults, as theirs is a world of constant experimentation. Prior to the birth of my daughter, my world, particularly that of my writing, was somewhat formulaic. Write in scenes. Use interesting language. Be aware of the arc of a piece. I seldom took chances with form. My characters were unsympathetic, dull even. My thought processes were simple, unwavering. The creative had plunged out of my creative writing. The thought patterns of a toddler, however, follow those of a philosopher. As my daughter learned to stretch her creative muscles, I began to take note and stretch mine as well.

Just as Bacon believed that knowledge is gained through experimentation, so, too, does the toddler seek to find meaning in her world through investigation. The toddler is familiar with the material Play-Doh. She molds the Play-Doh into various shapes. What would happen if it were placed, say, in the cat’s fur? I created a handy matrix to use in various instances.

Do not put the ______ in the ______.

Column A Column B
Play-Doh cat’s fur
booger shoes of the dinner guests
toothpaste DVD player

All a parent need do is pick an item from Column A and an item from Column B and speak the consequent sentence to her child. Unfortunately, I realized that my formulaic writing followed a handy matrix as well.

1. Premise

Did the protagonist ______ in the ______?

Column A Column B
die boudoir
betray a friend rose garden
take solace surf at the beach
reveal his hidden past trenches at Normandy
have a coming of age experience arms of another man

2. Character affectations. Circle all that apply.

Does the protagonist have a __________?

southern accent
facial tic
rosebud mouth
three-day beard growth

My fiction was composed like the game of Clue: Colonel Mustard killed Professor Plum in the library with the rope. Recycle characters, change the setting from library to say, trenches at Normandy, and begin again. While the matrix was making my writing somewhat banal, I thought it was still working and clung to it like a life raft. However, the handy parenting matrix began to dissolve when my daughter’s actions and questions stepped outside the realm of predictability.

Head on over to Literary Mama to read the rest!

Madame Speaker

Normally, photographs of politicians with children bring out the cynic in me, but this photograph made my day. I’m feeling incredibly optimistic about the possibilities for change represented by Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the array of children who stood with her as she took the gavel for the first time yesterday. Let’s hope that the needs of children and families take precedence in the new government.

And it doesn’t hurt to keep them honest by supporting MomsRising.

This Day In History

Richmond, Virginia is burned by British naval forces led by Benedict Arnold.


Princess Ida, written by Gilbert & Sullivan, is first performed at the Savoy Theater in London.

Ford Motor Company sets a precedent by introducing an eight-hour working day and a minimum daily wage of $5.

Nellie Tayloe Ross becomes the first female governor in the United States.

Umberto Eco is born. So is my dad, Christopher Webber–poet, priest, farmer, husband, father– in Cuba, New York.

Construction starts on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, U.S.A.

Happy birthday, Dad! You’re a year older than the Golden Gate Bridge, and you look every bit as strong.

The Spread

Sadly, I didn’t think to take a picture of our party buffet (which was happily augmented by a batch of last-minute chocolate croissants, as well as a berry coffee cake, a dozen doughnuts, pear-ginger muffins, chocolate truffles, and white bean crostini brought by guests…) before it became unphotogenic.

However, here’s a picture of the other spread the party produced as friends arrived at our no-shoes-in-the-house house.

It was a good party.