Archive for February 2007

Day One

The grandparents (my parents) arrived today and everybody is very happy.

Ben made a sign (spelling all the words himself!) that said “Welcome to California! I love you! Love Ben!” and has a picture of a train with a heart on it. After dinner, he lured his granddad up to his bedroom to talk trains and build Lincoln Log structures.

Eli clutched his picture of the six of us (from my parents’ last visit here) and ran back and forth from his Grandma to his Granddad, pointing out everyone in the photograph to them very carefully. He’s added two new words to his vocabulary: Gu-guh and Guh-gah. Context is all with Eli, because those same words also refer to granola, Grover, and Gordo’s Taqueria. We’ll try not to get confused.

And I made dinner! Which I do often enough, but my parents give me an excuse to try breaking out of the “pasta with …” rut. Tonight it was risotto with balsamic glazed mushrooms, a green salad, and braised pears with caramel sauce. Mmmm.


What’s the satisfaction in a sad story? My two greatest reading pleasures recently were Audrey Niffenegger’s novel, The Time Traveler’s Wife and Lorrie Moore’s short story, “People Like That Are The Only People Here,” beautiful stories that made we weep. The very first story that made me cry might have been Where the Red Fern Grows; I remember reading it in my bedroom, hiding on the far side of my bed, hoping I wouldn’t be interrupted by a call to dinner.

Libby’s new column is “Sad Stories and Why We Read Them;” here’s a taste:

SuperBowl Sunday. We’re sitting on the couch, nine-year-old Nick between Mark and me. I’m knitting, Nick is reading; only Mark is giving his full attention to the game. At some point, I look over Nick’s shoulder and see the arresting illustration from Bridge to Terabithia: a silhouette of Jess’s father holding his shattered son, who has just learned of his best friend’s death. I put my arm around Nick.

“It’s sad there, isn’t it?”

“It is. But you can’t really cry when you’re reading it to yourself — it’s not like when someone’s reading it to you — you need both your hands. So I can’t really cry.”

So he said, but the tears started a moment later. Released by my recognition, I think, they trickled — one, two — slowly out and down his cheeks. I kept my arm around him.

“It gets better,” I said. “I promise, it gets better at the end.”

Click on over to Literary Mama to read the rest, and let us know, what’s the last good book that made you cry?

Ice Cream and Consciousness-Raising

When I first read about and learned that they’d produced a film version of their book, The Motherhood Manifesto, I knew I wanted to write a column about the documentary. What better movie, after all, for a mama at the movies, than one expressly focused on the situation of mothers in this country today? I ordered the film via and drafted my column. But something was missing. This is a consciousness-raising movie, an organizing tool. Watching it by myself, I was missing a critical component of the film’s intent.

Before I could make plans to host a house party screening myself, I found an invitation in my inbox from a woman on my prenatal yoga teacher’s email list; my youngest child is almost two but I’ve stayed on the list for the supportive community it offers. I rsvp’d, interested in meeting the other mothers.

I arrived with a pan of brownies just as the other women arrived with snacks and drinks. Our hostess’ toddler was roaming around in his pj’s, happily greeting the other mamas, an entertaining reminder of why we’d come. We quickly fell into the kind of easy playground talk common to mothers everywhere. We could have gone on for hours, though, because this time we weren’t being interrupted by our children, only slightly distracted by our hostess’ sweet boy, who roamed from one of us to the next, clambering up on the couch for a cuddle, or lolling on the floor with his dog.

When we finally sat down to introduce ourselves properly (playground chat rarely involves the background basics of name, number of children, work, etc), the conversation quickly turned more significant. We have six children between us (ranging from 20 months to 5 years), and two more on the way; one of us is pregnant with her first child, and we admired her activism and foresight in attending this screening before even becoming a mom! All of us work in some capacity, all of us are struggling to find the right balance between our jobs and our children. One of us felt she’d lost out on a job opportunity because, interviewing when she was pregnant, she was seen by the employer as an unreliable prospect. Two of us have first-hand knowledge of the better family benefits offered to working mothers in other countries (in this case, England and Canada), and have no good answer for friends and family members who ask why the US makes it so hard on working moms. One of us actually concealed her motherhood while she worked on a graduate degree in order to maintain her status in the competitive, family-hostile program (another of us has heard so many of these difficult stories about women in higher education that she is co-editing a book on the subject.) We looked forward to seeing what the movie would say to us, how much of our own stories we would recognize in the stories on film. Our hostess, having already watched the first half of the movie in preparation for this moment, started the dvd, and took her son off to bed while we settled into watch.

I won’t go into the details of the movie here, in favor of describing our reaction. I am not exaggerating when I say that the film made us laugh, and it made us cry. We all appreciated the movie’s busy mom-friendly length (just an hour), and its clarity: organized around the six-point motherhood manifesto, each section of the film presents an entertaining mix of personal stories and statistics to dramatize and elucidate the difficulties working mothers face. We sat very quietly for a moment or two after the film ended, then our hostess got out some ice cream and as we dished it up and passed the brownies around, we started to talk again, but this time with more urgency, more focus.

As we discussed what aspects of the film hit most closely home, we focused particularly on healthcare, moved by the mother in the film whose child’s medical costs bankrupted her family. It is shocking that this country doesn’t offer universal healthcare for kids: it’s a truly affordable (since kids tend to be healthy), even money-saving government expenditure (universal child healthcare would result in healthier adults.)

We discussed the vulnerability we feel as women who have altered career plans to care for our children and then wind up financially dependent on our husbands. It puts a burden of stress on us and on our marriages. We all want to work, to offer role models to our children, to contribute to our family’s financial stability, and to maintain our sense of self. Yet we continue to struggle with combining work and family in a way that gives us time for both, and we weren’t at all surprised when the film tells us that lack of family time is the main reason mothers leave the workforce.

We shared how legislation really can affect us. One of us related how a change in California’s family leave between her pregnancies means that now her husband is also considering the logistics of when to take parental leave; “he has an empathetic understanding” of the challenges she faces, she said, and it has brought a new sense of balance to their marriage.

And finally, we discussed the tricky navigation we all face between public and private life, how protective we are of the time we give as volunteers and activists because of our desire for family time, and our sadness about feeling less generous “out there,” for society, because of the powerful claims on our private time. Meanwhile, we often feel so isolated, as mothers, we’re looking for a connection beyond the connection with our children, a way to extend our nurturing beyond the boundaries of family in order to improve the world for our children and our neighbors’ children. is savvy. They know they’re trying to organize about the most exhausted, overworked segment of the population, so the film suggests quick, strategic ways to help: send an email; sign a petition; write a letter. For those of us wanting a middle ground between internet activism and street demonstrations, the website suggests tips for organizing your own local activist group. Our small group quickly wrote up a wish list of three improvements we’d like to see for families in our city, exchanged email addresses, and promised to meet again. The Motherhood Manifesto inspired the activists in us.

cross-posted at

Preschooler Wisdom

The scene: Ben and his good buddy M, playing trains on the floor, Eli roaming around in their midst. They are pretty quiet, occasionally speaking without stopping the game or looking at each other.

Background information: Eli calls himself “Li-li.”

The dialogue, in matter-of-fact tones:

M: “Eli’s crazy, isn’t he?”

Ben: “Yeah, he really is.”

M: “I mean, ‘Li-Li-Li-Li-Li-Li-Li,’ all day long.”

Ben: “Yeah.”

And when you put it like that, who’s to argue?

Mama at the Movies: The Motherhood Manifesto

What does The Motherhood Manifesto have to do with baking bread? Here’s a taste from this month’s column:

When I was a little girl, I’d stand in the kitchen at my mom’s side, “helping” her make bread every Saturday. She’d measure warm water, yeast and honey into a big yellow bowl, then a few minutes later stir in a bit of salt and several scoops of flour. She’d give the mixture a few brisk strokes with a wooden spoon and then, as the dough held together, turn it out on to the table to knead. This was the part I loved. Dusting our hands with a bit of flour, we’d push and fold the dough until it was smooth and satiny. A couple hours’ rising, a bit more kneading, an hour in the oven and then: fresh bread for the family to eat.

Bread making, like childrearing, isn’t particularly complicated. The ingredients are cheap, the process is simple. But they both require time and attention. Childrearing of course wants very focused time and attention; it can’t be squeezed into intervals of free time like bread making. So when my mom went back to work full-time, when I was old enough to spend the full day in school, bread making fell by the wayside, replaced by breadwinning. Her forty hours outside our home didn’t allow the time at home for both bread making and childrearing; she had to make a choice (and I like the choice she made!).

But we really shouldn’t have to make that choice. There should be time for childrearing, breadwinning, bread making, and whatever else a mother wants to do. This is the radical claim of The Motherhood Manifesto.

Read the rest of the column over at Literary Mama, and then sign up at MomsRising to stop discrimination against mothers and help build a more family-friendly country.

Valentine’s Day Ding-a-lings

No, this is not a list of annoying people who insulted me today, as happened one Valentine’s Day… Just a picture of the little cakes I wound up making for my boys.

I’d been stymied by the whole insert-cream-into-cake portion of the recipe; my vanilla cream was way too runny to do anything but pour out of a pastry bag (which I don’t have any way) or my ghetto pastry bag, a ziploc with the corner cut off. But then I had an inspiration while I was out running today, and came home to wash out Eli’s little medicine plunger. It worked like a charm! Plus, it was just kind of fun to squirt vanilla filling into chocolate cake with a plastic syringe.

Oh, and with the cream inside and the ganache on top, they’re really not too dry at all. Pretty tasty, in fact.

The Camel Bookmobile

First, just say it a few times: The Camel Bookmobile. The Camel Bookmobile. The Camel Bookmobile.

You’re smiling now, right? You don’t even know exactly what it is, but it can only be exactly what it says, and no matter what the details, it seems like a great idea.

The Camel Bookmobile!

It is a great idea!

And it needs our support.

Click on over here or here to find out more and donate books or the money to buy them.

And while you’re at it, check out the novel of the same name, The Camel Bookmobile, by the wonderful Masha Hamilton.

Four Valentine’s Days

Kindergarten: I came home for lunch and my mom mysteriously sent me up to my bedroom to await my meal. Moments later she arrived with cream cheese and jelly sandwiches on white bread (white bread! unheard of!), cut into hearts.

2002: I’m a month from my due date with Ben (but as it turned out, only 2 weeks from Ben), standing in the grocery store’s freezer aisle, trying to choose a vanilla ice cream for the brownie ice cream sandwiches I’m making for Tony. A woman walking by looks me up and down and says snarkily, “It’s a little late to be counting calories, isn’t it?” Cow.

2006: My Valentine’s Day dessert does double duty for the Birthday Cake Blog Project I organized to celebrate my sister‘s 45th. It tastes as good as it looks. (But sorry, Libby, I’m not nearly so organized this year!)

2007: This recipe looked so promising, but to be honest, the cake’s a bit too dry, the filling a bit too runny (and why, when a recipe isn’t so great, does it make so much? why??). Still, I will coat them all with ganache, they’ll taste fine, and there’s plenty to share with the preschool staff. Meanwhile, the banner I made (with the hearts Ben cut out to make his valentines) looks just fine. Apparently this year, it’s more of an arts & crafts holiday for me.

Book Club Works

Literary Mama contributor Cindy Dyson has just launched Book Club Works, a grassroots, adoption-style program that matches the thousands of book clubs across the country with the thousands of literacy teachers, activists and volunteers in order to bring the transforming power of books to the people who need it most.

For literacy workers Book Club Works means a steady supply of free, great books. It
means knowing a group of readers cares about his or her work. Just a few of the lit-
workers who will benefit:

  • tribal teachers
  • disaster relief workers
  • homeless shelters
  • battered women’s shelters
  • detention centers
  • prisons
  • inner city programs

For book clubs, BCW means having a way to share their love for and knowledge of
books beyond their current circle of influence.

Because BCW simply provides a place for book clubs and literacy workers to find each
other, there are no programs or rules. No bureaucracy to slow down the process of
getting books to the people who need them most. Simply one book club adopting one
teacher or literacy worker and meeting that teacher’s book needs.

Book Club Works has just launched and is eager for literacy workers and book clubs to
join before taking the program nationwide. Check out the website and sign up your book club now!

A Trip to the Ballet

The last time I went to the ballet, I was probably about ten. My mom took me to a New York City Ballet production of Petrouchka, and I don’t remember much about the event except wondering what made the ballerina’s cheeks so red!

We’re really kind of film/music people around here… I think dance is beautiful, and I’m always knocked out by the graceful strength of the dancers, but I’ve never seen many performances, or learned very much about it. Meanwhile, Ben’s interest in music started young and shows no sign of abating. He’s got a bin full of instruments, as well as two guitars, a ukulele, and a mandolin. He studies the fabulous San Francisco symphony kid’s website. And of course, we read books about music all the time, from Animal Orchestra, to Meet the Orchestra, to The Philharmonic Gets Dressed to Zin! Zin! Zin! A Violin. He even has a 4,000 entry illustrated encyclopedia of music that Tony found at the used book store (Ben reads it in bed).

And yet, we still haven’t been to the symphony! But we recently tagged along with a friend who’d bought a block of tickets to the San Francisco Ballet’s special kid-focussed production of Stravinsky’s The Firebird. We got to watch students from the Ballet School warm up on stage while a retired dancer narrated their every movement; we got to watch an excerpt from the vivacious dance, Blue Rose; and finally, a full production of their world premiere Firebird.

Of course, Ben and I had done our homework. I’d found a picture book version of The Firebird, and we’d been reading it nightly for a week. I’d worried that maybe the story, with its demons and deathless king, would trouble Ben’s dreams, but he seemed unfazed.

We arrived early, in time to really study the beautiful performance space. We walked down to look at the orchestra pit, to note which instruments were already in place (piano, harp, drums), and we got to say hello to the trumpeter when he walked in to put his score on his music stand.
Then the lights flickered, we took our seats, and Ben and his friends watched rapt as the dancers moved through their warm-ups, then Ben leaned back and let Blue Rose wash over him.

When The Firebird began at last, I suddenly realized that Ben has never seen a live-action performance of any kind. The few movies he has seen are animated; he has never seen real people pretending to be characters. And he didn’t know quite what to make of it. He moved on to my lap, a little worried about Prince Ivan when Kashchei captured him. “Is that man real? Is he going to be ok?” And he still hasn’t stopped talking about the scene of Kashchei’s death, which I found beautifully, subtly staged (a flashing light and a brief black-out), but frightened poor Ben speechless. “He’s ok,” I kept whispering into his ear, “It’s just a story. It’s all pretend.”

He’s still at the stage where the line between real life and pretend is a little fuzzy, and it’s an interesting stage to witness. I want him to know and appreciate the difference between real life and stories, of course, but I also — almost even more — want him to be so moved by stories that they feel real. I think I’ll be a little sad when pretend doesn’t have the power it does now.