Archive for January 2008

Movie Minutes

Atonement: There was one moment in this otherwise too-dramatic-for-me film that I found moving, when the wrongly imprisoned young man, about to head to France to serve the rest of his jail term fighting in World War Two, meets with his young love and reaches a trembling hand out to touch her hand. That was it. At the end of the movie, when Vanessa Redgrave shows up to play the aged writer, the woman whose story had sent a man to jail and to war, I caught a glimpse of how interesting the novel must be. But I didn’t think the film was, very.

Winter Passing: The premise of this sounded so intriguing. An editor contacts the grown daughter of two esteemed writers, offering her $100,000 for publication rights to their love letters. The daughter, who is down and out, grieving the recent death of her mother and estranged from her father, thinks this might be an easy way to make some money, and goes home to collect the letters. Her father is a drunk and mired in writer’s block; one of his students, a woman somewhat younger than his daughter, lives with him as his cook and housekeeper (she’s thankfully not too fawning, nor does she seem to be sleeping with him — which would have been a tired old eww!), while Will Ferrell works as his handyman and security guard. If you love Will Ferrell, then maybe you could get past Ed Harris as the annoying cliche of the wild alcoholic writer, because Ferrell’s performance is compelling and nuanced. But I don’t love Will Ferrell enough. This is one of those movies that referred to, but did not tell, the story that interested me: the mom! What did she write, and what was her relationship with her daughter like, and what was her marriage like, and what did she write? What did she write?!? Oh, well.

My Kid Could Paint That: Oh, this one kept Tony and me up talking way past our bedtime! This is a documentary about Marla Olmstead, a child who paints. Because her father is a painter, and he wanted to get some work done one day, he gave her a canvas, some paints and brushes, and got to work while his daughter covered her canvas with a bright, abstract, typical preschool painting. Except, you know, on a proper canvas with quality paints, so it looked really, really good. A friend saw it and asked to hang it in his cafe, where a gallery owner saw it and asked if there were more, and before long, four year-old Marla Olmstead had a show. And then buyers. And then another show. And then some press. And then some very big sales. And then of course came the skeptics, led by 60 Minutes, to suggest that her daddy was really directing, if not in fact just doing, the paintings himself.

But the “Is she or isn’t she?” question wasn’t really the question that interested me so much. First, there’s the problem of abstract art (which we happen to be fans of in this house), and people’s strong reactions against it: It’s too easy; anyone can throw paint on a canvas and say “It’s a painting!” It doesn’t tell a story. It’s impossible to evaluate its quality (because of its refusal to represent “reality”). It thumbs its nose at the viewer as if to say, If you don’t like me, it’s because you’re not smart enough to get me. In the documentary, the strongest voice against abstract art happens to be the gallery owner representing Marla, a photo-realist painter who devotes months to a single painting and is peeved at how quickly she produces work. But not peeved enough to avoid making a buck on it.

But what made Tony and me both really sad was one tiny moment toward the end of the film, when Marla is painting and asks her dad to paint with her. And because of the skeptics, and because of all the money involved, he has to say no. The minute he kneels down to paint a picture with his little girl, the whole structure of her career collapses. But it seemed to me that their family had collapsed in some important way already, without their even noticing.

Persepolis: I thought the books were very good, though they didn’t knock me out (they’d been built up too much, I’m afraid). But at the risk of building up anticipation for the film too much, I thought it was spectacular. Here’s a rare instance when translating a book to film opens it up and deepens it; rather than the flat black & white images on the page (which are quite moving in their simplicity), the film gives you black & white and a thousand shades in between, moving subtly on screen, with incredible depth and beauty. Yes, the story’s been simplified a bit, but the film tells such a compelling story, I had to sit in the theater a while after it had emptied out and collect myself before I could leave.

The Baboon Game

One day this weekend, as a favor to me, Tony kept Eli going all afternoon without a nap. Tony was going out that night, which is no big deal (even when sick, I manage, of course, and plum the experience for a story) and he figured rather than leave me with a well-rested jack-in-the-box who would pop out of bed every 5 minutes, interrupting my work and disturbing his older brother to the point of tears (everybody’s) before finally crashing around 9pm, he’d leave me with a sweet and docile child who’d tuck in to bed happily at 7, leaving Ben to his rest and me to my work.

Well, that was the idea. Except this always backfires. Sometimes, whether due to intent or accident or a simple willful refusal, Eli doesn’t nap (he’s approaching the age when Ben dropped his nap), and it’s never good. Sometimes he winds up a cranky ball of tears by 6pm, sometimes he carries on like the Energizer bunny, fueled by adrenaline, until late. We should know better by now. And yet.

The other night was a variation on the theme that I hadn’t encountered before. Tony left around 4:30, the boys and I sat down on the couch to read a book, and by 4:45, Eli was nodding off to sleep. That wouldn’t do at all. Sure, it’s ok — even welcome–for a little baby to take a late afternoon nap, but a rest so late in the day would only give my toddler fuel to carry on into the wee hours; or if it was more than a nap, he was likely to wake up “for the day” at 4:30 or 5am. I had to take measures.

“Ben!” I said, enlisting the help of an expert. “We need to keep Eli awake or the night will be a disaster! What should we do?”

“Balloons,” said Ben.

(OK, his first suggestion was “Read Tintin to me!” but I didn’t even have to say a word for him to understand how wrong that was.)

And so we got out the balloons. And lo and behold, within 3 minutes, Eli was running around the house, merrily tossing his balloon around. He played, he ate dinner, by 7pm he was appropriately tired, it was all good.

And over the last few nights, the balloon game (or “baboon game,” as Eli calls it) has developed to the point that it is in fact the perfect game, one in a series of games that Tony and I (mostly Tony, to be honest) have perfected over the years, which require little to no energy nor imagination from the parent and lots of energy and imagination on the part of the child.

One of Tony’s classics is Napping, wherein he lies on any comfortable surface and submits quietly to tucking in, kisses, and storytelling. Another is “Hat On, Hat Off,” which involves him sitting in the living room arm chair wearing a hat while the child runs from the room. When the child returns, the hat is off. Child runs out of the room, Tony moves hat, child returns, etc. Somehow, this was wildly amusing to toddler Ben, and continues to produce shrieks of laughter from both kids.

So what started the other night as batting filled balloons around the house and then moved to letting untied balloons shoot around the living room has now, by some mysterious kid alchemy, developed to this: I sit in the armchair and blow up a balloon while the boys run out of the living room, run a circuit down the hall, through the kitchen and dining room, back to me, where they take the balloon, let it shoot into the air, retrieve it, hand it back to me, and so on. Lots of shrieking and running from them, nothing but breathing from me.

I’m not saying every day is a walk in the park, and of course now that I’ve written about it, the game may never be as much fun again, but for one night, baboons were all we needed.

Blog Day for Patry Francis

The call to participate in a blog day for Patry Francis attracted my attention because I’d just enjoyed reading her profile on Literary Mama. To learn that she’s too ill, right now, from cancer treatment to promote her book, The Liar’s Diary, attracted my sympathy.

I don’t know Francis, and I admit I haven’t read her book, but having just started work on a publicity plan for my own book, I feel terrible at the thought of someone publishing a book and not being able to support it with readings and other events. It’s like putting your kid on a school bus for the first day of kindergarten and saying, “Bye! Good luck! See you at the end of the year!”

So if my writing about her writing can help raise attention to her work, I’m happy to participate. Here’s an excerpt from her profile that struck a chord with me:

I really admire writers who can get a lot of work done when their children are small. I was never one of them. For me, trying to understand who each child was and what they needed to grow and develop their own talents took all the creativity I had. There was no room for me to ponder the inner life of characters. Though I made many outlines and filled notebooks with ideas for the novels I hoped to write, nothing much was finished while there was a child under six in the house.

Writing, if it’s genuine and honest, is an act of supreme empathy. In writing a novel, I struggle to understand my characters, to accept their strengths and weaknesses, to allow them the freedom to be themselves (even when it doesn’t fit in with my plans), to celebrate them, forgive them and then to let them go. When you think of it, it’s very similar to the arc of parenting.

I also think my dedication to my work, both when I met with success and during the long years when I didn’t, has had a positive influence on my children. It’s taught them that if you truly love what you do, the process itself is always the greatest reward.

I have always loved my role as a mother, but I am also grateful to have something that is all my own. As my children are growing older and beginning to leave home, there is a sense of nostalgia and even loss, but that is counter-balanced by the joy I have in my other life: my work. Knowing that mom is busy and happy is also making the transition easier for the children. And, oh yes, one more thing: they are so proud of me.

And now go check out her blog, where she’s got many more lovely reflections on writing. And then (don’t forget!), check out her book, which sounds like a good creepy read for a winter’s night.

cross-posted at Literary Mama

Random Things Meme

I saw this first on Susan‘s blog, then Libby‘s, and since I want to see more of these posts, I’m doing it myself and tagging everyone who reads it! If you don’t have a blog, post your responses down in the comments.

1. Spell my name as it sounds: Karoliiiine? How can I convey that it’s not Karolihn? It rhymes with “valentine!”

2. Am I a worrier? Yes. I have a fortune cookie fortune on my desk that says “You are worrying about something that’s not going to happen.” But I don’t believe it.

3. What’s my favorite CD? Oh, it changes all the time. I’ve got the Into the Wild soundtrack (thanks, Vicki!), Amy Winehouse, Feist, and Bruce Springsteen on the shuffle right now. But I love Libby’s choices, too ( James Taylor’s “One Man Band,” and Hem’s “Rabbit Songs.”)

4. Favorite colour(s)? Blue

5. Does my home have an attic? Really just a crawl-space. The boys joke that the contractor who renovated our house still lives up there. I sort of wish he did.

6. Have I ever been to Canada? Yes, to New Brunswick on a fly-fishing trip with an old boyfriend and his dad.

7. Have I ever gone fishing? Yes, several times (see #6, above); also plain old hook and line fishing with my grandfather and uncle, and “party-boat fishing” on the Long Island Sound (which I don’t recommend).

8. Have I ever seen a celebrity? Yes. Ted Danson, Sean Penn, Mollie Katzen, Rusty Staub, Aaron Neville, Steve Young.

9. Have I ever been on a motorcycle? Yes, on my uncle’s when I was a little kid.

10. How much money do I have on me right now? None on me, but $13 in my wallet.

11. How many cars have I owned? Five; drive two of them currently.

12. How many jobs have I had? About 8 employers (several different jobs at some of them) since graduating from college. Five or six more (counting “babysitting” as just one job) before.

13. How tall am I? 5’5″.

14. Last person to call me: The accountant. On a Saturday. Goodness, that makes me feel old.

15. Last thing I yelled out loud: “Ben, stop! I don’t want you to fall and hurt yourself!” as he stood on a stool, reaching on a high shelf for the Ovaltine.

16. Last person I was in a car with: Eli and Ben.

17. Last time I ate at McDonald’s: High school?

18. Last thing I bought: Grilled cheese sandwiches for Eli and me at Tumble & Tea Cafe in Oakland.

19. Last person I saw: Ben.

20. Last time I cried: Last week sometime, in frustration with the kids.

21. Last time I laughed: This morning at Eli.

22. What is the temperature outside? 56F.

23. What time of the day did I get married? Late afternoon.

24. What did I do two nights ago? Read proofs for Mama, PhD.

25. Who’s birthday is coming up next? Libby‘s!

26. What time did I go to bed last night? 11:30.

27. What was the first thing I thought this morning? Really? it can’t be morning yet.

28. What are my plans for this weekend? Read Mama, PhD proofs, take Ben to his basketball game, revise an essay I’m working on, publish new writing on Literary Mama.

29. Lemonade or iced tea? Both, mixed half and half.

30. What do I dislike at this moment? My hair (too long), the weather (too rainy).

31. What did I dream about last night? Ugh- that the boys were kidnapped. Still haven’t shaken it off.

32. What’s the last TV show I watched? Project Runway.

33. What is my favorite piece of jewelry? Engagement ring.

34. Am I a dancer? Nope.

35. Have I ever cut my own hair? No!

36. What is my favorite treat? Dark chocolate salted caramels .

37. How many piercings/tattoos do I have? Pierced ears.

38. Where’s my
favorite place to be? Home, unless it’s a real mess.

39. Is there someone I haven’t seen in a while and miss? Yes, several friends.

40. Who was the last text I sent to? Tony. It took me about half an hour to text “Doing OK. Lots of love.” I keep meaning to practice this.

41. Do I care what strangers think about me? Strangers? no, not at all. People I know? a little bit.

42. Last person I talked to on Instant Messenger: Probably Elrena? via google docs, about Mama, PhD.

43. Last person to make me cry: Eli.

44. Who can I tell anything to? What Libby said: “Myself. That’s what writing’s for.”

45. What am I doing tomorrow? More of the same (see #28 above)

46. Do I have alcohol in my home? Wine, whiskey and bourbon (that’s Tony’s domain), various liqueurs, sherry.

47. Do I like ketchup? Yes, please. And mustard.

48. Do I think I will be on a vacation this summer? 2 weeks in France!

49. What colour is my master bathroom? Cream, blue, and slate grey.

50. Do I wear a bikini at the beach? Last summer; maybe not this summer.

51. Have I ever been to the Grand Canyon? No.

52. What is my favorite fruit? Peaches in the summer, satsumas in winter.

53. What did I really want to do today? Sleep in. Stay in bed a long time after I woke up, reading. Do some cooking (which in fact I’m doing: onion confit, chocolate toffee bars, pizza. Am I avoiding a writing project? Yes.)

54. Am I always cold? No.

55. Does it annoy me when someone says they’ll call or text, but don’t? It really, really does. A lot.

Roasted Sweet Potato & Leek Pasta for a Winter Night

I found this recipe in Real Simple (where I also snagged the picture because we ate ours all up before I could get out the camera). So although I’ll link to the original since that might be easier to print, I’ve made some changes below: roasting the sweet potato rather than sauteeing it (it takes longer, but it’s no more effort, and I think it tastes better), and also deglazing the pan with some white wine.

Of course, only Tony and I ate it as written; Ben ate his pasta sprinkled with nuts, the sweet potatoes on the side, and Eli, having rejected the sweet potatoes and the leeks, ate pasta with grated cheese and sprinkled nuts, but at least we all ate versions of the same thing. I’ll call that a success!

2-3 small sweet potatoes (about 1 pound), peeled and cut into 1/2-inch pieces, or an equal amount of winter squash, peeled and diced

12 ounces penne (whole wheat or multigrain pasta is especially nice here)

3 leeks (white and light green parts), cut into half-moons
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
2 T white wine
3-4 T olive oil
1 or 2 tablespoons fresh sage, chopped

salt and pepper
toasted pumpkin seeds or slivered almonds
3/4 cup grated parmesan
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

Preheat the oven to 400 while you peel and chop the sweet potatoes or squash. Oil a roasting pan and toss the sweet potatoes/squash in the pan with a drizzle of olive oil and some of the chopped sage. Roast the vegetables, turning once or twice, for 15 minutes, or until tender and caramelized.

While the vegetables are roasting, bring a big pot of water to boil and cook the pasta. When it’s done, drain, reserving 1/2 cup of the cooking water.

While the pasta’s cooking, heat a couple tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the leeks and cook, stirring, until they begin to soften, 4 minutes. Stir in the garlic and a bit of sage and cook 2 minutes. Add the white wine and cook another minute or two.

At this point, you can turn off the heat under the leeks until the pasta and roasted vegetables are finished. Once all three elements of the dish are cooked, add the pasta and roasted vegetables to the leeks in the skillet, add the sprinkle of nutmeg and stir, adding a bit of the pasta-cooking water if it seems too dry. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Serve with grated parmesan and the slivered almonds and/or pumpkin seeds sprinkled on top.

A Good Day in San Francisco

This has not been a good winter for San Francisco. We have not, for example, been to the zoo to ride Eli’s beloved Puffer train since the Christmas Day tiger escape, and I’m not sure I’ll ever feel safe enough there to return. I have mixed feelings about zoos, but there’s something about the SF zoo, the sight of the giraffes’ heads bobbing along above the eucalyptus trees, the waves from Ocean Beach crashing in the background, that always appealed to me.

Meanwhile, in other local news, the governor has slashed the public school budget (how are our teachers, already stretched to the limit, going to continue under these conditions?), and our street car line recently struck another pedestrian.

My kids don’t know about any of this, of course, but it’s all been wearing on me and I badly needed a good city day. And we had one last Friday. We started at Ben’s school, where his kindergarten class, their fourth grade buddies, and assorted teachers, staff, and families gathered for a peace march in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday. The kids paraded across the park to a shopping district, chanting slogans (“2! 4! 6! 8! We think Dr. King is great!”) and singing Happy Birthday to the bemused smiles of shoppers and shopkeepers. We walked along beside them, Eli asking the whole way, “This the ha-pade? Where the ha-pade?”

After some time in the playground’s train structure and lunch, I collected Ben from school (Tony and Eli having driven home for a nap), and we rode the bus downtown. A few stops along our journey, an older man boarded the bus and sat down next to Ben and me. He listened to us chatting about the parade and MLK for awhile, then pulled a piece of paper out of his bag and started to fold. Ben watched intently as the bird (pictured above) took shape. When he was done, the man handed it to Ben, who was delighted with his gift. “For me? Really?” and then checking with me, “Caroline, can I keep this?” The man and I both smiled our yeses to Ben, and the man then got out two more pieces of origami paper; handing one to me, he indicated (I only realized later that he never spoke to us) that I should fold along with him and learn. Two more birds emerged from the papers, just as we got to our stop. Ben bounced off the bus, holding his bird, delighted with this interaction with a stranger.

Next stop, the Museum of Modern Art for the Olafur Eliasson show. If this comes anywhere near you, go see it! Take the kids! It’s a gorgeous, light-filled, fascinating exhibit, with many of the installations exposed so that you can see how they were created. Ben and I had a ball poking in and around the various pieces, and I think a Friday afternoon bus ride to MoMA might become a regular part of our monthly routine.

Ben then remembered the MLK memorial across the street, so off we went. It’s a Maya Lin-inspired fountain/waterfall, with lines from King’s speeches engraved on the walls next to huge photographs from various moments in the Civil Rights movement. Streams of water pour down (“let justice roll down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream”), and the whole thing always makes me cry. Luckily Ben was there, threatening to topple headlong into the water, hollering at the pigeons, lightening up the mood.

And then last stop, reunited with Tony and Eli, who took the street car (without incident) downtown to meet us for dinner at our favorite Vietnamese restaurant, Out the Door. We filled up on lemongrass tofu and chard with carmelized shallots, picked up some chocolate gelato for dessert, and then loaded two tired boys back on to the street car for the ride home. It was a fine day in San Francisco.

Mama at the Movies: Juno

My, there’s quite a lot of ink being shed on this film! And my little column doesn’t cover all I could say about it, either, but here’s an excerpt from my contribution to the conversation:

The best thing the new movie Juno (Jason Reitman, 2007) achieves as it traces the impact of one teenager’s unplanned pregnancy is its refusal to shy away from the complexities and odd juxtapositions of life; in fact, it embraces them, insisting that we look at the messiness of relationships, the rapidly shifting peaks and valleys of emotional intelligence, so that we can begin to understand how a smart girl could have sex without birth control and how a sensitive girl could give a child up for adoption. When sixteen year-old Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page) discovers she’s pregnant, she puts her head in a noose — made out of licorice ropes (she frees herself by taking a savage bite). When she contacts a clinic to arrange an abortion, she makes the call on a hamburger-shaped telephone. Her boyfriend, the father of her child, sleeps in a racecar-shaped bed. As Juno responds when her dad asks where she’s been, “Out dealing with things way beyond my maturity level.”

You can read the rest of my column here at Literary Mama. And while you’re there, check out some of our other columns and a new book review, too!


I’m not at all a proselytizer, generally, but apparently my efforts to eat a bit more seasonally have not gone unnoticed.

Exhibit A: A blueberry-pear tart a friend bought at a local shop and brought to share for lunch.
Ben’s reaction: “Blueberry tart?! What?! Blueberries aren’t in season!”

Exhibit B: Dinner at a friend’s house (the same friend, in fact), with pesto pizza.
Ben’s reaction: “Pesto?! Impossible! Basil doesn’t grow in the cold winter!”

Meanwhile, the cafe that Ben and Eli have set up outside our kitchen now sports a spiffy “USDA Organic” sign, which Ben found on the computer and printed out himself, and the boys now grow imaginary crops for the cafe in our living room. As of last night, their garden included carrots, potatoes, an olive tree, a caper bush, and a maple tree, for syrup. They also harvest their own cocoa beans. Of course.


Thanks for the suggestions on the Amazon boxes! I have written Amazon customer service to suggest that they could have used one less box, and broken down the boxes (all too big to mail my PIF books, alas; I need to be giving away more and bigger books, apparently). We didn’t build a fort with these, but will save them in case one of the birthday boys this spring wants a rocket or train-building party.

And thanks even more for the words of sympathy and concern about Eli’s encounter with the new book case (this is what we get for unpacking all our books from the nice, soft, cardboard boxes). Ten of Eli’s stitches came out last week. He was stoic, saying only afterwards that “the teeny-tiny scissors hurt a teeny-tiny bit.” One of the dissolving stitches has dissolved, and one’s still hanging on, like an umbilical cord stump that won’t drop.

And, finally, as for my movie-watching binge, I wound up writing a column on Juno. Look for it at Literary Mama next week.


What’s a trying-to-be-green Mama to do when a new kitchen purchase comes packaged in all this:

My new printer came in less. I could pack and ship my children in less!

I know, I know: should have tried to get it from the local hardware store.