Archive for March 2008


When astronauts come back to earth, they spend a period of time in limbo, back on earth but not yet quite home. They get their muscles back in earth shape, and the doctors make sure they’re ok. I like to think it’s a little bit relaxing for them, this in-between time, but realistically, it’s probably about as relaxing as being a hospital patient. After that time in their space capsule, working through a busy schedule of experiments and projects, they’re probably longing for some real downtime, hanging out with their families and friends, eating real food and watching tv. I imagine the re-entry limbo must drive their families a little bit crazy, to have their mom or dad or husband or wife back, but still out of reach.

Re-entry has been a mushy kind of limbo for me this week, which is why it’s taken me so many days to write about our visit. I don’t have much to add to Elrena and Libby‘s posts about it; they cover most of the highlights (the food! the Mama, PhD conversations! and more food!) Of course neither of them could write with detail about Eli’s ER visit, but neither can I — all three of us missed it, busy with the Mama, PhD round table. But Mariah knew how to get Tony and the boys to the ER, and when I got home, Eli came jumping down the hall to show me his hospital bracelet. “Stitches on my head!?” he exclaimed, “That’s crazy!” You said it, buddy.

We went to the Air & Space Museum the last day of our trip and wandered around marveling at the planes and space capsules hung from the ceiling. We looked closely at the Spirit of St Louis, which is fabric-covered, and carried Lindbergh across the ocean even though it has no front window. Eli climbed into the cockpit of a Cessna, which was roomy for him, and we all squeezed into SkyLab. I cannot imagine climbing into one of these vehicles if it weren’t safely bolted to the museum floor, but Ben and Eli are at that explorer age, and the prospect of zooming suddenly off into space, like the boy in their beloved Planetron book, or Jimmy Zangwow, delights them. I like that in both stories, the boys are home in time for dinner.

Now we are home, and the boys have each built and rebuilt their new Air & Space Museum lego sets many times (space shuttle for Ben, airbus for Eli). We continue to read Planetron every night before bed, and have just started another boy-in-space book: Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. Ben has suggested a Virginia field trip to his kindergarten teacher (“It’s a pretty long trip,” he conceded); meanwhile, Eli has announced that he is a dog, and so sleeps with a ball (as well as with his patch blanket, his bear, his two doggies and his bunny). Life is returning to its normal orbit, quirky though it may be.

Travel Day

Easy travels don’t make good stories, but I think I will take a painless plane trip over good material any day. The trip did net one good picture: this is Eli asleep in the car on the drive from Dulles to Libby‘s house. (Before anyone calls Child Protective Services on me, the blanket–his beloved patch blanket–was looser than it looks and I could hear him breathing.)

We made it from San Francisco to Virginia in under 12 hours door-to-door, which is one measure of a good trip. We made it without running out of snacks or needing any changes of clothes, which is another measure of success. I won’t write any more because we have to do this in reverse on Wednesday and I don’t want to jinx myself.

So now we are here, and the boys have eaten 3 bowls a piece of their beloved honey O’s, a cereal they only get at their aunt’s house, Eli has made friends with Anna the cat, and Ben has smashed his previous speed record on the go-cart. We’ve dyed some Easter eggs, I made a chocolate cake, and my niece heard today that she got into college! Life is good.

Happy Easter!

Mama at the Movies: 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days

This month’s movie is no feel-good date night escape, but it is one of most moving and intelligent films I’ve seen in ages. Here’s an excerpt from my new column:

Washing my hands in the theater bathroom after watching the new film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, 2007), I noticed I have a lot of gray hair. Maybe I should be grateful that the dim lighting in my house has been keeping this revelation from me. Somehow without my noticing, the blonde that has always lightened the brown has gone several shades lighter. The movie made me realize another subtle way that I’ve aged: it used to be, I’d watch a movie like this, about two women in their twenties, and identify with them. Now I wonder what I’d do if I were their mom.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is set in Romania, 1987, and follows a pair of friends over the course of a single day. It opens in their dorm room as they’re preparing for a trip; they don’t seem happy about it, but it’s easy at first to chalk their mood up to their living conditions: the dingy and crowded room; the talk of using Palmolive for shampoo; the hunt for cigarettes in black market shops operated out of other dorm rooms, where the girls can buy half-packets of birth control pills and nail polish, too. Gabriela frets about whether to bring her notes so that she can study while they’re away; Otilia tells her brusquely that there’ll be no time. Gabriela complains of a toothache, moans that her stomach feels weird; Otilia, tense and losing patience with her friend’s fretful inactivity, snaps at her. She goes over the plan for Gabriela: the money, the possibility of bribes, the meeting place, and it gradually becomes clear that the pair isn’t going on vacation, but arranging an abortion for Gabriela.

Click on over to Literary Mama to read the rest.


From Libby, Susan, Violeta and various other blogs…

1. Who was your first prom date? His name was George, and he was my friend’s boyfriend, but she didn’t want to go to what was called the Sixth Form Dance (private, anglophile school that it was) with a junior. So she went with a fellow senior, and I took George! And yes, it was every bit as awkward as it sounds.

2. Do you still talk to your first love? No; the last time we talked was when he called to say he and his wife were expecting their first child, and I told him I was getting married. I think he still lives nearby, though.

3. What was your first alcoholic drink? Probably something ghastly like rum and coke. I was in high school.

4. What was your first job? I started working as a mother’s helper for neighbors when I was twelve or so, and then in high school I worked as a cashier in a hardware store, and then several summers working in various offices of the hospital where my mom worked.

5. What was your first car? A 1990-something Nissan Sentra, bought used from Libby. It was a good little car, but it was totaled when somebody turned left into me on Fell Street here in San Francisco.

6. Who was the first person to text you today? Nobody. Tony occasionally texts me.

7. Who is the first person you thought of this morning? Eli.

8. Who was your first grade teacher? Miss Nesbit, I think? (Mom, do you remember?!) I can remember all my other elementary school teacher’s names but I am blanking on this one.

9. Where did you go on your first ride on an airplane? I think to the Philippines with my parents when I was a baby. The story goes that the immigration officials failed to stamp my passport on the way in, and so were disinclined to let my parents return to Japan with me. I guess they thought my parents were stealing me? Obviously it all worked out.

10. Who was your first best friend, and are you still friends with him/her? Anne, in elementary school, whose house I could get to by squeezing through the fence behind our house, sprinting down a mean old man’s driveway (because every childhood needs a mean old man in it somewhere), and crossing the street. We’ve lost touch.

11. What was your first sport played? Softball, in 5th grade. I was on a team called the Firecrackers and I played right field (read, wasn’t any good). We won one game and went out to Baskin Robbins for ice cream to celebrate.

12. Where was your first sleepover? At Anne’s house. We did a seance to try to hypnotize our friend Sarah, and I was so unsettled by the whole experience I pretended I was sleepy and curled up in the corner in my sleeping bag.

13. Who was the first person you talked to today? Eli. I said, “Good morning, sweetie!” with more enthusiasm than I felt.

14. Whose wedding were you in the first time? Libby‘s! I was in high school, working some boring summer job, when Libby flew home from LA to deal with the caterer and get a picture taken and make various other arrangements. She and my mom would go bridesmaid dress-scouting in the afternoons (I was the only one in the wedding party, so I got to wear whatever Libby and I agreed on), and they would pick me up after work and take me to various stores to try on the dresses they’d found. It remains one of the best shopping experiences of my life.

15. What was the first thing you did this morning? Cuddle up with Eli and Ben.

16. What was the first concert you ever went to? The Cure, Madison Square Garden, probably 1985. Jennifer and I took the train to the concert, and the other people — all pierced and gelled and dark eye shadowed — kind of scared us.

17. What was your first tattoo or piercing? Pierced ears, maybe 3rd grade? My godmother gave me gold studs for Christmas, and I got my ears pierced shortly after that.

18. What was the first foreign country you went to? The Philippines when I was a baby (see above), and then Russia when I was two. I moved to the United States when I was five.

19. What was your first run-in with the law? Fall 1990. I was involved in an anti-war demonstration in Union Square Park, and I stepped on to a pedestal to see better when one of New York’s finest told me to get down or he would shoot me in the knees. I understand that protesters and police are not generally on the best terms, but still, I never even spoke to the man. I got down right quick.

20. When was your first detention? I’ve never had detention.

21. What was the first state you lived in? Connecticut.

22. Who was the first person to break your heart? Oh, number 2, I guess. I’m over it.

23. Who was your first roommate? Aside from tent-mates in camp (whose names I forget), I had three, my first year in high school: Anna, Nina, and Shana. The older girls in the dorm would come to our room and sing “Three of these girls belong together, one of these girls just doesn’t belong!” Nice.

24. Where did you go on your first limo ride? I’ve never been in a limo.

Because They’re Better Than One…

Eli was scratching his head.

“Forehead…” he remarked thoughtfully as he rubbed; then, moving his hand onto the top of his head, he said, “One head.” He paused a beat, his hand still, thinking.

“Mama? Why two heads?!”

Chocolate Birthday Cake

This year, Ben requested a chocolate cake with white chocolate frosting and raspberry frosting. I was a little dubious (not being a huge white chocolate fan) but I bought good white chocolate (which is flavorful, not just sweet) and the cake turned out great. The frosting was not as bright pink as in the drawing Ben made to guide our efforts, but he was well pleased with the result.

This is what we did…

The cake is the Rich Chocolate Cake from The Baker’s Dozen Cookbook. It’s a good, easy recipe– no separating eggs, no fussiness–and it tastes delicious.

3 oz unsweetened chocolate, chopped
2 1/4 c all purpose flour
1 1/2 t baking soda
1/2 t salt
2 1/2 c brown sugar
8 T (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature)
1 c sour cream (I used plain yogurt), at room temperature
3 large eggs, lightly beaten, at room temperature
1 t vanilla extract
1 c water

Line the bottoms of two 9×2-inch round cake pans with parchment. Preheat the oven to 350.

Melt the chocolate and cool till tepid.

Combine the flour, baking soda and salt in a large bowl. Add the brown sugar and stir to combine. Add the butter and sour cream or yogurt and beat into a thick batter. Add the eggs, melted chocolate and vanilla and beat until well combined. Add the water slowly and mix just until blended. Spoon the batter into the prepared pans, spread evenly, and bake 30-35 minutes, until the tops spring back when pressed lightly in the centers and a tester comes out clean.

Cool for 10 minutes, then turn the cakes out onto the cooling racks. Peel off the parchment, put it back on the cakes, sticky side up, then invert the cakes again to get them right side up. Cool completely before filling and frosting.

To make the filling:

2 1/4 oz white chocolate, chopped
3/4 c confectioners’ sugar
1/8 c milk
1/4 t vanilla extract
3 T unsalted butter, softened
pinch of salt

Melt the chocolate and let cool. Sift the confectioners’ sugar into a medium bowl. Stir in the milk and vanilla. Add the butter and salt and beat until smooth. Stir in the melted chocolate.
Use to spread between the layers of the cooled cake.

To make the frosting:
(Vanilla buttercream is delicious but finicky, so I always make cream cheese frosting…)
8 oz cream cheese, softened
4 T unsalted butter, softened
2 T vanilla
1 c confectioners’ sugar
1/2 c raspberry jam (or more to taste), pressed through a sieve (optional, if you want to make raspberry frosting)

Beat together the cream cheese and butter until smooth. Add the vanilla and confectioners’ sugar and beat until creamy. Stir in the raspberry jam. Now frost the cake!

Now We Are Six

Six years ago today, I was sitting at my desk emailing with my writing students. It was Sunday night, around 11 pm, but they were all on line and a little freaked out that–despite plenty of warning (and the daily evidence of my growing belly)–I wasn’t going to finish out the quarter with them. The previous Friday, at my 38-week check-up, my ob had put an end to my two-hour daily commute. I went on maternity leave without ever returning to campus.

So there I was, typing away, when I realized my water had broken. I logged off with the students, emailed a quick note to my department chair, and called my ob’s answering service, where a weary nurse listened to my nervous answers to her questions about my symptoms (none, other than the water breaking), told me get some sleep and call back in the morning.

Tony emailed his new boss (he’s only been in the job about two weeks), and started packing a bag. He tossed in the Sunday paper and a crossword puzzle book — apparently we thought we’d run out of things to do in the hospital. We didn’t know anything yet about how all-consuming (and yet often quite boring) parenting can be. The cradle wasn’t set up, the car seat was in the car but we didn’t know how to use it. I went to sleep.

A couple hours later I woke up with a contraction, announced the news to Tony, and went back to sleep. A few hours after that I had a contraction that about kicked me out of bed. I spent the next hour or so moaning, counting down the time until we could reasonably go to the hospital. We were both so afraid of getting to the hospital too early; it had been drummed into us to wait until the contractions were a certain duration and coming at certain intervals. Mine were totally irregular and knocking me off my feet. I felt pathetic that I couldn’t handle them. Tony called the hospital and told them we were coming in.

We got to the hospital around 7:30 and the nurse who examined me said I was fully dilated. I could have kissed her. Suddenly full of energy, I managed to get through the admitting procedures and get into a room before pushing Ben out into the world just after 9.

Ben likes to hear the story of the day he was born when he is falling asleep or feeling sad, and this is the version I tell him:

“When you were in my belly I was a teacher. Every day I would drive to a school with long brick pathways and big green lawns. I carried a heavy backpack, bigger than yours, full of papers and books, from my office to my classroom. My students and I would talk about books together, and I would help them write essays about what they read.

“Until one day, my doctor said, ‘I think your baby’s going to be born soon. I think it’s time for you to stop working.’ So that day I went to the movies. And the next day, Daddy and I visited with a lot of our friends and told them how excited we were to meet you. That night, I felt you start to kick and wiggle in a new way, and I called my doctor, who told me to wait until morning to come to the hospital. So I went to sleep.

“But you kept kicking and wiggling until I couldn’t sleep anymore, so Daddy and I got up and he drove us to the hospital super fast. We parked the car and rode upstairs in the elevator, and when we got off the elevator, the nurse said, “You look great!” because nurses love to see a woman who’s about to have a baby.

“She took me to my hospital room, and helped me into my hospital nightgown, and I climbed into my hospital bed, and I pushed and I pushed and I pushed and out you came! And you had your arms spread wide, and I reached out to cuddle you up, and I said, “Benjamin! Benjamin is here! I am so happy that Benjamin is here.”

And I am still so happy that Benjamin is here.