Archive for the ‘Parenting’ Category

BookClubCardRosemaryA couple of weeks ago, Boston Globe reporter Beth Teitell wrote a feature on the book club that I run for my oldest daughter and eight of her friends. I’ve written about this book club before, about the impetus for it, and how impressed I am with the level of thought and discourse among this group of nine year olds, and how gratifying the whole experience is. (See here and below for the most heart-melting cards I received from them.) So it was with delight that we all welcomed the reporter to one of our meetings. Please do check out the feature, and photos, here.

Several people have contacted me for the full list of books we have tackled. We began in February 2013 when the girls were mid-way through third grade, and read all these:

The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, by Judy Blume
From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E. L. konigsburg
One Crazy Summer, by Rita García-Williams
The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles, by Julie Andrews Edwards
Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, by Robert O’Brien
Walk Two Moons, by Sharon Creech
Rules, by Cynthia Lord
Out of My Mind, by Sharon Draper
Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson
Island’s End, by Padma Venkatraman
The Candy Shop War, by Brandon Mull
Esperanza Rising, by Pam Muñoz Ryan
The Alchemyst, by Michael Scott

Once we resume in September at the start of fifth grade, we’ll be integrating more non-fiction and, I hope, poetry.

BookClubCardOli  BookClubCardSasha

Read Full Post »

Photo by Ed Ralph via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Ed Ralph via Wikimedia Commons

Next week I head to a writing retreat with my writing group. The repetition of the word “writing” is intentional. Writing writing writing. I’m going to write! Hurrah! On the rugged coast of Maine, in a rambling house with nooks and alcoves galore, filled with history and books. The three days beckon to me like one of those pools of astonishingly turquoise water in the midst of dark blue ocean, an atoll where suddenly the filaments of brown sea grass reaching up to entangle you are gone, and the rough, fish-filled coral reef parts, and there is nothing but light, undulating sand beneath clear water. Ahhh.

But there’s still some swimming to do, against the current, to get there. Here’s why, in a verbatim transcript of emails between me, my Next Doors counterpart Kathy, and my husband J, during a two hour span a few days ago. I swear I’m not making this up.

June 2, 2014 at 11:05 am. Email from me to Kathy. Subject: weekend of June 20

Hey, I don’t want to forget to do some planning for when I’m at my writing retreat. No need to read this now, just want to figure it out at some point.

I will leave during the daytime on Thursday the 19th. Will need to figure out how to get K to (and from) piano. (I’d have her miss it but she’s part of a recital that Saturday so could use the lesson.) Will need S pick-up.

Friday, J can do drop off, but there will be pick-up needed. Can K hang with you guys until J is home? Or I can arrange a playdate for her. (There’s no more French class.)

I’m happy to see if Julie or a local teen can help out for any of this. Just let me know what’s feasible on your end, and I’ll fill in any gaps.

S has a birthday party on Saturday morning when J and K are at karate, but Jessie’s babysitter will take her and Jessie. There’s a Chhandika dance recital so he’ll take both girls there on Sunday morning.

I’ll be back mid- to late-afternoon on Sunday. You know, if I decide to come back.

 

June 2, 2014 at 11:09 am. Response from Kathy to me:

Heh?  I can’t even process this.  It’s Monday!

 

June 2, 2014 at 11:10 am. From me to husband J. Subject: writing retreat.

Just want to make sure these dates are in your brain somewhere. I’ll be at writing retreat, leaving Thursday the 19th daytime. I’ll figure out coverage, as always, but could you drop off S on Friday the 20th morning? Please put in your calendar. Now. Thank you.

(Yes, I know this is our anniversary. We need to find an alternate day to go out. How about Saturday the 28th?

K is to be part of a piano recital on Saturday the 21st, but I don’t yet know what time.

Sunday the 22nd there’s an open house/recital thingy at dance.

I know, complicated weekend for me to be away.

 

June 2, 2014 at 11:11 am. From me to Kathy:

I TOLD you there was no need to read this now!

 

June 2, 2014 at 12:10 pm. From husband J to me: 

What is the dance recital timing?

 

June 2, 2014 at 12:17 pm. From me to J: 

Hmm, I don’t know yet. Need to find out. Also that of piano recital.

 

June 2, 2014 at 12:19 pm. From J to me:

OK, I have multiple conflicts the morning of 7/28:  Karate and a seminar I’m attending in Boston.

 

June 2, 2014 at 12:26 pm. From Kathy to me: 

Okay, now that I’ve had some coffee…

Th 6/19: There’s a soccer potluck from 5:30 to 7:00.  Would be happy to take both your kids to this with us.  What time is piano again?  L and I could take K to piano, then pick up little ones and head to potluck.

Fr 6/20: Can pick up all four kids, though if Kung Fu is back on (which is questionable), I will have to take K with us before getting little ones.

 

June 2, 2014 at 12:28 pm. From me to J:

Huh? Do you mean 6/28? June 28 is when you seem to be at a conference, according to calendar. I can take K to karate. Could we still do dinner that evening? Or does your conference include evening?

 

June 2, 2014 at 12:32 pm. From me to Kathy:

Mmmm…. coffeeeee

Th 6/19: Piano is 3:30 to 4:00. Yipes, four kids at potluck? Will M [Mr. Next Doors] be with you?

Fr 6/20: why don’t I just arrange a playdate for K. That will simplify something at least. Adding this to my list.

 

June 2, 2014 at 12:36 pm. From Kathy to me. Subject: Confirming Julie…

…to watch little ones on 6/30 and 7/1 from 9:00 to 3:00?  What about nap time?  Should we just have her stay until 1:30?  Don’t want to push E’s nap later.

 

June 2, 2014 at 12:38. From me to J:

Ok, I found out the piano recital timings. It will be 1:15 to 2:30 on Saturday 6/21. You can pick up S from her friend’s b’day party at 1:00 and head over. (She will have eaten, and will be taken to party by Jessie’s babysitter.) The teacher will put K toward the beginning so that if S gets antsy and needs nap, you’ll be able to leave. The whole thing should end at 2:30, in case she can stick it out for the “awards.”

 

June 2, 2014 at 12:44. From me to Kathy:

Wait, that’s a whole nuther set of plans! We can say 9:00 to 1:30, that’s fine. She can put E down before she leaves, and I can put S down and take the monitor until you get home.

I’ve asked my Julie about 7/2, she’s checking with her employers and will get back to me.

Logistics overload.

 

June 2, 2014 at 12:46 pm. From Kathy to me:

Ha!  I guess I shouldn’t tell you that M will be away for 5 days in July?

 

June 2, 2014 at 12:58 pm. From me to Kathy:

July?? July doesn’t exist.

Read Full Post »

Geological notebook, photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Geological notebook, photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Literature

What makes a book a classic? Italo Calvino suggests “a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.” Lovely. Perhaps he has a similarly compelling way of defining a book that is “literary?” I’d welcome that. This Salon article explores some angles of the debate. Should the author be dead? Should the work be widely studied? Should it change lives? And what does that mean, anyway?

And:

This woman read one book from every country of the world. This type of goal strikes me as gimmicky–I’ll do this thing for one year and blog about it and develop a following–but it’s hard to argue that it doesn’t interest me as well. My recent attempt to find well-reviewed translations of middle grade literature (for the fourth grade book club) set in different regions of the world and NOT written by a westerner has been frustrating. The lack of translated work in the US in general is disappointing. So it is with interest that I look at this article and this woman’s list.

So on a related note: Asia and Children’s Lit

I’ve known about author Mitali Perkins for a while, especially as she resides in the same state as I do, and I was delighted to discover, through her blog, the web site of the South Asia Book Award (for children’s literature). I used it to pick out some selections for next month’s reading options, including Padma Venkatraman’s Island’s End.

Education and learning

Do you take notes on paper or on screen? I grew up in France where classes were given lecture-style as early as middle school. French children learn to take notes efficiently, filling notebooks which they then use to study for the baccalauréat exams at the end of their senior year. (At least, this is how it was 2-3 decades ago. I guess I might be in for a surprise were I to venture into a French collège today.) From this experience I’ve retained a penchant for pen and paper note-taking, even when surrounded by people tapping away on laptops and other devices. This article, therefore, is satisfying to me. Learning, it would seem, is deeper and more lasting when transmitted to the brain via longhand note-taking.

Craft of writing

One writer’s fundamentals. Writer Laura Harrington reminds us with clarity and simplicity of what it is easy to lose sight of when one is in the depths of creative writing. Excellent tidbits to post here and there in your writing space.

Read Full Post »

A year of third grade and fourth grade reading

A year of third grade and fourth grade reading

February marks a full year of what started out as a 3rd grade book club, and is clearly on its way to becoming a 5th grade one. I began this out of frustration and dismay at some of the books K was bringing home, sometimes at the suggestion (insistence?) of the school librarian, endless series of books about school life where “weird” and “gross” make appearances on nearly every page, where teachers exist merely as objects of derision, where all the characters are white and usually suburban. I knew from having seen K and her friends reading more substantial books, if they happened upon them and the mood struck them, that they were capable of much deeper thought, that in fact their brains were hungry for a greater challenge, for being expanded. I knew, and they knew, that they could handle and enjoy much, much more. (One girl was hesitant to join, saying she only liked to read books with mice that wore clothes. We managed to change that.)

We began with The Secret Garden, the classic by Frances Hodgson Burnett. The first meeting left me giddy with delight, as I recount here. I went all out, decorated with vases of roses, served cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off. A minute before the eight girls arrived, I panicked. What if they thought this was silly? What if they wanted to make fun of me like some of their books made fun of teachers? My fears couldn’t have been more misplaced.

Over the past year, with a break in July/August, we tackled:

The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, by Judy Blue
The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles, by Julie Andrews Edwards
From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E. L. Konigsburg
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, by Robert O’Brien
One Crazy Summer, by Rita Garcia Williams (which gave K’s father an excuse to put together a fantastic soundtrack from 1968)
Walk Two Moons, by Sharon Creech (which made for the most animated discussion)
Rules, by Cynthia Lord (“too easy,” the girls said)
Out of My Mind, by Sharon Draper
Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson

Every meeting starts with ten minutes of chatter while everyone arrives and gets settled, a 30-45 minute discussion, a snack related to the book in question, a related activity, and a vote on the book for the meeting after next (so that I have time to order it, distribute it, read it and plan the meeting). The children have been surprisingly enthusiastic about how the snack matches the book. They pounced on the corn kernels and shredded cheese I put out for Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH with squeals of delight. Their parents shook their heads in a mix of wonder and amusement when they came to retrieve their children.

I’ve been very impressed with the depth of thinking and the level of analysis these girls have demonstrated, and the caliber of the discussions we’ve had.

The topics we’ve discussed include:

Oppression, the Black Panther movement, the power of imagination, self-consciousness, the death of a parent, sibling relationships, autism, story arc, character arc, running away from home, storytelling techniques, what defines a “classic,” the ethics of scientific research with animals, loneliness, finding happiness, the meaning of “civilization,” sacrifice, civil disobedience, peer pressure, prejudice, unwritten rules, sadness, point of view, film adaptations, responsibility, cerebral palsy, book cover design, devotion to art, pacing, what made a book “good” a century ago versus today versus what makes a book just plain “good” all the time.

I’m planning out the selections for the next year. Now that I have the girls’ attention, now that they are invested, I’m going to mix it up a bit more, and designate a category for each month: poetry, biography, mystery, fantasy, adventure, Africa, Asia (not enough months to break down into smaller categories, but there’s always the following year), Europe, Latin America, Pacific Islands/Australia, Middle East, and probably different regions/historical periods in North America. I could get lost for hours in noodling around the various options.

 

Read Full Post »

Lunch time in Morgantown, PA, 1908 (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Lunch time in Morgantown, PA, 1908 (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Of all the back-to-school rituals–the alarm clock set 45 minutes earlier than for work and camp, the scrambling to get a solid breakfast into the children and to eat all together before the departure of the oldest, the reminders about back packs and homework sheets, the discussions about appropriate clothing and footwear–the one I most dread every year is the Packing of the Lunch Boxes.

Lunch boxes

Lunch boxes (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Seven years ago, when my oldest child started daycare, I panicked at the thought of how to provide her lunches. You’d think, having managed to feed and water her for two full years while she grew and developed wonderfully, and having a keen interest in food, I wouldn’t need any pointers for how to put some in a box every morning. But. There were all kinds of constraints, some self-imposed (there must be a starch, a protein, a fruit, a vegetable; there must be a variety of colors) but mostly externally imposed:

* The containers had to be ones her little two-year old hands could open on her own. In a pinch, the teachers would help, but they were big on fostering independence, for which I am still grateful.
* There could be nothing that required refrigeration or re-heating.
* Nothing even remotely nut-ish.
* Everything had to be cut up, or in finger-food pieces, or somehow manageable with her nascent utensil-wielding skills. Please include the utensils.
* Containers needed to be spill-proof, as the lunch boxes get tossed about a fair bit.
* Everything had to fit in the box, including a drink and, if necessary, an ice pack.

Don’t look at the image below

Not anticipating the intense feeling of inadequacy and horror that would result from it, I turned to the Internet for advice. There I found a thriving and entirely intimidating community of parents (I venture to guess they are 99% mothers) who post pictures of the intricate lunch boxes they pack for their children. They must spend an hour a day preparing them. (Although some say on their sites that they spend 13-25 minutes. But still.) I mean, look at this:

Bento Lunches

Bento Lunches

(I could find no copyright-free images, so this is a screen shot of the result page on Google Images for “kids bento lunch.”)

There are a number of sites with pages and pages of such pictures. From a design, architecture, creativity and health perspective, they are works of wonder. I commend the adults behind these creations for their enthusiasm and dedication. But good grief. I don’t know a single person who has the time to do this on a regular basis. (Not to mention the whole notion of creating a “need” to make food cute for it to appeal to a child. Look! You can eat the nose first!) Carrots carved to have rabbit ears. Cookie cutters used for cold cuts, with carefully placed kernels of corn or dried berries for eyes. (How about chives for whiskers?) Star-shaped cucumber slices and edamame on toothpick skewers. Thankfully for me, Pinterest didn’t exist yet. I don’t even dare to do a search for “bento box lunches” on there now.

I can do this

I wasn’t working much at the time (well, I was writing a book, but hadn’t yet learned, for better or for worse, to consider that “work”) so I actually did dabble a bit in making cutesy lunches. I confess there was an occasional gingerbread man shaped sandwich. Without crusts. I peered into the boxes of other children when I picked up my child at 12:30 at the end of lunch time, and was relieved to see that no one else seemed to have vastly “better” lunches. There was, in fact, one child whose lunch was always an almost uniform shade of brown. Poor kid. The teachers shook their heads and couldn’t understand, either, how his mother, who was a nutritionist, could do such a thing. Whole wheat pasta, whole grain crackers, Cheerios, raisins. Never a fresh fruit or vegetable. I was pleased that my child came home with a mostly empty lunch box, and I felt generally satisfied with my lunch-packing skills.

The honeymoon is over

Then, something changed in kindergarten. She started coming home with most of her lunch uneaten.I didn’t understand how she could not starve by 2:30 eating only a few bites over the course of the morning. She kept telling me there wasn’t enough time to eat. According to the school day schedule, there was a half hour set aside for lunch. How could she not find the time to eat? I knew she was a chatterbox, and could picture her gabbing with her friends at the table, but she wasn’t the type to forget completely to eat.

For three years, I went through the same (pointless) agitation every day, asking her why I should bother spending the time and effort to pack her lunches–full of things she liked, mind you–for her to come home with almost everything intact. Invariably, some part, smushed or bruised or no longer cold, had to be discarded. My time, my creativity, my early-morning brain cells, from the box straight into the trash amid crusty yoghurt lids and chicken guts. Then my daughter would sit and grudgingly finish whatever was left. That was the deal. No other snacks until lunch was consumed.

Brilliant, mom

One day of second grade, I made good on my threat to not pack a lunch. What’s the point? I asked her, when she noted the lack of lunch box. You won’t eat until you get home anyway. Feeling both childish and triumphant, I sent her off to school, assuming naively that she’d mope through lunch wishing she had one of my tasty, colorful, healthy and entirely appealing lunches with her, and return home with a new-found appreciation for them. Instead, she came home and nonchalantly mentioned that she told her teacher her mother hadn’t given her lunch, and the teacher had taken pity on her and plied her with classroom snacks–pretzels, granola bars and the like–and it had been a wonderful lunch. Phenomenal Mom Fail.

Jello is not a protein

We continued in this vein. Then it got worse, because she started not wanting certain trusty items. She said she simply didn’t like them anymore. I quickly figured out that it had to do with comments from others at her table. Children with more restricted palates and as-yet-to-be-developed social graces made faces at some of the “weird” things she brought to school. Weird being hard boiled eggs, olives, peas and other such exotic foods. (Just wait until Kindergarten gets a whiff of our Little One, whose favorite foods include capers and marinated octopus.) I tried to be understanding. The dynamics of school lunch tables can be crushing. I didn’t want her relatively broad taste in food (compared to her peers) to become a social burden. I told her we could eliminate anything from the rotation, but if it was a protein, she needed to come up with an alternative. We couldn’t simply narrow the list of options. But the alternatives she came up with were unacceptable to me: Fluff sandwiches. The kind of yoghurt that is bright pink and green. (This was when she still ate yoghurt.) Jello.

Advice from a seven year old

Lunches still came home half-eaten at best. I tried to include her in the planning, figuring she’d be less likely to ignore the lunch if she had a hand in setting the menu. I would suggest several items, and she would turn them all down. This was not working. One school night, she had a friend sleep over. The next morning, as my daughter was in the bathroom, I asked her friend, a good kid, for advice. How do your parents pack your lunch? I asked. She told me she didn’t really know. She just opened her lunch box and found whatever was there. I told her that I consult with her friend, but that it doesn’t make it any easier. “Why don’t you just not ask her?” she suggested with a shrug. Epiphany. I went back to making executive decisions.

Glory be

Finally, mid-way through third grade, there was a shift. I started re-integrating some of the items that had fallen off the list, and there was no backlash. The lunch box returned almost devoid of its contents, save for the empty containers. The kid came home, opened up the box at the counter, ate whatever was left while doing her reading, and didn’t ask for a snack until after that. She started requesting things like dried seaweed. She started commenting on how limited the diets of some of her friends seemed. “I’ve never seen her eat a fruit.” “There’s NEVER a vegetable in her lunch box.” “Every day, his mom packs him a sandwich, and every day, he just drops it in the trash. It’s such a waste. I feel bad for his mom.”

Hallelujah.

Little One is three now. Just in time to start the whole rigamarole again. Because as keen as she is on marinated octopus now, I’ll bet you anything it will fall out of favor between the years of Kindergarten and fourth grade. But that’s ok, because now Big One is back to more exciting foods.

Today’s lunch box:

* A tea roll from Wilson Farms (with cherry jam for Big One, and butter for Little One)
* Rolled up strips of ham
* Semi-cooked carrots
* A cider donut for Big One (her sister gets snacks at school)
* Apple slices and plum slices
* Milk in an insulated, spill-proof bottle with straw for Little One. Water for Big One.
* Ice pack.

Yesterday’s lunch box:

* Udon noodles (cut up for Little One) with a smidge of the cooking water and soy sauce to keep them from sticking, in a small Thermos.
* Edamame (in pod for Big One, out for Little One)
* Two clementines, peeled for Little One
* Banana for Big One
* Trader Joe’s chocolate chip granola bar for Big One.
* Berry yoghurt tube for Little One, with ice pack placed away from Thermos.

 

Read Full Post »

Brookline_Booksmith

Brookline Booksmith. Photo by Eric Wilbur

I had one hour and forty-five minutes. It was a rare oasis of time for a Sunday. Time for myself, away from home, away from the temptations of planning out the week’s meals or running a load of laundry so as to start the week in an organized manner. Big One had a birthday party just far enough from home for it not to make sense to drop her off, go home, then pick her up again. But she’s just about 9 now, and it was made clear that parents were not to taint the party with the uncoolness of their presence. (Besides, I confess to doing a little jig for joy when she was invited, four years ago, to her first “drop off” birthday party. I think there may have been some liability waiver to sign, a padded room and gymnastics equipment, but it all seemed wonderful to me at the time.) So I left her in a moon bounce with about eight other girls (and many more, disgorged from vehicles sidling up to the sidewalk while parents watched them cross, streaming over to the yard, present in hand, shoes already half kicked off) in the eighty degree relative coolness that has followed a week of temperatures hovering around 100 degrees. Feeling light, I decided to take a stroll around Coolidge Corner a few blocks away.

I was well aware of the danger: the Brookline Booksmith, fabulous independent book shop, sits squarely in the center of Coolidge Corner, wedged between two coffee shops. I intended simply to mosey around and take in the new stores and restaurants, let my thoughts float. I considered crossing the street before getting to the book shop, just to reduce the likelihood of my getting ensnared. I thought: I do not need more books. I do not need more books. Not now. My shelves are already overflowing, and on my bedside table alone are three books I’ve been toting about for weeks: Erin Morgenstern‘s The Night Circus, to investigate what all the hullabaloo is about; Rosie Llewellyn-Jones’ Engaging Scoundrels, part of my research on Lucknow; and Janet Burroway‘s Writing Fiction, my current craft Bible. I tried to convince myself I had no immediate need for more unread books. I can always go purchase one later, correct? In my study, piles of unread books hide the spines of others.

I approached the book shop door, confident of my fortitude, steeling myself against its power. Just then, a woman pushing a stroller with another young child on a scooter trailing behind her paused in front of the door, clearly trying to devise her strategy for pulling it open and maneuvering her charges in. Instinctively, I opened it for her, and instinctively, I followed her in. Just for ten minutes. Not intending to buy anything. Just curious as to what books were displayed up front. Research into marketing and promotion for a book I hope to send out into the world soon.

Stop snickering, please. I can hear you.

I abide by schedules, even–perhaps especially–my own. I was, in fact, in there for just ten minutes. But in those ten minutes, an entire sea of thoughts, emotions, memories, hopes and ideas. Even dreams. In those ten minutes, I took in, in the most superficial of ways–my eyes sliding over displays, barely taking the time to focus–the “Recently Arrived” and “New in Paperback” tables and the second half of the fiction section, going backwards from Z to K, not even bothering to turn my head to read the spines. But even in that quick time, in my refusal to succumb fully, the book shop worked its magic.

There were many of the books I hear about repeatedly, and I must have reached the magical hear-about-it-seven-times-in-order-to-buy it moment in the case of three of them, because within two minutes they were tucked under my arm. There was Cheryl Strayed‘s Wild, which has received, well, wild acclaim. In what I’ve read of her and by her, Ms. Strayed seems like quite a likable person, and her story is compelling. There was Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (actually, Bringing up the Bodies, but once I decided I’d buy one, it made sense to start at the beginning) which I justified as another piece of research, to see how an author brings to life such a distant time period with such success. There was B.A. Shapiro‘s The Art Forger, which keeps popping up ever since I took a seminar with the author at last year’s Muse & the Marketplace conference, and which I can also chalk up to research (neat how I do that, no?) because it is fiction that involves the art world, the way mine does.

There were the books of people I’ve come to know via social media and for whom I’ve been cheering, whose familiar names staring out at me from book covers made me smile for their success at bringing a book to market: Together Tea, by Marjan Kamali, whom I met in person at the conference last year, and whose journey to publication seems not dissimilar to mine (barring the minor fact that she actually has a book in stores now); and Eden Lake by Jane Roper, a woman of extraordinary grit and humor who is managing to have a writing career in the midst of a massive family challenge.

There were books I have read, and whose images, atmospheres and characters remain strong in my mind. Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, magical for its storytelling power, and vividly rendered on the screen by Ang Lee. There was Jesmyn Ward‘s Salvage the Bones, which left me with searing images of a bone white dog, ragged but tough children, earth and blood and roiling water. I give it as a gift to an elderly Jewish grandmother and to a teacher/mentor of mine before reading it myself, then wondered, after I had read it, what they’d think of it, of me. There was Abraham Verghese‘s Cutting for Stone, memorable for its cast of characters, its unusual setting (beginning in Ethiopia of the 1950s) which I recommend widely. There was writer and polemicist (isn’t that such a wonderful word?) Arundhati Roy‘s The God of Small Things, and images of a small boy’s confusion in the sticky darkness of a cinema (the “talkies”) in south India, and an alluring dark body dancing by the river.

There were the many, many books I wanted to purchase that I didn’t. Not this time around. I was drawn to the cover of Polpo, a beautiful octopus splayed out on a cookbook from a Venetian restaurant by the same name. I thought of how much my children both love octopuses–one of them sleeps with a stuffed octopus, one of them is always keen to eat marinated octopus. There was Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver, whom I admire greatly not only for her writing but for her success as a versatile writer, adept at many genres, and able to avoid being pigeon-holed. There was The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht whose name and background, and achievement at a young age, are intriguing (enviable?).

But my time was up. Ten minutes. I worked my way through the pleasing crowd to the cash register, paid my $49, and left.

I stepped out into the world, a dramatic sky overhead, part thundercloud and part dazzling blue, and it seemed everyone around me harbored an obsession. A wrought woman, all skin and bone, walked in the opposite direction, one hand clutching her phone to her ear, one arm wrapped around herself, as though to hold herself together. A group of seemingly homeless folk were gathered around a bench, one of them perhaps three hundred and fifty pounds, wedged into a electric wheelchair, the arm rests digging into the folds of flesh at his sides. The others were weathered, coarse, cigarettes dangling from their dry lips. A short man covered in tattoos held a beribboned little girl in his arms, her shoes, skirt, t-shirt, sunglasses and hair ribbons all varying shades of pink. In the coffee shop, an elderly woman so thin as to look two dimensional was hunched over a tall cup of coffee and drinking the entire thing with a tea spoon, occasionally looking up and around with wild and distrusting eyes. Stories everywhere.

When are my next ten minutes?

Read Full Post »

Hen_and_chicks

Wake up and throw on clothes chosen day before. Brush teeth, toss water on face. Downstairs, check weather forecast, put on water for tea, pack lunch boxes: hummus, whole grain flatbread, baby carrots (cooked for one, raw for the other), salami slices, cut up cantaloup, apple sauce packet, granola bar, milk with ice cubes for Little One. Wake kids. Negotiate appropriate clothing. Make breakfast, slice fruit, nudge Big One to set table, avoid eye rolls, pour drinks. Navigate around husband making his lunch. Extra kid in tow to help a friend. Sit down for 15 minute Civilized Breakfast together. Remove scrambled egg from curly head and inside fold of diaper (?!) Apply sunscreen on melange of limbs and faces. Pack towel, extra clothes, water shoes, diapers, sheet, blanket, sleep animals, sun hat, tuition check. Pack my own bag, remember I have a life of my own somewhere. Where? Computer, power cord, bottle of water, brilliant Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway, pack of almonds, fleece for overly air-conditioned coffee shop. Remind kids to fill water bottles with ice and put plates IN dishwasher. Put away perishables from breakfast. Turn blind eye to rest. Switch carseat, grab tuition check from husband of neighbor who forgot to bring hers in. Pile kids in car. Field conflicting requests for music. Preschool drop off. Pry toddler off leg. Camp drop off. Repeat “goodbye” several times until Big One acknowledges she has a mother who is leaving. Fill out liability waivers, yes I agree you will not be responsible for anything that might happen to my child, just take her until 4 pm. Walk back to car, call neighbor to coordinate camp pick-ups, grocery shopping, dinner, evening logistics. Drive to coffee shop, stake out table, order coffee, turn off phone. Now: clear mind, be creative and write. Go!

Read Full Post »

Filed under: Monday Memoir

Remember these?

Remember these?

Dee-doo dee-doo!

“Let’s do dee-doo dee-doo!” This is Little One’s rallying cry to launch Skype and visit with the grandparents who reside in France.

“Oh, we’re doing a visit?” chimes in Big One. “I’m going to my room to get my flute to play for them.” She scoots up the stairs, and is back in an instant with an armful of items to share with them as I set up the laptop on the coffee table. Little One is rummaging through her toy bin to find her latest treasure, a rubbery blue frog with a disturbingly large tongue. She starts flapping it wildly in front of the computer even though no one is online yet.

We will Call Calcutta now

How different this all is from the days—always Saturdays—three decades ago when my parents, my brother and I would gather to Call Calcutta (it was always like that: “Children, we’re going to call Calcutta now”) to speak with my father’s mother. My heart would sink. I never knew what to say to my grandmother, a sweet but strong, soft but firm woman then in her 70s who lived so far away in distance and, it felt to me, in time. I loved her, and had many pleasant associations with her from our family visits to her home: the soothing odor of sandalwood and anise; the tickle of her hands rubbing my back ever so gently; the softness of her plain, widow’s saris and of her cheeks as I kissed her good night; the reassuring jangle of her massive ring of keys tied to the end of her sari; the unwavering love with which she indulged my every whim. But so far removed from her, ensconced in my Parisian childhood, with my parents hovering over me and my grandmother valiantly trying to engage me in conversation without knowing any of what mattered to me—my school, my friends—I wanted to shrink from the phone.

I keep getting engaged

It would start with all four of us in the living room, first around a rotary phone, then some years later around the first press button phones. For some reason, my recollection is strongest of the times when my brother had already left for college, and I, six years younger, was on my own with my parents. My father would pick up the receiver and dial whatever he needed in order to reach an Indian operator. This in itself could take several attempts. Once he got through, the volume of his already powerful phone voice automatically went up a few more decibels. I would worry that the neighbors would hear everything and be annoyed. He would put the phone on speaker and we would hear the distant, tinny voice of the operator with her lilting Indian accent. “I’m getting engaged,” she would say, indicating that the line was busy. “I keep getting engaged.” Or sometimes she would fail completely to make the connection. Or the call would get dropped. My mother would start to float away into the kitchen or pick up the newspaper. My father would pace around a few minutes. I’d slink back to my room, silently hoping we wouldn’t be able to make the connection, then thinking of my grandmother and feeling bad. My father would then start the whole rigmarole again.

How are you keeping?

Eventually, after what could be a couple of hours, we’d get a connection. “Pronob?” would come my grandmother’s hopeful voice, uttering her son’s name. “Hein!” my father would yell into the receiver. My mother would hurry back to join him, straining to hear her mother-in-law. I would drag my feet back down the hall to the living room. A conversation in Bengali would ensue, sprinkled with enough words in English that I could glean the basic gist: updates would be exchanged regarding health, doctors, relatives, house affairs, longtime servants (still referred as such back then).

Then the receiver would come to me, moist and warm. My parents would stay nearby, presumably in case the line got cut and we needed to restart the whole process. As though I wouldn’t know to call for them. I desperately wanted to turn off the speakerphone, not because there was anything to hide in my stilted conversation with my grandmother, but because their hearing both ends added to my anxiety about how to respond to her questions. She would do her best, asking me how school was going (fine) and how I was “keeping” (well.) I would ask about her health… and then I didn’t know what else to say. I could picture her well, and the house, the wall and heavy gate that separated it from Little Russell Street, the rows of lush potted plants along the walkway to the door. I could imagine the slightly off-kilter whir of the ceiling fan, the front edge of each blade caked in dark brown grime. I could hear the crows, the honking cars, the clatter and chatter coming from the kitchen. But I wondered what she could imagine of my life. She had traveled widely and visited us in France, in Switzerland, in the UK. But, I thought, what did she truly understand of a little girl’s life in the 70s and 80s in these places, when she’d grown up, married at age 9, in the Calcutta of the 1910s?

The corollary to these calls, to the distance between us, was the awkwardness with which I tended to greet my grandmother when we did see her, either (most frequently) in India, or in Europe. Her face would break into smiles as soon as she saw me, and she would pull me into the soft folds of her sari, holding me in her gentle way. “Anju-buri” she would croon repeatedly. Her delight in seeing me would feel overwhelming, mostly because in those first moments, I did not know how to relate to her.

No more disconnect

When my children greet my parents, often at the airport, or perhaps on arrival at our home or theirs, there are immediate hugs and kisses all around. Everyone starts chattering. Conversation picks up as though it had just ended a few minutes earlier. And that is almost the fact. Weekly video visits, interspersed with phone calls made on a whim, keep everyone apprised of all the details of daily life. My parents know the names of Big One’s friends, have seen the latest school report, have read books aloud to Little One via the screen, have sung songs with both of them and seen their latest favorite books or items of clothing. My children have commented on their grandmother’s haircut or new glasses, have joked around with their grandfather about some mannerism of his. So that when they are all put in a room together, the reunion is seamless.

I wonder what might have been possible had such technology been available to my family when I was a child. Looking back, I see how limited my knowledge and understanding of my grandparents was. Will my children look back in thirty or forty years and think the same thing, unable to fathom that there could ever have been a disconnect so much deeper than what they experienced?

Related posts: Calcutta Bangles, Charlotte, Storms Past and Present.

Read Full Post »

Chateau de Chenonceau Kitchen Stove

Not my kitchen. Chateau de Chenonceau, France. Via Wikimedia Commons.

It wasn’t that hard, as it turns out. And the child gave me the entry point herself.

It usually occurs to 8-year old K to ask, as she somewhat grudgingly sets the table, what we are having for dinner. A few weeks ago, when she insufficiently masked her dismay, I put down the pot in my hand and looked squarely at her.

Me: I have an idea.
Her, rolling her eyes: Oh no.
Me: No, no. It’s a good one. I promise.
Her, scrunching her eyebrows: Yeeesss?
Me: How about, when you are nine, you can be in charge of dinner once a week. You pick the menu, you be the chef.
Her: Yes! (Jumps up and down.) Do we have to wait until I am nine? That’s still two months away!
Me: No. You can start now if you want. Next week. What are you going to make?

Thus was born a new experiment. I have to confess that I’ve been waiting for this moment for a while now. Last year, Leslie Kaufman wrote a piece in the New York Times on this subject. Her sons were 10 and 14 at the time. I read it and started dreaming (it’s ok, I know it’s a dream, I don’t expect it to come true) of sitting on the couch with a book and a glass of wine while K makes us a simple but healthy and appetizing meal. The reality, of course, is much different. Especially with a child who is still quite young, and with her three-year old sister in the mix. Quite literally. The scene is a bit more like the one Sean Wilsey describes in his hilarious piece, also in the New York Times, in 2011. We might even end up with more items, and people, to wash at the end. In my case, I’m also trying to relinquish responsibility and transfer it to the mature and responsible 8-year old, while attempting to tame a wild toddler we refer to as “the creature.”

We’ve set a few ground rules:

  1. Each menu must include at least one form of protein, one starch, and one vegetable. (Later on we may include dessert. We are all big fans of dessert here.)
  2. She is responsible for making sure we have the necessary ingredients in the house in time. For the moment, this means reminding me in advance to pick up the items we need, and when possible, accompanying me to buy them.
  3. I must be present (for the moment) in the kitchen, and I must be watching when she does anything involving the stove/oven or knives.

She has crossed that invisible barrier, the one that stands between “help” that is in fact totally counter-productive (involving more of my time and patience, creating more work for me, and making a greater mess) and help that is truly helpful in advancing the cause of the meal. Her sister, however, is squarely on the first side, capable of creating a mess of unfathomable proportions in the time it takes me to turn on a pot to boil. When I nearly slipped and broke my back due to a fine layer of flour on the hardwood floor the other day, my husband reminded me: this is a long term investment. Meanwhile, he is steering clear of the whole situation, although wise enough to praise the results with vigor and engage K in a discussion of her techniques and the finer points of being Head Chef. Plus he’s also cultivated her interest in barbecue to the point that she looks forward to watching BBQ Pitmasters competitions and talks about the time when the two of them will enter as competitors.

I’m trying not to place too much weight on this experiment. Sure, it might end up being a wonderful mother-daughter(s) bonding moment (like when we’re both bonded to the floor by the honey her sister spilled), but for the moment K is talkative enough, and I am available enough to her, that there are other opportunities for such bonding. It might end up fostering in her a greater interest in nutrition and health and the environment and such, but she’s already fairly attuned to these. Mostly, I view it from a practical perspective: it’s good to be independent, to know how to manage, to go forth in the world as prepared as one can be. The French have a good word for this: to be “débrouillarde.”

The first menu consisted of spaghetti with “meat sauce” (i.e. a simplified bolognese) accompanied by broccoli sautéed with garlic and olive oil. A relatively involved project to begin with, as we made the sauce from scratch. But K was game. She had a friend over that afternoon, and at 4:00 pm I called them both down to the kitchen.

K: Let’s go! I have to make dinner.
Me: You’re welcome to hang out and help.
Friend: Why are you starting now? It’s only 4.
Me (thinking Aha! Teachable moment. Lesson 1.) Well, it’s one thing to make dinner, it’s another to get it all done by dinner time. One has to plan. For example, the sauce takes a while to simmer, and we have the added variable of S. A 3-year old can be very disruptive in the kitchen. We have to allow extra time. You can’t just wait until you are hungry to start thinking about dinner.
Friend: Oh? That’s what my mom does.

That first afternoon, there were many introductory lessons: how to turn a burner on and off, and to control the flame. (K already knew, apparently, to keep the handle of the pot or pan turned away from the edge.) The importance of keeping track of what utensils and surfaces have been in contact with raw meat. How to delegate tasks whose outcomes are irrelevant to the progress of the prep to the little sister while still making her think she’s being helpful. That type of thing.

There came a time when every utensil and container in the kitchen was dirty, when the sauce was burbling up out of the pot in explosive spurts, when K was sprawled on the floor moaning, and when S was rummaging untended in the fridge like a bear cub. But the experiment was a success for these three simple reasons:

  1. Dinner was on the table at something that approximated dinner time, and was quite tasty to boot.
  2. We’d had a few good laughs.
  3. Most importantly, K wanted to cook again.

Which she did last night: steaks (rib eye, broiled, first rubbed with garlic and fresh herbs), corn on the cob, and sesame semolina bread with an array of French cheeses. This time, our commune neighbor 8 year old L joined in, eager to help out. Lots of small fingers to pull the leaves off the thyme stems. He suggested they keep track of the recipes, create a book, and publish it. My kind of boy! I don’t see that really happening, but so far I’m quite pleased with this experiment.

 

Read Full Post »

Writer on beach.

Writer on beach. Photo by Joe Mabel, via Wikimedia Commons

One bottle of Greylock gin
Limes & tonic
What If? (Book of writing prompts by Pamela Painter and Anne Bernays)
Beach/running shoes
Manuscript in progress
Sunscreen
Kindle
iPod dock
Tea & coffee
Chocolate

With the exception of the manuscript in progress, this could be a good gift list. But that’s not actually what this is. Instead, it is the start of the packing list for a writing retreat I am planning with three other women–writing partners with whom, over five years of regular meetings, I have forged strong friendships. The prospect of this weekend is making me giddy with excitement. One member has access to a house by the beach in Maine. We have planned several solid chunks of writing time, small excursions on the coast, good meals out, and time to review our work together. I dream of taking a notebook down to the beach, of sketching out the next few scenes of my new book. But, as must be the case, this excitement is countered by the grinding of wheels in my brain which must immediately roll into action to plan the logistics of coverage in my absence: school and preschool drop off and pickup, management of Little One while Big One is at martial arts with her father, teaching coverage for my dance students, etc. I–and those around me–will make it happen, I know we will, and so I let my excitement carry me forward. But it is a constant juggle.

People keep asking me what I’d like for my upcoming birthday, which some view as a significant one for reasons that seem to be rather arbitrary, and the answer is this: time. That’s all I want. And I’m willing to wager that time is all any writer really wants. I don’t need more stuff cluttering my life. But please, take my fabulous children and allow me a day of writing, a day of reading, a day of letting my mind go free, of planning only according to what I want and not around what others want or need or expect.

This, I think, will resonate with any parent, especially primary care-giving parent, trying to carve out time for a creative pursuit. If you know one, the most wonderful thing you can do for him or her is to offer your services to help free up some time. It will cost you very little–assuming their children are not tyrants–and will earn you some serious gratitude and good karma.

 

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: