He Breathed a Song Into His Bear

I shot a rocket into the air...

I shot a rocket into the air….

Several weeks ago, Mbot, in the backseat, said, apropos of nothing:

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, by Robert Frost.

Whose woods these are, I think I know.

His house is in the village, though;

He will not see me stopping here

To watch his woods fill up with snow.

 

My little horse must think it queer

To stop without a farmhouse near

Between the woods and frozen lake,

The darkest  evening of the year.

 

He gives his harness bells a shake,

To ask if there is some mistake.

The only other sound’s the sweep

Of easy wind and downy flake.

 

The snow is lovely, soft, and deep,

But I’ve got promises to keep

And miles to go before I sleep

And miles to go before I sleep

Before I could fill the car with astonished applause, Mbot added, “I wonder why he has to go to sleep twice?”

Apparently, Mbot’s class had learned the poem in preparation for St. Peter’s Montessori Fall Festival. This was the first I’d heard of it. I knew they’d been learning songs–Gbot spontaneously throughout the day would lift his voice to sing that the autumn leaves were falling, falling, and (crouching down, hands at his feet) touching…the…ground. But Robert Frost?

The fascinating thing about the spontaneous recitation was the the expressiveness with which Mbot spoke–it wasn’t like he was reciting it by rote as much as telling me with great enthusiasm about what he did last night (in extremely articulate rhyming iambic pentameter). He owned that poem! And obviously enjoyed the tumble of it from his tongue.

It reminded me of the first time I can remembering hearing classical music (although I’m sure I’d heard it before)–in a gray-linoleumed, fluorescent-lit music room where my third grade class filed once a week to sing simple songs very badly. The music teacher lowered a record’s needle onto a vinyl disk, and the first notes of “Morning Song,” at the beginning of Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite were breathed into my consciousness. I didn’t know what it was. I remember sitting in my metal folding chair as the music described the rising sun, transfixed with joy–I had never even imagined that anything that beautiful that could exist. I went home and asked my mom if it would be possible to actually buy it. Soon afterward, this appeared in our living room:

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I couldn’t care less about the Nutcracker. But I listened to the B-side of that record as often as my mother would agree to load it onto the turntable of my dad’s treasured hi-fi stereo, whose amplifiers he had built by hand (and whose vacuum tubes periodically self-destructed in a dramatic cloud of smoke that filled the house with the smell of freshly charred wiring).

Partly because of the vividness of that memory, I’ve never believed in dumbing down language or music for children. Sure, we read picture books by the shelf-foot, and sing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” But I also read to the bots whatever they’ll sit still for–parts of articles from National Geographic or the New Yorker (Ian Frazier’s adventures in northern Russia, for some reason, particularly captured Mbot’s interest), and I intersperse what is now the Bot’s fave music–“beat music” (any popular dance song, whose lyrics they argue over, both of them wrong), with large doses of classical, and not the Little Einstein version, either. Once in a while they complain about it (Mbot: “I will NOT thank whoever wrote THIS music”), but not often. Who knows what the bots get out of all these grown-up forms of artistic expression? But if they’re ready to get something, it’ll be there for them to get, and they’ll get it.

The Fall Festival was just over two weeks ago. Mbot and the other kindergartners recited Robert Frost, almost incoherently–it was much better performed solo in the back of the car; Gbot performed his extremely brief song about falling leaves while waving a gauzy scarf in autumnal colors, and the elementary class recited Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Arrow and the Song”:

I shot an arrow into the air

It fell to earth, I know not where,

For, so swiftly it flew, the sight

Could not follow it in its flight.

 

I breathed a song into the air,

It fell to earth, I know not where;

For who has sight so keen and strong,

That it can follow the flight of song?

 

Long, long afterward, in an oak,

I found the arrow, still unbroke;

And the song, from beginning to end,

I found again in the heart of a friend.

Since the Festival, Gbot has been reciting bits and pieces of this poem, out of the blue. I provide the words when he can’t remember, but generally, he just seems to be enjoying saying a couple of lines at a time; his favorite combo goes straight from breathing a song into the air to finding it again in the heart of a friend.

Since Junebug has died, we’ve been talking about her almost every day; we’ve been talking about death lately, too, because the antique cat–after nearly eighteen years, having beaten diabetes but unable to conquer renal failure–is finally sneaking up on the end of his ninth life. Needless to say, there are way more questions in the house these days than answers for them.

Yesterday afternoon, I happened to say to Gbot at breakfast something like, “Goodness, your cereal just disappeared.”

At which point there was a brief pause before Gbot responded, “And June disappeared.”

“Yes,” I said.

There was another pause, and Gbot replied, “And you know not where.”

Gbot’s use of the poem’s antiquated syntax made me think that he was making a connection to the song breathed into the air, and its trajectory. It reminded me of the power of poetry–not only to create beauty in the presence of grief, but to connect seemingly disparate facts, objects, memories, experiences–and build a harmony of them filled with subtle and complex understanding.

Even as tears sprang to my eyes, I had to stifle a giggle. I thought for a moment. “Into the hearts of her friends,” I said. Then we went out and rode bikes.

Friends.

Friends.

Portrait of the Artist as a Snow Man

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I played hookie one morning to construct a temporary sculpture in the Boston Public Gardens.

The 2013 AWP Conference (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) brought more than eleven thousand warm bodies to Boston this past weekend, and one cold one.

The conference is a gargantuan affair: three days; over five hundred panels, readings, and soirees; three vast exhibition halls in which a persistent attendee with a long attention span could peruse table upon table which, lined up end-to-end, would stretch approximately a mile–stacked with poetry, fiction, nonfiction, everything at the edges and everything in between.

By Day Three, this is how I looked.

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Completely spaced out, wandering in the snow in search of anything but printed matter. Fortunately, there was a bowl of steaming clam chowder available in the hotel lobby a hundred yards away.

Boston, inspite or because of the two-day blizzard, was wonderful, from the Boston Baroque Ensemble to the mummies at the Museum of Fine Arts (in those few stolen hours between the five hundred panels, readings, and soirees). I met some very fine people. And I actually got a good idea on the plane flight home. Climbing aboard an airplane–alone– never fails to give me perspective that I don’t seem to be able to get anywhere else. Which is a shame, because driving is cheaper, and the neighborhood wine bar has more leg room.

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I Believe We Can Make Them Disappear: Thoughts on Mass Murderers

Mbot reads the news on "TV."

Mbot reads the news on “TV.” His news was about how the ants had a picnic. Do we have the power to make our news so benign?

I have been stalling with this post because I feel the need to address the shootings on Friday and I don’t want to. There is so much to say and at the same time such despair that silence seems the only reasonable course. Becoming a mother dissolved some binding agent in my emotional chain mail, allowing news items like the shooting deaths of twenty children (and seven adults who used to be children and who have children and who are the children of others) to penetrate deeply between the links. I believe this phenomenon–of weakening the binding agent that protects the one in order to allow the formation of empathy throughout a group–is a biological trick. Even Hollywood’s caught on–“women with children” is one of four demographic groups considered in the marketability of any big movie. We are different, which is the reason I nearly wept on Friday when the friend I was meeting for lunch–himself a parent–told me the news. Our server thought their was something terribly wrong. I assured her I was fine.

But there is something terribly wrong.

This isn’t the place for a scholarly diatribe and I’m not equipped to deliver a policy statement. I speak as a mother and a reasonably well-educated citizen.

This event is just the latest in an epidemic of mass shooting murders by young men. It is an epidemic, as described by Malcolm Gladwell in his book, The Tipping Point, in which he investigates social epidemics from the crime wave in New York City’s subways to the decade-long wave of teen suicides in Micronesia.

Here’s Malcolm Gladwell, in an interview about the book:

 In the 1970’s and 1980’s, Micronesia had teen suicide rates ten times higher than anywhere else in the world. Teenagers were literally being infected with the suicide bug, and one after another they were killing themselves in exactly the same way under exactly the same circumstances. We like to use words like contagiousness and infectiousness just to apply to the medical
realm. But I assure you that after you read about what happened in Micronesia you’ll be convinced that behavior can be transmitted from one person to another as easily as the flu or the measles can. In fact, I don’t think you have to go to Micronesia to see this pattern in action. Isn’t this the explanation for the current epidemic of teen smoking in this country? And what about the rash of mass shootings we’re facing at the moment–from Columbine through the Atlanta
stockbroker through the neo-Nazi in Los Angeles?

That inteview was from before Senator Gifford, before the theater in Arvada, before multiple shootings in other public places, before Friday’s horror.

We can’t change human nature–violence is our birthright. But behaviors within groups can be changed.

The question, of course, is how do we stop such an epidemic? The answer to making New York’s subway safe again began in a five-year effort to remove all the (then rampant) graffiti from the underground transport system. The theory behind the successful campaign: change the context, change behavior. It worked. A well-taken care of environment sent the message that criminal activity wasn’t expected. And people did what they were expected to do.

We’ve all seen that mentality at work time and time again: when children join other raucous kids on the playground, they become more raucous. I know that my own behavior shifts depending on my environment.

Offhand, I can think of three changes to our environment that might make this country a safer place for us all, and particularly for our children.

The first and most boring–because it’s been said a million times–is to ban ownership of semiautomatic weapons. I believe in gun ownership–I was raised by a father who provided his family with venison from deer hunting, and I married a bird hunter who shoots nothing he won’t eat. But people don’t hunt quail or deer with semiautomatics. People hunt people with them.

The second is to recognize schools–especially schools for children and teens–as the sacred spaces they are. There have been recent shootings in churches and mosques in this country, and so obviously, sacred spaces are not immune to the epidemic. But elevating our schools to the position they deserve–by paying teachers more, by valuing education more, by spend more money on programs, facilities, and protection for these facilities–we would be publicly recognizing these places as the most important places in our society, off-limits to such violence.

But I think a third change would be even more important. Peter Gabriel’s song, “Family Snapshot,” comes to mind, about a lonely boy fantasizing about assassinating a public figure:

“I don’t really hate you –

I don’t care what you do

We were made for each other –

Me and you.

I want to be somebody –

You were like that too

If you don’t get given you learn to take

And I will take you.”

It’s a chilling and horrible mentality. And we need to start sending the message that we don’t care about the gunmen. That our society doesn’t have one ounce of time or energy to spend on thinking about them or the troubles they’ve seen. That by taking life, they annihilate their own individuality, rendering them faceless criminals. Their names and the memory of them vanish; they become the equivalent of Untouchables in the Hindu caste system.

I believe we are not powerless to fight this epidemic of killing. We may live in a country where violence is embedded into society. But also embedded into it is freedom of speech. We have the power to lobby our lawmakers to ban semiautomatic weapons. We have the power to lobby our communities and government to turn our schools into holy places. And we have the power to pressure the media to make murderers not into Somebody, but into Nobody.

On Waiting. Or WHERE’S MY MARSHMALLOW?

methodlogical.wordpress.com

After Gbot and I stopped at the third home-improvement store in two days, in search of proper track lighting, proper bulbs, an adequate fan, and a dimmer switch in the right size plate in the right color (the less off- of two off-whites), I was waiting in line at the Starbucks.  I deserved, I thought, something I had not made myself. I was pleased to see there were four cars ahead of me, because of the new gift I’m giving myself, the time to read. I reached across to the passenger seat where my copy of Pamela Druckerman‘s Bringing Up Bebe was optimistically waiting.

Last night, I got to the part in the book about waiting. That is, making your child wait. Not too long. Just long enough to begin to teach him how to deal with small frustrations. The theory is, if he learns to self-distract, if he learns patience, he will be happier and more successful in dealing with the old frustrting world which certainly, on a daily basis, makes you wait. Having a child wait also has the happy effect of keeping the constant requests that ricochet off a mother’s skull fourteen hours a day from actually penetrating bone and causing the gray matter to dribble out onto your blouse. “Attend,” the French mothers simply say. “Wait.” And, astoundingly, the demand is met, according to Druckerman, with actual waiting.

I thought I’d been effectively saying Wait. But in the past few days, we’ve been practicing more. I have said it twenty times today, in situations ranging from “I want a drink of water” to “I need a pencil.”

Needless to say, in the past sixty “waits,” I’ve become acutely aware of how immediately my children want things, all the time.

As I was waiting in the drive-through, reading as fast as I could, I remembered the famous marshmallow test of the sixties–and then, several paragraphs down, Druckerman brought it up. She not only discusses it, but she goes to the source–one reason I am enjoying this book so much. She meets the man behind the marshmallows, Walter Mischel who invented the famous marshmallow test.

The marshmallow test isn’t a way to choose the best filling for your s’more–it was a longterm study on how the ability to delay gratification in childhood relates directly to an adult’s longterm success in school and a career.

Briefly, the marshmallow test involved watching on hidden cameras a child left alone in a room at a table with a single marshmallow on it. The child has been told that if he doesn’t eat the marshmallow right away, he’ll get another soon (in fifteen minutes). Then the child is left alone in the room. Just he and his impulses and the marshmallow. Seventy percent of the time, the results were the same as when Walter the Farting Dog (not, apparently, named after Walter Mischel), was left in the cruise ship’s hold with the cheese. (Walter the Farting Dog Goes on a Cruise.) (Walter eats the whole cheese.) The children who didn’t eat the marshmallow–who waited and got two–proved to be more successful in school, have significantly higher SAT scores, and feel more fulfilled in their careers later in life.

The marshmallow test revealed not only that the children with self control would learn to fare better in the world, but how they did it. They weren’t just better at being patient–merely sitting quietly with their hands folded–but at–lo and behold–distracting themselves while they waited.

After waiting in the drive-through for nearly ten minutes, I got my coffee, and I got a reading fix. (I was distracting myself from waiting for my coffee by reading.) Gbot and I returned home with our bounty of electrical gadgets, and the electrician announced we would have to wait ’til Monday for him to finish the job. No lights in the bedrooms for four days. Waiting. It’s for everyone.

But I have too many things to do to let lightless bedrooms faze me. And–not married until thirty-nine–I’ve got a lot of years of practice under my belt.

For the bots, this waiting thing hasn’t been easy. As I type, Mbot is slouched in a chair looking at The Tortoise and the Jackrabbit, by Susan Lowell. He doesn’t want to be looking at the book, or sitting in the chair. Husbot has told him that it’s time to sit quietly in the chair with a book. The moment Husbot leaves the room, Mbot slides off the chair, his feet touching the ground, and makes eye contact with me over the edge of the book. He points to the sofa. His mouth quivers. Tears begin to fall. “Mama,” he wails.

Husbot returns. “You’re old enough to practice sitting in the chair,” he says. Tears. More “Mamas.” It is uncomfortable being me right now because my heart has migrated across the room and is in that chair while the rest of my body perches, feeling heartless, on my own chair. “I’m just waiting and wating,” wails Mbot. “I really just wanted to hug Mama…”

I know this is best. I know he must learn to distract himself. I know it is harder for Mbot to learn this than for many children–Gbot, for example. I don’t trust myself that I know the best way to teach him this. But surely practice cannot hurt.

“I want to get out of this place.” Pause. “Mama.” Pause. Big gulp of air with the hint of a yawn. “Mommy, mommy.”

He never calls me Mommy.

“Malcolm, that’s enough,” says Husbot, striding in. “I want you to sit still and read your book.”

“I don’t want to read my book….” Wail, wail, wail, sniffle, bawl, gulp, cry. How many sounds there are for self-pity. The wind chimes clong and gong from outside the screen door. The wailing stops. The soothing tones have changed the subject, at least for several seconds.

“No, I wanted to hug Mama. I’ve been sitting here for these many minutes…I want to go…”

I remember again the clock my sister recently bought for her twins. Not just any clock: the Time Timer:

This model is suggested for children with autism or ADHD. A list of various models can be found on Friendship Circle Blog.

I order it. Husbot leaves the room. Mbot sits quietly for several minutes. “Can I come out now?” he asks.

Husbot lets him, telling him he’s been a good bear, telling him he’s old enough to learn to read quietly for thirty minutes while Mom works.

And I’m thinking this is working only because Husbot and I are working together and Gbot’s got the croup and is in the bedroom lying down. I have found it impossible to enforce a quiet reading time while running interference between the bots.

But it is rewarding to see that Mbot can do it–can sit in a chair with a book for thirty minutes, even if it’s thirty whining, wailing minutes. It’s a start. We will work on it. I will wait.

Newsflash: Reading is Relaxing!

Gbot sets out breakfast and an audience, about a year ago. Would I look this stress-free if I read to myself over breakfast?

Overheard at the coffeeshop on Saturday:

“So, have you read Harry Potter?”

“Yeah.”

“What book are you on?”

The conversation wouldn’t have been noteworthy, except that the two conversationalists’ chins barely skimmed the table top as they sipped their hot chocolate. They were four years old–Mbot and his friend Mbug. She’s a bright kid whose mom had told me she wouldn’t sit still to listen to picture books. I loaned her the first Harry Potter. They were on chapter five; she was riveted.

The same day, the news over at the Huffington Post was that reading a good book lowers stress levels. HuffPo editors and bloggers chimed in on their reasons how and why in Turn the Page on Stress. 

The timing was interesting, as a few weeks ago, I picked up a book I’d had on a side table for a month. I was too tired to read, and too tired to sleep. I lay down on the sofa, listening for a bot to call me back for one more hug, and opened the book. I knew that one reason I felt so weary was that I hadn’t gotten–or given myself–a chance to read more than half a New Yorker article in over a month–probably two.

The book wasn’t fiction: recommended by a friend, it was Edward Hallowell and Peter Jensen’s Superparenting for ADD. The title might reveal one of the reasons I’m so tired, but it certainly doesn’t tell the whole story. A while back, Mbot was diagnosed with “very low level” Attention Deficit Disorder–a borderline case, a case that’s almost not a case, but I feel it’s something I needed to learn to manage more effectively than I was managing it. I dislike the label because so much ignorance surrounds it and it carries so many negative connotations. In learning more about ADD, I’m learning to change my own behavior, which helps him with his; the result is a happier bot and a happier household. Hallowell’s positive approach to the issue is delightful and his storytelling is instructive and amusing.

An hour after I started reading, I was thirty-eight pages in and feeling a much-missed feeling of lightness and optimism. I recognized I felt better partly because of the contents of the book, but partly due to the simple act of leaving my own drama to witness those of others. I was reminded, through narrative, that obstacles can be overcome for a happy conclusion, and that recognizing the truth and dealing with it is a source of power–and having control over a situation is a way to lower stress levels.

I am of course reminded often of the de-stressing powers of reading, but it is a constant source of amazement to me how thoroughly we can ignore things we know, or forget them. I am reminded of reading’s calming effect by Mbot himself. Every night at bedtime, and usually during the day, I read aloud, in addition to a few picture books, a chapter (usually more) of Harry Potter (we’re on book two), a chapter of Little House on the Prairie (we’re on book two), and a chapter of The Hardy Boys. (We jump around according to whatever’s on the library shelf). Mbot, who has shown little patience with learning the letters of the alphabet, and who is often pushing the boundaries of his environment, is completely absorbed by a long narrative. He often asks the meaning of unfamiliar words, but I am not sure how much he understands of the story arc. Yet he does understand there are characters to be concerned about, and that there is a story arc. He would sit listening until my voice gave out or I collapsed face down, drooling on the Heir of Slytherin.

On Saturday, in addition to coming across HuffPo’s article, I happened to read Flannery O’Connor‘s essay, “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” in which she writes,

People without hope not only don’t write novels, but what is more to the point, they don’t read them. They don’t take long looks at anything, because they lack the courage. The way to despair is to refuse to have any kind of experience, and the novel, of course, is a way to have experience.

When I came across O’Connor’s observation, I realized I had put off reading (to myself) for that month or those months not simply because I was too tired or didn’t have time–but because I lacked the courage to take a long look at things. I was resisting entering a drama–anyone else’s drama–because I didn’t have enough emotional energy for their’s, too: I am a slow reader, and invest a lot in whatever I’m reading. But in those thirty-eight pages of Hallowell’s book, I was introduced to nearly a dozen people’s dramas, and instead of feeling oppressed by them, I felt uplifted. Since that night, I’ve been making time to read (to myself!) every day, even if it is just for a few minutes in the car before heading inside. In fact, I’m back to my old habit of reading several books at once–like I said, if only a few pages at a time.

And so stress-relief is even closer than the new gym with two hours of child-care per day. It’s as close at hand as my bookshelves. Now all I need to do is remember that.

They are Both So Beautiful Girls

(from the very interesting blog, http://www.buckbokai.com)

I’m blogging infrequently not because I’m participating in NaNoWrMo (is that how you spell it?)–I’m not. I’m blogging less because right now, there are so many things competing for my two most marketable commodities, 1.time, and 2.the ability to have things not die on my watch.

Although my plants would argue about commodity #2, if they weren’t shriveled, blackened versions of their once plumply-chlorophylled selves that looked out eagerly from the shelves at Lowe’s at all the possibilities open to them. If they had known better, they would have screamed to be spared when I put them in my shopping cart beside Mbot and Gbot. For all I know, they were screaming, but their plantly pleas were overwhelmed by whatever bottish conversation/bickering was already occurring in the cart.

I plead guilty to the murder of two fine plants that had not wronged me in any way.

I am starting to feel like my writing is wizzling, too.

Yesterday when I might have been writing, I was installing pull-out bins in the kitchen cabinets so I can finally organize the kitchen and get all my paperwork off the counter. One can only ignore such an ungodly mess for so long (a year). My friend Solveig, visiting from Colorado, helped enormously by not only ripping out the original crappy shelving, but by playing a game with the bots called “Who can stay out of the kitchen the best?”

Tuesday, when I might have been writing, I was doing fifty-three administrative tasks related to my volunteer work as caregiver, teacher, peacekeeper, entertainer, home manager, laundress, sous chef, chef, dessert chef, server, busser (although the bots are junior bussers now), interior designer, social secretary, event organizer, correspondent, and chauffeur.

Then I was attempting to keep my children from ransacking the child-free home of the very nice child-free friends of Solveig’s, with whom we were watching the election returns. Or rather, Solveig and the very nice child-free friends were watching the election returns. I was watching to make sure the bots didn’t launch themselves through the very nice plate glass window as a result of jumping on the supersized beanbag chair. What? Huh? Who won? The candidate campaigning on the platform of subsidized childcare? What do you mean, there isn’t one???

Monday, as Solveig watched the bots at home, I was sitting in the Barnes and Noble, telling myself I should be writing. Instead I slouched in a stupor in the children’s book section, reading picture books. The kid’s book section–when I am there by myself–is one of my go-to recharging stations.

It is a challenge finding the necessary combination of time and energy to complete any task larger than emptying a loaded diaper or laundry basket. (And even then, the towels get left in the dryer overnight by mistake…when will I get around to hanging that clothes line in the garage? Oh right–right after I put up the shelving in the garage….)

It is not that I dislike any of the tasks I am called upon to complete. (Well, anyone interested in doing just dishes, laundry, mopping, sliding bin installation, and plant watering, please call, I am hiring.) It is simply that there is such a vast accumulation of tasks, that I find it difficult to complete them, and my writing projects, too.

Do I want to play with the bots? Yes. Do I want to cook a lovely dinner? Yes. Do I want to sew Junepbear a fluffy sweatsuit out of fabric Mbot picked out himself, because Junepbear sports more and more unfluffy spots these days? Yes. Do I want to paint a mural in the bots’ room? Sit in a quiet room by myself with books and a computer? Get on a bike and sweat for an hour? Start teaching at the college level again? Yes, yes, yes, yes. Do I want to clean the litter box? Actually, yes. But what do I need to do? For my family and for myself? The need to prioritize wisely–and reap contentedness from my choices–has never been so urgent.

I am working on solutions. One is as simple as leaving the YMCA and joining, for $11 more per month, a gym that has educational computer games in the childcare area, which is open all day, as opposed to the one at the Y which, as fun as Gbot finds it, is closed during the critical hours of one to three. If I took advantage of this service, I could get up to two hours per day to either write or ride, work or workout, while the bots are in good hands. It’s a start.

I am trying not to feel guilty about this decision, and to understand the roots of the guilt. Guilt rarely has roots in logic or rationality. I just started reading Pamela Druckerman’s bestselling mommy memoir, Bringing up Bebe, about the differences in American and French parenting–and so am trying to open myself up to “there are many ways to raise a child right,” and, “as long as I am worried I am not doing a good job, I am probably doing a good job,” and, “I need to be healthy and happy to help raise children who are healthy and happy.”

Finding myself with so many things I want and need to do, I feel a little like Mbot must have yesterday at snack time. On the drive home from school, I asked him who he’d had snack with–his friend Mbug? Obot? Hbug?

“Oh, by myself,” was the answer.

“Why, Potato Sweet?” I asked.

He shrugged, raising his hands in the air, both palms up. “Well, Mbug and Hbug are both so beautiful girls, I just can’t pick.”

Hiding my smile–he just turned four! It starts so early–I explained that he could sit with Mbug one day, and Hbug the next, and be friends with both.

There is not a lot of time for introspection these days, and so I will leave it at this: I may not be able to do everything on my list. But I need to be friends with my achievements, and friends with my expectations, too.

I think this means I need to stop buying house plants.

The Dursley’s Bathroom Decor

Could this be the Dursley’s bathroom? JK Rowling has kept it a mystery. But fans want to know. (uglyhousephotos.wordpress)

We have finished the first Harry Potter.

I’ve been reading it to Mbot (much to Gbot’s supreme boredom; we read picture books first, then his eyes usually roll back into his head as I intone the words “Dumledore,” “Hagrid,” and “stupid git,”), every night before bedtime. To alleviate scariness, I abridged final chapters. They even scare movie-going me, what with Ralph Fiennes outdoing himself in The English Patient to bring us something even “more gruesomer” (Mbot’s words) in He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.

So tonight, because I can’t find the second or third books in the series (they are probably still in a box in the garage), we started the fourth (which, for some reason, I have two): HP and the Goblet of Fire. Started in the third chapter–that is, skipping the parts in which an old man is killed by a scary baby and a giant snake–we began where Harry tells Uncle Vernon that he’s going to the World Quidditch match. Half way through the scene, Mbot breaks in.

“What does the Dursley’s bathroom look like?”

I looked up from the text, stumped.

“It’s probably green,” I replied after a fat pause. “With a shaggy mustard-colored rug.”

“And slime coming out the sink,” added Mbot.

Absolutely right, I agreed.

I remembered why, as a kid myself, I preferred books with no pictures: I got to imagine it all. The pictures (like so many movies) just messed with the reality inside my head.

What do you think the Dursley’s bathroom looks like?

Bad Guys Don’t Have Birthdays, and Mbot Ate Mommy

This little guy, eat me? It beats the alternative…. (Mbot. Photo credit: Solveig Haugland)

The weekend out of town with old friends was as wonderful as I’d hoped, and I returned home (extremely tired, but that’s part of the game) to about what I expected: requests I’d made had been ignored but everyone was alive. Husbot reported that on Sunday morning, Gbot awoke early, as usual, and announced, “Mbot ate Mama.” Then he added sadly, “Mama was our friend.”

His explanation for my absence made me want to laugh and cry at the same time. And up until a couple of weeks ago I might have just left it at “oh, how cute.” But I have been reading a book called “Bad Guys Don’t Have Birthdays: Fantasy Play at Four” (The University of Chicago Press, 1988) It was written by Vivan Gussin Paley nearly twenty-five years ago, won the 1990 James N. Britton Award, and should be required reading for anyone who’s ever walked into Party City and purchased a candle in the shape of the number 4.

At the time she wrote this slim volume, Ms. Paley had been a preschool teacher for two decades. In order to understand the complex systems of play she witnessed daily among three- and four-year-olds, she began recording conversations and transcribing them each evening, documenting the children’s play and interaction, discerning patterns, connecting the play to events occurring in each child’s life, examining the interpersonal dynamics and excavating the “rules” of play. The book follows a group of four-year-olds through a school year, acting out such complications as a new baby in the family, parents working, the appearance of an older relative’s boyfriend.

“In fantasy play” writes Paley, “you sidestep that which cannot be controlled and devise scenes in which fears are resolved.”

Discovering this book was like unearthing the Rosetta Stone to Mbot’s play and conversation, or, for fans of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, like having a Babblefish on my shoulder: I suddenly and, it felt, magically, am beginning to understand the language he and Gbot use to describe the world they create daily–or rather create, change, destroy, and re-create–so richly inhabited by good guys and bad guys, Good Luke (Skywalker) and Bad Luke, Good Spiderman and Bad Cockroach Spiderman, Wonder Woman and Cinderella and Ree-punzel and dragons and four-headed monsters and bullet guns and laser beams and dy-no-mite.

What is all this violent talk and bam-bam-bam! with a Trio “gun”, I often wondered, when Mbot has trouble watching any movie–from Ratatouille to Babe–without running with a yelp into the kitchen while I fastforward through the parts where anyone is talking or acting in a hurtful way?

In part, here’s what this talk is: he is acting out his fears and overcoming them–just like Paley’s students do:

“A master of disguises, Fredrick will conjure up new dangers and, with a flick of his cape, be the instrument of rescue. In so doing it is he who is saved.”

He is taking control of his world. In Paley’s words, “Any unknown, it seems, can be made into a bad guy.”  And in play, “I pretend, therefore I am. I pretend, therefore I know.”

If Mbot ate me, Mbot’s the bad guy, and my absence in much less threatening than if I had left on purpose. And in the bots’ world, it is a fact–reinforced in everything from Burt Dow, Deep Water Man to Your Body Battles a Stomachache–that what has been eaten can be rescued, regurgitated, or resurrected. And my return Monday morning showed him he was right.

Food for Thought

(image via thehamiltonian.net)

Aren’t lives apples and stories oranges? What really goes on when you try to change one into the other?

– Joan Wickersham, “The Suicide Index”

I love these words, and I think a lot about their truth in relation to blogging. What is said, what is left unsaid; what is picked up and woven into a narrative; what is discarded because either it does not lend itself to brief essay form, or is too complicated, or too disturbing, or doesn’t fit the blog’s tone, or requires too much analysis?

I had come to think of lives as grapes, stories as wine, and blogs as grape juice. But the apples and oranges cliche–which is so unexpected in this context as to rise above cliche-dom–may be a truer description of the relation of the two. Food for thought.

Great Gender Expectations

Wrong is relative: If you’re two and wearing rented ski boots, I’m betting there’s just not much difference in the left and the right.

From the back seat:

Mbot: “I saw a girl that looked like Gbot.”

Me: “What made her look like Gbot, Bug?”

Mbot: “She had hair that was long and had curls like Gbot. (Giggle) She looked just like a boy!”

Just the day before, I’d been reading writer/teacher/blogger Kate Hopper’s new book, Use Your Words:  A Writing Guide for Mothers, in which the mother of two–one born dangerously early–dispenses practical, invaluable, and hardwon advice on the craft of writing and the art of balancing writing and mothering. She includes superb excerpts from her own writing and that of many (m)others–the bibliography reads like the guest list of my dream toddler group; I’d had no idea the genre outside the blogosphere was so rich.

But the one that came to mind after Mbot’s comment was “Pretty Baby,” in which memoirist Catherine Newman introduces her son, a boy whose favorite color is bright pink, and whose favorite outfit “involves a floral-printed t-shirt with fuchsia velour sleeves, and the pants…from the magenta-striped terry cloth that Ben picked out from Jo-Ann Fabrics.” The essay is the most articulate, funny, searing argument I’ve read for abolishing the expected gender-specific appearances and behaviors that have a stranglehold on the majority of our society–and abolishing them from Day One. Because Day One is when children start to learn. And they learn from us.

Mbot’s observation from the back seat is proof enough for me that I have taught him–however inadvertantly–that long, curly hair is for boys. And now it’s my responsibility to teach him tolerance: that we don’t laugh at girls who have long blond curls like a boy.