Juniper at Jupiter: A Bear, His Boy, and a String Quartet

I apologize to readers for my absence–but we are back! I’ll make my excuses later. Today, I bring you volcano music.
Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who's the handsomest one of all?

Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the handsomest one of all?

Attending the Jupiter String Quartet’s Phoenix performance with Mbot was my idea. Attending the concert with Mbot and Junepy was Mbot’s idea. So was the necktie, a strip of red felt fashioned into a bow, although in the end, Mbot wore a pair of fleecy dinosaur zip-up footie pajamas and a wide, pale blue polka-dot grosgrain ribbon tied in a Windsor knot, and Junepy wore the red felt bow. “But Junepy will be handsomer than me,” worried Mbot (unnecessarily, most would agree).


I’d been lucky, the week before while in Boston, to have a friend casually drop the fact that her daughter was singing that night in the Boston Baroque Ensemble at the New England Conservatory. It was serendipity–I am a huge fan of chamber music, and particularly of Baroque music, and I am a huge fan of the NEC, as it’s home to my ultrafave radio show, NPR’s Sunday evening staple, “From the Top,” which features amazing young musicians from across the nation. As far as music goes, I am one of those people perfectly designed to provide an audience, unburdened as I was at an early age (by my piano teacher, as it happens) of any illusion that I’ve got the rhythm in me. There is evidence to make me suspect that Mbot has inherited a seat beside me among the spectators.


So my first morning back home, Mbot climbed onto the bed and asked what I’d done in Boston. “I went to hear the most beautiful music ever,” I told him. I retrieved the netbook and pulled up the Boston Baroque Ensemble’s homepage. He pointed to a picture of a bright red, erupting volano. “I want to hear that one! The volcano music!” So I clicked it–the volcano was the image on the DVD cover of the BBE’s recording of Haydn’s Creation. I left the room to brush my teeth and see what havoc Gbot was creating, and Mbot listened to the volcano music, rapt, for twenty minutes.


So I bought us tickets to the next performance sponsored by the Phoenix Chamber Music Society. It would be a big evening. It wasn’t cheap, the concert venue was almost an hour’s drive away, the concert started at what was technically bedtime, and the concert would require sitting. For over an hour. And then for another thirty minutes. While Junepy excels at sitting, Mbot’s gifts lay elsewhere.


The night arrived. An hour before takeoff, an excited Mbot announced, “Junepy wants to come!” and disappeared into the bedroom. Five minutes passed. Ten minutes passed. Silence. In my experience, ten minutes of silence usually equates to a twenty minute cleanup effort afterward, and so I went to investigate. I found Mbot on the floor struggling the bear.


He’d managed to push Junepy’s large, obstinate head through the neckhole of a shirt, but the bear’s large, obstinate feet were proving too large and obstinate to go through pantlegs without motherly help.


“Junepy’s going to be the handsomest bear there!” announced Mbot proudly. Then he said with alarm, “But he needs a tie!”


At last, everyone dressed and ready, we headed into town. “The volcano music is so beautiful,” mused Mbot from the back seat.  “But why is it so beautiful? Why does it sound like swans singing?”


Why, indeed? I had no answer. But in my mind, the evening had already paid for itself.


When at last we pulled into the parking lot of the church where the preformance was being held, he studied the crowd. “Are we in the right place?” he asked. “I see lots of old people.”


“Then we KNOW it’s the right place,” I replied.


“No Mom,” he insisted. “It’s not the right place. This is the senior center.”


Indeed it did look a senior center. There was even a big white bus that had come from the senior center. Mbot was the youngest attendee by about forty years. There were a handful of twenty-somethings–literally, I could count them on my hands–and one teenage girl with her mom.


I thought the silver-haired crowd might express fear at our disruptive potential, but without exception they appeared delighted by the presence of the bot and his bear. Many observed his outfit with a sigh of envy. If only we could wear fleecy dinosaur one-piece zip-up pajamas!, everyone agreed.


We settled into a pew. The lights dimmed. The woman behind us sneezed. The musicians appeared. The concert began. “Mom, I’m dehydrated,” whispered Mbot. I found with horror that his sippy cup was empty. Thankfully, the M&Ms in my purse provided distraction. The woman behind us sneezed again. Beside me on the pew, which seemed to be designed by or for ascetics, squirming occurred. My blood pressure rose. In spite of the soothing and lovely tones of Mozart’s Quartet in D Major, K. 575, I sat rigid, hoping the squirming would be contained to our five board feet of bench.


It was.


There was considerably less squirming during the next piece, Bartok’s Quartet no. 1, due no doubt to its energetic and unpredictable progression, and so when Intermission finally arrived, with its promise of water, cookies, and an opportunity to run intervals at the back of the sanctuary, Mbot had actually earned many charmed smiles and compliments. “We need more young blood!” exclaimed one couple with delight. The woman behind us sneezed again.


“Allergies?” I asked with heartfelt sympathy, when she asked me for a tissue, which I provided.


“Do you have a cat?” she replied.


I admitted that we did, and she eyed Junepy suspiciously. “I’ll bet the fur is all over that.”


I bit back the urge to say, “Him. The fur is all over him.” but I did defend him. “Actually, he’s way cleaner than he looks.”


Still leveling a doleful gaze at Junepy, she replied, “I find that hard to believe.”


After intermission, Mbot lay on Junepy listening to the Schumann Piano Quintet until his lids slowly dropped, and he fell asleep. I finally relaxed.


Afterward, I carried Mbot through the warm night to the car. The sneezing woman kindly and bravely offered to carry Junepy.


In the following days, Mbot would claim that his favorite part of the concert were the orange M&Ms, and that he liked “to listen to beautiful music, not watch it.” But I consider the evening a triumph for chamber music, for children, and for cat-dander-carrying bears everywhere.


Batman Beguines

With a nod to Cole Porter, Christian Bale, and Chris Nolan.

The mask and cape were abandoned early into the jingle-dance at Music Together yesterday. Note to self: Must have Morgan Freeman design a mask that won’t slip during big dance moves.

This post assumes prior knowledge of the 2005 movie, Batman Begins, which I attained Thursday night in Chicago. I actually went to the local library, withdrew movies, and took them to Chicago, rather than taking chances with cable or forking out the cash for pay-per-view. It took me two sessions, but I managed to watch the whole thing on Mbot’s DVD player.

Although I’m way too “Please can’t we just all hold hands and read Winne the Pooh again,” so the whole idea of Gotham City kind of gives me a yucky woozy feeling, I liked the movie. The acting was good, the lines were funny, the sets were cool, and finally, FINALLY, someone has adequately explained to me why anyone over the age of five–even anyone with quads like that–would wear that suit, and that frown. I won’t be watching it with the Bots anytime before 2020.

Cole Porter wrote the song, Begin the Beguine, and there’s a West Indian dance called the Beguine. The song is very complicated, and according to Our Wikiness, even Porter himself needed the sheet music to play it all the way through. So chances are, Mbot got it right when he improvised. But getting it right in our music class isn’t ever the point. The point is feeling comfortable in our clothes, and turning that frown upside down.

Check, check.

Help! My Three Year-Old Has ESP

                    image via

That is what I’ve thought, several times in the past few months, when Mbot says something that I thought I’d only thought. “Maybe I was talking on the phone when he was in the back seat,” I’d explain to myself, knowing I hadn’t had my phone with me. “Maybe I talk to myself,” I concluded, after the fourth or fifth time Mbot mentioned something that I’d seen or heard or thought.

The first time he did it was about a year ago, when one day I was working on a rewrite of the novel, and he announced that his stuffed animals had shot a potato gun and an avalanche had come down.

But how do you know that’s how the novel starts? I wanted to ask my then 2 1/2 year-old. I had not read it aloud. I had not even talked about it to anyone over the phone. It was old news to Husbot. So where did he get the idea?

Not that I don’t believe in ESP. But I also believe in more mundane explanations.

Tonight, I got a flash of understanding about Mbot’s superpowers.

We were driving home from Grandma’s after a very long day of zoo-going, playing with the new rubber snake, William (a nice snake), and the new wolf grabber toy, Edgar Hochenwaller (their uncle bought them, do not ask me where the names came from), and running after Charlotte, another uncle’s Boston terrier. I had acquiesced to requests to watch Max and Ruby which is on, unfortunately, at 7:30. 7:30 is traditionally bedtime. I knew better.

Past 7:30, Mbot gets upset at anything remotely upsetting, and many things not even remotely upsetting. Tonight, he was upset because Husbot put him in Gbot’s car seat. After the switch, he was upset because Gbot had a stuffie and he only had a plastic cat (William was long forgotten in Grandma’s backyard, and wouldn’t have done anyway, because William isn’t fluffy).There was lots of wailing regarding the plastic cat’s lack of fluffiness. So I did what usually helps me feel better when I’m feeling tired and whiny: I turned up the music. I was all classicalled out for the day, so I had on the beat music.

“Is this Lady Gaga?” Mbot asked, his quavering voice calmer than I’d heard it in twenty minutes.

“It is,” I replied.

“I love this song,” he said. “What’s a pokah face?”

I explained. I attempted to demonstrate to the backseat without endangering our lives. We were going forty-five between stop lights. We were going the long way home. Gbot was already asleep. It was my fervent hope that Mbot would be, too, by the time we pulled up to his bed.

“But I still don’t know what Lady Gaga looks like,” said Mbot.

“We’ll look at a picture on the internet tomorrow,” I promised. “She wears lots of crazy costumes, like superhero costumes.”

There was a thoughtful pause from the back seat.

“Does she wear a net over her face? I think she wears a net over her face.”

Step back. Now how in the name of all the Grammy winners in history did he know that?

Because that’s just what I was thinking at that very moment. That was the picture in my head: Lady Gaga with a black net over her face. Why? The split-second image flashed on screen last Sunday during the Grammy’s after Adele’s win. The announcer had pointed her out to us.

We’d been over at Grandma’s that night, too, for our traditional Sunday night dinner. The owners of the Charlotte the Boston terrier had turned on the Grammy’s. Everyone, including Charlotte, had plopped down in front of the TV. But the Bots were playing–they were horsing around with their uncles, they were patting Charlotte, they were struggling while their pajamas were applied, they were asking for juice and more crackers, neither of which they were given. We went home forty minutes into it.

But Mbot must have seen that image, and heard the name, and put the two together. And then remembered them.

So this is the key to my three year-old’s ESP: Although he appears deaf when I am asking him to put on his socks, he’s taking in gigabytes more than I have given him credit for.

it is a good lesson for me and for all of us: Paying attention actually makes a person appear to have superpowers.

Are you paying close enough attention?

From Singing Alone to Music Together

The Wee Bot Bee Bop at Music Together

“Hey look me over,

Lend me an ear,

Fresh out of clover,

Mortgage up to here….”

No matter that I was thirteen and had no idea what a mortgage was, I bellowed the classic loud as an air horn and flat as a shredded tire.

Mrs. Northrup, head of the eighth grade choir, placed me strategically beside a girl who projected with perfect pitch, so if I didn’t manage to tone with her, I would at least be drowned out, causing minimal damage. My favorite songs had little range for the alto section, because I couldn’t go from doe to tea without hitting a falsetto. High on my list of greats were “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” and “Hey, Look Me Over,” which Louis Armstrong could not have belted out with more enthusiasm.

Who doesn’t like to sing? It is an old, old instinct to test the hilly pitches of one’s voice. For animals and children, tone is more meaningful than words. Before Homo sapiens spoke, I am sure we hummed.

During the Christmas Eve church services my family attended through my childhood, I had to switch octaves a few times to get through “Silent Night.” I couldn’t make it to the end of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” without my larynx failing in the upper reaches of the first verse. When all ye nations were joyfully rising, my voice refused to; it did not join in triumph in the next line, and by the time the angelic host proclaimed, I was squeaking like rubber shoes on a wet floor.

I am not tone deaf, but I came into the world with completely unexceptional vocal cords  and an inability to reproduce with accuracy the sounds I hear.

My dad (The Guru) for a long time believed that most of what a person accomplishes in life is determined by genetics, like you’re shot from a sling out of the womb into your highest achievement. (Now he probably believes that it’s a combination of genetics and politics.) I remember him and my brother David arguing about it when we were teenagers. David disagreed: he insisted that anyone could do anything if they tried hard enough. I thought that sounded like a bad high school graduation speech.

For example, I knew for a fact that Mary Cartmill, who I helped with math on the school bus, would never be a nuclear physicist. My own philosophy settled somewhere in the middle but more on my father’s side. We were all born with limits that would shape—had already shaped—our lives. You had to have a proclivity.

In my early teens, I became very self-conscious of my singing voice. I only sang when I was alone.

And then, thirty years later, Mbot was born. He ate slowly and slept poorly and four times a night, every night, I read novels aloud while I fed him. I found myself listening to the sound of my own voice for hours. As the weeks passed, I start varying my tone, altering inflection and rhythm and timbre.

I also began making up songs for everyday activities: a song for waking up and a song for sucking binkies and a song for rubbing on sunscreen (“We put it on your legs, and we put it on your cheek, and if you were a bird we would put it on your beak. We put it on your tummy and we put it on your other cheek, and if you were a mouse, we would put it on your squeak!”) I started singing his nursery rhymes. One Little Piggy went to market to a swingy gospel melody with extra notes and a catchy refrain followed by deep, repeating bass lines: “….The little piggy went wee we wee wee weeeee all the way hooooome….”

I loved having an excuse to sing, and my audience was appreciative and forgiving.

Seven months after Mbot arrived, I signed us up for a ten-week class called Music Together. It’s a nationwide franchise aimed at the six-month-through-four-years set (and their parents),and involves forty-five minutes a week of interactive singing, dancing, and music-making with an instructor and a small group of other short and tall people. One of my worksheets likens music to a foreign language–no surprise there–and tells me that “the best thing for…development is lots of exposure and practice.”  The program was launched in 1987 by the Center of Music and Young Children, in Princeton, New Jersey. The website claims that research shows that unmusical adults are unmusical “due to lack of experience, not genetics.”

I didn’t sign us up to learn to sing better. The possibility that I could never crossed my mind. I signed us up to get out of the house and to escape the hundred degree heat of my new hometown and to meet other mothers. I signed us up to tire out Mbot, who did not seem to need sleep. I was newly pregnant with Gbot, and I very much needed sleep.

In the heat of a Phoenix spring, Mbot and I drove to our local Music Together every Thursday morning no matter who got how little sleep. In a Sunday school classroom, Moms and toddlers marched and twirled and shook plastic eggs filled with beans and beat wooden sticks on the linoleum floor and sometimes, on the heads of others. Moms herded toddlers away from light switches and stacks of chairs and other people’s sippy cups. We all sang. No one really had a good voice.

Our imaginative and energetic leader, Miss Mary, who has degrees in music and early childhood development, as well as years of experience as a kindergarten teacher and professional cellist, plays the guitar, too, and makes the recorder sound mystical and haunting. In class, she took suggestions from the bigger kids, who delighted in suggesting that we all swim like sharks or rumble like trucks. In the first few classes, I mumbled haltingly to unfamiliar but predictable tunes. I discovered that many of the simple songs had been written just for me. “Old Brass Wagon” starts out with just one note, an F, repeated seven times. Making momfriends didn’t happen right away, but least Mbot usually fell asleep on the ride home.

We listened to the CD (registration fee had included two) at home and in the car. After a few weeks, I was singing “The Water Is Wide” as I pushed Mbot’s stroller to the park. On about the hundredth rendition, I discovered that if I took a breath first, and stretched my mouth wide, my voice could reach all the way up to the boat that can carry two.

As the months pass, and we progressed through another and yet another semester, my repertoire widened. I hollered, “Hey, Betty Martin, tip toe, tip toe,” ad infinitum while driving, and found that if I actually moved my face, like I am biting into a big cookie at the same time I am pretending I’m British, I can nail the “t’s.” By this time, Mbot was mimicking words. “Tip toe, tip toe,” he chanted. We sang about old dogs named Blue, about chickadees and blackbirds and little goats snowy and white. In the car, if I switched from music to NPR, Mbot fussed in the back seat. “More, More.”

By the time Mbot was almost two and his little brother, Gbot, was about six months old, I calculated that I had sung “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” over one thousand times. The alphabet song—which I discovered has the same tune as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” is close behind. Strangely, my voice did not sound like it used to. It seemed bigger somehow and more willing to do what I asked. I didn’t give this much thought. I ventured into the old Christmas carols and the scraps from eighth grade choir, pushing air from my chest and rearranging my facial muscles in ways that would have mortified me at thirteen in a room of my peers.

After over thirty weeks of Music Together classes, when Mbot was twenty-three months old, we visited my family in Idaho. Mbot dived into the roomful of his older cousins’ toys. He homed in on a long plastic arrow with a suction cup on one end, and a giant toy bow strung with string. He had never seen a bow and arrow. He manipulated the bow so he was grasping it carefully at its center, and anchored one end on the carpet. He drew the arrow back and forth across the bow string and raised his voice. “Twinko, twinko, witto staw!” he sang. He was playing the cello.

The next afternoon or the next, while I fed Gbot, Mbot curled up under a blanket in the kitchen while my mother and I prepared dinner. Thinking that perhaps the miraculous would occur and he would fall asleep, I began to sing. I was still not accustomed to singing with anyone over twenty-three months in the room, but I raised my voice carefully, as if I were singing “The Star Spangled Banner” at the seventh game of the World Series. “Twinkle, twinkle, little star….” I was conscious of the movement of my tongue, my lips, my cheeks.

It was not Loius Armstrong. But my voice sounded strong and oddly rich and resonant. At the end of the song, Mbot was no closer to sleep. But my mother turned from the oven. “That was beautiful,” she said with unflattering surprise. “Where did you get such a pretty voice? I never had one.”

“Neither did I,” I replied.

“More sing,” said Mbot. And I began again.


I’m a little bit short of the elbow room

But let me get me some, And look out world,

Here I come!

Is how hard you try a genetic trait? Is there a gene for conviction, and persistence? Or is it learned? As a parent, I will try to nurture that quality.

Hallelujah! (toot) Hallelujah!

I drove over an hour just before Christmas to hear Handel’s Messiah. I grew up listening to it on Christmas Eve after bedtime, as my parents brought our gifts down from the high loft in their bedroom and arranged them under the gargantuan bull-pine we’d carried in from some subarctic marsh or another. As a child I thought the nearly two-hour oratorio was one of the most beautiful pieces of music I’d ever heard. I was a young adult before I realized I could listen to it all year ’round. And I did.

The first time I saw the whole thing live was a frigid night in Washington, D.C. I was in my early twenties and didn’t own a car. I rode a Metro and then a bus and then walked for almost an hour, uphill, to get to National Cathedral. A stone pier separated me from most of the choir. I spent a lot of time worrying about how to get home without freezing. But the music sounded better than it did on my Walkman.

Flash forward to a rainy afternoon in east Phoenix, to a large and relatively new church designed, I believe, for acoustics. I was embarrassed at the tears that sprang to my eyes during the overture. It was almost unbearably beautiful. I’d been the last to arrive at the sold-out performance, and my seat was a padded folding chair against the back wall. In front of me, in the last pew, was a family of five, a mother, father, and three little boys whose ages must have ranged from two to six. The youngest fell asleep almost immediately on his father’s lap, then slept until nearly the end in his mother’s arms. When the hand-off took place, she stared into her son’s tranquil face for about twenty seconds, touched her lips to his forehead for another twenty. When the choir sang “For unto us, a child is born…Unto us, a son is given…,” the dad turned his head and gave his wife a conspiratorial grin, as if those lines had been written just for them.

They had been. My beliefs in the realm of spirituality run more to the Buddhist and Shinto end of the spectrum, and I tend to consider the idea of a god that thinks at all like a human to be not only arrogant but insulting (for the god) but I find it wonderful that the Christian story is couched in a tale of a holy infant. And of rebirth in the face of death. Humanity’s faults lie not in the infants, but in the men and women they become.The infant is mankind’s link to peace and hope and the everlasting. Our perpetual failure, as a species, to attain the first does not deter us from keeping the second or achieving the third.

My own body had to undergo the chemical metamorphosis triggered by giving birth in order for my brain to understand the holiness of the infant, the power of that holiness, and humanity’s need to worship it. Becoming a mother gave me a chemical connection to the power, to the glory–a mainline to the everlasting.

During the Hallelujah chorus, the six-year-old stood on the pew in front of me, bopping his head in time to the music just as I felt myself doing. In the pause between the second-to-last “hallelujah” and the last one, he let out a soft fart. Both hands grabbed the seat of his pants and he whipped his head around in alarm for the paternal reaction. His dad shot him a conspiratorial grin. He grinned self-consciously back.

So easily the sacred becomes the profane. The two shift and change places before our eyes; to remind us of the sacred that’s often as elusive as if it were writ in infrared, we tell a story. We sing a song.


How You Make My Mustache?

Maybe we could glue a Dwarf Campbell Russian hamster under Gbot's nose.

I would have bet the antique cat that I’d hit “publish” at 11 p.m. last night, but WordPress says no. So let’s all pretend this was posted last night.

From the crib, 5:30 a.m.:

Gbot: “Get me out of my crib, Mama.”

Me: “Don’t you want to go back to sleep, Little Bear?”

Gbot: “I want…to be Santa Claus.”


“How you make my mustache?”

*   *   *

5:30 p.m., from the backseat:

Mbot, who knows he has superheroes inside him, brain cells and goblet cells and musclemen, giggled at the gate attendant in Grandma’s neighborhood: “It’s funny when people wear white shirts.”

Me: “Why, honey?”

Mbot: “White shirts make my musclemen tickle my heart.”

Although I tried, I never did find out exactly why. But I think I will have to figure out how to make a mustache.

The New Yorker gave this 1996 film, starring klezmer music greats the Epstein brothers, a rave review. For those of us who weren't music history majors, that's turn-of-the-last-century Eastern European instrumental dance music. I'm just excited to have found a new good Scrabble word.

What made your musclemen tickle your heart today?

Hitting the Road Jacks

The killer rabbit from Monty Python, available in plush for $16.99 at

The Midgets are old enough that I’ve begun bargaining about what music we all listen to in the car.

Mbot: “I want the beat music!”

This means something–but not anything–with a loud, insistent beat, preferably dance music. When I hit the button for Lady Gaga’s Pokerface, there was a wail from the backseat. “No that’s Gbot’s music! That’s not my best beat music!” So he had noticed, too, that Gbot often, especially when he is diaperless, prances around chanting, “P-p-pahty, yeah. Bang bang!” I tell you, he did  not learn the dance moves from me.

So I searched for Justin Timberlake while I explained that first, we would listen to Mommy’s quiet music, then we would listen to Mbot’s beat music, and then we would listen to whatever Gbot wanted to listen to. So while a very lovely violin concerto played on KBAQ, the local classical station–that I used to be able to listen to all the time, with no input from the backseat–I asked, “Gbot? What do you want to listen to?”

Gbot: “Mona Mona Mona!”

Me: “Uhhh…What’s the rest of it?”

Gbot: “Hid da woad, jaa, doncha come bah no mona mona mona mo….”

Mbot: “But that’s not my best!”

Hit the Road Jack” must appeal to the under-thirty-month set, because before Mbot discovered Justin Timberlake–who we do not listen to very often, mind you, but it made an impression–Ray Charles used to be his best.

“What’s a road jack?” he asked every time. “And why did they hit it?” And every time I would explain. It’s a giant monster rabbit, I said. Who’s really mean.

I wasn’t even thinking of Monty Python at the time. I was just trying to figure out how to avoid babbling about complex and unhealthy adult relationships. But it makes me wonder about the moment that Eric Idle and his boys thought up the killer rabbit. Were they in a car with their kids? Probably not. The carnivorous Leporid might have hopped to life when they were in a car with each other. Or in a room with each other. They might have been arguing over what to put on the eight-track tape.

In a very real way, the Bots and I are a creative team. A noisy, obstreporous, pants-wetting crew, but a team nonetheless. We might not be available on Netflix, but thinking about us this way might help me when the milk’s been spilled, the wine glass has been broken, the Play Doh’s been ground into the rug, and someone else’s beat music is on too loud.

Who’s on your team?