What Kind of Creature are You?

Mbot Fly 4

After a recent bath, Mbot, in his winged Red Fish towel, realized he might be wearing a garment that would allow him to fly. “Mom! I’m going to fly!” he announced. He mounted the steps of his bunk bed.

He raised his arms wide.

He leapt.

He landed. Ker-plop.

I waited.

He said: “I think I need to start from higher.”

He climbed higher.

He raised his arms wide.

He leapt.

He landed, ker-plop.

He said: “I think I need to flap my arms faster.”



Mbot Fly 3

He climbed up again. He raised his arms wide. He leapt. He flapped.

He landed, ker-plop.

He looked at me. He said, “I think I’m more of a gliding creature.”

And that was the end of that.

I thought, my heavens, if everyone figured out the truth about their own natures–and accepted it–so readily, what a different world we’d live in. I wondered about myself and some of my own unfulfilled ambitions, the terrycloth fins I spread.

Even if we dream of being flying creatures, is it so bad to discover that we are only gliding creatures, in the end?


Mbot Fly 2

What’s Underneath the Surface

Mbot: Blast off!

What’s underneath the surface?

One morning in May, I entered the bathroom to find both Gbot and Mbot standing together on the footstool. Gbot held a tube of some overexpensive, undereffective face cream and was nanoseconds away from squeezing. “Gbot,” I warned, “If you squirt that out, then I’ll look like an ugly old hag.”

Mbot looked up from the nail clippers he was attempting to use. “Why will you look like an ugly old hag?” he asked. “Because that’s what you really are?”

I think the babysitter had been reading them old-fashioned fairytales, in whose archetypal plots lurked witches disguised as beautiful maidens.

No, I told them. I’m gorgeous inside, but my skin is getting wrinkly, so the contents of the tube will keep me as lovely on the outside as I am on the inside.

That was at the end of May. The next week, I received a letter in the mail. I was being called back for a follow-up mammogram. “Heterogeneous tissue in the left breast,” read the letter. Do not be alarmed. Only four out of every thousand mammograms detect something bad. Two days later, I was staring at a black-and-white image of my left breast, magnified by four hundred percent, and Dr. Green, a radiologist, was pointing out a cluster of white specks that she called “calcifications.”

The next day, I was lying face-down on a biopsy table while twelve miniscule tissue samples were suctioned out for further study. Beyond the translucent shades of the corner room, the sun glanced off car roofs two stories down as they navigated the parking lot. Inside my own story, it was very quiet. I felt within those beige walls like part of an elaborate pop-up book, a parallel universe whose covers were these walls. Afterward, I smiled at the staff, because it was polite, but no one smiled back.

The next day, a woman’s brisk voice on the phone announced that she would put Dr. Green on the line to explain the biopsy results.

She used words I had never heard before, and other words I had heard before but not in the context of my life. “Ductal Carcinoma In Situ, Grade 3.” “Abnormal cells in the lining of the milk duct.” “Lumpectomy.” “Radiation.” “Hormone therapy.” “Tamoxifen.” And these, which I clung to: “Early detection.” “Not life-threatening.”

The rational part of my mind was not worried. I was grateful. During daylight hours, I packed lunches for summer day camp, swam with bots, made dinner, read Harry Potter, went to the Children’s Museum, oversaw time-outs.

The other parts of my mind were not so cooperative, especially at night. I began writing my dreams down in Haiku. Pressing the labyrinthine plots into the three brief lines of a poetic form I’d learned in childhood allowed me to, literally, synthesize my fears, understand them, and begin to assimilate them.

Dream #1

Hung over, wine glass

shards glinting, last night’s chicken

still out, breast sliced white.

Three days later, I celebrated my forty-sixth birthday by meeting with my OB/GYN. This sort of thing–early detection–probably noninvasive Stage 0 calcifications–is what gives breast cancer a good name, she told me. You’ll be fine. The chances of your dying from this are less than getting hit by a bus.

I drove home looking sideways at buses.

Quite unexpectedly, I found I had acquired a team: a breast surgeon, a medical oncologist, and a radiation oncologist. Every time I succeeded in forgetting about the disease I had, but could not see or feel, someone would call wanting me to make an appointment or register or preregister: for appointments. For a chest X-ray. For a radioactive seed localization implant. In spite of good medical insurance, everyone wants my credit card. I am earning air miles. I have a complimentary tote bag, heavy with literature and complimentary DVDs for cancer survivors. I have a new label.

Dream #2

I’ve promised to bring

the Angry Bird costumes but

they’ve all been rented.

Less than three weeks after the initial diagnosis, I was in surgery.

That was Wednesday.

The next day, we went to the circus. My mom’s in town–she’d planned the visit months ago, and bought the tickets in April as birthday presents for the bots. We’d planned to drive up to Idaho for the month of July. We will leave a week later than planned.

Dream #3

My son, three, standing,

neatly gutted. I wasn’t

there when it happened.

Both the lumpectomy incision and the incision close to my armpit, where two lymph nodes were removed for further study, are small, and in a few weeks will hardly be noticeable. Yesterday in the shower, I shaved my armpit and I might as well have been pulling the blade across the pork shoulder I’d cooked for dinner: nerves damaged during surgery had yet to repair themselves. Today, there is tingling.

Close Shave

We are not entitled

to feeling good. Or, to

feeling anything.

Results from the pathology lab will arrive Monday, and at this point the prognosis is very good. I’m lucky.

Dream #4

Gwyneth Paltrow is

having swimming lessons. What

an unflattering view.

I choose to interpret this last one like this: even though she doesn’t look great having swimming lessons, Gwyneth Paltrow is still the most beautiful woman in the world (according to People magazine). Ergo, although parts of me may look ugly as seen on a mammography film, I’m still not an ugly old hag.

Giving Thanks for a Hamster Dance

Do not let the reindeer pajamas fool you. He is guilty.

ln our neck of the desert, Thanksgiving came and went with much gaiety about the feast in the Montessori classroom and much griping about the feast on Grandma’s picnic table. Apparently, Thanksgiving would be better if the Pilgrims had eaten pizza.

I expect a fair number of the Pilgrims had colds over Thanksgiving, and we did, too. Gbot had the croup. We spent Monday morning at the doctor’s office while he struggled to push off the mask attached to the nebulizer. I found myself chanting a wild, ridiculous, rhyming song about dancing hamsters that I made up as I went, to make him giggle and forget the mask. It worked. By the time we were heading home, he was breathing deeply, and the hamster dance was jammed in my head like some parasite from the Amazon jungle that disappears into your ear and consumes you from the inside out.

I wrote it down that evening, at which point it had turned into a forty-line tongue-twister. I tweaked it. I loved it. I actually sent it to an agent.

She wrote back the next morning before eight a.m. She loved it, she said. But she thought it was too sophisticated for the picture book crowd.

A disappointment. Especially as the bots were on their way to memorizing key verses and danced madly to it every time I chanted it, and Mbot had decided he wanted to bring it to school and turn it into a play.

I tweaked it a little more, and sent it off to seven other agents. Into the ether. But it has already served a purpose. Not only did the ludicrous thing help Gbot breathe easier, it helped me, too. It reminded me of how much I love silly children’s verse.

So the next day I checked out a book called Pizza, Pigs, and Poetry: How to Write a Poem, by Jack Prelutsky, the U.S. Children’s Poet Laureate. I hadn’t even known there was such a person! It is a wonderful book, written for a pre-adolescent audience. It is full of sage advice. Prelutsky repeats perhaps ten times that kids should carry a notebook and two pens around with them everywhere, to jot down ideas as they have them. He does, he says, because if he doesn’t, he forgets them, and there goes a whole poem. This made me feel a lot better about my inability to recall a bot-statement even fifteen minutes after it’s uttered.

For anyone who loves language, and who wants to teach children to love language, check out this book! Literally.


Oh, and the picture of Gbot pillaging sweets first thing in the morning, with the help from the stool that should be in the bathroom? I just needed an image to start me writing. It’s always a delight to find actual photographic evidence of someone caught with his hand in the bag. This week, I was reminded of my love of poetry for children–really good poetry for children–both reading it and, with any hope, writing it. Rediscovering this, I feel like a kid stealing candy. It’s such a deep, simple joy. And I can do it in my pajamas.

I hope you had a Thanksgiving that was peaceful–even if it wasn’t pizzaful.

Potty + e – t + r = Poetry

Simile Man! Found on http://www.poetrypoem.blogspot.com, although I don’t know who drew the fab pic.

Overheard from the bathroom:

Mbot: “I need to go as fast as a wolf catches a bunny!”

Several hours later, over heard from the bathroom:

Mbot: “I need to go as much as a meatball needs to be eaten!”

And I just don’t think anything more needs to be said.

It Feels Like the First Time

because…it is the first time.

The other day I dripped food coloring into two chunks of homemade play dough (the only kind Gbot doesn’t eat) and gave the Midgets each a lump of green,  a lump of red, and a lump of white dough and a few cookie cutters. Very Italian or very Christmasy, depending on how you look at it. Shortly thereafter, I transcribed the following conversation as the Midgets sat across from one another at the table, Mbot rolling dough industriously between his palms, a feat of coordination only recently mastered:

“Now make a ball, Gbot.”


“Now give it to me. That’s not a ball. That looks like a flat little pancake.”


“There. Now it’s a ball.”

Mbot helping his brother? A “flat little pancake?”

People hear more impressive things every day. But most of what we hear sounds like the adults talking in Charlie Brown specials because we’ve heard it all before. That’s one reason reading is so delightful–we’re often reading something new. Poetry, especially, which offers the language in combinations most of us would never think to concoct make ourselves, alerts us to a world of endless surprise. In an odd twist of evolutionary biology, humans prefer predictability, spending all our lives in efforts to control our environment so we won’t be surprised, yet surprises are right up there in the list of things that make us feel most alive.

Surprise is a matter of course for those of us living with a toddler and what is now referred to as a “pre-k.” Although I hear the words “No,” “Why,” and “That’s mine,” more than I care to remember, each day, a significant percentage of what both Mbot and Gbot say, they have never said before. It’s the very first time. And so, “That looks like a flat little pancake” becomes poetry. As does Gbot’s contribution: “I make a poo-poo noise. Listen.”

Did you hear any poetry today?

HOAku (Of Poetry and Politics)

From the margins of the Lutrell Psalter, British Library (www.gotmedieval.com)

Because it is 3:46 a.m. and, after giving the Midgets my cold last week, they gave it back to me Sunday, with all the requisite symptoms, I am going to keep this brief. In fact, I think I’ll write a haiku. To make it more fun. But first, two quotes:

“A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep.” –Salman Rushdie

“All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling.” –Oscar Wilde

The haiku, of course, originated in Japan. The Japanese language doesn’t require articles, which makes a three-line verse of seventeen syllables way more doable if it is actually in Japanese. I see that my little brother is online, as now it is 4:04 a.m. (8:04 p.m. in the countryside north of Tokyo), but I won’t pester him for a translation, because my haiku just isn’t worth it. Here it is:

Villas at Palm Valley’s First HOA Meeting

Developer of undeveloped lots holds majority

Voted Himself President, Vice President, and Secretary/Treasurer

I should have stayed home and cleaned the toilets

*   $   *

Does poetry or politics shape your world?

Recycle Robot vs. Sister Mary Villus

I made it through Mbot’s first show-and-tell three weeks ago, but only barely, and
now I was faced with a second. He had wanted to bring a fiberglass cast. Another kid had brought a cast, cut off his wrist after an accident we have not (yet) had. He had wanted to bring shells. Another kid had brought a bagful of shells, sending one home with each child. In the shell department, we had only one tiny limpet. It was not a large one. He wanted to bring seeds. The kid yesterday had brought seeds. Pressure and panic were mounting.

Then I had a brainstorm. We would make a robot out of stuff in the kitchen! Recycle Robot was constructed of Handiwrap tubes, a granola bar box, an egg carton, mini-bubble wrap (the wings, duh), pipecleaners, and a few inches of duct tape. “We” was constructed of “me” more than “he.” I was particularly proud of Recycle Robot’s articulated elbows. Forgive me for overachieving, but I am new to the show-and-tell scene. The last time I did show-and-tell I was in the first grade and I brought in my little brother, who I introduced as Freddy. Freddy is not his name.

Recycle Robot was as big a hit as Freddy had been forty years ago. But the next day I realized, as a proud little boy and his wise mother paraded into class with a flashlight–that there are simpler solutions.

Yet I dreaded the next show-and-tell.

As the day drew near, we discussed it. Mbot wanted to bring Buzz Lightyear, the one with all the buttons, the one the Toy Fairy had not picked up (You Can’t Shoot the Toy Fairy), but Mrs. Pursell does not allow toys. He wanted to bring Tesserwell. Mrs. Pursell does not allow cats. He wanted to bring poop. I am sure that Mrs. Pursell does not allow poop.

The day came at us as though shot from a cannon, and that morning, we were still empty-handed.

“How about the magnifying glass?” I asked with false cheer. I’d already suggested it, days before, to a profound lack of enthusiasm. But I’d just found it again behind his little brother’s crib. I’d gone hunting for it that morning because Mbot had wanted to examine the dried cat puke on the bathroom floor more closely, and who am I to stand in the way of scientific investigation? “Just don’t touch it,” I’d advised. The weedy, yellow puddle had appeared during the night; it wasn’t hurting anyone, it wasn’t going anywhere. Unlike breakfast and Griffin’s diaper and the cat’s insulin shot, it could wait. It might as well pay its way.

And it did. As Mbot rushed into the bathroom armed with the magnifying glass,  I thought about the object of his fascination. And then it hit me. “How about the stomach book?” I asked. “For show-and-tell?”

Mbot looked up from the kitty bile long enough to exclaim, “Yeah, Mom!”

The stomach book.

The stomach book has been a part of our lives for over a year, since my then two-year-old had pulled it off the library shelf–coincidentally, soon after he’d had (and shared with us) the toilet bowl blues. He insisted on reading it every night and also several times a day. Since then, I had renewed it, returned it (an act accompanied by tears from the backseat), and checked it out again. And again, and again. The real title of this fab classic is Your Body Battles a Stomachache (by Vicki Cobb, Andrew Harris, and Dennis Kunkel). It is a book dedicated to describing in detail the mechanics of throwing up.

The stars of the show: intestinal villi, magnified 16,000 times. http://www.allposters.com

Inside it, we meet, up close and anthropomorphized, the major players in puking. The muscle cells, who look like superheroes. “Who’re those guys again, with the fancy heads?” asked Mbot. Those are the brain cells, with pointy axon noggins and dendrite limbs. There are also goblet cells (attractive for their ability to produce mucous), and villi (singular, villus), the fingerlike protrusions lining the small intestine to absorb nutrients. The
shapeless and benevolent villi call to mind efficient, well-meaning, and, at
one point when one of them explodes, extremely distraught nuns. There is also an image of a tapeworm, magnified ninety times. I’m telling you, this book is terrific.

After school, Mrs. Pursell thanked a shyly proud Mbot for helping teach the class about villi.

What is it about the stomach book that he is powerless to resist? I don’t know. Maybe it’s simply the attraction of a character-driven saga, the good guys versus the bad guys, with the benefit of body fluids and a giant tapeworm. Or that it all happens to him. (Except the tapeworm (yet)). It is far more interesting to him than Recycle Robot, no matter how bendy he is at the elbow.

The day after show-and-tell, Mbot removed Recycle Robot’s arm and inserted several small plastic toys through the shoulder socket into the granola box body. They were unrecoverable, because Recycle Robot cannot throw up. I performed surgery, amateurishly. Recycle Robot did not survive. But the stomach book lives on.

What would you bring to show-and-tell?

Waiter, There’s a Butterfly in My Cocoon

I have been disturbed for several days by the sneaking suspicion that Eric Carle didn’t know what he was talking about. Eric Carle is the legend who created The Very Hungry Caterpillar, about the binge-eating Lepidoptera who finally, bloated and exhausted and probably with very low self-esteem, built a cocoon and emerged a beautiful butterfly.

Children find this book and about fifty of Mr. Carle’s other collage-illustrated books inexplicably fascinating. Witnessing the Midgets’ delight in them has given me a greater appreciation them, but I admit, my faith faltered while reading another book the Midgets adore, Charlie Brown’s Super Book of Questions and Answers About All Kinds of Animals  (Random House, 1976. In the name of finally clearing out her attic, my mother sent me about a hundred pounds of children’s books, circa 1965-75, when Mbot was born. Some claim that I bore children for the sole purpose of getting these books.)

Moths come out of a cocoon, Charlie Brown informs us. Butterflies come out of a chrysalis.

Well, I thought, what about Eric Carle’s butterfly? It came out of a cocoon. It seems reasonable to believe that Charlie Brown is right: moth is to cocoon as butterfly is to chrysalis. So has Eric Carle been wrong all these years?

Tonight I finally got around to checking. Obviously I wasn’t the first Doubting Mom to inquire. Because on his website, www.eric-carle.com, Mr. Carle addresses the issue directly.

“Here’s the scientific explanation” he writes. “…There is a rare genus called Parnassian, that pupates in a cocoon. These butterflies live in the Pacific Northwest, in Siberia, and as far away as North Korea and Japan….And here’s my unscientific explanation: ….when I was a small boy, my father would say, ‘Eric, come out of your cocoon.’ He meant I should open up and be receptive to the world around me. For me, it would not sound right to say, ‘Come out of your chrysalis.’ And so poetry won over science!”

I was so thrilled to read this. Charlie Brown’s inaccuracy doesn’t seem so bad. I never really thought he was the last word on All Kinds of Animals, anyway. On the other hand, If Eric Carle had gotten a simple term wrong, it would be as if Michelangelo had carved The David holding a water pistol instead of a slingshot.

There are roads of thought in all directions I could go down from here: the authority we want from our authors, the cocoons we all dwell in, the magic that occurs at the convergence of poetry and science. But one of the frustrations and the beauties of a daily blog is that it exists at the convergence of living and writing, and in my cocoon, that point is no bigger than a raisin.

Why was I so thrilled Eric Carle was bailed out by a bug in Siberia? We all need things to believe in. Even if one of them is a rare two-dimensional insect that eats salami.

When’s the last time you were relieved to discover you were wrong?

*caterpillar image from http://www.nopests.com