Sunday, January 25, 2015

Dear Life by Alice Munro is proof of divine intervention

I just finished Alice Munro's "Dear Life," and it's knocked me straight between the eyes.

Munro was raised in Huron County, Ontario, and mastered the art of the short story because, as a mom, she didn't have time to write novels. Her stories tend to be somewhat autobiographical, and many are set in her hometown.

So by all rights, Alice Munro should simply be another great Canadian writer -- you know, the kind of person who writes stories that successfully transport the reader to another time and place.

But, no, she transcends all of that. Alice Munro is the most brilliant writer I've ever read and her raging talent is quite possibly supernatural. 

Perhaps I'm abdicating my own responsibility as a writer by saying that God Himself decided Alice Munro should write the best short stories in human history. God Himself may have controlled her fingers as she typed out her tales, one by one, while her kids were at school. But after reading, relishing, and enduring Munro's stories since I was a teenager, divine intervention is the only theory that makes sense to me.

Munro published "Dear Life" in 2012, and the last four stories are the only tales she will ever write that are purely autobiographical. It didn't surprise me that these stories weren't all that different from her fictional tales. But knowing they were her pure recollections made them even more stirring than her other stories.

I was listening to this book on audiobook, as read by Kimberley Farr and Arthur Morey, and the only way I could survive the incredible truth and intensity of the stories was to stop the recording every so often and scream obscenities, like, "OH MY (BEEP)ING GOD! WHY ARE YOU SUCH A (BEEP)ING GOOD WRITER!? THIS IS UNBE(BEEP)INGLIEVABLE! WHAT ARE YOU DOING TO ME!???!! WHYYYYYY!?"

Then I would start the recording again and dive straight into it. It felt like a terrible assignment and an amazing blessing at the same time, and in the weeks it took me to get through it, I would walk around feeling more sensitive much of the time. All of the micro-decisions in my life began to take on disproportionate import as I saw it all through the screen of Alice Munro.

I don't want to wreck anyone's reading experience by encapsulating the plots of the stories here, but there are magical coincidences, there is sex on a train, there are wrinkled Mary Kay salesladies and stories so good they will beat you over the head with how spectacular they are.

The experience of reading it may elevate your own "Dear Life" is as well.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Top 10 things I want my new mom friends to know

Chebbles and me, having no idea what either of us are doing
I got a lot of advice when I had my babies. Here are the Top 10 things that would have been actually useful:

(1) Hang out with your baby. Or don't hang out with your baby. Whatever. The baby likes you. Everyone likes you. Go take a walk/nap with the baby, or leave the baby with someone else when you take a walk/nap.

(2) Sometimes you have to do weird stuff because of that wrong-headed baby. Birdy would only be held facing forward. Gigi wouldn't nurse for crap. So do some stuff and see if it works and then when it doesn't, try something else.

(3) You will want to cry when people give you "advice" because your hormones are telling you that everyone knows you suck at this. Feel free to blow them and their annoying advice off and have a good, justified cry instead.

(4) OLD MOMS are calm and they want to get high on your baby -- hang around them as much as you can. Because they've taken a kid from womb to college, old moms will tell you that pretty much none of the stuff that seems important now matters. Then they will continue getting high on the smell of your baby's scalp.

Gigi and me, about to not sleep for six months
(5) OLD DADS are pretty awesome too. I've yet to meet an old dad who couldn't wax rhapsodic upon the sight of a new baby. Sometimes a little funky old dad poetry is just the ticket to getting you through the day.

(6) People who have fewer than four kids (including me) may not have enough of a sample size to give you usable advice. When Birdy wouldn't talk, for example, it was the mom of six kids who told me that some kids just do that. And she was right.

(7) Sleep when your child sleeps. HAHAHAHAHA just kidding!!! You can try that and sometimes it will work. Beware that your very sweet husband may take photos of you and the baby sleeping together so cover up your naked boob before you drift off. [Photo redacted]

(8) When female rats become mothers, their brains grow to accommodate all of the new information. There is no reason to think you aren't also becoming a genius, particularly if you can figure out how to load D-batteries into the swing.
Birdy and me. Same exact gown 15 months later.

(9) There is no book that has the answers. A lot of books SAY they will transform your baby into a self-actualized adult, or at least may make him sleep more than 20 minutes at a time, but everyone, even famous authors, is just guessing. Dr. Weissbluth's advice was pretty awesome for Chebbles and Birdy, but Gigi thought he was a crackpot. Also, Vicky Iovine is hilarious at a time that hilarity is welcomed. There is no book with all the right baby answers for your beautiful wrong-headed baby.

(10) You got this thing. You may feel like a crying, strange, flabby shadow of your former self, but to me, you're a spectacular, gorgeous heroine. And say, do you mind letting me smell your baby?

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Birdy: Lost and Found

There's Gigi, but where's her little sister....?
Six of us went to the San Francisco Botanical Garden on Monday. The garden was gorgeous, beautifully tended, with so many delightful fragrances and blossoms to cheer up our January noses.

The Botanical Garden is also very large, large enough that Birdy went entirely missing.

In the blink of an eye, she seemed to have disappeared.

I called to her and got no response. Then I yelled in my serious mom voice and started literally beating around the bush trying to find her.

Chebbles never does this. She's what I call a "schnauzer." She instinctively knows that if she doesn't stay right next to my side, I might well dart off to the next shiny thing without her. Gigi also tends to stick close to me. She is like a little statue, deeply fascinated with the minutiae at the side of the trail.

But Birdy can sometimes get caught up in her own world -- the same world in which she played patty cake with the wall at the age of 10 months, and currently plays chess with herself for hours at a time.
"Checkmate, ME!" "Good game...."

Despite this dreaminess, she had never wandered away so completely before. After my general area bush-beating, I started getting more serious, quickly circling the areas where we'd just been, calling out to her, and asking passersby if they'd seen a five-year-old girl with long curly hair. No one had.

I'm glad that I kept panic at bay. Luckily, I have enjoyed Lenore Skenazy's writings and Gavin de Becker's fantastic book many times over, so I knew how incredibly rare an actual "stranger abduction" is. Still -- where the hell was Birdy?

She can't swim yet, so I started having visions of dredging the pond to look for her. Then I noticed how many exits there are to the Botanical Gardens. Exits abound (as they should), but when you're trying to track down a lost five-year-old, one-way exits are not an encouraging sight.

So I went to the North Gate, the closest entrance, and confessed that I'd lost my child.

"Someone just said they saw a girl by herself down in the succulent garden," the attendant said. So I hustled down there -- but it was a long way. It was far longer, it occurred to me as I jogged down there, than she would have gone.

I started asking everyone I saw if they'd seen a five-year-old by herself. I yelled into the bathrooms and the maintenance sheds. I called and called out for Birdy, but all I found were more stymied passersby, and more disconcerting exits.

So I ran to the Main Gate.

The most likely scenario in my mind at this point was that Birdy wasn't sure how to find us anymore. She had never been to the Botanical Garden and was likely disoriented. I know I was disoriented by this point, and I've been there many times.
SF Botanical Garden: A veritable plethora of places to lose a five-year-old

At the Main Gate, things got weird. I told the attendant that I had lost my five-year-old child and she first asked me if I had a photo of her on my phone.

I don't have headshots of Birdy on my phone, just artsy shots of her playing chess by herself. And what was this woman going to do with the photo on my phone anyway? Did she have a video/PA system rigged up throughout the park? I described Birdy quickly, adding again that she is just five years old and had been missing for at least 10 minutes.

The attendant at the main gate then told me that she would be able to help me find Birdy, but only AFTER she finished taking everyone's money in line.

The line was long. The attendant was asking me to wait at least 10-15 minutes while she ran every person's credit card in an increasingly long line. It took me an astounded moment to realize that she wasn't going to help.

"I think I'll just look for her myself right now," I said, flummoxed, and even more worried, as I ran back into the park calling out for Birdy and scanning the face of every small child.

It crossed my mind how absurd my life had become in the matter of a few minutes. One moment we were a group of people gamboling around among the trees in the Botanical Garden. The next moment, I was hollering my child's name, beseeching strangers for help.

My sister, meanwhile, stood at the North Gate, feeling helpless. The attendant at the North Gate wouldn't allow my sister to come in and help look for Birdy because my sister had a small dog in her purse.

At that point, my sister did the most reasonable thing anyone had done so far: she flagged down a cop on the street.

Officer Hernandez hopped out of his patrol car and immediately went into action. He pulled out his radio and began to take down and share all of the information my sister was giving him, about Birdy and how thoroughly we had lost her.

Moments later, a middle aged woman found Birdy in the underbrush, just tooling around on her own in "South America," nowhere near the succulent garden where she had allegedly been seen. The nice woman began walking with Birdy, talking affably, toward the Main Gate of the gardens, where I intersected with them and squeezed my girl with relief.

Birdy and I headed for the North Gate, to reunite with the rest of the family. Officer Hernandez took a moment to express his disappointment that we hadn't called the police right away. They have a procedure, he told us, when a child goes missing in the Botanical Garden -- they seal off the exits to be certain that the child doesn't do the very thing I was worried about: exit the garden without a way to re-enter it.

Why doesn't the staff at the SF Botanical Garden know about this missing child procedure? Why didn't one of the attendants advise us to call the police right away in order to stop the wandering five-year-old from wandering too far? They also could have called the police themselves.

But all's well that ends well.

I called and left a message for the Botanical Garden staff yesterday -- a long rambling message with the story of Birdy and how it doesn't make much sense to tell the panicked mother of a missing small child that she has to wait 10-15 minutes before any help is available to her.

So Officer Hernandez was the hero of the day. We joked that we needed him to follow our whole family around, sealing off exits lest any of us wander again. And a little bit later, Birdy finally told her what had captured her attention so much that she didn't hear me calling to her... "I was in Chile!" she said, excitedly.

Reunited with our Bird. She's not impressed.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

My downfall

Photo surreptitiously taken by Gigi
It's different now, talking to Chebbles.

Gradually, through either her own rising canniness, or my own mental degradation, she has become skeptical about things I tell her.

It's not as though she thinks I'm lying all the time, or that I'm deliberately untrustworthy, it's just that she kind of rolls her eyes and double-checks almost everything I tell her.

I sometimes wonder if I actually do know what the heck I'm talking about anymore. Whether it's logistical or historical information, Chebbles now cannot be certain that I know what is really going on.

What she's telling me is that I don't "get it" anymore. I don't "get" the way things are for her at school. I don't "get" her sense of humor. I don't "get" how she's supposed to learn the times tables. I don't "get" how clothes feel to her, how food tastes to her, and how crappy it is having younger sisters.

In my defense, I think I have some vague notion of many of these things. Perhaps I don't sympathize as much as she'd like, and maybe I have missed the boat on some things, but I do continue to feel ultra-connected to my kid.

However, it may be that this feeling is no longer strictly mutual.

She's gotten so mad at me a few times recently that she briefly fantasized about me not being around, but then found herself grieving the very idea and seeking me out for a hug.

It feels very natural to me. As puberty begins seeping into her life, she is starting the long, slow process of separating herself from me as the goddess of wisdom I once was. Regarding me with a new skepticism may be an important part of that separation.

If I look at it from her perspective, so many of the things I say must be wrong as well as annoying:

* "You'll be so glad to have sisters when you're older."
* "Maybe she won because she practiced more."
* "I didn't help you because I knew you could do it alone."

One can hardly blame her for regarding me with increasing skepticism. After all, I've never parented a nine-year-old girl before. Should I push her? Leave her alone? Advise her? Admonish her? Close the door when she leaves it open or ask her to come back and close it herself?

Yes, the more I think about it, the more she's right to be at least a little skeptical. I am making it up as I go along.

I do, however, have one major consolation as my daughter regards me, and my "knowledge," with uncertainty. And that is my memory of the second week of September 2005, just after Chebbles had been born.

I had been struggling with every aspect of being a new mom for the previous week, when my own mom arrived from the airport via a taxi. I watched her, in this striped shirt, burst out of the car and scurry up the steps:

Chebbles and Grandma, the first second they met

The woman who had been my regular ole mom a moment before was suddenly elevated to GENIUS status by me as she held Chebbles for the first time and clearly knew what she was doing.

So it may be a few years before my daughter holds me in the same high regard she once had for me. But perhaps that day is coming. And I'll be ready with a burp cloth.

Friday, January 16, 2015


Of our four cats, only Diamond has a definitive voice. She sashays into the room and loudly announces (through me), "I AM A GENIUS, PEOPLE! ADORE ME!"

Diamond came into our lives in the Summer of 2012. I had just had my fourth miscarriage, Hub-D was about to leave for a two week vacation to Greece, and it seemed like a new kitten was just the thing to keep us entertained. 

There were many kittens to choose from among the homeless cats on display at Pet Food Express, but Diamond looked me directly in the eye from behind the glass and said (with her eyes), "GET ME THE HELL OUT OF HERE."

Her cage at the pound had been decorated with the words, "She's a Diamond in the Rough!" so the girls immediately assumed her name was Diamond. 

What made her "Rough?" 
Diamond had been returned to the pound (ah, the humiliation) at the age of seven months because she never got along with her original family's existing cat.

Right out of the gate, she was just as horrible to our cats Rehnquist, Prince and Otto. She yelled at them and slapped them around. They learned to avoid her and calmly waited out her aggressive behavior. Eventually, after she realized that we were going to keep her, and that we would OBEY HER ORDERS, Diamond calmed down, started goofing around with them, and in her words, "tolerated their intellectual deficits."

Diamond has assumed the position of Dictator of the Family. She sleeps where she wants (might be your bed, might be your lap, just SUBMIT), she goes in and out of whatever door she wants (GET UP AND OPEN IT), she slaps cats and humans when they defy her orders (no claws, just a smack). But she's so cute and fun to have around we put up with all of it.

Riding high
Diamond also considers herself the BUTLER of the house. When a new person arrives, she considers it her PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY to greet them, and escort them into the house, tail waving behind her. It can be embarrassing, as she WILL jump on the shoulders of new arrivals in order to get their attention -- the taller the guy, the better -- she WILL leap onto you.

Which brings me to our 2014 Christmas card. We were posing in the backyard when I saw her, through the corner of my eye, take a running leap at Hub-D. I had just managed to restrain Gigi, who was starting to lose patience with the photo session, and calmed Birdy, who also wanted to be on my lap. The stakes were high. Would Diamond's bossiness ruin our Christmas photo shoot?

Nah, I'd say her artistic vision won the day:

And if you look closely at Diamond's facial expression in the Christmas photo, you'll see a lot of this:

Because when you have to lead a new country to independence, or, for example, boss around a family of five people, three other cats and a snake, you must be stalwart. And a little GENIUS doesn't hurt either.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Sh** Duolingo Says

What is the Duolingo Owl really trying to say?

I have been supplementing my German CSET studies with a program called Duolingo and it's fantastic! I keep it on my iPhone, and whenever I have a spare moment, I'm studying sentence structure and building my vocabulary.

The very BEST thing about Duolingo, however, is its occasionally shocking statements.

This one, in particular, seems to pop up a lot for me:

What could be happening in this home that so alarms the grandmother that she takes off down the road, presumably with a hobo stick?

This one is also nuts, and gives me a John Irving feeling:

Perhaps this is a political statement about Berlin's reunified city structure? Or maybe it's just about a very large bear.

I also think that Duolingo may have been designed for people studying to join the German Mafia. Is there such a thing? If so, I think you ought to pay them in a timely fashion, because things get tough fast:

Speaking of the police, there is also a certain lawlessness in some statements that I find shocking. Granted, I haven't lived there since 1992, but have things really come to this?:

I've also noticed a HAL-like component to some of the quotes. I feel like the Duolingo program may be trying to communicate specifically with me about itself, and furthermore about its opinions of me:

(Translation: "No normal adults have these dreams.")

Finally, this little gem came up last week. Of all of the phrases I've learned so far with Duolingo, this one might come in handy the most...

THAT is the Germany I remember. Or at least the ME in Germany I remember...
A rainy Munich Biergarten in 2008. I'd obviously fordete mehr Bier.

And now, thanks to Duolingo, when I return to Germany this summer, I will be prepared. 
Apparently, for ANYTHING!

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

C.L.O.S.E.: The devastating effect of reading to your children

My sister bravely risks CLOSE
Have you ever read a book to a child? Have you ever read a boring book to a child? Have you ever read a boring book to a child many, many times? And at any time during and after this experience have you felt the extreme need to fall asleep?

Then you have felt the wicked effects of what my sister and I call Children's Literature Onset Sleep Effect, or CLOSE.

She and I have been harangued into many book readings with my children. Yeah, yeah, I know it allegedly helps children eventually get into Harvard, but it can also be boring and pointless for little kids, and for you. Wading through the boredom, we have performed thousands lively readings of thousands books to fascinated little people for a decade now, and we both have experienced CLOSE almost every time.

CLOSE is not just a little sleepy feeling -- it's a magnetic pull from the iron core of the earth. It's more than a desire to rest, it's a NECESSITY of sleep that will not be denied. It only affects the caregiver, so after several repetitive books have been read, only the reader feels as though a coma is coming on -- but the child is still bouncing around and ready for action (and possibly an Ivy League school).
Go Dog Go... to sleep....

For years I've had a strict rule that I will only read my girls one book at a time. I've found that the danger of CLOSE is much exacerbated by a stack of books that must be read in the same sitting.

This is the basic breakdown of your CLOSE risks...

One book: You may need to "close your eyes" for 5-10 minutes in order to recover.
Two books: You will need a pillow and a blanket and a video for your child to watch because you may be unconscious for as long as 30 minutes.
Three books: Coma time.

Not all books are created equal. Dr. Seuss does not generally cause CLOSE (That is why my sister is still awake in the above photo). Nor does Shel Silverstein cause CLOSE. Unfortunately my children do not choose to love the same books that I love, or the ones that would keep me awake. They love The "Rainbow Magic" series, the love Smurfs "Ready to Read" books, they love the Biscuit series.

If you are not operating heavy machinery, and don't need to be awake for the rest of the afternoon, you can experience Biscuit here:

What does NOT happen when you read my child a book

Yes, that's boring, but I still don't understand why it is that I fall asleep listening to the cadence of my own voice, an experience that only excites my children? And why is it that developmentally appropriate books for children can reliably fell otherwise alert, wakeful adults? Why is it that my sister can stay awake for an entire shift as a night shift nurse, but can't make it through "Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You Hear?"

These are the mysteries that scientists must undertake, in order to ensure that future generations remain literate. But for now, my sister and I will keep to our ONE BOOK rule, in order to maintain consciousness.

Also! I'd like to state for the record that the only book we ALL agree on in this house, which doesn't put anyone to sleep and fills us with joy, is Julie Hedlund's My Love For You is the Sun. Because: LOVE.