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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

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Childhood Apocry-pals

Opening a plastic Snack-Pack of pudding tonight caused Patrick to reminiscence, "When I was growing up, chocolate pudding came in a can. At the lunch table, we'd tell stories about some kid who would lick the lid and slice his tongue in two."

Patrick and I grew up three thousand miles and six years apart, but I knew right away who he meant. "Oh yeah! I knew that kid too!"

"You did?"

"Yeah, he was always getting chopped to bits from playing in snowbanks when the snowplough would come around."

Do you remember that kid? Sure you do. Tell me about it.


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Tuesday, January 30, 2007

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Progress Report

Middle child: Mom, in my life there have been six years.

Me: Yes.

(silence of a heartbeat's duration)

Me: How's it going so far?

Middle child: Good.

Me: Good.


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Monday, January 29, 2007

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I would de-stress with yoga if I could find the floor.

This was the scene following my eight-year-old's sleepover on Saturday. It began at 5:30, with pizza, cake, presents and a round of Cadoo. At 9:30, I turned out the lights, issued a sternly worded warning, and pulled the bedroom door partly shut. As I was walking away, I heard a whisper:

"The coast is clear! Now we can start the party!"

Several sternly worded warnings later, I went to bed, thinking I had gained the upper hand.

At four-o-freakin-clock, I opened one eye to find my son standing over me in the dark. "Mom, so-and-so has a blister. He needs a band-aid."

I stumbled to the bathroom closet to retrieve a band-aid and opened the bedroom door. Empty. With a growing sense of dread, I made my way downstairs. There, in the family room, were six wide-awake boys, one Cartoon Network, and half the contents of three boxes of sugar-coated cereal strewn across the floor.

They stared at me like racoons caught in the trash. I stared back, calculating the energy I would have to expend shepherding them all back to bed and getting them to settle down. I assessed my resources and tactical options.

Let the history books show, at 4:39 in the morning, the twenty-seventh day of January, in the year of our lord two thousand and seven, the territory of the family room was officially conceded.

I fear the tide has turned against us. The best we can hope for now is a corner of our own bedroom. May god have mercy on our souls.


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Sunday, January 28, 2007

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Ground control to Major Tom

My mom sent us a webcam this week. I set it up Friday night, and we spent most of yesterday standing around it like it was the very first television. Only, the first television probably had better image quality. Patrick and I both live off Macs, and the cam is for PCs, so the only place to run it is off the old desktop we keep around for the kids.

First I configured it to run with MSN messenger, but couldn't get the audio activated. My mom hasn't figured that part out yet either. For the first half of the day we watched each other looking down at our keyboards, typing. Every so often, one of the kids would wander by and stick his face in the camera (in the baby's case, his naked bum) and my mother would mutely and frantically wave like she was on Super 8.

I managed to send mute video to my cousin Erika, who was snowed in, and typed plaintiffly that she felt like we were visiting through plexigas, in prison.
erika says:
I can see you.

erika says:
I can't touch you or hear you.

erika says:
but I love you.

I imagined her pressing her palm to the screen.

Later in the day, I figured out how to get Skype up and running. Sorry to be such a geek, but Skype has to be one of the seven wonders of the modern world. Unfortunately, being a geek does not necessarily mean one is technically proficient. So it took a while for my mother and I to get sound and vision working together. We spent the evening having a long conversation that went like this:

"Can you see me? Are you there?

"I can see you. Can you see me?"

"What? I can't hear you. Are you there? Wait, you froze."

It was like talking to someone on the space station. My girlfriend Heather came by, to drop her son off at my eight year-old's birthday slumber party (more on that later). I made her sit down and talk to my mother while I poured us a glass of wine (more on that, over here).

"How are you?" she said to my mother, "You look great. Are you still doing the Buddhist retreats?"

"What? Are you there, Heather? Can you see me?"

"How's retirement?"

"What? Can you hear me? Hi, Heather!"

I stepped in to help. "No, no, not like that. You can't have an actual conversation. Just smile and wave."

Finally, this morning, we downloaded Skype onto Patrick's mac, with its built-in iSight camera. He and my mother have been chatting for the last 45 minutes. We have paraded every child in the house in front of her, including the four that don't live here. It should be interesting when they mention to their parents that we made them talk to some strange lady in Canada on the computer.

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Thursday, January 25, 2007

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You're my man.

Please find me
I am almost 30.

—Leonard Cohen

Years ago, when Leonard Cohen's masterpiece I'm Your Man was released, a girlfriend and I sat on the floor swooning over the lyrics of the title song
And if you've got to sleep
A moment on the road
I will steer for you
And if you want to work the street alone
I'll disappear for you
If you want a father for your child
Or only want to walk with me a while
Across the sand
I'm your man.

"Why can't all men be like that?", my friend said, sighing.

My Dad, who was also a poet in Montreal in the sixties, cut in. "Girls," he said. "All men are like that.

Yeah, okay, maybe. But they sure don't all express it like that.

The film Leonard Cohen I'm Your Man, arrived in my mailbox last week. It's been in my Netflix queue a long time and I was looking forward to an evening of swooning and sighing. I did both, but also a lot of seething. You can't make a bad film out of Leonard Cohen songs and interviews. The raw material is too good. But it is apparently quite possible to make a bad film around the songs and thoughts of Leonard Cohen. I don't know enough about filmmaking to know how much of the blame rests with director Lian Lunson. I don't know how much is a factor of budget. I do know there were elements that reminded me of —how can I put this without feeling disloyal— National Film Board productions I grew up on. No disrespect to the NFB. But it's 25 years later, and we've come to expect more sophistication in a doc.

I don't even know if Lunson is a compatriot, but the whole film had the air of earnestness and self-consciousness that I have come to associate with Canadian film and tv. It tries to be sexy, but it takes the effort so damn seriously it comes off as contrived. It's like watching someone who's never smoked, trying to look cool with a cigarette. For example, there are flashes of bodyparts of a Vegas showgirl inexplicably strewn throughout the film. And then at the end, in a final non-sequitur, she comes out arm in arm with Cohen and U2. I can just see someone saying, you know, people might not get that the Cohen poems and lyrics and art are sexy. We better put a half-naked girl with feathers in. Because THAT says sexy.

The director's affectations were minor, however, compared to most of the performers in the concert segments. Starting with my beloved Rufus Wainwright, who did "Everybody Knows" in the style of Liza Minnelli and was obviously reading the lyrics off a music stand. He more than redeemed himself with his subsequent contributions, but others were painful to watch. Their affectations? It was like watching actors read poems. Which is my personal definition of hell. What did they think one could possibly add to a Leonard Cohen song with all that emoting? Your voices are enchanting, but it's supposed to be about the songwriter, not your signature angst or eccentricity. Antony Hegarty. Beth Orton. Martha. Yeah, I'm looking at you. Tribute is properly used in third person.

And for the love of Armani, it's Leonard Cohen, kids. Let's show some respect. Like, maybe learning your part and not singing off the sheet. Like maybe trading the thrift shop duds for something approaching the elegance and class of the man himself, that says I am honored enough to be here to have brushed my hair and ironed something just for the occasion. Nick Cave wore a suit and won my undying love. And Teddy Thompson put a dinner jacket over his t-shirt, stood up straight and just played his guitar and sang the song. It was riveting, a standout moment among performances that may as well have been done from inside burlap sacks. It reminded me of that old story that goes around acting circles about the method actor asking Sir Laurence Olivier his trade secret. "It's called acting, dear boy," was the response. In other words, get over yourself.

Leonard, I'm so sorry. After all these years, you deserve better than rags and feathers. Put me on the door list next time, I'll come wearing white gloves and hyacinths. But don't wait too long. I am almost 40.


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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

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So much for bleak midwinter

When Patrick and I drove up to Arkansas from San Miguel de Allende in his baby blue '64 Comet, it was springtime. "Well, what do you think of Arkansas?" he asked me, somewhere between Texarkana and Little Rock.

"Bushy," I replied.

In fact, I found it claustrophobic. I had spent most of my life on an island. I was used to being able to see into the distance. I was more at home in the high desert than I was here.

I have never completely lost that choking feeling. It is so lush here. In the spring it feels like the honeysuckle vines might snake around your ankles and pull you under. Not all the foliage dies back in winter. The magnolias and pines and camelias are evergreen. But enough of it falls to the ground that you can finally see the trees for the forest. Everything seems sharper and more clear.

I am no photographer. But here is a little story in pictures. I'm supposed to be locked upstairs writing poetry. Don't tell anyone you saw me here.

The sun came out.

So I took Fanny, our Rottschund for a walk in the woods.

Her front end is no more attractive, believe me.

When the boys and I ponder what god looks like (if god had a look),
my guess is sunlight on the water.

This is what god looks like to Fanny.

Those are clusters of mistletoe. Do you know how they get the mistletoe out of the trees for Christmas? They shoot it down with guns, that's how.

I wrote a poem about midwinter once. It was published in this book. If you go in for that sort of thing, you can also read it here.

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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

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Birds of a feather

Photo from Alaska Wilderness League

Sometimes as I wander through the streets of Blogopolis, I am struck by a theme. Several of the 20 or so blogs I read with any regularity will have written posts on the same subject, or in the same key. I guess it stands to reason that I would be drawn to like-minded people of similar circumstance. Birds of a feather and all that.

I like it when this happens. It reinforces my belief that the internet fosters connection more than it does isolation. It reminds me that humanity's fissures, however ugly, are only surface-deep. Crackling in the glaze. Underneath it, we are all telling the same handful of stories, over and over.

What I noticed this week was how many people are writing in a minor key. Two people wrote of seeking treatment for clinical depression (I also like it that the birds of my feather are the kind to pull against the tar and squawk for help. It's a scrappy flock.) Others just seem less jolly and more introspective than usual. I can relate. The temperatures in Little Rock have been around freezing for two weeks now, and sunlight has been unusually scarce. I have been sad and bitchy, vaguely unhappy with myself for stupid things, like not being rich or thin enough, or caring so much about rich and thin. It's been the kind of two weeks where I spend a lot of time with my face about one inch from the bathroom mirror, scowling, enumerating flaws. Reading the lines and spots like you'd read your palm — only, looking for the bad news, not the good fortune. No dark-haired suitors coming over the sea for you, my girl. No romance, no fame, no treasure. No more adventures. Face it, all your ships have sailed.

I realize this is skewed thinking. And that my little bout of the blues is piddling compared to the lifelong struggles with depression that others have chronicled this week. For me, the sun will come out in a day or two, and I will shake off my wings and take flight again. In the meantime, I am comforted by the call of others in the darkness.

We have made such a god out of intellect in this culture. We are the worst kind of religious zealots when it comes to the infallibility of the mind. We forget that we are also creatures of instinct and of nature. That in spite of all our scientific and philosophical overlay — our markings on the cavern walls — we are still animals. When the sun seems to turn away, there is a part of us, older than consciousness, to whom it feels like death. It is that part we are keeping warm when we huddle together, whether over fire or fibre optics, to tell our stories — the same story — over and over again.

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Saturday, January 20, 2007

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Riding the Short Bus to Redemption

This morning I remembered that tomorrow is Pinewood Derby day for our resident cub scout. When I brought it up with Patrick, our resident Pinewood Pit Crewman, it was obvious that my earlier reminders had somehow slipped beneath the radar. In the interest of preserving the marital trust, I will now enable the MUTE button on the scene that followed. But if you were to write captions based on observing our body language and facial expressions, you might come up with something like this:

"Are you fucking crazy??"
"Are you??

And that would more or less capture the jist of it.

I would love to tell you that we are a couple who always meet adversity with a unified front. Grace under pressure. But the truth is, when things go awry, we sometimes turn on, and not toward, each other. Certain situations trigger our own insecurities, rip open old wounds. The defenses go up and the pointing fingers come out. This was one of those situations.

Sometimes—most times—I think we are doing a pretty good job as parents. I have been known to joke that our kids won the baby lottery when they pulled our number. They slept between us as infants. They were breastfed into toddlerhood. They never had to cry longer than it took us to figure out what was needed, and answer the need. We may not always keep up with the Joneses, but they have bikes, books and bunkbeds, soccer, school and scouts, and most of the other privileges of being a middle class kid in America. We work hard at being whole people in a healthy relationship. Most times, I think my kids are as lucky to have us as we are to have them.

But then we hit a bump like today and it derails me completely. Instead of feeling like we are doing an outstanding job, I wonder who thought it would be a good idea to give us three human beings to care for. We can't keep houseplants alive. We can't change light bulbs. We can't sew badges on uniforms—hell, we can't remember to wash the uniform—let alone remember the goddamn Pinewood Derby. Other people seem to have no problem at all with going to work, paying their bills, mowing their lawns, dusting their ceiling fans, painting the door frames and returning their library books on time. What is wrong with us, I ask myself on days like this. Did we miss an orientation session on Living Life? Did we ride in on the short bus?

Procrastination is a character trait that has pained me all my life, one that I would spare my children from, if I could. The other night it was my first turn at leading my son's scout den, a duty I had agreed to take over from the other leaders at the turn of the year. I still don't have my leader uniform. I read the meeting literature in my office over lunch. I scribbled a plan on an index card, and ran to the dollar store a couple of hours before the meeting with the only two dollars I had in my pocket to pick up supplies. Somehow, I managed to pull it off. We did collage, and made chef's hats and then put on a skit. That night, as Patrick was tucking him in, our cub scout said, "You know what I want to be when I grow up, Daddy?"

I paused to eavesdrop in the hall, expecting a new elaboration on his recent ambition to become a night watchman at the museum.


"A cub scout den leader." Peeking around the corner, I could see his eyes were shining. I thought my heart would just give out then and there. Never before, have I been his hero.

The memory of that moment is the winch that hauled me out of the ditch today. That, and watching my son's eyes shine again as his father—frequently the hero— sawed and carved his pencil sketch into three-dimensional reality, complete with tailfins and a chrome paintjob. Somehow, he managed to pull it off.

Somehow, I guess we always do.

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Thursday, January 18, 2007

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I guess this is what you'd
call self-referential

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

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Hardly Asked Questions

Because I have less than six weeks to prepare for my poetry readings in Ireland, and because I swore last night that from here on out, I would Get Down to Business, I am suddenly awash with nifty ideas for the blog.

One of these is to start a H.A.Q. file. For Hardly Asked Questions. Things hardly anyone is dying to know.

Here's how it works: you post your question in the comments section here, where you can choose anonymity if you like. In a day or two, I will build a link in the sidebar to the H.A.Q. and we can keep adding to it.

I will do my best to answer all relevant questions. Like, "Newfoundland— isn't that near Latvia?" and "My uncle works at the William Morris Agency. Do you mind if I send him a few chapters of your book?" or "Where can I get a Rottschund?" Questions along the lines of "Do you want these incriminating pictures back?" should be directed to my personal email.

You can ask serious questions, too. If they aren't too personal. For a blog. Which gives you pretty much carte blanche.

Please try and avoid life's big imponderables, like, "Why should I care?" or "Don't you have something better to do?" and "My God, woman, what could there possibly be left that you haven't told us?" Those are beyond the scope of the H.A.Q. or my ability to answer.

As for the person who came here wondering about "extramarital sex without ejaculation" while staying at the Hilton: yes, sweetheart, it's still cheating.

My blogging brethren, feel free to develop your own HAQs. It would be fun to see it go meta.

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Original Packaging

I believe I have finally got my labels (sidebar section What I Write About) operational, after discovering that they would lead you to conclude that I Write About Nothing. In fact, I write about Everything.( Lack of focus? Or well-rounded? You decide.) Anyway, I have gone back and labelled a year's worth of posts, which is more than I have done for my kids' school jackets. The audience for Notes' pilot season was ittybitty select, and many of these posts are still in near-mint condition. Go ahead, get your sticky fingerprints all over them.


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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

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Everybody's got a dream.

Overheard in my van last week:

"You know what I'm going to be when I grow up?"


"A guard at the Natural History Museum."

"OH. MY. GOD. Me too!"

"I know! We'll work there together!"

"Yeah, we'll have to wait until we're older, though."

"Like when we're forty-two."

Five days later:

"There HAS to be a way we can get to be security guards sooner."


"We could wear disguises."

"That would never work."


"Unless they think we're midgets."

Thanks, Ricky Gervais. We couldn't afford Harvard anyway.


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Monday, January 15, 2007

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An open book

I am not young enough, or naked enough to get good photographs done for free anymore. I am okay with that; I had my picture made a lot in my twenties and then with the the babies, and I felt like I would wait until I had a few deeper lines in my face before having more done. But I need to pull together some biographical/publicity material for my trip to Ireland next month, and in my most recent set of professional prints, I am seven months pregnant and busting out of a silk nightie. Probably not suitable, even for those swinging, boho Europeans.

I wish I lived in California and was friends with this this amazing photographer so I could beg her to make my picture and get one of these from her for the courage to be apart from my babies and on the road with my poems for two whole weeks. Because while it sounds all very exciting right now, at some point in the near future there will be the whole Atlantic Ocean between me and mine, and Skype won't give me the smell of their hair.

Between you and me, that's probably the real reason I have been putting off getting this pr stuff together. I tell everybody else (like the people waiting for it) it's just because I hate bios. That's partly true. It feels ridiculous writing about yourself in third person, and I've always thought that the work should speak for itself. But then I found this terrific poem in an anthology and was all like, oh my god, who wrote this, and there was a bio in the back that was a say-nothing one-liner, like mine usually are. I was beyond frustrated. I wanted to know everything, and I got nothing. Zilch. I felt like I'd been slapped with a restraining order.

So I took my own picture and I wrote the damn thing (posted over here, for the curious—please don't tell the other poets I have a blog, or the other bloggers that I am a poet). The plane tickets have been booked for months. The children are excited about seeing their grandmother. I am lining up an eclectic roster of guest posters to help out here while I am gone. All the details are pretty much taken care of. I have nothing left to do for the next six weeks but panic.


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Saturday, January 13, 2007

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Does that come with a beaver tail?

Our third son was born in a planned hospital birth, a successful and triumphant VBAC. My wonderful OB was able to finally solve the mystery of what had stalled the second baby's labor. Walking into my room the next morning, he announced, "You have a platypelloid pelvis."

"A what?" I thought he said platypus. For a minute I felt like a Bond villianness: Platypussy.

"Your pelvis is elliptical. Your first baby was small enough to get through, third baby at eight pounds, barely. The second one at nine pounds plus, forget it."

I was relieved. The C-section hadn't been for lack of trying. We had made the right choice. But one thing bothered me.

"Dr. Harrrison?"


"Are you saying I have a sideways vagina?"

This is the epilogue to the MUCH longer birthstory I started writing on January 6, my son's sixth birthday (don't even talk to me about scrapbooks), and finished this afternoon. It's a really great story, of how I got my Mother Superior attitude adjusted and how my husband kidnapped the baby out of ICU, chased by armed guards. But it's so damn long, I have decided to post it here instead. Get a cup of tea or a glass of wine before you start in.


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Friday, January 12, 2007

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I'm giving you a loving look,
every day I write the book

Not only has Ben Ownby been FOUND! ALIVE!, but another missing child along with him. My heart is turning cartwheels. Thanks to the anonymous commenter who let me know the search is off.

This is a photograph of me and my middle son, who I call the "stealth" kid. He has a rich inner life, and is prone to wandering off. Those of you who have been parents for more than a few years know the sick, frozen feeling of suddenly missing your child. I cannot imagine the hell of having it drag out into hours, days, months. I know that life will never be the same for these children and their families, but for now, their relief and joy must be overwhelming.

When my mom friends and I are on the playground and one of our babes wanders away behind a tree or something, we all drop what we are doing and fan out. The blogosphere is just a bigger playground. Thanks to everyone who interrupted their own fun and games to cup their hands around their mouths and start yelling.

I wonder if, in these past twenty-four hours, my own boys have noticed my eyes drinking them in a little more deeply, or the palm of my hand passing over their heads a little more slowly.

Back to the monkey bars.


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Thursday, January 11, 2007

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Because it isn't always about me

None of you want to hear about this, and I sure wasn't happy to see it in my mailbox. But I believe that with access comes responsibility, whether you are TimeWarner, or just a blogger.

Please take a minute to click on this link for a child thought to have been abducted by a stranger in Missouri on January 8. It's what I would want every blogger on the planet to use their influence for, if it were one of my sons.

Go and look at his photo. File it in your memory. Be alert. Come on, internets, let's bring this kid home.
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Tuesday, January 09, 2007

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The Way We Were

Meet the Sunshines. Stevie, Stephie and "Sweets". Doing things together and with you. In 1973, when I was a preschooler, this was a close as my liberated mother was going to let me get to a Barbie doll.

According to Mom, Mr. & Ms. Sunshine had conversations that went something like this:

"You were supposed to get up with baby!"
"No, you were!"
"You were supposed to feed the baby!"
"No, you were!"

Soon after, they divorced. Steve married Elyse, who already had a son born out of wedlock. She adopted Sweets and they changed her name to Mallory. You know the rest.

Later (as I shared recently in Santa, You Bastard), I was allowed to have a couple of Barbies, with limited wardrobe allowances. They did not bicker, but lacking a proper Ken doll, wound up having midget sex with Smurfs.

(I will let it go when I get the damn doll, Mom!)

The Sunshines pictured above are not my Sunshine family of origin. They are surrogate Sunshines, adopted on ebay several years ago when I first discovered it, whereupon I immediately set about trying to reassemble my entire childhood.

In addition to the Sunshines, I bought Walk With Me Suzy, and My Baby Beth, my sister's and my favorite baby dolls. Also a whole bunch of Ladybird Books, the Well-Loved Tales. I had to stop somewhere, but one item I had intended to acquire was Growing Up Skipper. Skipper, you remember, is Barbie's teenybopper niece. Nobody ever believes me, but you could crank Growing Up Skipper's arm and her breasts would expand, from little teenybopper flatties to big, hard Barbie boobs. I swear I'm not making it up. I never owned Growing Up Skipper myself, but my best friend had one, and I coveted her mightily.

I don't think G.U. Skipper made it to the Bible Belt. Nobody I have met here of my generation remembers her. They think I am pulling their leg (or hoping to crank their arm). But their eyes shine at the thought.


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Monday, January 08, 2007

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I See Dead People

So, one evening a few weeks ago as I was slumped over my iBook, moping over certain feckless persons having jilted the internets, my husband called out to me from his office.

"Who's Marmite Breath?"


"In your comments section."

"Oh, I don't know. Some Australian."

"No, she's English."

"No, marmite is something foul that Aussies eat on toast. Or is that Vegemite?"

"No, I'm looking at her blog. She's English. It's pretty good."


Somehow I summoned the will to look at it. It was good. We had a similar ex-pat, life-at-the-carnival perspective. I found myself checking back in every few days or so, until finally adding it to my google reader subscriptions.

In the meantime, we struck up a little rapport in each other's comments sections. Turns out she had family connections in Little Rock, and was here over the holidays. That was a coincidence. Impulsively, I tried to reach her in time to invite her and the family over for our New Year's Eve Open House. And apart from the guy I live with, I am not really in the habit of inviting strangers from the internet into my home (There was the South African from our old chatroom who materialized on our doorstep, only to be removed to the nearest truckstop after a week with instructions to go find America, but he just kind of showed up). Anyway, by the time she got my message they were headed back home.

Then, last night, I got an email from her to say that her younger sister had been reading her comments and, recognizing my unique name, said, "you know who that is, don't you?"

Well, to cut to the chase, people, it turns out her sister is married to one of my husband's two nephews. I almost started screaming. It was truly like coming to the end of Sixth Sense. My mind raced backward through all the times I SHOULD HAVE SEEN. Like looking at her flickr set over Christmas and thinking her Dad reminded me of someone (like, maybe himself, at a party at his home several years ago). Like reading through her archives and realizing she hadn't come over to America as a bride, but as a child, and thinking absently, oh, that's like (nephew's wife's name). And never pursued the train of thought a second further, because WHY, out of MILLIONS AND MILLIONS of bloggers would two people who are already related through marriage just find each other? That would be INSANE. Her sister once housesat for us while we were in Newfoundland, for crying out loud. Her nephew, my grand-nephew, who swam with my kids at the pool this summer when he was home visiting his grandparents, was probably in her flickr set too, and I didn't notice.

Sometimes I think life is a really, really low-budget film, where the props and cast all get recycled over and over. You know, the taxi driver from scene one is also the pizza delivery guy in scene twelve. Sometimes I say to whoever's directing, "Could you not come up with some original material? Because that shit is totally unbelievable."

I'm just glad we didn't fall in love and want to get married. That was complicated enough last time.

I bet as soon as Nat has come out of her dead faint, she will post about it as well. You can find her at Marmite Breath Slept Here. If she denies she ever heard of me, there is some kind of conspiracy at work. YOU believe me, don't you?


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Saturday, January 06, 2007

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Of Very Impressive Clergymen, Pomp and Effervesence

Peter Cook, as the Very Impressive Clergyman, in the Princess Bride

I don't bring my religion much into my writing here. Principally, because anytime I attempt it to weave it in, I find myself prefacing it with a lot of neurotic explanations about my gradual conversion from intellectual fundamentalism and how being a believer isn't at odds with being a thinker, and mostly, how I'm not one of those other Christians. All of which not only makes me sound like an idiot, it is beside the point. Because my religion isn't what I believe in; my religion is the vehicle that takes me there. It's just the particular bus I have chosen to board, for the return leg of a round trip I believe every one of us is on.

Maybe the scenery along my chosen route is different from yours. Maybe the tour operators offer different brochures and running commentary. Maybe you prefer the solo, self-guided option. Maybe you bought a ticket that you thought put you in a different class than the rest of us. Whatever. I'm betting on meeting all of you back at the station sometime.

My bus, for this leg of the journey, happens to be the Episcopal (Anglican) tradition, and I could not not post about attending the Consecration of the 13th Bishop of Arkansas today. Because in addition to all the important things the Episcopal church gets right and in spite of what we get so very wrong, we excel at ceremony and open bars. Wow. It was like being at a royal wedding or the end of the first Star Wars movie. The new Presiding Bishop of the United States, Katharine Jefferts Schori was there. About a bazillion priests, deacons and bishops were there. Lots of flowing white robes and hair. The entry procession alone took nearly thirty minutes and I half expected to see elves and dwarves bringing up the rear.

Seeing the recently installed Bishop Schori was thrilling. I don't know if she has always had a commanding presence, or if that comes automatically with the pointy hat and crook, but every neck in the room was craned to see her come in. I couldn't help but feel, on the heels of Nancy Pelosi's installment as Speaker of the House, that for a brief, shining moment, we are all in Camelot (or maybe an AARP version of Castle Anthrax).

The scene stealer, however, was a young priest from Little Rock who gave the sermon. It was funny and smart and provocative, without grandstanding or pontificating. He also had the je ne sais quoi pas factor going on. He is a good-looking guy, obviously a gifted writer and speaker. I wondered why and how he came to choose to apply those gifts to priesthood. Lots of people in secular life would kill to be able to write like that. (I mean, he could have been a blogger!) Granted, being an Episcopal priest is not exactly a hardship post. You can be gay, married or rich. But still. I am fascinated by the idea of call, of being annointed, in any walk of life.

Two movies I watched recently also delve into this idea: The Queen and The Lady in the Water. Both explore what it means to be annointed; how certain individuals are singled out for extraordinary purpose, the cost and the burden of accepting one's call, and how others become magnetized by it.

There is much that drives me crazy about my adopted church, and institutional religion in general. I confess, some Sundays I sit in the pew and think, my brothers and sisters in Christ? You've got to be kidding me. But then that same person I have been silently, defensively, pre-emptively judging, turns around and smiles at me or my child and I realize what an insecure moron I am. There's a great joke where somebody says to a church member, "Oh, I couldn't join the church. It's full of hypocrites." And the church person smiles and says, "Yes, but there's always room for one more."

I'm that one more. Today was one of those occasions when I could get down off my high horse and be a part of, not apart from, this messed up, imperfect gathering of human beings. Champagne really helps with the warm fuzzies, doesn't it? After all the theatre, there was a huge reception with gallons of it. Because, where two or three Episcopalians are gathered, there ye shall find a case of wine. You couldn't really move about, it was so crowded. So I just kind of bobbed on the current, like a floating duckie in a carnival game, making a continuous circuit from one champagne table to the next, smiling and raising my glass to friends and strangers. A lucky duck, part of something grand and hopeful, annointed in my own small way.

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The Magus: An Epic Tale for a Winter's Day

Mothers become mothers all at once, at the moment your child is delivered from your body or placed in your arms. Whatever happens from that point forward, you are a mother and nothing will ever change you back. Fathers have to choose. There is a moment where a man must look at his child and decide, this is my child.

That moment usually happens internally and invisibly, in the wings of a drama in which mother and child are in the spotlight. But for the birth of our second child, six years ago last week, paternal instincts took centerstage. Guys, stick around; it's a long story, but it has pistols and a chase scene and a kinky ending.

"I think when the Wise Men come on your birthday, it makes you wise."

—my middle child, the morning of his sixth birthday,
the Feast Day of Epiphany

"All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death."

from The Journey of the Magi, T.S. Eliot

My first child was born at home. My husband, three midwives and their apprentice were in attendance. The baby came four weeks early, in an ice storm. The power was out most of the day, but otherwise the labour went without a hitch. I remember looking at the clock, and thinking, okay, I can do this until about seven. The baby was obligingly born two minutes past, six pounds even. It was an amazing, empowering experience, everything they said it would be. I felt like I had really mastered this birth thing. It went straight to my maternal ego. Whatever lip service I might have given to those who chose differently than I, I secretly thought they were brainwashed by the medical establishment, or maybe just lazy.

Ah, the boneheadedness of youth.

Fortunately, life is a self-corrective process: two years and four days later, I labored to give birth in the very same room, with the same supporting cast, plus my mother. It was the Epiphany. There had been another ice storm, and the power had been out for days, but had come back on in time for my due date. Because I was Master of the Birth.

I labored all day, walking for miles and miles on the hardwood floors of our apartment. After most of the day had passed, I began to notice that things were not going according to precedent. When you are getting close to delivery in a home birth, there is a little hum of activity that starts to happen. The midwives, who have been mostly sitting and rubbing your back all day, start moving and murmuring, digging around for supplies in their tote bags, warming towels and cooking up herbs. I wondered why this wasn't happening. According to the clock, it was time. From the corner of my eye, I saw one of the midwives glance down and, ever so slightly, tilt her wristwatch up.

We began going through all acrobatics known to coax a baby out. The hours came and went. The mood changed from anticipatory, to concerned, to Serious. It became harder for my mother to conceal her anxiety. Whispered conferences began to take place outside the bedroom. I was exhausted and confused: why weren't things going my way?

Did I mention the pain? I can do pain, to a point, with a purpose. The contractions I experienced with my first birth were hard, but bearable. This pain was going nowhere. My body and mind stopped willfully participating in it, and still it went on. I felt disconnected. I wanted to curl up and die. The whispering intensified. My husband, my mother and the midwives came in the bedroom to discuss with me what they had all been discussing in the hallway: hospital transfer. The midwives warned that the doctors would likely do a C-section first, ask questions later. Was I ready?

Was I ready? I had secretly been hoping someone would ask me this question for hours. My pride wouldn't let me be the one to bring it up.

"I just want it to be over," I said miserably. So off we went.

We arrived at the university hospital in the middle of a shift change. No one was happy to see us. We were a couple of renegade homebirthers and three midwives and the nursing staff was not going to miss this opportunity to see that we learned a valuable lesson. They put us in a waiting room for what seemed like an eternity, coming back only to ask if I could please keep the moaning down.

Eventually, we were moved to an examination room. A young female resident came in, asked how long I had been in labor, and said, "C-section". She was brusque with me, and rude to my midwives, who had birthed more healthy babies between them than she would for the remainder of her career. But I was all out of fight. The midwives stepped in and tried to make a case for a pharmeceutical intervention. Perhaps if I could get some pain relief, I could catch a second wind and push the baby out. I was so exhausted, I couldn't understand what they were saying to me. The resident was scowling. And that's when my husband made an executive decision, and asked everyone to please leave the room.

And here the story begins.

Patrick held my hand and told me he thought I had done enough. He felt that extending the labor was just prolonging the inevitable, and that if we were headed into O.R. anyway, it would be best to go now. He said that everyone in the corridor outside had their own bias, and that it was up to us to decide what was right for me and the baby. He agreed that the resident was a bitch and we both loved the midwives, but it wasn't about them.

I made him promise that whatever happened in the operating room, he would stay with the baby.

Oh, did I mention about the pain that had been ratcheting up all this time? I did? Well, that was nothing compared to what was waiting for me at the hands of the young anesthesiologist in training. He was trying to administer a spinal. This required me to lie on my side, motionless, through the magnitude-10 contractions that were coming every two minutes. If you have never had a full force contraction, let me assure you, you neither want to be on your side on a hard table or unable to twitch when it happens. However, the end was in sight, so I managed to endure it, only breaking a few finger bones of the nurse whose hand I held.

"Oops," said the young anesthesiologist, visibly nervous. "I missed."

The nurse gave me her other hand. I knew he was either going to get it right next time, or I would die, and either way, my trials would soon be over.

He got it right. Pain, off. Just like that. Suddenly, the young anesthesiologist was my new best friend. I loved everybody.

In O.R., I was positively euphoric. There was a screen in front of my face, so I turned my head to the side and smiled at Patrick. I felt something like a ballpoint pen drawing on my stomach. Then I heard a little mew, like there was a kitten in the room. They brought the baby up for me to see. He was nine pounds and four ounces and his head was gigantic. I remember thinking he was beautiful and huge and that his nose was smushed to one side and I hoped it wouldn't stay that way. The doctor explained that because I had gone over some sort of maximum allowable hours in labor, they would have to take him down to the intensive care unit for some routine tests. We were assured that our wish to have him in my arms as soon as possible would be honored. Patrick kissed me on the forehead and followed the baby down the hall, while I was stitched up and wheeled into recovery.

I don't remember much of this time, except sitting up in bed, smiling and thinking, morphine is nice. Meanwhile, Patrick was standing by patiently as our baby was weighed and measured, prodded and poked. Every few minutes he would politely remind the nurse that he was waiting to take our (clearly healthy) infant to his mama. She stuck sensors on the baby's chest and put him on the french fry warmer while she dawdled through her charts. The minutes wore on, and Patrick's patience wore thin. I should tell you that Patrick's first son from a previous marriage nearly died when he was born. Both parents were very young, and it was a case of one medical intervention leading to another. Nearly everything that could go wrong did, and the repercussions have been long-term. My stepson's lung was punctured by a botched intubation procedure, and my young husband-to-be stood outside the O.R. doors helplessly as his newborn son's chest was cut open.

Patrick looked at our baby wriggling on the french fry warmer, now making rooting motions. He looked at nurse, whose back was turned to him, indifferently going through her motions. He made another executive decision. Stepping forward, he grabbed a blanket, peeled the sensors off the baby, and picked him up. All hell broke loose. The nurse switched off autopilot. "What are you doing? You can't do that! I'm going to call the doctor!" Patrick spoke calmly, but firmly. "I am taking the baby to his mother to nurse. I will bring him right back when he is done." Southern men have a wonderful way of conveying "the hell you say" while maintaining a polite exterior.

The nurse, close to hysterical, made a call. As Patrick made his way down the corridor, the resident came running after him, accompanied by two armed security guards, hands on holsters. "Mr. __________," he said, "we take this sort of thing VERY seriously here."

"Yeah, well this is MY baby, and I am taking him to his mother. NOW. If y'all want to come us, that's fine. But we're headed to recovery."

I had no idea, when Patrick entered the recovery room with our baby in his arms, that he was a fugitive kidnapper and that a half a dozen hospital personnel were standing outside the door with their knickers in a twist. "Hi, honey," was all he said as he handed me back my son.


I would not recommend a C-section to anyone who had an alternative. Recovery was long and difficult compared to my first birth, measured in weeks, not days. I don't know why medical personnel are so eager to snatch babies and toss them under a grow-light, but a C-section often gives them a good excuse for it. Having said that, the bottom line is always a healthy baby, healthy mom. Three years later, when I became pregnant again, I decided I was willing to make some compromises to my ideal birth scenario in the interest of avoiding a second surgery if at all possible.

Our third son was born in a planned hospital birth (different hospital), a successful and triumphant VBAC. My wonderful OB was able to finally solve the mystery of what had stalled the second baby's labor. Walking into my room the next morning, he announced, "You have a platypelloid pelvis."

"A what?" I thought he said platypus. I thought for a minute I was like a Bond villianness: Platypussy.

"Your pelvis is elliptical. Your first son was small enough to get through, third son, barely. Nine pounds plus, forget it."

I was relieved. It hadn't been for lack of trying. We had made the right choice. But one thing bothered me.

"Dr. Harrrison?"


"Are you saying I have a sideways vagina?"


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Friday, January 05, 2007

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The disappeared

I have been losing things lately. Among the disappeared: a diamond solitaire necklace (made from the engagement ring my first husband gave me), my heartrate monitor wristwatch, and my brand new ipod headphones (these turned up at the lost and found in the supermarket). Not insignificant articles. Oh, and the entire contents of my hard drive, which my husband would tell you was due to carelessness, but I'm telling you, that ibook jumped off the piano.

I have always been absent minded, but I seem to be on some kind of losing streak. I am becoming increasingly frustrated. What feels particularly awful is how long it takes me to miss these items. It's like they sneak off without my noticing. The diamond, for example, is something I have worn nearly every single day since it migrated from my left hand, to my right, and finally to the little dip in my collarbone. As with my grandmother's silver and marcasite ring and the plain white gold band and the green tourmaline solitaire Patrick gave me, I slept and bathed with it. I know, this is bad for jewelry. But not as bad as being lost, which is what happens when I take things off and put them down somewhere and which is what I guess I did with the necklace sometime between November 26, when my flickr set shows me wearing it at a dinner party, and December 16, when I noticed it wasn't on my neck.

I have been obsessively hunting for it. Not because it is a nice diamond, and worth a few dollars, but because it was a symbolic link between this life and the one before. I left St. John's in January of 1996 with nothing but my clothes and that ring on my hand. The person I am now bears almost no relation to the person I was trying to be then. It is an artifact of my past.

I am superstitious about jewelry. I believe the rituals around the giving of it, and the context in which we wear it, imbue it with magic and meaning. Like religious relics, or sacred text: what was simply an object becomes something else entirely. I believe if you lose your wedding ring, it is a sign, and you had better fire up your internal gps and determine your heart's coordinates.

It is hard for me to say what that particular necklace means to me, and why I am so bereft at its passing from my life. Maybe it was symbolic of something I hadn't let go of, and didn't know. Maybe a hard little stone of unforgiveness. Or maybe it stood for what was genuine about that relationship, in spite of all the falseness I put up between us.

Or maybe I am just a big loser, who can't take care of her stuff.

Now, if only the extra pounds I put on during Christmas (or more accurately, Carb-o-rama) would disappear.


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Wednesday, January 03, 2007

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Because someone needs to get up and go to work in the mornings

The boys are back in school. Although I engage in the customary mugging and groaning about having the kids home over Christmas, I enjoyed their break nearly as much as they did. It was nice to not wake up to the alarm clock, not to pack lunchboxes and backpacks, or do late-night loads of laundry ("Wear your shorts,'re just going to be inside watching tv all day"). Still, I am glad it is over, and we can resume whatever passes for normal programming around here.

Now that my husband and I both freelance, it turns out that the only thing that orders our day is the school bell. Our domicile is pretty unregimented in ordinary time, but over the holidays it felt like it was in free-fall. On the morning of our New Year's Eve party, my eight year-old was nearly as excited over the housecleaning as he was over his Christmas presents. You could see the relief on his face: finally, these people were going to TCB. "When are we going to start cleaning, Mom?" he asked eagerly, as I poured my second cup of coffee. "I made my bed already."

This is the child that I was going to homeschool. What a narrow escape, for him and me both. Not that I don't still love the idea of homeschooling. It just needs to be in someone else's home. Someone who has the desire, aptitude and organizational skills to teach schoolage children, for example. Maybe even enough to have gone to college and taken an education degree.

It took me a while to let go of the illusion that every learning experience was going to have to come through me to get to my son. Having a second, and then a third child helped, because my desperation to have a little bit of life for my own became stronger than my control issues. Also, it took more than one child for me to realize that they and I are separate, and that it wasn't healthy or fair to use somebody else's childhood as an opportunity to do over my own.

I am not saying these are the motives that drive other parents to homeschool. There are perfectly legitimate reasons to do so. For some families, it is simply the best choice. Like I said, I still appreciate the ideals.

But this way, I think my kids and I appreciate each other more.


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Monday, January 01, 2007

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In with the new.

Back in the day, I was a big fan of Star Trek: the Next Generation. It was a great show, really well-written. But I always thought there should be an episode where nothing happened to threaten the future of somebody's civilization:

Captain's log, stardate 41174.2. Cruised around space. Played cards. Took a nap.

Just for credibility's sake.

In the same vein, I keep thinking that one of these January mornings, I will reflect on the year past, and shrug it off as uneventful. In the ten years since I boarded the bus that took me away from my previous life, that has yet to happen. Every single year has brought major changes. When I bought my ticket at the station, I knew I was stepping up to the next difficulty level of play, but I didn't dream how breathless the pace would be.

2006 doesn't seem over. Patrick and I both poured enormous amounts of energy into getting our respective creative enterprises off the ground this year. It would have been nice to end it with a tidy little flourish:

Captain's log, stardate 200612.31. Design studio a runaway success, with solid client base. Dream agent fell in love with my book proposal. Can hire a nanny and finish manuscript. Mission accomplished.

I wish that were the coda. But it looks like episode 2006 ends with "to be continued" instead.

Will hard work and perseverance pay off? Will the mortgage continue to get paid? Will an essay collection by a complete unknown ever see the light of day? Will the site meter break out of the double digits?

Stay tuned.


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