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Friday, August 31, 2007

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I lured him over to make him listen to the new Ryan Adams' single, "Two." Somehow, we got to talking about family stories instead. He told me about the tire swing his Uncle Earl hung from an oak branch so high, you could swing free and clear into the Arkansas summer sky forever.

He swung that arc out into the wild blue yonder, and found me at the edge of the world, sleeping. He courted me across three countries, persuaded and persisted until I woke up to my own life. It was all a long time ago. We have had, and have, our struggles since. But when you go into a restaurant and see a couple tucked away at a corner table, talking—really talking—to each other, we are that couple.

It takes two
and it used to take one.
It takes two
and it used to take only one.


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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

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I will be guest posting at Design Mom next week (those of you who know me in person can just stifle the laughter).

I told Gabrielle I wanted to do something around jewelry. I have fond memories of hours spent rifling through my own mother's jewelry box on rainy childhood afternoons. Every object in it had its own story and meaning, from the sterling bracelet from which hung a charm with my own name, to exotic looking costume beads, to the solitaire ring with the empty claws, from which her engagement diamond had loosed and disappeared one day into the shag of our carpets, never to be found.

I remember with special warmth how she kept homemade pieces from my sister and me among the other treasures. I do the same, and will post some of these next week. I'd like to do a little montage of child-made jewelry for moms, in fact. If you have some to show off, please send me a photograph of it to kyranp(at)gmail(dot)com, and I will try to include it. Be sure to tell me your name, or blog name, and the child's age when the piece was made.

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Monday, August 27, 2007

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The lost and found of time

Somebody asked me this weekend how I find time to write.

I shrugged. "My kids watch a lot of television," I said. "My house is a wreck. Laundry piles up. I am not the friend who shows up at your door with a casserole when you are sick."

Repeating it now, I realize I was exaggerating somewhat. Except the bit about the laundry. That was an understatement.

The truth is, I don't know how. I just do.

For a long time, I was a blocked creative person. I told myself that in order to write, I needed to find the right time, the right space, the right pen, the right notebook, the right words. I built myself a snug little prison cell with all my pre-conditions. I thought they were bricks of concrete.

They were nothing.

It's late, and I'm tired from the day's travel, overwhelmed by how domestic life rises up to engulf me the minute I walk in the door. It's like floating into rapids. The kids are in bed, and there are at least six baskets of clean laundry to be folded. There are all the tasks I could do now that will take me twice as long to accomplish in the morning. There is my bed, and the tv.

But I'm here at the end of my dining room table, my laptop propped open between the children's homework and household papers. It's not a designated spot. I could just as easily be writing from any other cleared place at the table, or the end table by the sofa, or my bed. And although the light isn't great, and I am hunching in a chair that is all wrong for this task, none of it matters once I begin to type the words that came drifting through my head as I loaded the dishwasher, intending to call it a night and watch a little tv:

"Somebody asked me this weekend how I find time to write..."


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I have been on a four-day retreat in the mountains of western North Carolina, a gift from a fairy godmother of mine. I come here several times a year as part of a two-year commitment.

I never want to come. There is almost always some scheduling conflict which requires me to choose this over something that seems more fun or important. I miss and worry about my children. The tiny plane that flies me into the mountains makes me claustrophobic. I become convinced that something terrible will happen to me or my loved ones while I am gone. I am anxious, restless and distracted for much of the weekend. I arrive late for lectures, doodle instead of taking notes, and wonder what the hell I am doing here. I resolve never to come back. I am Gollum in the elven rope. It scratches, precious, it burns.

Then on the very last day, I learn something huge about myself, and my heart grows two sizes. I go from Gollum to the good Grinch. Not much different looking on the outside, but changed. Have some roast beast.

I have a plane to catch, and no time to get into all of it. But consider the photo below a postcard from me. If you could flip it over, you might see this hastily scribbled note:

Become that which you are.

Love, Kyran.


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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

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Love all lovely.

  • Your lovely long fingers come from your father's mother. When your hands were tiny and new, they would float through the air like starfish drifting with the tide.

  • You were the kind of easy baby and toddler that other mothers would point toward and ask, "Is he always like this?" and I would shrug and admit that you were. You could be trusted with scissors before you were two. Now that you are eight and much more trouble, I am relieved. I don't think your adolescence or mid-life crisis will be quite so atomic as I feared it would have to be.

  • You have these funny inflections and phrasing that we never correct because they are spoken in a meter so truly and correctly your own: you say "seeLING" for "ceiling" and "MAZ-ageen" for magazine "may you please pass the salt" at the dinner table.

  • You have a noble tenderness toward others, an innate sense of chivalry and corps d'espirit. You will stop running in the middle of a soccer game when a teammate goes down, because you are incapable of moving forward until you ascertain that he is okay. Nobody gets left behind.

  • Your stoicism toward yourself makes me ache for you. When you are feeling hurt or vulnerable to disappointment, you reflexively shield your heart with your arms crossed tight across your chest, your hands gripping your shoulders. When you do this, I want to peel them away, press my own heart to yours, whisper to you to stay open. I wish I knew how, myself, and could show you.

  • When I bring you home signed books of poems, you sleep with them under your pillow. You are the son, grandson, and great-grandson of poets and your blood understands: these are the consecrated objects of our tribe.

  • When we say prayers at bedtime, you gaze straight into my eyes as if you were a baby nursing. You love ritual and ceremony. We are a priestly tribe as well, and I try to honor and nurture this part of you with as low-toxic theology as I can find. When you were a toddler, we had a "beginners bible" that you loved (although parts of it made me cringe). You were especially fascinated with the Easter story. "He came out of the dark place and it wasn't dark anymore," you would say, in wonder. It is what you said to me when I explained about your grandfather dying.

  • You collect rocks by the hundreds. You cry in real pain when I forbid another specimen coming home with us in the car. Although they all look more or less alike to me, you seem to know each one of them individually. Something in your steady nature relates to geology. You and the rocks share a language that I can't understand, a language of sequence and persistence.

  • You are loyal as they come. Your favorite sleep toy—your lovey— is Snowy, a formerly plush snow leopard that was a gift from a kindergarten friend who moved away the next year. You have a long memory for people in your life. You tell me you can remember my father, who died six years ago this week, when you were two. I believe you do. His last words to you were, "You're lovely. And I love you."

I do too.

I changed the title of this post to a line from one of my favorite Christmas songs, "Love Came Down", words by Christina Rossetti, 1885. The music is an Irish melody. Shawn Colvin has a very nice version of it on iTunes. As I was composing this, I kept hearing part of the refrain in my head: "love all lovely, love divine."


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Sunday, August 19, 2007

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Weekend Update

Birthday party season is back in full swing. Multiply three children in school or pre-school by fifteen to twenty classmates each and you get a pretty good idea how I spend my weekends during the school year. If we decide to sell our house, I vote we replace it with an Airstream trailer. Then we can just tow it to whatever party facility all the kids have unanimously decided is this year's must-rent and live out of it. With the gas money saved, I could afford presents.

This weekend we got hit with four birthdays, three girls, one boy. You do the math.

Yesterday I set out on a mission to find four birthday gifts on a limited budget. Bonus challenge: they could not be junk. At the dollar store I was able to put together three girly-girl bags that I think would pass for boutique swag. And for a nine-year-old boy, a dartboard, consigned to the discount store by retailers who feared it would put somebody's eye out. But in light of the Mattel toys lead-contamination scandal, a toy with visible hazards might be a welcome change.

The total damage for four presents, including gift bags? Twenty five dollars. Turns out, I am the poster girl for frugal living.

In other news:

Wrangling three little boys into church clothes, through an hour-long service, and away from the refreshments table is not nearly as much fun as you might think.

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Friday, August 17, 2007

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A while back, I had a dream about an acquaintance who has a baseline of financial security I envy. In the dream, a wise older friend says, "You have to be kind to ______. She's never had what you have."

I would have argued the point, but in the way that dreams can suddenly illuminate, I knew exactly what she meant.

She meant what so many of you have demonstrated these past few days in your comments and emails: that I am blessed with an abundance of people who believe in me. It is the ultimate trust fund, and I have drawn on it heavily this week.

It isn't possible for me address every single expression of faith, every vote of confidence, every affirmation you have given. But to every one of you who opened your hearts, withheld your judgement, and shared your experience, strength and hope, thank you.

I have been down the road more travelled. It was safe. It was comfortable. It was okay.

My unhappiness was so deep, it was a secret, even from me.

If your chosen path is not the same as mine, I don't judge it. No way is without hardship of some kind. All roads fork many times over. We all second-guess our choices sometimes. Or, we all should.

In my anxiety, I have reverted to a vocabulary of scarcity: "enough," and "okay." Numbing words.

The root of each is fear. Their antonym is hope.

We have a plan. We have choices. We have so much to be grateful for.

It's not going to be okay.

It's going to be what it has always been:


In lieu of handwritten notes of thanks, I send you to this poem. Have a wonderful weekend, "idle and blessed!"

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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

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A year ago, Patrick and I were profiled in our local alternative newspaper for a cover story on families who have given up the two-week paycheck to become masters of their own destiny. They ran a photograph of us enjoying family time with our kids on the porch swing, blissfully emancipated from the stress and strain of running the rat race, and another of me earnestly sorting and storing boxes of cereal bought on sale with coupons. It could have been World War II poster for rationing: let's all do our part!

The day the story came out, I rang up my girlfriend Bridget, who, along with her artist husband and their kids, had also been profiled. We were both feeling excited and self-conscious about our notoriety. Bridget wondered what I would do the rest of the day.

I laughed. "Well, I'd like to go to Starbucks and get a coffee, but I don't dare blow my cred'."

A few days later, I bumped into a friend as I was coming out of a discount shoe store.

"Five dollars! Clearance table!" I declared in (mostly) mock defensiveness, pointing to my shopping bag.

I never wanted to be the poster girl for frugal living. As I told the reporter, I enjoy material comforts as much as the next person. Patrick was still in his first year as a freelance graphic designer. We still had our retirement savings from his years in corporate advertising. I was looking at coupons, and sharing a car, and hand-me-downs as short-term pain for long-term gain, not a permanent way of life. In the meantime, we were reveling in the flexibility of our schedules, the novelty of being home together everyday.

We had all the zeal of the newly converted. For the most part, the story was well-received by our friends and neighbors. I even had a phone call from a total stranger, who said she felt trapped in her upscale lifestyle, and found inspiration in our example. Not everyone approved, of course. Money is a taboo topic among southern gentility, and I know the word "tacky" crossed some people's minds, if not their lips.

I told everyone that year to quit their day job. The security was an illusion anyway. The days of the "company man (or woman)" who would be cared for into retirement have faded into the mythical past. You could be downsized out of your steady job tomorrow. And the so-called benefits? When I switched to high-deductible health insurance, and realized the tens of thousands of dollars we had thrown away on the employee health plan for me and the kids (which still left us with co-payments and out-of-pocket expenses), I was floored.

The design studio did better in the first year than I would have believed possible. Although Patrick had talked wistfully over the years about striking out on his own, I had no confidence in his ability as an entrepreneur. I just could not see my laidback husband hustling for business. I vastly underestimated the motivating power of independence. He methodically and determinedly sought work, and work came. At the end of year one, he had nearly matched his last corporate salary. This year he is on track to better it.

Most people starting a business might take months, even years, to plan. They would have an operating fund in place, their debt squared away, financing secured, ducks in a row. We aren't most people. Patrick's unheeded wistfulness came to a head suddenly and dramatically. There was no plan. Our ducks were free-range.

We had a few, not-very liquid assets. We had some credit card debt, not a dramatic figure for a family on a regular payroll, but we added to it as thirty and sometimes sixty days passed between billing going out and money coming back in. There are no parents who can float us through the lean times. There has been no margin for error. A couple of slow months in a row could tank us, and almost did, right before we left for Ireland last winter. We were two months behind on our mortgage and barely keeping the lights on. Patrick wanted to cancel the trip, which was all expenses paid. He couldn't reconcile the disconnect between living it up abroad for two weeks with the situation we were facing at home.

I laughed wryly, remembering my father scrounging for cigarette money within days of flying off to read poems in Bologna, Munich, Oslo. I kissed him on the head. "Welcome to a writer's life," I said. "Grab it while you can."

We cashed insurance policies, crashed the retirement fund. We caught up, fell behind, caught up again. Sprinting has become the rhythm of our life. Work flow is feast or famine. Nearly every month, there is a point at which we think the last job has gone out the door. No one will ever give us another dime. And then suddenly Patrick is deluged and working 72 hour stretches. Remind me how this is less stressful than agency work, I am tempted to ask him at those times. Remind me about all the togetherness, I want to say, when he is in his office from morning to night and I am feeling nostalgic for Monday-Fridays, eight to five.

Promise me we're going to be okay.

I have found that I have to keep my horizon line at very close range. If I look more than a few weeks ahead, I go blind with panic. But if I can just stay focused on our immediate needs, I find that we are okay. Today, there is always enough.

Day by day, we have somehow been making it work for almost two years.

This summer is as low a trough as we have been in since before Ireland. July was a slow month. The credit card companies continue to up the ante. How they can ethically, or even financially, justify penalizing people at their most vulnerable is beyond me. Each late payment triggers a domino cascade of consequences. More and more of our income seems to go into a black hole of overdraft charges, overlimit fees, and late payment penalties. It feels like we are peddling harder and harder and getting nowhere.

I am not supposed to talk about this, I know. It's tacky. But it is the biggest thing going on in my life right now, and I don't know how to write around it anymore.

We met for an emergency meeting with our financial advisor last week. Big, previously untouchable items have been placed on the table. We tiptoe around them gingerly, like we walk around each other. I think each of us secretly wishes the other would just suck it up, grow up, get a real job.

Rescue me.


My children have been able to stay in private school on full scholarship. Last Friday was registration day. My third-grader saw the brochure for after-school chess classes and asked me if he could sign up.

"I don't have money for that today," I said, as matter-of-factly as I could muster. Another mother at the registration table turned and stared at me like she didn't know how I got in there. A moment later, another parent walked up beside me, the mother of the kid whose used social studies book I had bought for my son. In what would have been a comedy of errors if it hadn't been so embarassing, the check I had written for it had bounced, and then the check I had written to cover that had bounced. The book wound up costing me and arm and a leg after all the fees had been paid. I can't imagine what she thinks of us. Maybe it was my imagination, but I felt a chill.

This weekend, I had an email from the soccer league. We have received financial aid to play the last couple of seasons, during which time I have served as the team mom. A question had been raised about our need, since my son attends private school.

Not one of these events in isolation would have phased me. I know it is okay to tell my kids when we can't afford something. As my friend who works in a posh boutique assures me, even wealthy people bounce checks. And the person who sat and judged whether my son deserved to play soccer this year or not based on his school uniform is not worth the breath I would spend on a retort.

But all together, it was just too much. I have cried more this past week than in the past year. I feel like we are failing our kids, that we are risking their security to indulge our own pipe dreams.


On better days, I tell myself it is as if we had left our jobs to go to medical school. We are striving toward high-level professions, and it will all pay off in the long run. If we were in med school, we would be stressed, exhausted and in debt up to our eyeballs, but we would know it was going to be okay.

It's going to be okay. Patrick's client base and work portfolio is healthy and growing. My writing is getting picked up by big newspapers, magazines. "Now is not the time to take your eyes off the ball," our advisor, our cheerleader, tells us. More essays will be published; sooner or later, someone will pay me for a regular column; eventually, someone will give me money for my books. It will happen. I've always known it will. It has to.

On more recent days, I berate myself and us for being spoiled brats. Too good for a cubicle job, are you, I say to the woman in the mirror, to Patrick in my head. Why shouldn't we be going back and forth to the office everyday? Millions do. What makes us think we are exceptional? Who do you think you are, anyway?


Last month I had to ask my mother for help, something I haven't had to do since before I became a mother myself. It was incredibly hard, mostly because I knew she would want to do more than her fixed income would permit.

Earlier that day, I drove past a man on the freeway holding a cardboard sign. "Could use a little help," it said. I had ten dollars in my purse, and I didn't know where the next ten was coming from. I was on the wrong side of the highway. It would make a nice story to tell you I did a U-turn and gave him half of what I had, but I didn't. I borrowed his sign and hung it on my heart instead.

I emailed my mom through tears. We could use a little help.


A check for an essay arrived yesterday. Just in time for the car payment. Another for Patrick is on its way. I might be able to make the July mortgage. I am grateful, but why is the reprieve always at the eleventh hour, the last possible minute? I know that my ambivalence about money is at least partially damming its flow. I don't believe that the law of attraction is the only law, but I do believe it is a powerful factor. I am always focused on enough. I have come to the realization that my "enough" barely covers the bottom of the needs pyramid. I am tired of it. I am ready to evolve past mere survival, beyond the skin of our teeth. I want money to flow easily. I am trying to substitute "enough" with "plenty."


I woke up early, unable to sleep. I came downstairs, knelt down, and began to pray. I don't like to write much about my religion here, because too many people will assume they know who I am and what I stand for because of it. But I will tell you that I prayed a prayer I don't normally use in private. I prayed for daily bread.

Later, a neighbor turned up my door. She and her family were off to South America for a holiday. They had a refrigerator full of food they needed to get rid of, could we take it? We have yet to face a day where we couldn't pay for groceries, but I gratefully accepted the offer anyway. Inside the bags were gourmet cheeses, organic vegetables, olives and nuts from an expensive market. Moments afterward, a girlfriend dropped by with a fresh baguette from an artisan bakery. And then I found a basket of warm, ripe blackberries on my front porch, a gift from Lennie.

None of these people really know what shape we are in. They didn't know that what they were bringing to my door were affirmations of plenty; permission to ask for more than "enough" from life. Each gift came with the message that sustenance is more than mere survival, more than plain bread and water. It's okay to dream of living well on work that isn't soul-sucking. It's okay to joyfully accept opportunities that come our way (like Chicago, and Ireland, and in a few weeks, my semi-annual retreat in North Carolina) even when the rest of life seems hard and uncertain. Hardest of all for me to swallow, it's okay to admit when you need a little, or a lot, of help.

You can ask for bread and be brought a feast.

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Monday, August 13, 2007

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The Quota

Eight-year-old son: I've decided that I can only get mad four times a day.

Six-year-old son: I don't think that's enough.


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Saturday, August 11, 2007

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And ANOTHER thing... example of the ruthless sort of shredding I engaged in at Blogher07

I said I was done writing about the conference here, and I am. So when I caught a mighty whiff of complaint yesterday, I wrote what I thought about that over here.

tags technorati :


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Thursday, August 09, 2007

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If you happen to be oot and aboot... commentary on gun play is in today's edition of the Toronto Globe and Mail (thanks to Katherine for letting me know).


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I Got My Liberal Arts Degree
From ChildCraft U.

Some books, beloved in childhood, don't make the crossing with us into adulthood. I remember reading Curious George aloud to my firstborn for the first time, and becoming quickly horrified, as George was kidnapped from his native habitat by a western imperialist trading in exotic animals, lost in the city, pursued by angry police, and finally dumped at the zoo. Welcome to America.

Others, though anachronistic in the details, are redeemable by virtue of beautiful language, illustrations or theme. For example, my two older sons and I have been reading from Little House on the Prairie this summer, rife with racist references to Native Americans. Since we are reading together, I am able to interrupt the narrative at these places, and talk to the boys about racism, prejudice and the terrible cost of Manifest Destinity, without turning Laura and her pioneer family into a band of plundering villians.

A housefire in the mid-eighties destroyed most of my girlhood artifacts, so my own childhood library is shelved mostly in my memory. I love stumbling across out-of-print titles that I had forgotten I used to own. It's like bumping into a long-lost friend.

I recently spotted this book on a girlfriend's shelf and basically cried until she said I could take it home for a while.

It is the 1976 edition of Look and Learn, from Childcraft. If you had this edition of this book, you would have the Rosetta Stone to my mind.

This was where I learned about architecture,

how to distinguish the MacBean clan tartan from the Stewart,

how to appreciate the great masters,

and the moderns,

and countless other bits of cultivation, from Japanese floral arrangement to formal vs informal table settings, to signs used by hoboes, to silver hallmarks and components of a suit of armor.

It was as good a classical education as you are likely to find. It has made me all that I am today: an excellent dinner companion, a formidable trivial pursuit opponent, and pretty much unemployable.

What book from your childhood would you still pore over? Which ones really shaped the person that you are today?


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Tuesday, August 07, 2007

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Meet Eureka. Our 'reka.

The first time my mother came to visit me in Arkansas, I took her up to Eureka Springs for an overnight excursion. Eureka, a popular tourist destination in the Ozarks, is a quaint historic town distinguished by its gingerbread-trimmed architecture, its quickie wedding chapels, its status as a midwestern haven for back-to-the-landers and homosexuals, and its year-round, outdoor Passion Play. The result is a kind of bizarre convergence of gay honeymooners, aging hippies, and bible thumpers. If Eureka Springs had a coat of arms, it would have to incorporate a rainbow triangle, a cannabis leaf and Jesus Saves. It's an interesting town.

The second day of our stay, we ate outdoors at a little Italian joint, Luigi's. A scrawny black kitten was yowling at me from the hedge through our whole meal. It kept yowling as I tried to walk down the sidewalk, away from it. I had recently lost two cats, in the dissolution of my first marriage, and I wasn't over either loss. It felt too soon to be tied down again.

The kitten didn't give a damn. He followed me until the hedge ran out, then stood there, yowling. I stopped in my tracks, and looked at my mother. She just sighed. The cat rode home to Little Rock under her feet. I called him Eureka. What else?

A year later, when we were looking around at places to get married, the quickie chapels in Eureka Springs were high on the list of prospective sites. I called Luigi's to check on availability for a small wedding dinner (we naively thought the deal could be accomplished between ourselves and a couple of witnesses). "By the way," I told the manager, "we found our cat at your restaurant a year ago." I said this warmly, as if confiding that we named our firstborn after him.

"A black cat? You took the cat???"

He didn't sound inclined to cut us a deal. I hung up the phone, and we tied the knot in Little Rock, with a hundred or so of our most intimate drinking companions.


Eureka is eleven years old now. He has accepted each addition to our family over the years with equanamity and grace. Starting with my beloved Chesapeake, Bailey, who would submit nervously to nightly tongue baths, and from whose sudden death I trace the beginning of the cat's own decline. Then the first baby, whose first word was "kitty-kat." Later, when we tried to teach him to say "Eureka", he translated it to first person possessive. "My-reka," he called the cat for several years. And then, somehow, as little brothers followed, this evolved into their collective name for him, "Pet-reka".

Eureka has tried to befriend Fanny, the dottweiller, the rebound hound. But Fanny, as has been noted, has self-esteem issues. Hurt people bite people.

A couple of Decembers ago, on a bitterly cold St. Lucia's night, a calico cat came yowling at our front door. Enter Lucy, a typical teenager: rowdy, disrespectful, pushy. Eureka has borne it all with dignity.

Eleven years is not the end of the line for many felines, but our fella seems to have used up most of his lives. Once the king of the neighbourhood (twice, he went missing for weeks on end), he now spends his days inside. We find him in increasingly bizarre hiding spots, trying to keep his old bones warm. He loves to sleep on my ibook or behind the kids' pc. Yesterday, I found him curled up in the bottom of the washing machine, just as I was about to dump a load of towels in.

I think one day soon, he will curl up to sleep for good. He seems to weigh mere ounces, just fur and hollow bones. My three-year-old takes great delight in hoisting him up in his arms and hauling him limply around. "Me so strong," he declares. Always the littlest, I suppose he loves feeling that he can lord it over someone in this house.

Eureka, always extraordinarily gentle and tolerant of children, rarely utters a protest.

Tonight they sat on the sofa in the lamplight, side by side— the very first life that Patrick and I were given to nurture together, and one of the latest.

The baby brought his angel face to hover near the cat's ear. "You're my best friend," he said softly.

These beings came into my life—yowling—and I thought it was going to be all about them and me. Patrick and me. The cat and me. The kids and me. Sets of points, plotted along unconnected, straight lines. Now I see that my life is just one little glob of gossamer in a web that keeps spinning out in all directions. And I'm not even at the center of it.

It's taken me a while. But the cat seems to have grasped it long ago.

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Monday, August 06, 2007

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Summer Reruns

The first day of school is closing in at warp speed. Suddenly, we are scrambling to find the reading logs we were supposed to be keeping, math facts we were supposed to be learning. It feels a little like tax time. We are a family of grasshoppers in a world of ants.

A few weeks back, I got an email inviting me to warn my readers of the dangers of "summer amnesia." That serious condition where important stuff just plumb falls out the back of your kids' head. Consider yourselves warned.

If I thought there was an actual person, not a spambot, on the reply end of that email, I would have sent them my post, "Slackers", from last summer. I am reposting it for you here, because I have to go panic now.

(To the twenty or so readers who were with me this time last year, I apologize for the warmed-overs. Would it help to consider yourselves an elite, preview audience?)

Thursday, July 27, 2006

My seven year-old son has figured out how to access and read the onscreen schedule for our satellite tv service. As I write this, he is sitting on the sofa, remote control in hand, scrolling through the listings, telling his five year-old brother what is coming on today at two in the afternoon, at four in the morning, at noon in the middle of next week. Thank god I discovered the "Hide XXX Titles" feature in the parental locks menu last week, or I'd be hearing, "Mom, there's an Asian party show coming on next, can I watch it?"

"Sure, sure...Mommy's writing, sweetie. Now run along."

This is the same carefully considered response that has my five-year-old eating animal crackers for breakfast this morning.

Yesterday the mother of one of my firstborn's school pals asked me if we had kept up with the huge packet of "suggested learning activities" the kids came home with on the last day of school. I confessed I threw out everything but the reading list, and we have been hitting that pretty haphazardly. Call me old-school, but I think summer break needs to be just that, a break.

I don't know what it is about that notion that freaks the culture out, but well before the activity packet came home, my mailbox was getting blitzed with offers to keep my children busy 24-7 from Memorial Day through August. There is a day camp for every interest under the sun, and they all sound great, even vital, once you've read all the way through the brochure. I would find myself wondering if I was going to be hurting my kid's shot at getting into a decent college by keeping him out of chess camp or if he would be humiliated on the soccer pitch next season because his teammates did the week-long skills intensive while he was goofing off at the pool.

The pressure intensifies after grade school begins, but it gets going long before kindergarten. It starts with whether your baby is listening to the right sort of music in utero, whether he gets the right sort of "brain-building" amino acids in his breastmilk or formula, where he is developmentally and physically on the pedatricians curve, whether or not you've got him in the right mommy-and-me play class. To a lesser or greater degree, those are all legitimate concerns. But in America every block in the pyramid of human needs is subject to commercialization, and thus is born the child development-industrial complex.

As with any other large scale capitalist venture, it requires complicity on the part of our major institutions. So the educational and healthcare systems help fuel the market by reinforcing our insecurity that Junior might get left behind. Case in point: friends of ours have a wonderful and precocious child who, although advanced verbally, happened to finish kindergarten not yet reading on his own. I don't remember that being so unusual when I was going into first grade, but the private school he was going to transfer to in the fall wigged out when they discovered it. God forbid a human variable should throw their test results off-curve. They insisted that he spend basically his entire summer in private remedial instruction getting with the program. His mom told them it was their loss.

Still, the seed of doubt had been planted. So his parents had him tested, and found a minor difference in his learning style that could be rectified with part-time tutoring. No big deal. Lucky to catch it early. That's what I say to his mom, and what she says to me, and we both know it to be true. It shouldn't be a big deal. But now that they've tripped the wire, the whole referrals mechanism has swung into motion. The reading tutor recommended some occupational therapy for handwriting. Somebody somewhere along the line made a speech therapy referral. The child in question has the most adorable lisp. "So, what, now you're not allowed to talk like a kid?" I said to his Mom when she told me.

I hope I didn't add to the pressure with my indignation. I know she worries about what the sudden assembly of all this scaffolding communicates to her son, and at the same time, doesn't want him to go without support he may genuinely need. I have three kids, and at some point, some educator or doctor is bound to prescribe something for one of them that I don't dare refuse. Tossing out the flash cards on the first day of summer is easy, but what about a medication or a therapy? I know moms who go all week without a break because they aren't about to capitulate to a preschool's immunization requirements. I personally think the chicken pox vaccine is superfluous, but I've decided it would be more detrimental for my kids to be cooped up with me all day, everyday. I haven't got the fortitude to live by my principals on that one.

I wish the scales weren't tipped so heavily, that it weren't such a David and Goliath proposition to face down the "experts", to resist the pressure to compete and compare. I wish we parents could take the doctors at their words, and not wonder if our child's prescription was written by the same pharmaceutical company whose logo covers every desk accessory in the office. Was there ever a time when people didn't plot their babies' milestones on an X-Y axis, and a "th" where an "s" should be wasn't cause for widespread panic? What happened to, "she'll grow out of it?" When did wait-and-see become an act of negligence?

I admit, halfway through the summer I did start feeling guilty about not pushing the reading list a little harder. Maybe he'll have regressed in literacy, I irrationally supposed. Maybe I better enforce a reading time. But as with the varicella vacccine, I lacked the energy to fight about it. A week or so later, I turned off the tv and told the boys to go find something quiet to do in their room while I took a nap with the baby. I woke up an hour later, to hear my seven year old reading aloud theatrically from The King, the Mice, and the Cheese one of my own favorite childhood storybooks.

"...from then on, the king shared his cheese with the mice..." I knew his younger brother was sitting at his feet, enthralled. When you are five years old, having a big brother who can read is like being fifteen and having a big brother who can buy beer.

Go figure. The same kid who hadn't cracked a book all summer not only remembered how to read, but had taken a quantum leap, reading with a level of expression and ease he didn't have before. And I didn't have a thing to with it. It was all his own doing. Or maybe, in spite of what all the experts would have me believe, it wasn't anybody's doing. Maybe it happened while he was just being.


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Saturday, August 04, 2007

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Saturday afternoon lemon squares and tea.
Soundtrack by The Wailin' Jennys and Feist.
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Thursday, August 02, 2007

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Pardon this Mess

Photograph: utility room cupboard door, artist suspected but unknown

When my "dandelion" essay came out in Good Housekeeping last month, I was relieved that in the necessary editing for length, one anecdote had been abridged. It was where I described a friend's mother impatiently tossing out a bouquet of weeds I'd picked for her. It wasn't exactly a flattering portrait, and the original piece was detailed enough that a few people in my small hometown might recognize the woman.

I wrote that she seemed perpetually "short-tempered and put-upon". There was another incident when the family dog pooped in the house and in anger and exasperation she railed about the "dog shit." Although adults used that sort of language in my home all the time, there was something shocking about hearing it from someone I thought of as a very proper lady.

No, I am not embarking on a smear campaign to asassinate this poor woman's character (but if you were ever mean to me, you might want to send flowers and candy as a pre-emptive measure). I am thinking about her today with empathy, because I am also feeling short-tempered and put-upon. I have been haranguing my children most of the day, mainly for the unforgivable transgression of being under the age of ten, living at home, and unemployed.

Some days the relentlessness of this life wears me down. I woke up this morning determined to get our habitat in hand, and I just can't seem to get ahead, or even abreast, of the demolition crew. I walked into our upstairs utility room and discovered that over the weekend, it had been completely trashed. Paint jars were left open, brushes were stuck to paper, glitter and cotton balls were strewn across the floor. The kids had emptied shelves and cartons of baby memorabilia, scattering it everywhere. The utility room is supposed to double as my quiet place for writing poetry. I was so angry. Thank god the boys were outside. I might have grabbed them by the collars and rubbed their noses in the spilled glitter.

I went downstairs and outside to threaten a Pokeman card bonfire if I ever caught any of them in that room again without permission. They were in the driveway filling every container from the recycling bin with dirt, water, and school glue. I banished them and their "experiments" to the picnic table in the backyard, and went back upstairs with a trash bag to try and clear a path. On the way back from the alley where we keep the trash bins, I decided to drop in on the picnic table labratory. They had the hose out and were shoveling liquid mud out of a two-foot hole they've dug in the middle of the lawn. Onto the picnic table.

The baby, covered in mud, had to go in the bath. Moments later, I heard water sloshing over the floor, as he tried to bail the bathwater out of the tub into the toilet. As I wrote that sentence, he just walked by with an armful of unraveled toilet paper from upstairs, apparently headed to the downstairs bathroom. And...there's the flush.



I'm back. The toilet heard my prayers and processed what looked to be an entire roll's worth.

I have sequestered my toddler in the family room, imploring, "For the love of god, watch Wonder Pets."


Where was I? Oh, the relentlessness. The daily wear and tear. My mother told me about a come-to-Jesus moment she had when I was a toddler, she was pregnant with my baby sister, and she was trying to potty train me and housebreak our new puppy at the same time. While cleaning up the day's umpteenth consecutive mess (I'm blaming the dog), she said she had an epiphany: life is shit. She says she thought about just getting down and rubbing her face in it, really embracing the cosmic truth of it. I would feel sorry for her, but it was 1972 and she had guilt-free recourse to Valium and cigarettes.

My boys have a friend over this afternoon, and everytime I nag or shame the kids over their latest endeavor, I see his eyes widen a little. He's a bright kid. I really like him. I just hope he has no aptitude for writing.


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Sheriff's Back in Town

"Did you get the password?"

"Dad said yes, but Mom said no."

"Then why did you ask Mom?"


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Wednesday, August 01, 2007

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Sunset over Blogher

I have spent most of the last two days debriefing from Blogher '07: checking out newly bookmarked sites, reading and responding to all the emails, commenting on flickr photos, having fun with sk-rt, putting my two cents in at various blogher forums. It is becoming increasingly clear to me that I can either a) participate with joyful abandon in blogging culture, or b) actually have a blog.

If the kids were not in the picture, I could probably manage both. But the thrill of having the press preview dvd of next season's new PBS Kids program is rapidly wearing off, and I have no more novel swag with which to distract them, damn my small suitcase to hell.

I have several meaty posts in the works. Please bear with me. This is the last blogher post from me, I promise.

I just need to share, as others have, that any lingering ambivalence I had about the legitimacy of this medium has been well and truly excised. I cannot tell you how proud I was to participate in this event, and count myself among this astonishing legion of women who make up this, well, industry. The whole conference was permeated with a sense of "having arrived". The highly professional and sometimes swank venues helped raise the credibility. As did the numerous editors and agents, corporate suitors and sponsors, and high profile keynoters, all on the prowl for our attention. But mostly, it emanated from within. There was a level of maturity and collective self-confidence that I had heard was missing from earlier conferences.

There were bloggers with book deals and product lines. There were bloggers who earn their living from advertising on their sites and those who wouldn't dream of taking a dime. There were bloggers with daily readers in the thousands, and those who write for their Mom. I am in awe of the conference organizers for even attempting to address the needs and concerns of such an increasingly diverse group. That they managed to cover as much ground as they did is nothing short of astonishing.

One high point (of many) for me was Leah's craft panel. I went to this because nothing else on the schedule especially spoke to me, and I was tired of doing the sessions I thought I "should" do. It was phenomenal. I don't craft, but I felt like I had found my people. Perhaps I am a trans-"genre"-d blogger.

Another was Jen and Rochelle's Small is Beautiful panel. The energy of both these rooms was incredibly positive, respectful, and mutually supportive.

I wish there had been more of that in the State of the Momosphere session, which along with The Branding of You, was somewhat disappointing to me. In the latter case, I was clearly in the wrong room. For bloggers with a commercial, traffic-driven focus, I have no doubt it was a valuable session. It was the wrong place to be if you are a process-oriented person like me.

Similarily with the Momosphere session, I think I may have not read the session description closely enough. To me, it came across as an altar call for blog advertising, and I was amazed at how contentious and divisive an issue this is among that subset of bloggers. As Jenn Satterfield wrote, "Have ads. Don't have ads. It's your choice." I couldn't believe the amount of time spent talking about it and the amount of defensiveness it triggered.

I wonder if it was too ambitious to try to address "Moms" as a homogenous group, and in one session. I mean, isn't a huge number of women engaged in childrearing at some point? How is it possible to speak of motherhood as being marginal? What could be more mainstream? Maybe future conferences could ditch the "mommyblogger" title along with the "high school" metaphor. Have one panel for women who blog about family life. Another to discuss the ethics of monetization across the board.

The perception by some that the domestic-blog culture can be clique-ish was addressed very well by one of the panelists, who pointed out that people of every age and stage form and re-form social alliances. I had hoped that was the last time we would hear the words "high school", but alas.

The only thing I would add to the panelist's observation is that I identify with other bloggers with children just as I tend to associate with other women with children in my life offline. I still have single and childless friends, but honestly, those friendships take more work. My friends who are also mothers understand how to carry on conversation through numerous interruptions, are more forgiving of tardiness and last-minute cancellations, don't go into a coma when I bring up my child's latest developmental milestone. Even a casual reader of this site will quickly glean that my passions extend well past my children, but there is no question that mothering is a big part of my identity.

I did wonder a little if perhaps the fervor with which some people seemed to need to defend domestic-blogging wasn't due to having only found their voice through that particular doorway. As if they weren't quite sure they would have the creative license without it. I was a writer before I started blogging, and if I quit blogging tomorrow, I would still be one, but maybe it is different for some. Maybe it is harder for some to separate their voice from the platform and the subject matter.

I don't know. But I hope I will be back next year to listen and learn more.

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