Wednesday, July 22, 2009


songs that make me weepy:

Bermuda Highway - My Morning Jacket
Casimir Pulaski Day - Sufjan Stevens
Landed - Ben Folds
Two - Ryan Adams

poems that sustain me:

Free Flight - June Jordan
Pied Beauty - Gerald Manley Hopkins
Logos - Mary Oliver
This be the Verse - Philip Larkin

works of art that teach me to see better:

Henri Matisse - Music Lesson
Henri Cartier Bresson - Seville, Spain
Gustav Klimt - Judith
Georgia O'Keefe - Summer Days

books that help me live:

Operating Instructions - Anne Lamott
The Gift - Lewis Hyde
Elements of Style - Strunk and White
The Corrections - Jonathan Franzen

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


I think it's safe to say that this is my happy little family's last summer without at least some sort of camp. This is the thing, you see, with working from home. In theory you can do it with kids around. In practice, not so much.

Oh, I can do some things, but any task which requires concentration, research, slinging words together, or otherwise using a hefty portion of my brain: no.

And while my kids, I think, would be quite content to spend the entire summer watching episodes of SpongeBob SquarePants, or commanding armies on Halo, something tells me this is not the healthiest set-up for any of us.

So, yes, next summer, camp.

Meanwhile, I'll be looking around for a babysitter to take them at least part time for a couple of weeks in August so I can get something done. The cost of the sitter may or may not be covered by the billable hours, which is the catch of course. But at least I'll feel productive, and they'll go to the pool, and we all won't be quite so sick of each other.

Thank God I never ended up having to homeschool them.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Thursday, July 09, 2009


What I'm learning this trip, so far (or how to vacation with little ones and not completely lose your shit):

1. Plan only one thing every day.
2. Be willing to throw that plan out the window at a moment's notice.
3. Pay attention to what your kids are having fun doing. Do more of that.
4. It's okay to eat gelato before dinner, stay up late, and go swimming in the hotel pool at 9 o' clock at night.
5. Actually, it's practically mandatory.
6. Little kids don't want to hear about the history of Harvard Yard. They want to play hide-and-go-seek in Harvard Yard. Let them.
7. It's more fun if you play too.
8. The azalea bush by the Widener Library steps is a great hiding place.
9. Let them carry their own load. Give them backpacks with toys, disposable cameras, coloring books, and magic markers in them.
10. Slow down.

My kids have more fun riding the T than riding the sightseeing trolley. They prefer a $3 carousel ride in the park to a $25 Harbor Cruise. They're perfectly content to just sit by the edge of a fountain in Copley Square and splash with their feet for an hour.

The point is, of course, they're getting some time away from the ordinary, and they're getting precious long stretches of time with me.

This vacation is killing me, but it's worth it.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Doctor, not Mister

Back in the day, the Boston Children's Museum was located in the Boston neighborhood of Jamaica Plain, in a big old house if I recall. There was a giant replica of a rotary telephone outside that you could climb on. Somewhere there must exist a Kodak of me doing just that. My parents were friends with Michael Spock, then the director of the place. Mike's dad was the famous Dr. Spock, your go-to guy for parenting in the 1960s. His daughter and I grew up in the same town, went to the same school, and were good friends for many years. She had very long dark hair and a fondness for all varieties of monkeys. She also had a kick-ass dress-up collection, a house decorated in orange and purple, and a pair of exceptionally obnoxious songbirds who lived in the kitchen.

(Just pause to imagine for a moment being the granddaughter of the most famous pediatrician in the world, and the daughter of the director of the best known children's museum. That's pretty heavy duty.

But I digress.)

Since then the museum has moved to (and played a part in revitalizing) the Fort Point Channel neighborhood of South Boston. It's in a lovely three-story brick building overlooking the harbor. The famous, larger-than-life Hood milk bottle stands outside the entrance.It's also about 10 blocks from our hotel, so we headed over there this afternoon for some fun.

Funny how time slips away, right? Today it was my turn to be the parent, and my kids' to be the kids. I loved watching them climb, explore, play, and negotiate all over the place. It's still a great museum, although man is the politically correct force ever strong with those people. I don't think there's an exhibit that doesn't in some way or other reflect gender equality, ecological soundness, or respect for other cultures, if not all three at once. That and especially the commercialism (Arthur and D.W. are major players over at BCM) left something of a bad taste in my mouth. But still, good times had by all.

Incidentally, I love the museum's tips for parenting in public.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

walk of life

It's 10:32 pm, Boston time. I'm on the 15th floor of a waterfront hotel, listening to my three youngest kids squirm and giggle and generally avoid sleeping. I'm a little bit irritated, and pretending to be stern and grumpy, but I'll cut them some slack. It's been a long day. As we got off the plane at Logan the flight attendant said to me, "they win the award for best-behaved kids." And it was true: they were quiet, stayed in their seats, ate their snacks, drank their Sprites, didn't fuss. Of course it was JetBlue so all they had to do was plug into their headphone jacks and watch CartoonNetwork for three hours (holy crap do I ever love that airline). Easy. But my kids get this comment a lot.

Once we checked in, I dragged them on a hike to the Union Oyster House. We took the long way, almost two miles, meandering through Downtown Crossing and down Tremont Street. They bitched a tiny bit on the way there, but mostly they were good spirited about it. After dinner we walked directly back, about a mile, and they were cheerful. Playful, even.

Here's the thing: these kids are five, and five, and six. They're little. That's a lot of travel and a lot of walking. But I knew they could handle it. And furthermore, maybe I'm some kind of weird, old fashioned mother, but I think walking a little bit farther than you want to, being asked to do a little bit more than you were expecting to do, I think these things are character building.

I don't push my kids so hard that they break, but I push them hard enough so they feel the bend, and stretch a little. I let them be uncomfortable. It's what my parents did for me when they sent me away to summer camp when I was eight. I learned to walk a long, long trail with a heavy weight on my back. I learned that blisters hurt, but they healed. I learned how to carry myself, and my own weight.

Plus, it was a nice evening. Why take a cab?

Friday, July 03, 2009

Friday Books: Slaughter-House Five by Kurt Vonnegut

I think I was about 12 or 13 years old when I discovered Kurt Vonnegut. I read every book of his in rapid succession, like so many chocolate truffles. Last month my book group, which I hardly ever attend, chose Slaughterhouse Five to read. They've been working through some classic twentieth century American novels, I believe this month it's Updike. Anyway, I wasn't able to make it to the meeting (which is typical), but I did pick up the book from the local library.

Hang on, let me just interject here that I've fallen back in love with public libraries. One of the many great things about my fabulous new house is that I'm just a few blocks away from a branch of the Austin Public Library. The whole internet-meets-public library combination is so spectacular, you know? I love ordering up a book, telling it to come and meet me at my local branch, and then snatching it off the shelf a day or two late. And then I can take it home and read it for free. LOVE THAT. I'm a card-carrying member now. I even have a little mini keychain card.

So, back to Vonnegut. I read it (again) in about three sittings, which reminded me of why I loved Vonnegut so much as a kid - readable! I love how the story is his story, but not his story. How you know (because he tells you) that much of the fiction is shot through with threads of fact from his own experiences. I love how you still can't be quite sure which is which; where fiction ends and fact begins. I love that it's an anti-war novel, but also a time-travel novel, and also an American novel. I love how it's written in plain English, because I hate it when writers feel the need to clutter up complex ideas with complex prose. I love how, ultimately, it's a song about impermanence. Yours, mine, ours, Dresden's. The earth's.

My favorite part is when the hero, Billy Pilgrim, is watching a documentary about the war, only in reverse. The American planes fly backwards over Dresden, scooping up bombs into their holds, returning them eventually to American soil, where they are disassembled by women and their parts are carefully separated out and the minerals are buried in the earth where they cannot harm anyone. That passage made me cry.

What are you reading?

Thursday, July 02, 2009

cave girl

Some people show stress by eating less and staying up all night worrying about stuff. I'm one of the lucky ones who eats a lot and takes plenty of naps. But a couple of months ago when my children started playing with my arm fat, "Cool! look at it wiggle!" and my daughter told me it looked like I had a new baby growing in my tummy (we call it "Six"), I freaked out. This led to signing up on impulse for CrossFit bootcamp, which meets three mornings a week at the crack of dawn and totally kicks my butt.

The CrossFit folks, as it turns out, have a lot to say about what you eat. I've started something called the zone/paleo diet, which makes me want to wear loin cloths and carry a big club everywhere. I am soooo paleolithic. Seriously, paleo is based on some idea of what the hunter/gatherers ate, which just sort of cracks me up. Because, you know, those people were so healthy and had such great life spans and everything. And the Zone is all about portions (turns out, no big surprise here, that I was eating a. too little food and b. all the wrong stuff). It reminds me a little of that fad diet based on your blood type, which I just know is total bunk. People swear by it, but let's be honest, people will swear by anything. People are idiots. I'm an idiot.

Which brings me to this: Joining scares me. And also this: Being left out scares me. The mental gymnastics I put myself through over this conundrum are truly entertaining:

"Wow, my coach is incredibly fit and happy and healthy, and she swears by zone/paleo as being pretty much essential to the whole deal, there must be something to it, I mean just look at her. I want to be like that."

"This whole thing feels like a cult. She's so enthusiastic about it! Enthusiasm freaks me out. I'll never give up pasta, anyway."

Okay, the truth is I think zone/paleo is probably just what I need to break the hold that spaghetti has on my life, not to mention to get back into the clothes I was wearing a year ago (I miss you, jeans!). And sure, CrossFit is a little cult-y. For what it's worth, though, salmon and spinach are okay by me, and I haven't met a single CrossFit participant or coach who wasn't perfectly delightful.

Can I make a lifetime commitment to eating my food in blocks and banishing sugar? Maybe not so much. But for now, anyway, pass the (diet) Kool-Aid.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

hearing voices

As a kid I had a few quirky habits. There was the OCD-ish counting of steps, especially going up and down stairs. There was my tendency to read. All the time. Even through recess. And there was the voiceover narration that permeated my consciousness. At seven years old, I knew it was pretty weird for me to be narrating my own life in the third person, but I did it anyway, compulsively, and during some long, ordinary stretches of life. Not much of note happens when you're walking home from school in a sleepy Boston suburb. But I can assure you I wrote it all down in my mind like I was freaking Tolstoy.

When I was eight someone gave me a diary, and the voice found the page, oh happy marriage! This continued into high school, college, and beyond, although my writing began to dwindle before I discovered blogging in the late 90s.

After my first child was born the voice got quieter and smaller, as if making room for this new creature. Then, around five years ago, the voice went suddenly, shockingly mute. Perhaps the birth of my daughters, which upped the number of small children in my care to five, finally drowned out the increasingly rare quiet spaces my head usually filled with this contemplative overview. Or maybe the writer in me just gave up trying, since I was less and less frequently committing any of these words to paper or website. In any case, it was over. My head was quiet. Writing for the blog, usually a natural flow, became an arduous task. Writing anything else, especially work-related writing, was damn near impossible. The creek bed was all dried up. The voice was gone.

I'm not sure exactly when I noticed the voice was back, but a couple of weeks ago in New York it was practically shouting in my head, concocting essays and memoir pieces that I couldn't even begin to keep up with. It narrated my subway rides, taxi adventures, walks down the street. It talked, and talked, and talked, like that annoying guy at the party you just want to squeeze by to grab another beer from the fridge. It grabbed hold of my arm and got right in my face with its stinky olive breath and talked and TALKED. But I wasn't annoyed at all. An old friend was back. I was whole. I was a writer again. Things were happening all around me, and I had something to say about it.

It's been a phenomenally difficult decade for me, most especially these last two years. I've played a starring role in wrecking two marriages (my own), I found myself suddenly and unexpectedly at the deathbeds of both my stepmother and my mother. I've moved a million times, stood at the bleeding edge of financial devastation, had a really nasty free-fall into chronic depression. I've lost very dear friends to suicide and cancer. I've been separated from my children for long stretches. There was weeping, and wailing, and gnashing of teeth.

In response, I have worked hard at being a better person, being true to myself, forgiving myself and others, finding a real, solid place to stand. I worked harder at all of those things than I honestly knew I had the strength for. I've learned to (I know it sounds horribly corny, but really) love myself. Really.

I think the voice came back because it finally had a safe place to land, and because I really do have a story to tell. I think the voice came back because it knows (I know) that it's worthy, that it's allowed to speak, that I'm done shushing myself.

I'm ready to write.