Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Robot Claw

Brandon just called from the mall to see if I had gotten Charlie a grabbernabber yet. I think it's official toy name is "robot claw," but in our house, we call it a "grabbernabber."

Charlie has an extensive wish list. Age four seems to be a very special crossroads where one is still a devout believer in Santa, but has also been around the block enough times to be pretty greedy in the toy department. I can't complain, though because Charlie is so fun to buy for. His list is like a scavenger hunt where all the items can be found at Toys 'R' Us or at the "As Seen on TV" store that only seems to pop up at Christmas time at the mall. I actually let out a little scream at Toys 'R' Us today when I found the Rock 'em Sock 'em Robot game that Charlie has had his eye on for forever. The lady next to me must've thought I was either crazy or really into boxing robots. I think actually I'm a little bit of both. Charlie's passion for robots is contagious.

I bought my first Transformer today. A Transformer has been at the top of Charlie's list for some time. I bought the least violent looking one I could find. Apparently all Transformers are packing heat. They don't just come with guns either. Some of them have like these huge blades that are much larger than necessary. Why do these robots, who turn into cars/planes/tanks, need such long, sharp objects to fight each other with? If one of them came at another one with a huge sword, wouldn't he just turn into an SUV and run him over? Or better yet, drive away pacifically, taking the high road and all that? What good is a knife to a robot?

Tonight Charlie asked me what would happen if he kicked someone's head off. Would they have to stay in the hospital for a million years? Would the doctor just tape it back on? These are questions I am not prepared to answer. I decided to just be straight with Charlie. "If you kicked someone's head off, they would die," I said. Night night! Sweet dreams!

I fretted over the Transformer purchase. Brandon thought I was being silly. He had Transformers growing up and he's not out there kicking people's heads off or lunging at them with sabers. Why can't they make a Transformer who transforms from, say, a tandem bicycle into an ATM machine? I could get behind that kind of transforming. Or maybe a Prius that transforms into a robot whose specialty is gardening. He could come with his own little shovel and tomato plants.

One thing I noticed from my time spent in the boys' aisle at the toy stores is how violent and dark all of the toys are once you get to the 4 and up section. It goes from Handy Manny and Bob the Builder to GI Joe, Transformers, Star Wars, etc. really fast. What's up with that? Those aisles are scary places. Why are the toy companies making such violent toys for our little boys? Are little boys demanding it? Or are they taught to want it because that's what's available for them to want? Inquiring minds want to know.

Maybe I will take back the Transformer. I already bought Rock 'em Sock 'em Robots. Maybe that's enough robot violence for one Christmas?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

New York Citay!

I feel like we might as well be blasting off to the moon...we're leaving for New York tomorrow!!! Emma just came downstairs to tell me she can't sleep because she's so excited about going to New York. I feel the same way. I have been scouring the Internet for things to do with kids in NYC. I keep getting this little tingle of nervousness every time I pick up the phone to dial one of the New York numbers to try to make a reservation. Their accents, their's all so New York. Love it! I'll report back on our big city adventures. Mostly, I think we're just going to do a playground crawl through Central Park and then try to see as much of the lights and holiday festiveness as possible. Yippee!!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Breakfast nook

I think I have swept the floor five or six times today. I don't do a very good job of sweeping (clearly) because all I can see every time I walk from the kitchen to the dining room are bits of muffin, goldfish, and teeny tiny grains of sand or sugar or flakes of our skin constantly being sloughed off as we shuttle back and forth from the kitchen to the dining room.

The kitchen-dining room thoroughfare is a well travelled area in our house. It is home to the computer from which I am writing to you currently, and to the playroom. What we call the "playroom," is really a small space off the kitchen that most people would refer to as a "breakfast nook."

The people who lived here before us were a young, childless couple. When we looked at the place to see if we wanted to rent it, it was incredibly neat and utterly without clutter. I remember their dining room table was set for two, complete with cloth napkins folded up fancily on top of the plates. They did not appear to be preparing a meal, so we had to assume that they lived their lives in such an orderly, showroom floor kind of way. The breakfast nook was completely empty, save for a large barbell and set of weights on the floor. "You can use this room for your weights," the guy told Brandon. Uh huh. We both knew what was going in that nook and it wasn't Brandon's weights. Our idea of a nook and their idea of a nook were two very different things.

Upstairs, in what is currently Teddy's room, the couple each had a desk in front of the two windows. Presumably they sat up there working quietly side-by-side, looking out the window when they lacked inspiration. It's strange that Teddy looks out on the same view when I'm changing his diaper as the previous tenants did when they were typing away on their his and hers computers.

The room that is now Charlie and Emma's room was some sort of meditation room. It housed an odd contraption that was either for praying in strange positions or maybe it was some kind of ancient pilates machine? I can't even really explain it. I just remember it was this weird, sort of gothic wooden contraption and there were candles. It's hard to imagine Charlie and Emma's cheerful room, currently cluttered with dinosaurs, astronauts and butterflies, as the site of such flammable, mystical spiritual practices.

Somehow, I doubt the people who lived here before us had to sweep the floor nearly as much as I do. I am sure if they ate goldfish crackers, they managed to keep them neatly contained either in their mouths or on their plate rather than crunching them messily with their bared teeth or under their crocs as they walked across the room.

Brandon is welcome to keep his weights in our breakfast nook at any time. He will just have to prop them against the wall, somewhere between Emma's sewing machine and Charlie's firetruck.

We live about 85% of our lives in our breakfast nook. It is a very efficient little nook. I do get annoyed with the toy clutter and with the goldfish/Cheerio dust I am constantly wading through. But the truth is I wouldn't trade it for anything.* It's a small price to pay for a life and a house lived to the fullest.

Okay, break's over. The floor's not going to sweep itself and the breakfast nook looks like a tornado hit it.

*Except for maybe a large, finished, walk-out basement with built-ins and a half-bath, not that I've given it that much thought.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Snow Day

My kids have been playing together all day. A funky, folk version of "Amazing Grace" is playing in the background while the snow falls like feathers outside. There is a gingerbread house waiting to be decorated on the dining room table, two little Christmas trees waiting to be trimmed later tonight. Colored Christmas lights frame the playroom window, giving things a warm, cozy glow. The baby has been napping and napping and napping to his heart's content. My family, the people who love me and whom I love most in the world, are so close to me I am literally tripping over them. Outside, a tree branch is so loaded down with luscious wet snow, that it bends from the weight of it.

The hundred or so square feet surrounding me is a complete disaster area. There are hot wheels play sets scattered around, along with bulldozers and blocks. Bitty twins clothing is strewn about in the style of a messy college roommate. I feel stressed about the lack of Christmas shopping I have done. I am annoyed with my skin and the weird, post-pregnancy short hairs I have to deal with when doing my hair. I am dissatisfied with the wardrobe choices currently available in my closet. There are emails to return. Bills to pay. Phone calls to make. I wonder if I will ever be the kind of person who gets regular manicures and pedicures. I need to exercise. Will anyone ever read my novel who isn't my friend or related to me? Will anyone pay me for my work? Why do I reserve the sweetest version of myself for strangers? Why can't I just accept the fact that everyone leaves their shoes and socks in the living room and move on?

These are the two versions of my life. I wish I could live in the former, but I spend so much time dwelling in the latter. I love how the snow covers over everything. Even cars and ugly buildings aren't immune to its magic. I'm hoping I'm not either.

Friday, December 4, 2009

What we've been up to lately

Well, I did it. I wrote a novel. Fireworks didn't go off quite like I expected them too when I finally came to the end. I guess that's because I'm not really done, done. I have lots of editing to do. I changed the setting of the story like three times. I killed a character off and then decided that was a mistake and brought him back to life. There are some red herrings that seem like maybe they should be important but then go nowhere. So, I definitely still have lots of work to do. I haven't cracked open the champagne just yet. But, I'm pretty proud that I've got about 300 pages of material to work with. It's definitely a good feeling.

I'm not even sure what to write this blog post about. It has been too long. There's too much to catch you up on. Not, that are lives have been that eventful, but the little mundane details that I usually like to write about have piled up on me and it's hard to focus on the ones I want to tell about. Maybe I'll just go person by person and try to sum everyone up, Christmas newsletter style (minus all the bragging).


Charlie is becoming more intense in his Charlie-ness. He is passionate about Magic School Bus and the commercials that accompany Magic School Bus. He can quote you verbatim the ad copy for Nationwide Insurance, Pillow Pets and these magic hanger things I can't remember the name of right now. He is the #1 target audience for anyone selling anything on TV. Trying to get rid of some extra Snuggies or looking to buy other people's gold so you can turn it into cash? Charlie's your guy. Charlie does that frustrating guy thing where he totally tunes you out when you're talking to him. You'll ask him a question and he'll wait like 5 seconds and then say, "what?" He also does the guy thing where he leaves his socks in the living room. He loves his big sister more than anything. Sometimes I can hear him calling out for reassurance from her at night when they are both supposed to be sleeping in their bunk beds. "Emma?" he'll say. "Emma??" I can't hear what she says back, but whatever it is, it seems to do the trick.


Emma is rapidly becoming a big kid. She has this tone in her voice when we pick her up from school that is a combination of patience and condescension. We'll be like, "hey, Emma, while you were at school, Charlie and Teddy and I went to the bookstore to play with the train table." And Emma will be like, "Oh really? That must have been nice for you." It's as though she's trying for our sake to remember a simpler time in her own life when something so childish would've been appealing to her. For Christmas this year she really hasn't mentioned wanting any toys. Well, she did mention wanting a Barbie the other night. I'm just not sure I can pull the trigger on that one, though. She says she wants "fashion" clothes and books and a DS. I can't believe we are already moving into this phase of life with her. My own life is flashing before my eyes. She still loves to draw and make things. Every night before she goes to sleep she pulls out this Hello Kitty journal she keeps next to her bed and a black crayon she keeps in her music box and writes in her journal. Here are some excerpts from her journal: "TOWSDAY SSTAE HOME...WNSDAE PLMR." Amazing how innate the urge to document our own lives is.


Teddy is rapidly becoming quite the live wire. As I write this, he is banging my glass mixing bowls on the floor of the kitchen. Probably should go do something about that....okay, I'm back. Teddy's turn-ons are playing with the recycling, Splenda packets, hairspray bottles and glass mixing bowls. His turn-offs are being spoon-fed, eggs, and baby toys. He is walking up a storm now. He toddles around with his arms out in front of him like a zombie, a cute, smiling zombie.
His favorite thing is to take any container and see what things will fit inside of it. Right now he's walking around with a plastic cup with a tiny basketball inside of it. He lives for stuff like that--that and throwing non-trash items away in the trash. We are all deeply in love with him and don't even mind so much when throws our valuables away.

Well, I think that is about all I have in me this morning. I keep having to stop writing to make sure Teddy's not throwing things in the trash or the toilet. Thanks for reading this! Hopefully I will be a more frequent blogger this month. I'm going to try!

Saturday, October 31, 2009

I did it!

I signed up for National Novel Writing Month! Eeek! 50,000 words in one month. More words than I have ever written on any single project before in my life. Eeek! I'm going to be a busy girl this month so the dishes may not get done in a timely manner, the laundry put away or the kids perfectly coiffed. Oh wait, that's how it normally is around here. This month I will have a good excuse!

I will probably be MIA for the month of November, but I'll try to at least update you on my progress.

Looks like those homemade Christmas presents I was hoping to make will have to wait until next year. I can hear my many family members breathing sighs of relief all the way in Virginia. Next year you guys are totally getting crocheted wallets or something equally awesome and homemade. This year, it isn't going to happen.

Is anyone else planning on writing a novel this month? If so, "friend" me on the nanowrimo website. My user name is "elizabethmc."

Have a great November!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

What time is it?

I should be doing so many other things, but I really just want to write to you, dear reader. I foolishly thought that the kids going back to school would mean that I would be a lady of leisure, cruising around in my minivan looking for things to keep me busy while the children learned things and the baby napped peacefully. I do a lot of driving in the minivan, but it is not what one would call leisurely. First I drop off Emma at school, then Charlie gets dropped off next door at his preschool 20 minutes later. By the time Charlie is out of the car, it's a mad dash to race home, feed the baby, get him to sleep, and then conquer something on the To Do list before having to wake up the baby and go get Charlie again. Here's my current To Do list:
  1. Pick up pictures at Walgreens
  2. Make ghost costume
  3. Make Halloween cookies for Emma's school picnic today
  4. Make "Harvest Moon" mac and cheese for picnic
  5. Do laundry (when is this not on the list?)
  6. Finish shopping for Teddy's b-day presents
  7. Return & renew library books
  8. Finish Teddy's baby book (only eleven more months to go!)
  9. Write novel (only 200 more pages to go!)
  10. Knit robot
  11. Make "super baby" costume for Teddy
  12. Make pumpkin muffins for Charlie's Halloween party
  13. Get Teddy's one-year portrait made
  14. Make cake for Teddy's b-day
Ahhhg!!! This list is stressing me out. Clearly knitting the robot can wait. But everything else is sort of time sensitive. Gone are the days when I could look up at the sky and guess cowboy-style what time it is. Now, I feel like I live by the clock...ten minutes until Emma needs to be at hour until I pick up Charlie...five more minutes and I have to wake up Teddy from his nap so we can wait at the bus stop.

Mommy confession time: A few weeks ago I wasn't at the bus stop in time to pick up Emma. I thought I had left at the same time I normally do. I must've lingered a little longer helping Charlie with his shoes or getting Teddy into the stroller. We were also foiled by finding trash billowing around our street due to tipped over trash cans. Charlie and I stopped to pick up the trash, and I was feeling all superior, like we were the neighborhood heroes. I may have even said, "Look at us, Charlie. We're the neighborhood heroes." What an idiot. While we were picking up garbage, Emma was riding the bus all the way back to school where she would have to wait in the principal's office for me to come get her. She said that when she saw I wasn't there to get her, she just told herself "it's going to be's going to be okay..." over and over again. She said she still cried a little despite her best effort to hold it in. Who's the hero now? But then she said she had fun waiting in the principal's office, so I felt a little less horrible when I heard that. The crazy thing is, I had no idea I was even late for the bus. Charlie and I were outside playing soccer looking for the bus to come. We didn't realize we had missed it until Brandon came running out of his office building, yelling for me to go to school to get Emma. (Yet another reason it's a good thing he works across the street from our house.) The principal's office had called him when they couldn't reach me at home or on my cell phone, which was conveniently located in my purse on the kitchen table. Stupid billowing trash. Clearly my lateness has nothing to do with the fact that I always forget to wear my watch, and has everything to do with the trash. I think it's safe to say I will not be winning mother of the year this year. Maybe that's why I'm over-compensating with the Harvest Moon mac and cheese and hand-knit robot?

I have five more minutes and then I have to get ready to pick up Charlie from preschool. We'll have a few hours to hang out and make Halloween cookies and watch Magic School Bus and then it will be time to go outside and play soccer while waiting for Emma's bus. Then we'll have an hour until we have to bundle up the baby, cookies, and the mac and cheese to go to Emma's Halloween picnic. Then it will be bath time and bedtime. At that point I will probably look around at my piles of laundry and dirty dishes and wonder why I couldn't manage to accomplish anything today.

The truth is I'm getting sort of resentful of all the cookie/muffin/mac n cheese making that having children seems to require. I love doing this stuff, but it is sort of taking over my life and I feel like my novel is going to die a slow death, quietly being suffocated by a giant casserole of mac n cheese.

I know scrapbooking is probably not as pressing a To Do List item as it might seem. However, I feel compelled to finish Teddy's scrapbook because I made baby scrapbooks for the other two children and I don't want him to feel shafted. I feel like if I don't make the scrapbook by his one-year b-day, which is on Friday, then it will never get done. Sort of like the thank you notes from Emma's birthday that are languishing on a bookshelf in the playroom. I still haven't showered and it's already time to pick up Charlie from school. I don't feel like I'm managing my time well. Should showering be at the top of the To Do List? Is laundry more important than Halloween costumes? What is the statute of limitations on a thank you note? I feel like I need to let something go....what should it be?

I am thinking about signing up for National Novel Writing Month in November. I'm hoping that doing something crazy like this for one month will force me to put the novel writing front and center and push the mac and cheese making to the back burner (pun, sadly, intended). Signing up for National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo as it is called by us nerds, basically means that you promise to write 50,000 words (or roughly 200 pages) in one month. Gulp. That comes out to about 6 or 7 pages a day. That will be a HUGE commitment. Would signing up help me get my priorities in check or would it just be yet another thing to feel guilty for not doing? That is not a rhetorical question. Please tell me what you think I should do!

Thanks for listening! Now to make some sugar cookie ghosts and pumpkins with Charlie...

Friday, October 16, 2009


If you ask me anything right now I'm likely to say "yes" just so you'll go away. "Mommy, can I have a vanilla milk box?" The Horizon ones that cost like a buck per ounce and are reserved for lunch boxes only? "Sure." "Mommy, can I have chocolate?" "Yep." "Mommy, can I watch Magic School Bus on the white couch with my wet muddy rain boots on?" "You betcha."
It's Friday afternoon and I am worn out. My day of driving people to and fro in the 41 degree, raining nastiness is almost over and I can practically taste the glass of red wine I will be pouring later this afternoon, I mean tonight. I just got home from teaching "Intro to Architecture" to Emma's kindergarten class. My throat is sore from yelling architecture at everyone.
It is amazing how tangential the kindergarten brain is. I held up a poster of Dulles Airport and said, "Dulles Airport is an example of modern architecture." And a little girl raised her hand and said earnestly, " dad was going to Dallas...." And then dozens of other hands shot up as her comment triggered a kindergarten thought cloud of Dulles airport related comments. "My cousin lives in Pittsburgh," said another little girl. "Great," I said. "I guess you must have flown to Pittsburgh to visit her?" "No, we drove." And this would pertain to Dulles airport how exactly? It would've been hilarious, except no one was laughing and the crowd was getting feistier by the minute.
The next poster I held up after Dulles Airport was of the Washington Monument. I asked if anyone knew what this building was. One little boy's hand shot up before anyone else's. If anyone knew the answer it appeared to be him. "Pennsylvania!" He said with total confidence. even close, guy. Maybe this was some continuation of the Pittsburgh comment? Ay yi yi.
Do you think they got the difference between Doric and Ionic columns? Has anyone ever remembered the difference five minutes after anyone has explained it to them?
I was not meant to teach little children things. I think my own little children have learned things by osmosis, but I'm not the type to sit them down and teach them things like Doric and Ionic columns and about Dulles airport. Even Teddy has already suffered the consequences of my lack of ability to transfer knowledge to young people. People keep asking him to high-five. For some reason everyone expects an almost-one-year-old to be able to high-five. When Teddy disses people, leaving their hand hanging there in the air, I am the one that feels like the loser. Why haven't I taught Teddy to high-five? What's wrong with me? Teddy can do all sorts of other things, but high-fiving has slipped through the cracks somehow.
Lately, I've been trying to teach Emma (and myself) how to draw. I bought this book and it is proving a very useful tool. Here are some of our first drawings:

My shorty horse

Emma's bird

We had signed up for a parent/child drawing class, but it was pretty lame. We went to the first class and I made the executive decision not to continue and just to do our own drawing class at home. So far, so good. And the twelve bucks I spent on the book certainly beats the $95 the class was charging. Plus, now I no longer have the bother of trying to figure out childcare at 5:15 on Wednesdays. Emma and I can do our class any time we want.

Maybe I need to buy a book about how to teach Teddy to high-five?

I have been enjoying the drawing book because I love the way it makes you look at the world around you. Basically, the book teaches you to look for the "five basic elements of shape" in everything you are trying to draw. The five basic elements of shape are: dots, circles, straight lines, curved lines, and angled lines. First you practice drawing these five elements, then you draw pictures that combine all the elements. When you break a picture of a horse into dots, circles and lines, it makes it seem so much simpler. You're not drawing a snout, or whatever you call a horse's nose, you're just drawing a curved line.

It's amazing how you can trick your brain into drawing something that you never would've thought you could draw. I see so many parallels to this in writing. Like, let's say I'm trying to write a scene where a little girl discovers for the first time she was adopted. My brain would typically want to write this scene very straight-forwardly. I might have the girl walk in her parents' bedroom, discover a letter lying on the floor, read the contents of the letter which conveniently details the specifics of her adoption, maybe the girl drops the letter in disbelief and runs crying from the room. Anyone could write that scene. Anyone's dog could write that scene. It's the most obvious, trite, boring way to imagine that particular moment in someone's life. But if you trick your brain, if you tell your brain that you're not writing about a revelatory, huge moment in someone's life, but instead you're writing about a swimming lesson they took once, the one where everyone was jumping into the water and swimming towards the instructor, everyone except your character. Maybe you tell your brain that that's all it has to write. No big life-changing revelations have to take place, brain, only swimming (or not swimming as the case may be). Tell what the bathing suits looked like. Were the children's eyes stretched into ellipses behind their goggles? Were the bathing suits saggy? Did belly buttons show through their one-piece suits? These are the writing equivalents of the five elements of shape. Pretty soon your brain will sneak in a revelation without you even telling it to. And the scene will feel truer and less like a dog wrote it than if you had tried to write straight on. And that's pretty much the goal of any writer: writing stuff that is true and doesn't sound like a dog wrote it.

Signing off for's a quick writing exercise before I go:

Write anything you want, just make sure it includes the line "and then there was a knock at the door." Write for 15 minutes or until Magic School Bus is over.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Take Chances! Get Messy! Make Mistakes!

As I write this, the kids are watching their daily dose of Magic School Bus. At the end of every episode, Ms. Frizzle reminds my kids to "take chances, get messy, and make mistakes!" I am finally deciding to take her advice.

I was working on my "novel," really at this point it's more of a collection of words, about 100 pages of words and sentences and chapters that are sort of like a big tornado of ideas and characters and scenes. Up until now, I've been trying to reign in the tornado, to make it follow my own Doppler radar of a plot. Today, I decided to just let loose and stop forcing myself to write the story chronologically.

This is really scary because it means that if things change drastically (which it seems like they sort of need to), I have to rewrite most of what I've already written. Ugh. I decided to change the setting from New York to DC for one thing. Once I put my main character in a neighborhood in DC that I know really well, it was like she just came to life for me in a new way. She just popped into shape like our caterpillar pop-up tunnel. So, it seems like that was probably the right decision. I also toyed with the idea of changing her from an only child into the oldest of seven. (!) It felt so fun and free to write that version of her. I think it might suit her better than being an only child. And I love the idea of writing her mother as this person with millions of kids. That is not too much of a stretch for me to imagine. I kind of like the idea of writing about a mom who has more children and more problems than myself. Maybe it will make my own life seem like a piece of cake.

Now my kids have moved on to doing crafts in the playroom. They definitely took to heart the "make messes" part of Ms. Frizzle's advice.

It's frustrating to think that I will have to rewrite so much of what I've written. I'm such a slow writer and my time to write is at the mercy of naps and preschool lunch bunch and how tall the piles of laundry are at the moment. I wanted writing a novel to be like a long car trip, like if you just log the hours and point yourself in the right direction, you'll get to your destination. It turns out it's not like that at all. Or maybe it is like a long car trip, but with lots of hitchhikers coming along for the ride, making you go the wrong direction just for kicks and forcing you to stop for lots of unplanned Subway sandwiches and bathroom breaks along the way.

I think I remember Virginia Wolf saying that she created her characters and then dug out caves behind them. Maybe my problem is that I've been focusing on plot, where I should've been focusing on characters and digging out their little caves? How can I make them do stuff when I don't really know who they are, what motivates them? Is that what Virginia Wolf meant by caves? I see it less as digging out caves and more as chiseling a sculpture. You're not digging, your chipping away what shouldn't be there and shaping what should be there, until there's a character who resembles a real person, a person you want to read about for 350 pages or so.

I just opened my favorite book about writing (Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott) and looked up what she has to say about plot. Here it is:

"Plot grows out of character. If you focus on who the people in your story are, if you sit and write about two people you know and are getting to know better day by day, something is bound to happen. Characters should not, conversely, serve as pawns for some plot you've dreamed up. Any plot you impose on your characters will be onomatopoetic: PLOT. I say don't worry about plot. Worry about the characters. Let what they say or do reveal who they are, and be involved in their lives, and keep asking yourself, Now what happens?"

So, thank you, Anne Lamott, for confirming what I already suspected.

I am like two pages away from finishing Jennifer Weiner's newest novel Best Friends Forever. I've really enjoyed reading this book and I've been taking mental notes about what Weiner does that I like so much, so that I can copy it. One thing I've noticed about her books is that she writes really short chapters. Basically her chapters are one scene long. I tend to stay in chapters for-ev-er. I trudge through chapters dutifully, heroically for twenty pages or so. It feels like I'm staring up at Mt. Everest from base camp when I see the cursor blinking underneath the words Chapter ___. If Weiner writes short chapters, why can't I? She's in, she's out and she's onto the next thing. It's almost like cheating. Short chapters keep the action moving and help her jump from one character's point-of-view to another's without having to do a lot of exposition. I feel like half of my chapters are scaffolding holding the scenes together. Scaffolding is not so interesting to read, and it seems like short chapters bypass a lot of that noise.

So, my writing assignment tonight (after spaghetti and meatballs, after baths, and three kids are snoozing) is to start a short chapter about my character who for now lives in Washington, D.C. and has seven children. To get me going, I'm going to use a writing prompt or a "story starter" as we used to call them in elementary school. Here is the prompt. Feel free to join me!

Use this as your first line:

"Behind her the noise escalated."

Write for 15 minutes (or longer if you're in the groove). I'd love to read what you write, so please share! Take chances! Get messy! Make mistakes!

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Evil, thy name is Party City

The other day I went to Party City to purchase some party favors for Emma's upcoming butterfly-themed birthday party. I hate Party City. It was a last resort place to go after GPS led me to some stranger's house instead of my original destination, the Family Dollar Store. Then I attempted to find party favors at Michaels (I may need to join a Michaels-anonymous group soon), then Under 10 or 10 and Under or whatever that place is called, then JoAnn's (basically Michaels with fabric). I found lots of cute stuff at those places, but none of it fit my $2/per kid requirement for goody bags. That's when I headed to the dreaded Party City.

Party City had this crazy music playing, which I guess was supposed to be Halloween music. It was the same seven notes played over and over again in a minor key. I think it was supposed to be reminiscent of a pivotal scene in a cheesy horror movie. I couldn't have chosen more appropriate Party City music. That place is nothing if not cheesy and creepy.

At this time of year Party City also sounds like your garden-variety insane asylum. Every now and then, someone would walk by one of the talking Halloween decorations and cause it to shout mean, scary things or just laugh maniacally.
After passing by several aisles dedicated to Halloween costumes, mostly of the slutty variety (this year for Halloween you can be a slutty kitten, a slutty witch, a slutty fairy, a slutty ladybug, even a slutty pumpkin), I finally found the birthday party stuff. I weeded through all the High School Musical, Diego/Dora, SpongeBob and Backyardigans paraphernalia (I'm surprised there's not a "Nick Jr." party theme), and found some butterfly/nature things.

It's really tempting to just go crazy buying stuff for goody bags. Or at least it's tempting to me. I had to fight the urge to go nuts and just start throwing butterfly bubble necklaces, butterfly hair clips, and butterfly yo-yos into my cart willy nilly. I did restrain myself and thought long and hard about all this junk and where it was probably made and the poor little trained monkeys who are probably working in a sweatshop to make stuff for Party City, their slutty bumble-bee costumes chafing their delicate monkey skin. That's when I thought of the Party City Golden Rule.

Party City Golden Rule: Do not put anything in a goody bag that you would want to set fire to or throw out the window if your kid came home with it in a goody bag.

So, with this rule in mind, I chose some butterfly/nature notepads, pens, stickers and candy rings. Everything is recyclable/practical or you suck on it until it disappears. No major landfill damage done in the name of my child's birthday celebration.

I wish we didn't have to have places like Party City and I also wish I didn't just give them $3o of my money. For a place called Party City, the place was completely devoid of joy or party atmosphere. The store seems to distill parties down to their worst, basest elements. If an alien landed from outer space and went to Party City, he or she would have to assume that our parties are all about celebrating TV shows and sluttiness and consuming plastic junk and candy by the pinata-ful.

Would it be so terrible not to give kids goody bags at all? Are they really so important? Sometimes I like to make mix CDs of music that goes with the theme. Like for Charlie's last party, I made a Space Jams CD, which I've been known to listen to when the kids aren't around. I guess you have to send the kids home with some token party favor. You don't want word to get out that you throw lame parties. But I do think it's a good thing to be mindful of what you're buying and why. Maybe if we all stopped buying what Party City is selling, there would be no need for Party City anymore? A mom can dream...

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Okay, so maybe this isn't just a writing blog

Carole had some good points in her comment on my last blog post (see comments). Thank you, Carole, for giving me some good food for thought. Maybe she's right. Maybe I shouldn't limit myself to writing about writing (as thrilling as that topic sounds). Even if I wanted to, I'm sure I won't be able to restrain myself from writing about my kids and our grocery store adventures. So, rest assured there will still be lots of kid/mommy musings on this blog.

I guess I wanted to narrow the focus of the blog a little because I'm just aching to write about what I'm currently struggling with. I have kind of settled into the whole mom routine. I haven't mastered it by any means, but I have resigned myself to the laundry and the puking and the sippy cup valves being welded to the bottom of the dishwasher. Those things aren't so compelling to me anymore. Not that I don't enjoy reading about others' kid-related drama, because I do; I just don't feel the compulsion to run to the computer each time something like that happens and write about it. What I do struggle with lately is how to take this mom person who has become so at home behind the wheel of a minivan, and reconcile her with this writer person who still lives inside of me.

Anyone relate to that? I have a feeling I'm not unique. Maybe you don't want to be a novelist, but you probably have other ambitions that you are pursuing or wish you could pursue that don't involve stain removal or breastfeeding.

I read this essay recently and it is haunting me. It's about a mom of four small children who is accepted to medical school (to her dream school). She writes about what it's like to hack away at a cadaver all day and then come home to a very lively household. Wow. If she can do that, I should be getting way more accomplished than I do. It is a beautifully written piece. Read it if you get a chance.

And here's something I read that made me cry. I was really at a low point this summer when I read it, feeling like there would never be time to pursue my own work, that three toilet-trained kids would be my magnum opus in life. But then I came across this essay and it felt like the writer had written a letter to me, reminding me that I am exactly where I need to be, doing the most important work I can possibly be doing, and that writing while the kids are asleep is enough and is infinitely better than an imagined alternative: no children sleeping in their beds, no messes to clean up at the end of the day, no baby food stains to wash out. The food stains and the laundry are not the point; they are by-products of a life lived with children, in other words, a life surrounded by wonder, imagination, raw emotion and immeasurable love.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

This is supposed to be a writing blog

I intended for this blog to morph into a blog about writing and motherhood. That's why I now have a picture of a cool typewriter at the top, not that I use a typewriter. My mom asked what was wrong with my blog lately. "It says 'work in progress' at the top. Does that mean it's still loading?" No, that was my (failed) attempt at a cool tag line for my blog...I am a work in progress, the book I'm writing is a work in progress, my kids are a work in progress, this blog is a work in progress, etc. Note to self: lose cool tag line.

As part of my blog makeover, I started categorizing old blog posts, thinking most of them would fall into either the "writing" category or "motherhood" category. So far most of the posts have fallen into the "food" category. Maybe this is a blog about food? If that is true then I really need to lose the typewriter because that's just confusing.

No, I really don't want it to be about food. Even though I love food (obviously). I don't have any trouble eating, though. I don't really need encouragement when it comes to food. I do however need all kinds of help/encouragement/accountability/ideas in the writing department. So, this is a blog about writing and being a mom. And it is a work in progress. And there will probably be some food.

Here's my writing exercise for the day. Feel free to join in or not. If you do join in, I'd love to hear about it in the comments.

Tell me about a school lunch you had once. (See, I told you there'd be food.) Don't forget the details. Write for fifteen minutes.

P.S. Anyone can do this. You don't have to be a "writer."

P.P.S. Look at the links on the right for other blogs that might be of interest to moms who write.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Today we said goodbye to our little preschooler

And hello to our big kindergartner

She is at school as I write this. I'm tempted to drive by the school in my car and play her favorite VBS songs really loud in my minivan with the windows down. Maybe she'll hear the music, drop her chunky pencil and come running outside and into my arms?

I keep looking at pictures of her. She's really cute. I wonder if she's thinking about me? I miss her. Charlie just went out on the balcony to see if he could see her school bus that's not due to arrive for another three hours.

I almost started crying in the kindergarten hallway when the reality of it all hit me like a big yellow school bus. We will be doing this for eleven more years. Only eleven. And then we'll say goodbye to her again when we drop her off at college. We'll see her at Christmas and during the summer. Again, lots of opportunities for goodbyes. This whole goodbye business is just beginning, isn't it?

It doesn't feel so much like the beginning of something as it does the end of something. True, I have complained ad nauseam on this blog about the trials of being at home all day with preschoolers. It's not like I want to sign on for a life sentence of being a mommy to very young children. But still, I really never thought it would end so suddenly.

After we dropped off Emma at school, we went to a "boo-hoo breakfast" (coffee and donuts in the library). I didn't feel like boo-hooing then. I still had too much adrenaline coursing through my veins. We had not had to be anywhere with clothes on that early in a long, long time, so it took a lot out of me to get everyone dressed, fed, lunch and backpack packed, and out of the house on time. Now, I feel like boo-hooing big time. I know I will make it through this just fine, but right now it feels a little like I'm in mourning. I wasn't expecting to feel anything but joy, so this is catching me by surprise.

A friend was telling me that we could borrow her butterfly cage for Emma's upcoming butterfly-themed birthday party. She said I would have to excuse all the blood stains though. Apparently, when caterpillars become butterflies, it's sort of a violent process and a little butterfly blood gets shed as they are transforming. Who would've thought that something so natural and beautiful could be so painful?

Sunday, August 30, 2009

To homeschool or not to homeschool...that is the question

Lately, it seems like everywhere I go I run into friends who are choosing to homeschool. This was a phenomenon I had never even heard of until I was an adult. Now, suddenly, everyone (or at least everyone I run into lately) is discussing whether or not they're choosing to do it. And I have to say, homeschooling is starting to seem downright trendy among a certain set of moms. This is sort of surprising and sort of not. It seems like so much of our generation of moms looks at mothering as a series of choices. Breastfeeding vs. formula, working outside of the home vs. working inside, cloth diapers vs. disposable, organic vs. whatever's-on-sale, crying-it-out vs. attachment parenting.

I would argue that homeschooling vs. traditional school has made its way to that annoying list of choices we must make as mothers. How did this become the case? Is there some kind of book (or preferably short magazine article) that will explain to me why we are all suddenly trying to teach our children at home rather than send them to school?

I'm sure it's a combination of many different cultural phenomenons all intersecting at once that make homeschooling so appealing to so many. And I have to admit, I'm one of those people to whom it appeals. When I close my eyes and imagine what it would be like to homeschool, I envision this idyllic scene of my children and me sitting around the kitchen hearth, reading to each other, taking breaks occasionally to do our handwork or bake some fresh bread. Basically, I imagine something out of a scene from Little Women when I imagine homeschooling. Never mind that we don't have a fireplace. And never mind that I happen to have more Little Men than Little Women at my house.
Instead of something from Little Women, the homeschool scene at my house would play out more like a scene from Raising Arizona ("She's got more than she can handle") or that scene from Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood where all of her kids are throwing up at once. In other words, I think homeschooling at my house would be slightly chaotic and not so productive.

Emma has learned to read pretty much on her own, though. And the kids love to sit and draw and make stuff all day long. They're great at having tea parties. Maybe my homeschool could be sort of a charter school that specializes in reading, making paper airplanes and having tea parties? We would blow everyone's socks off!

After visiting Emma's new elementary school many times in the last several weeks, I am more than convinced that those people have their act way more together than I do in the school department. I am not even going to try to compete. She will be in a Spanish immersion classroom where half of her day will be in Spanish. My semester in Sevilla in college was awesome, but I'm not sure it qualifies me to teach kindergarten in Spanish. I can order a "ron y coke" like nobody's business, though.
At Emma's school there are also lots of opportunities for art and drama, a great library, a cafeteria, a big gymnasium, music room, orchestra, and two playgrounds. Not to mention hundreds of new potential friends. Again, I can't compete.

I realize that everyone is different and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to educating our children. I do question some people's interpretation of teaching at home though. I used to tutor a little girl who was "homeschooled." Basically she did a computer program by herself while her parents went to work. The program was designed for a second grader...and she was in middle school. I've also talked to another mom who bragged that homeschooling wasn't that hard because she just had her children watch videos to learn what they needed to know. I know there are tons of parents out there who are doing a great job with homeschooling and their kids are probably as smart as they come, but I think there's a good chance that with homeschooling becoming so trendy, some parents could wind up doing it because they want to be like the other parents they know who are doing it or because they believe it is the "right" thing to do, and that doesn't necessarily qualify them to be their child's only source of knowledge.

I should've reported the parents of the girl that I tutored. It has always bothered me that I didn't do more for her. Her dad fired me because I tried to get her to read books rather than do her computer program. He told me that reading wouldn't get her anywhere. He wanted her to be a vet tech.

The main reason I want my kids to go to school is because I think it will be good for them to be away from me. I'm great and all, but there is a whole world of great people out there who I believe have amazing things to offer them. Likewise, I think it will be good for me to be away from them. I am, after all, more than their mother, or so I hear. And they are more than a reflection of me.

When Emma gets on the bus on Tuesday and waves goodbye, I'm sure I'll be sad. I'll be saying goodbye to a chapter of her life where our family was pretty much her whole world. She'll be spending a lot of her waking hours away from home, learning things from someone else. Meanwhile, my own life will be freed up a tiny bit more to write and think and grow. I'm really looking forward to that. My hope is that we'll come back to each other at the end of her school day with a new appreciation for who we are and who we are becoming.

I feel like I wanted to say so much more in this post, but wasn't able to say it the way I wanted to. I would love to hear your thoughts about school. I've probably unwittingly offended some of my friends who homeschool. I hope that's not the case. Feel free to challenge my assumptions and tell your side of the story. Happy new school year to all!

Monday, August 24, 2009

Does everyone make boef bourguignon after seeing Julie & Julia?

I saw Julie & Julia and I have to admit, most of it was too delightful for words and you would really have to be a terrible curmudgeon of a person not to like it. I was absolutely starving after I saw it. I wanted to go straight to Whole Foods and buy the ingredients to make the sumptuous boef bourguignon that they were torturing us with throughout the entire movie. Yum...

Julie came off as lovably self-absorbed...I could totally relate to her narcissism and her worries that she would never be considered to be a "writer." Although, I would say that her writing/cooking scenes just didn't really look that hard. Okay, so she had a small crappy kitchen. She should try doing all that stuff with three kids in the room. Now, that would be a real challenge. The scene where she comes home after having blogged for several months and having a New York Times piece written about her, and has 63 messages on her answering machine all from publishers and literary agent types, made publishing a book seem about as easy as hitting "enter" on blogger. And then we see Julia Child struggle for years to have her book published. Not surprisingly, Julia Child's moment of literary validation felt much more satisfying and deserved (maybe I'm just saying that because I didn't go to high school with Julia Child?)

All jealousy aside, the movie inspired and encouraged me a great deal. It made me want to come home and cook and write and get things published like crazy. Now, if kindergarten and preschool would just begin...

In the spirit of the Julie/Julia Project I thought it would be fun to blog about what we ate last night. Emma and I went school supply shopping yesterday and when I came home I had to make something for dinner, but was out of just about everything (except for school supplies). Is Sunday night like that at your house too? We are out of usual staples and just have to make something out of nothing. I kind of like those types of cooking challenges. They remind me of writing poetry, where the limitations force you to be more creative. So, anyway, I had ham and turkey and swiss cheese, bacon...and one egg. That was it (except for random veggies and fruit) in the fridge. Brandon suggested I make some monte cristo sandwiches, which is exactly what I was thinking could be made out of those ingredients. After I got over the initial shock that he knew what a monte cristo sandwich was, I agreed that would be a good plan.

We put the kids to bed (they had eaten grilled cheese sandwiches earlier) and then dug into our sandwiches. Wow! Delicious! So delicious, I have to share the recipe (or really method) for making your very own monte cristo. This sandwich pairs well with ripe peaches, a cute husband and a comfy couch. Bon apetite!

Monte Cristo Sandwich (adapted from Rachael Ray's original recipe)
4 slices bacon
1 egg (really 2 eggs would be better, but I only had one)
splash of milk
pinch of ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
tablespoon butter
4 slices of bread
Grey Poupon mustard
plum chutney (this, oddly, is what I had on hand and it was fabulous, but any good jelly/chutney type of thing would do)
deli sliced ham
deli sliced turkey

Cook bacon until done and remove to paper towels. Drain off fat.
Reheat skillet over medium heat.
Beat egg(s) with milk, nutmeg and pepper. Add butter to pan and let it melt.
Turn bread in egg batter and then place in pan.
Turn bread after it browns, 2 to 3 minutes; spread mustard on 2 slices of bread and spread chutney on other 2.
Place a slice of cheese on 2 slices of bread. Add bacon, ham and turkey to remaining 2 slices and then set tops in place and press sandwiches together. Turn a couple of times and let set a minute or two to melt cheese. Cut sandwiches from corner to corner to serve.

You can dunk them in maple syrup if you want, but Brandon balked at that, so we didn't. Yum, yum, yum.

Do not be afraid of the bacon and the butter. If you are really that worried about it, go running or something. : )

Tonight, I want to make boef bourguignon, "Julia's boef bourguignon." I'll let you know how it turns out!

Friday, August 7, 2009

Let's give em something to blog about...

For some reason whenever I can't think of anything to blog about, that Bonnie Raitt song "Let's Give 'Em Something to Talk About" always goes through my head, except in my head I sing it "Let's give 'em somethin' to blog about, a little mystery to figure out..." I can't believe I just actually wrote that out loud. I really must be desperate for material.

Here's what I want to blog about, but probably won't be able to very well because kids are constantly and literally all over me:

My very complicated feelings about the new Julie & Julia movie. Complicated? You're thinking, it's a Nora Ephron movie. What's so complicated? "Well, it's complicated," I would probably reply. This movie was made for someone like me. I love to cook, I'm a total sucker for romantic comedies, I blog (on a monthly basis). My feelings about it are complicated because I used to be friends with the Julie of the "Julie" part of the movie. Some background: the movie is about a real person named Julie who wrote a blog about cooking her way through a Julia Child cookbook. The blog became a book and the book became a movie.

Now, the whole blog-to-book-to-movie scenario is pretty much one of my favorite fantasies (in my version Jake Gyllenhall figures prominently). Until now, a movie based on a blog seemed like an impossible feat. The fact that it happened to someone I knew well in high school is weird and surreal and makes me feel very, um, er, happy for her, of course. Happy and maybe just the teensiest bit jealous, self-doubting and depressed at the same time? Does that make me a bad person? Probably.

Another thing I want to blog about is the fact that I can't get a single thing done lately. Oh, don't get me wrong. I do mountains of laundry, piles and piles of it. I just plowed through one of those big Costco-size Tide boxes in record time. I also do dishes, make beds, fold things, and clean out closets on such a continual basis that I'm wondering if it's like the lion, the witch and the wardrobe in my kids' rooms, and there is a whole other fairy tale land on the other side of their closets filled with half-man/half-deer type creatures who are secretly stashing too-small shoes and old onseies in there when no one is looking. I get that stuff done, and that stuff is important and all, but I'm really really aching to get some of my own writing done. Will this ever happen?? The baby is crying, so I'll have to report back to you on that later.

How is anyone ever going to make a movie out of my blog if I can't even finish a sentence?? The only thing tying this mess of a blog post together is my annoying use of the double question mark. What's up with that??

I actually relate to Julie's plight in the blog/book/movie. She's turning 30 and is worried that she hasn't made anything of herself, that she'll always be a lowly office temp, while her friends are making it big in New York. In my darker moments I feel the same way. I'm a very different person from Julie, but I worry sometimes that I've missed some important goal in life, that I have been so engrossed in being a mother, that I forgot to pursue other things and now I'm adrift on this mommyhood raft and can't quite figure out how to make it back to Elizabeth-land. (That's right, I said Elizabeth-land.) Every time I see a trailer of Julie & Julia it feels like this big Julia-Child-sized reminder of my own lack of accomplishment.

Today I got to go to the dentist by myself at 8:30 in the morning. It felt like such a small miracle being dressed and out of the house by myself so early in the morning. Driving to the dentist, I thought, this is what it would be like to have a job. I could just leave every morning with clean hair and a cute purse with only my stuff in it. Should I be looking for a job?? Every now and then I look for jobs online and wonder what it would be like to make money again. I've been at home so long with kids that the working world feels like another planet, like it would have a different atmosphere, different air than the air I am used to breathing. I really can't even fathom going back to work right now, but I like to fantasize sometimes. Maybe I wouldn't be getting paid to get my own writing done, but I'd be getting paid to get something done. Right??

This is what's going on in my head on bad days. On good days, I feel like I am accomplishing tons--it's just happening so slowly and so constantly that it's hard to see it. I wish someone would come do a time-elapsed video of my life with the kids for a year, so that I could see them growing and changing and getting smarter in the span of like five minutes. They could put it to a catchy song, like maybe something from an ipod commercial. Then maybe I would feel more accomplished, or at least my accomplishments would be more tangible.

Right now I have to go because my kids are fighting over an empty vitamin bottle. And everyone needs to eat. Again. And Teddy has a dirty diaper. Nora Ephron, are you reading this??

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Are you a camp person?

I love this article about camp and what your feelings toward it say about you. My experience in summer camp was strikingly similar to the author's. I remember using our daily rest time (my favorite camp activity) to write letters to my parents detailing the many ways I was suffering. The three weeks I was away felt like three decades or three generations maybe--each one containing its own unique personal battles that I fought bravely.

Week one was dedicated to meeting new people...also to sleeping, showering, eating, sailing, horseback riding, and eating ice cream out of a huge trough with no utensils with said new people. For someone who needs their alone time, all this togetherness made me feel starved for my bedroom at home where I could sit for hours with a book with no one but my stuffed animals to talk to.

Week two was devoted to cultivating a best friend relationship with one specific girl from my cabin. This girl was usually a trusted confidante who was even more uncomfortable in the camp world than I was. We would discuss how the camp soap was giving her eczema or how she thought we should all be wearing helmets while playing field hockey. If anyone was having a worse time at camp than I was, it was my camp best friend.

Week three was all about getting annoyed with my camp best friend and realizing that her own neuroses were really getting in the way of my becoming a better water skier.

The last day of camp was Parents' Day, and to me, it was the whole reason camp existed in the first place. This deprivation of the things one took for granted in their everyday life--things like parents, watching TV by yourself, taking a shower without wearing a bathing suit--made normal life transcend its normal life-ness. When I saw my parent's station wagon pull into the gravel parking lot on the last day of camp, I practically ran to them with my arms open like Laura Ingalls Wilder running to Pa in the opening credits of Little House on the Prairie. Surely, my parents thought camp had paid for itself in that brief, shining moment of utter devotion to them.

I remember one parents' day in particular...I was doing a twirl routine to the theme song from Beverly Hills Cop. As I twirled and flipped the baton expertly, I imagined that my parents were thinking, "who is this master of the baton and what has she done with our daughter?" Did I look different to them? Sure there were the superficial changes: the leaner, stronger physique--a pleasant bi-product of all the never-ending activity we were forced to do. I was tanner and had smooth legs (everyone shaves their legs at camp). But surely they could see beyond the cosmetic stuff and see that I was tougher in some way, perhaps a tad more mature? While I had not necessarily thrived at summer camp, I had survived. And I was stronger for it.

While my own feelings about camp are complicated, I would definitely encourage my own children to go. I have a feeling they will be more successful campers than I, but even if they aren't, parents' day will be awesome.

Happy 4th of July! And happy camp to all!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Summer Word Picture

Yesterday we made our weekly visit to the farm to pick up our CSA box. Great Country Farms is located in Bluemont, Va, a beautfiul town that sits on the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Being members of the CSA means that we get a box of produce each week and we get to pick our own produce too. Yesterday, was an exceptionally perfect day, weather-wise. For some people, it might've been a little warm, but for a Texan like me, 85 degrees and sunny is about as good as it gets in June.

As we were walking across a gravel road to the section of the farm dedicated to cherry trees, grapevines and raspberry bushes, we passed under a wooden awning that marks the entrance to the farm. As you're walking along the path, the A-shaped awning creates a frame around a stunning view of rolling hills, with a patchwork of crops growing on the steep slant of the hillside. It looks as though someone went to the top of a small mountain and shook out a big quilt, so that it covers all the foothills below. I told Emma that I had forgotten my camera, so she needed to take a picture of this scene with her imagination's camera and paint it later when we got home. She got really excited by that idea and told me that she was going to need lots of black and red paint so that she could paint the black raspberries we were about to pick. I told her she had a deal.

To get to the black raspberries, you have to pass by the sour cherry trees. If you've ever played the game "Hi Ho Cherry-o," then you can imagine what these cherry trees look like. Cherries really do grow on little stems and dangle down from tree branches just like in the game. Last week we picked the sour cherries and I was surprised by their ripeness, and how they almost disintegrated in my fingers as soon as I picked them. I tried one out just to see the level of sourness we were talking about. Pretty sour. Then I asked another mom who was picking cherries near us if these were indeed the sour cherry trees and not some other deadly, poisonous type of tree masquerading as a cherry tree, and she said they were. She showed me how to hold the low branches down so that my kids could reach up and pick the cherries and put them in their containers. We quickly learned which cherries would burst as soon as we picked them and which ones were firm just by looking at them.

This week we walked past the cherries to the rows of raspberry bushes. It was a long walk, uphill in the bright sun. Last week we were supposed to pick the raspberries, but as we were walking up the hill, past the cherry trees, the sky opened up and we were drenched. Charlie and Teddy were crying as we headed back downhill to the farm for shelter. Emma and I kind of enjoyed the drama of the situation. Ten minutes later we were eating ice cream in the bright sunshine again and wanting to go out and pick raspberries, but, alas, Charlie was no longer in the mood.

Yesterday there was no sign of rain, but there were many signs that Charlie was flagging. I'm wondering if maybe he thought we were climbing up the entire small mountain that lay ahead of us? Sometimes I have to remind myself that kids have very little perception of how far away things are and I think the raspberry bushes just seemed impossibly far to Charlie. We made it eventually, though, and I told Charlie I would wait with him while he rested in the grass. I encouraged Emma to go pick the raspberries without us. She was more than happy to oblige. She is a quick study and soon learned to look for just the right shade of deep, almost black, purple that would signal a sweet, tangy black raspberry. Raspberry bushes have thorns. "Just like roses, Mommy," Emma informed me. When did she learn about roses having thorns? Emma got stuck a few times by the thorns, but didn't cry or complain. Now that she's five-and-a-half, she's learning to put things into perspective. She's figuring out that some things are worth a little pain.

We headed back to the farm and took the hayride out to pick peas next. I am 34 years old and I've never seen English peas in their natural state. I knew they didn't come into this world in Birds Eye packages in the frozen food section, but that was about the extent of my pea knowledge until yesterday. Peas come in just about the cutest packaging you've ever seen in your life. It's a shame the Birds Eye people don't make more of this. They grow on these sweet little vines with curly tendrils spiraling out everywhere. And the pod itself is this beautiful green color, just stuffed with round, cherubic peas. At the top of the pod is a little hat-looking thing that is just too cute for words. No wonder there are so many baby/pea metaphors out there: Pea in the Pod, sweet pea, etc. You can't help but think of a baby all swaddled up with a hat on its head when you look at these adorable little legumes.

It is an understatement to say that the kids had fun picking peas. I'm pretty sure they were some of the most enthusiastic pea-pickers ever. You have to look closely and even lift the pea plant up a little to see the bounty hiding below. The best pea pods seemed to be hiding just out of sight, and you could really only see them if you took the time to look. At one point the kids sat down on the ground in front of a particularly fertile plant and harvested handfuls of pea pods.

Sitting in the dirt among the dainty peas in their sweet pods, the kids were in their element. I wanted to take a picture of it, to somehow preserve the pureness of our moment under the sun and the clouds, our brown bag so full of green peas that we could hardly join the edges together to carry it. It's hard to imagine now, but I know there is a time in our future when my kids' joy will be more complicated. It happened to me...I'm sure it will happen to them too. I wish I had had my camera with me. But sometimes even a camera is not enough to capture what I want to capture.

Monday, June 22, 2009

And the winner is....

Please excuse the sideways-ness of this video...and the messiness of our playroom.

Congratulations to the big winner!!! She will receive a copy of Tilmon County Fire by Pamela Ehrenberg. Thank you so much for all the wonderful comments on my interview with Pam! Thank you especially to Pam for enduring my many many questions, and for chiming in in the comments as well. For those of you who didn't win the big prize this time, please go out and grab a copy of Pam's book from Amazon (click on the link above). It's a fast, engrossing read. You'll love it!

Well, I better run for fishing out the fireman hat from the dress-up box (for the above video) has really opened a whole can of worms dress-up-wise (if worms could dress up as firemen/doctors and pirates/dentists). I'm hoping I can pretend to be a patient/victim and maybe catch a few zzzzz's on the couch.

Happy Monday, everyone!

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Author Pamela Ehrenberg discusses her new book

I first met Pam in the apartment of my dear friend Robin when we moved to Washington, D.C. Pam had a super cute baby girl strapped to her in a Baby Bjorn and a novel she was shopping around to publishers (and another she was writing). I thought to myself, "this is someone I want to know better." I still feel that way about Pam. We have been through a lot together since that day in Robin's apartment: writing group, playgroup, we've babysat each other's kids while the other one tried to squeeze in a few minutes of writing time, we've had babies within a week of each other (twice), I've flushed Spiderman underpants down her toilet, the list goes on and on.

Pam's latest book is called Tilmon County Fire. Here's the blurb from the back of the book:

"In Tiny Tilmon County, where it seems like nothing ever happens and the most
serious crimes are vandalism and bar brawls, a mysterious fire rocks the lives
of the teenagers who live there. As the story unfolds, the lines between
truth and fiction, motive and happenstance, guilt and innocence blur. This
novel-in-stories is told in the voices of its disparate cast of characters,
including a frustrated adoptee, a gay teenager, a big-city kid who is new in
town and wishes he were back in Manhattan, a pregnant store clerk, and a boy
with autism, who is more at the center of events than he imagines."

I highly recommend this book. If you start it, you won't be able to stop. Seriously. It's one of those books that calls to you from the nightstand, saying "read me..."

So, without further's my interview with Pam! As usual Pam has amazing things to say about writing and motherhood. Don't forget to leave a comment/question for Pam. I'll put all the comments in a (fireman) hat and the winner will receive a copy of Tilmon County Fire!!! Woo hoo!!!

For the sake of clarity and to look cool, my questions have an MT in front of them and Pam's answers have a PE.

MT: You have managed to publish two novels and have two children in the past four years…First of all, WOW. Second of all, do you find motherhood to be compatible with writing? Why or why not?

PE: You're very kind. I guess I haven't found it compatible in the way I first imagined it would be, when I began my extended "maternity leave" with dreams of long, blissful hours away from a 9-5 job where I could write and write while baby cooed and played. I definitely haven't found it possible to write and parent in the same moment. But in a larger sense, I think for our kids to grow up knowing that we're people first and mothers second--and that being "people" may include being a writer--I think in that way, writing and motherhood are very compatible.

MT: Where do you get your ideas for stories? Are your stories already formed when you sit down to write them, or are you generally staring at a blank page, trying to make these people get up and walk around (like I am)?

PE: It's hard to know where ideas come from . . . I guess I'd say the stories are already formed but not yet known to me--like the characters are up walking around in their own parallel universe already, and my job is to learn what they're doing and find the words to communicate that. I haven't had much success in making my characters do anything they weren't going to do anyway (a bit like parenting sometimes, come to think of it!). I've had better luck with my characters when I stand off to the sidelines and observe them long enough that they forget I'm there.

MT: Are there some ways you have set up your life so that writing gets done? Can you share some of your tips, please?

PE: Well, when Talia was a baby, I promised myself that her morning nap would be devoted to writing, sacred time not to be used for catching-up the way afternoon nap could be. That, of course, doesn't work at all with a second child. But some other things have helped: our regular childcare/writing-time exchange was invaluable, especially knowing that if someone else (you!) was going to the trouble of caring for my child, I'd darn well do what I said I was going to do with that time. There's also the accountability built into our 7-person writing group, the knowledge that 6 people will arrive at your house one evening, possibly carrying cookies, and that someone is going to ask, "So, what have you written this month?" For a while when I was working on this book, I also had a more structured exchange with a friend from college: every other month, we'd each send each other a chunk of what we'd been working on, and in the alternating months we'd send feedback. At the moment, I'm experimenting with Twitter as a motivating force: every time the word count on my new manuscript goes up or down, I get to Tweet about it.

MT: Do you think of yourself as a writer at this point? A stay-at-home mom? A professional laundress? Short order cook? How do you identify yourself?

PE: Ha! You know, the only one of those labels that's always kind of made my neck itch was "stay-at-home mom"--I always felt like I should put a little asterisk by it that I was home for a while trying to launch this writing thing but that I knew from the beginning I would never be very good at castle birthday cakes or so many of the other things that seem to come much more naturally to people who embrace the term "stay-at-home mom." Just recently I've started to identify publicly as a writer--and still with a lot of hesitation, like, "I guess I'm allowed to call myself a writer now?"

MT: I get the hesitation, but I think you're definitely allowed to call yourself a writer. I still hesitate when I say it. I don't mind the stay-at-home mom label, though. Except it sort of sounds like I'm a shut-in. What about motherhood has surprised you most? How does this affect your writing?

PE: When I was pregnant with Talia, someone asked me what I was looking forward to about motherhood, and I said I was looking forward to the excuse to slow down, to stop and really enjoy the dandelions. What's surprised me over the past four years is how much harder I've found it to slow down enough to enjoy those moments--not always be rushing ahead to dinner, bath, bed, whatever the next thing on the kid-genda might be. (You seem to be much better than I am at this, and one of the reasons I read Mommytown is to try to absorb these lessons through osmosis. But if you ever wanted to try a step-by-step for those of us who need remediation in this area, I'd be grateful!) Anyway, I think it's the same kind of slowing down that's needed for writing--needing to know what a dandelion feels like brushing against your cheek or squished between your fingers. Learning to slow down would benefit me in all areas of life!

MT: The trick to slowing down is staying in your jammies for as long as possible every morning. : ) Can you give us a one or two sentence synopsis of what you think Tilmon County Fire is about? I have my own ideas, but I’d rather hear your version.

PE: I think it's about being part of a community, how the stories that belong to each of us really belong to all of us. Cait says at one point, "It's my life, but it's their life too. We're in this together, however we might feel about each other at any particular moment." I think community-building is what you do such an amazing job of here on Mommytown, bringing together moms who sometimes see the world through very different lenses but nonetheless are all in this parenting thing together. (Oops, that was three sentences--four, now.) : )

MT: What are your goals for Tilmon County Fire? Are you hoping to ruffle a few feathers with this book? Maybe take some people out of their comfort zone a little? Do you think it’s too edgy to be read in a high school English class? I would hope that’s not the case, but what do you think (being a former teacher and all)?

PE: Gosh, you know, it's only in the past few days that I've let myself start wondering if enough people might notice the book that someone might get their feathers ruffled. I don't think it had occurred to me that any grown-ups other than my writing group pals and a few hip librarians would ever even hear about it. Hopefully we're beyond the point where gay teens, inter-racial dating, or National Public Radio are feather-ruffling topics for many people--but if these things are in fact outside some people's comfort zones, then I guess, yeah, having identified some feathers in need of ruffling, I'd be honored to accept that as a goal. And I would love for the book to be read in English classes--the publisher is working on a discussion guide that will hopefully be helpful to teachers and other educators who'd like to use the book.

MT: Emma has a question for you: “How do you make a book real?” (She has a butterfly book she’s looking to pitch.)

PE: Hi, Emma! Thanks so much for joining in. Do you mean "real" like make people believe your story really happened? If so, my advice is to know that butterfly so well--the colors on its wings, how it looks when it sits and flies--that you can describe it so readers feel like they're seeing it too. If you mean "real" like "published," the first thing I'd say is that your story is already real--it doesn't become more real when it gets published, it just means more people have a chance to read it. But you might have fun checking into some publishing opportunities for kids--maybe Highlights magazine?

MT: Highlights! I'll have to look into that. Although if Emma gets published before me, I might just give up. Got any books you’re dying to read this summer (in all your spare time)?

PE: You know, it's only in the past month or two that I've been able to read fiction again. After my husband died last summer, there was some part of my brain that closed off and couldn't let any imaginary worlds in for about 7 or 8 months, which is the longest I've gone without fiction since I learned how to read. But slowly that's opened up again, and I'm currently reading a terrific new novel called I Do Not Come to You by Chance (by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani) about Nigerian email scams. : ) Next up I want to read Dara Horn's new book, All Other Nights. I've just learned how to reserve library books online and have them sent over from other branches--I think the library has had this capacity for a while, but it's new for me and feels very liberating. Almost as easy as ordering from Amazon, and it's free!

MT: I am in love with the library right now. I might want to marry it. Except sometimes I get sad when I can't remember what books I've read because they were library books and I can't look at them on my shelves. I spend a lot of time looking at the books on my shelves. They inspire me. Do you have any words of wisdom for moms who have the desire to be creative?

PE: Every mom I know is creative, whether it turns up in her artistic pursuits, her kids' birthday cakes, or her ability to create an ad hoc burp cloth out of conference notes. In terms of moms who ware wanting to use their creativity in some kind of "official" pursuit (in the arts, or setting up a business, or whatever), at the moment I'm all about "social networking"--not just in the sense of Lightning Question #4 below, but in the old-fashioned sense of talking to your friends' friends' friends--it's amazing how enough of these conversations invariably seem to lead to people who can be role models, mentors, and allies. And with enough practice at telling people about your project, eventually you just might start believing it yourself.

MT: Okay, Pam. Here’s the lightning round. Answer the first thing that pops into your head. Ready? Set? Go! Which would you rather achieve in a day: write five pages or have your whole house clean at once?

PE: Write five pages. (Because I can actually imagine that one--the other choice is too far outside my realm of consciousness.)

MT: How do you celebrate when you finish a draft? Champagne, marshmallows, more writing?

PE: I'm not sure I've ever managed to identify the moment when I've finished a draft. More often, I realize that this thing I'm working on has morphed significantly since I started calling it "Draft 2" and so perhaps it's actually "Draft 3" that I've now been working on. I like your suggestions, though!

MT: If you weren’t a writer, what other profession would you pursue?

PE: I keep getting stuck on this one. Is there a profession where I could get paid to travel but not have to write about my experiences or spend any time in conference rooms?

MT: Facebook or Twitter?

PE: Both! Also MySpace, LinkedIn, and GoodReads. Web 2.0 was *made* for introverts like me who are too shy to pick up the phone and call someone.

MT: Box mac ‘n cheese or homemade?

PE: Homemade. (This question is about preference, not frequency, right?)

MT: Which do you prefer writing: dialogue or description?

PE: Dialogue. Fills the page much quicker when my goal is a certain number of pages per day.

When you’re blocked, do you
A) Write garbage and then delete
B) Stare at a blank screen
C) Other

PE: A & C. Flip to a section that doesn't repulse me at that moment, and write garbage there. That's why I like novels more than short stories--less likely that the whole project will repulse me at the same time.

MT: Sleep training or personal training—which would be more useful to you at this point?

PE: Sorry--what was that? You lost me after the word "sleep."

MT: Which is harder: Revising a novel for the billionth time or potty training?

PE: Well, with potty training you kind of know from the beginning what the end result is, and it's usually clear whether what's happening at that moment is progressing toward the goal. And you've got people reminding you that no one goes to college in diapers, that everyone meets the goal eventually. Whereas there are lots more unrevised/unfinished/never-really-got-started novels out there (by which I mean on my hard drive) than I like to think about. Though that doesn't really answer the question, does it? Which--by the way--just might be my favorite question I've ever been asked. : )

MT: Would you want your babies to grow up to be writers?

PE: Only if they can't help it. Wait, that didn't sound right. What I meant was, I want them to find whatever it is they can't help being, then not try to fight against being that thing (as I did for so long about being a writer).

MT: Whew! Okay, that may have been the longest interview in history! I just couldn't help myself...I love talking to Pam! If you're still reading, then you should definitely leave a comment because you're obviously quite the reader and you would LOVE Pam's book! Pam will be reading the comments and questions, so feel free to address things to her or me. Thank you!!!

P.S. Please leave a comment! (even if you're not the comment-leaving type. You know who are.) : )

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

How "De-Grating": Jon & Kate + 8 = Depressing

At first I felt sorry for Jon & Kate. Now, I think they're either sort of evil or just really, really clueless. It's hard to feel sorry for people who seem so intent on perpetuating (and profiting from) their own family's demise. I think TLC should pull the show (this will never happen) and stop the insanity. Here's an article from Slate that says things much more maliciously than I am capable of... I didn't see the show on Monday, but I don't really want to after reading this article.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

School's Out for Summer

Summer vacation is becoming less and less a time to hang out by the pool and run around outside unstructured-ly and more and more a time to sign up for various week-long camps: gymnastics camp, soccer camp, nature camp, ballet camp...I saw a flyer for handwriting boot camp just today. I mean, if everyone's just going to be in camps working on their handwriting and pirouettes all summer, then that's not much of a vacation. It sort of makes you wonder why we don't just go to school all year long, doesn't it? That would certainly benefit the multitudes of people who not only enjoy jai alai camp, but require it as a form of childcare when school's not in session.

Here's an article proposing that we have school year-round...I don't know about you, but I'm kind of thinking that more school doesn't necessarily equal smarter kids. Maybe it's just me. I think something's broken with our education system, but it's not necessarily summer vacation that needs fixing. What do you think?

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Kinda sorta unplugged

It's been a long time since I've posted anything. The kids are out of school now and have been for a few weeks... I was expecting to be hating life right about now, but it's sort of weird how smoothly things have been going. I've been slowly cutting back on the screen time, and at this point we are pretty much not watching TV and not playing computer games-- except for the occasional Magic School Bus episode (see the Twitter update to the right) or just today we rented some really nerdy DVDs from the library (how about that crazy run-on sentence?). I kind of feel like anything with a call number doesn't really count as TV.

Speaking of the library, the kids just got their own library cards today!! What a milestone! I remember getting my own card about 5,000 years ago and it was quite a proud moment in my life. Emma is reading (!) and so I figured it was high time she have her own card. I wasn't really expecting that Charlie would be allowed to get a card, but he was able to "sign" his name, so they let him have one as well. It is so cute to see their names scrawled on the signature lines of their cards. I want to take the cards from them and mount them on the wall for posterity, but I think they would be a little ticked off if I did that. They are beyond proud of themselves.

So we've been not watching TV and doing stuff like going to the library and to the farm to pick strawberries and swimming a little. So far, so good, Summer. You can stick around for a while.

I have been amazed at how much turning off the TV *most* of the time has improved Charlie and Emma's behavior and general joi de vivre. I was expecting to have to literally put chains around the TV armoire and throw away the key in order to try this unplugging thing, but that has so not been the case. They don't even ask me to watch TV! I feel like I'm sounding so braggy in this post. I'm not meaning to. I'm not saying my kids are little angels all day long or anything, but I'm just amazed at how much better they play and how much more stimulated they are without the TV to get in their way and do all their work for them.

Well, I just wanted to do a quick post...sort of pop my head in and say hello. I think I need to head to bed soon.

Keep checking back...Mommytown is going to be a stop on a blog book tour (think a regular book tour, except in cyberspace)!! And there might even be a giveaway involved!!! And maybe even ice cream!!!! Okay, I got a little carried away....there won't be any ice cream, but the rest is true!

Nighty night.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Redshirting: good for your little boy, but bad for America?

I should be napping (Emma keeps waking us up before 6 a.m.)...but instead I'm researching kindergarten "redshirting." We already decided to hold Emma back a year because her birthday is one day before the Sep. 30th cutoff. If only we hadn't decided to be induced lo those five and a half years ago, it probably would not have even been a decision at all.

Right now I'm researching redshirting for Charlie. Word around the sandbox is that people are redshirting June birthdays now, especially boys. Charlie's birthday is June 8th. In Virginia, where we live, school doesn't end until well into June. That means if we redshirted him, he would be turning seven at the end of kindergarten. He might as well be growing a mustache and wearing just sounds kind of weirdly old to be in kindergarten doesn't it?

So, at first I was all, no way are we redshirting Charlie. And then now all the chatter about redshirting has got me to of course I fired up the internet to see what it has to say about it. The answer is lots, and like most internet searches, it has left me feeling even more confused than before I started. Confused, but full of good quotes and statistics! Like, here's a good one:

Fred Morrison, a developmental psychologist at the University of Michigan who has studied the impact of falling on one side or the other of the birthday cutoff, sees the endless ''graying of kindergarten,'' as it's sometimes called, as coming from a parental obsession not with their children's academic accomplishment but with their social maturity. ''You couldn't find a kid who skips a grade these days,'' Morrison told me. ''We used to revere individual accomplishment. Now we revere self-esteem, and the reverence has snowballed in unconscious ways -- into parents always wanting their children to feel good, wanting everything to be pleasant.''
Hmmm...yep. That pretty much sums me up. And what's so bad about wanting everything to be pleasant all the time? (said the girl who likes to have her marshmallow and eat it too.) Here's the article where that little nugget came from.

And, eeek! Take a look at this passage from the same article:

Robert Fulghum listed life lessons in his 1986 best seller ''All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.'' Among them were:

Clean up your own mess.

Don't take things that aren't yours.

Wash your hands before you eat.

Take a nap every afternoon.


Were he to update the book to reflect the experience of today's children, he'd need to call it ''All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Preschool,'' as kindergarten has changed. The half day devoted to fair play and nice manners officially began its demise in 1983, when the National Commission on Excellence in Education published ''A Nation at Risk,'' warning that the country faced a ''rising tide of mediocrity'' unless we increased school achievement and expectations. No Child Left Behind, in 2002, exacerbated the trend, pushing phonics and pattern-recognition worksheets even further down the learning chain. As a result, many parents, legislatures and teachers find the current curriculum too challenging for many older 4- and young 5-year-olds, which makes sense, because it's largely the same curriculum taught to first graders less than a generation ago. Andersen's kindergartners are supposed to be able to not just read but also write two sentences by the time they graduate from her classroom. It's no wonder that nationwide, teachers now report that 48 percent of incoming kindergartners have difficulty handling the demands of school....

Furthermore, as Elizabeth Graue, a former kindergarten teacher who now studies school-readiness and redshirting at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, points out, ''Readiness is a relative issue.'' Studies of early-childhood teachers show they always complain about the youngest students, no matter their absolute age. 'In Illinois it will be the March-April-May kids; in California, it will be October-November-December,'' Graue says. ''It's really natural as a teacher to gravitate toward the kids who are easy to teach, especially when there's academic pressure and the younger kids are rolling around the floor and sticking pencils in their ears.''

Ugh...I have already changed my mind like three times since starting this post...and now I have to go pick up Charlie from preschool. Right now I'm just thankful he has at least another year of playdough and blocks.

What does everyone think about this redshirting thing? Anyone want to chime in?