Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Feeding the Monster

Gross! Did you hear that? No? Well, I sure did. “Creak, groan, belch,” like a glutton after Thanksgiving dinner. That’s the sound that emanated from the dusty bowels of my house after it wriggled to find a comfortable position and eventually loosened its belt a few notches.

Like most of you, I’ve been doing some Christmas shopping. In accordance with our new Green Family Policies, I’ve been trying to find experiences to give as gifts, rather than stuff. (Don’t worry, no one is receiving a winter excursion to Mt. Rainier—see Great Expectations blog entry if you don’t know what I’m talking about). But I have to say, it is a lot trickier than you’d think.

Take Stocking Stuffers, for example. You can’t exactly fit an experience inside a stocking, unless you’re willing to spend a fortune getting theater tickets or gift certificates for a massage. Still, I tried to find stocking-stuffers that aren't just junky little toys that break within 5 minutes of being opened. I remember last year at our house: after opening the stockings, I mentally wished that all of the untouched presents under the tree would disappear like Donald Trump’s real hair, since what the stockings contained was already plenty. Prior to Christmas, we'd stuffed crayons, toothbrushes, stickers, candy, and dolls into a shoebox to be mailed to a child in the Third World through Operation Christmas Child. But the contents of our stockings made those gifts look like half-eaten, saliva-soaked crumbs from the table of Louis the V.

Given this history, and my new affinity for Al Gore, perhaps my grown-up family members will forgive me for the Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs they’ll receive in their stockings this year. And maybe the kids won’t notice that their stocking gifts are actually useful (band-aids, colored pens).

Another tricky part: finding experiences for kids that don’t take too long to redeem. For example, several of my nieces and nephews live in small towns far from me. Researching outings for kids in their areas, I only found lonesome, dusty tumbleweeds blowing across my computer screen, whistling the tune from “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” (http://www.audiosparx.com/sa/archive/Movies/Good-The-Bad-And-The-Ugly/The-Good-The-Bad-The-Ugly/42143). The activities I did find (like tickets to the Children’s Theater in the closest nearby city) may take place, say, next April. Not exactly the kind of thing that would endear me as their favorite aunt.

Then there’s the delicate issue of asking the grandparents of my children to forgo giving toys in favor of experiences, which resulted in the following hilarious email from my thoughtful, conflict-avoidant Dad:

Your Mom had bought some art supplies for the girls several months (nearly a year) ago (thinking ahead to Christmas 06). Would it be alright if she uses them with the girls for an art activity and then "gifts them" to the kids? We will abide by your decision on this...not wanting to cause a problem.....She also purchased the cutest Winnie the Pooh stuffed animals....Is there a way to "gift them" as well?

Having read “The Five Love Languages” by Gary Chapman, I understand that people express love to each other in a myriad of ways, which Chapman boils down to the following handy categories: gift-giving, spending quality time together, acts of service, physical touch, and words of affirmation. The trick, according to Chapman, is to discover your spouse’s “love language”—the primary way that (s)he receives expressions of love—so that you can communicate love effectively and avoid misunderstandings (e.g., the classic “wife-interpreting-every-physical-touch-as-a-request-for-sex-when-husband-is-really-saying-I-love-you” or “wife-buying-gifts-for-husband-when-husband-is-a-tightwad-and-only-really-wants-quality-time-together”).

When Tobin and I took Chapman’s test, we both ranked gift-giving as the last on our list, which means that we are the least likely to express our love by giving gifts. But I would wager my favorite mouse-pad—the one from the now defunct HomeGrocer.com, which is decorated with a simple yet mouth-watering rendition of a peach (or is it an orange?), and conjures up images of being spoiled with groceries delivered to my home—that both of my parents’ primary love-language is gift-giving. Conclusion: to tell them that a Winnie the Pooh stuffed animal doesn’t really count as an experience, and is really just a cute toy (albeit with super-soft fur) would be tantamount to saying “no thanks, you just keep your love to yourself please!”

Thus, while hoping for the best, I’ve been resignedly preparing my house for the post-Christmas Avalanche of Stuff. Last week, while the kids were distracted, I loaded up four heaping bags full of toys to give away. But like a mother who is one month post-partum, the house is still chubby and flabby around the middle, and still has a lot more to lose.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Ode to Eli

Nearly one year ago, in a perfect birth experience, baby Eli joined our family. The doctor, who had also welcomed Eleanor and Sylvia into the world, gently placed Eli—red, slimy, and scrunched up like a turtle who’d spent too long in its shell—onto my chest. “Welcome, Eli,” I said, “do you recognize my voice? I’m your Mama.” Eleanor was sitting right beside me in the hospital bed, and she joined in: “Hi Eli, I’m Eleanor, your biggest sister. Sylvia is the medium-est, and you are the littlest one in our family.”

Eleven months have passed.

Oh, how I love this baby, whose smile starts in his laughing eyes and ignites his entire being like a Fourth of July Sparkler. Words cannot adequately describe his happy, playful, brighten-up-the-room baby nature. I’ll tell you this without a hint of hyperbole: strangers—not one, but many, many—have literally stopped me on the street, Eli babbling away in the stroller, to tell me he’s the cutest baby they’ve ever seen. I’m not even embarrassed by their gushing. I can’t even feign modesty. I smile, and say happily, “I know! I am constantly amazed by his cuteness! Thank you!”

Each morning when I unzip Eli’s pajama sack—the coziness radiating from his body like the aroma from a cartoon pie—I inhale the sweet scent of baby sleep, and thank God for giving him to our family. Judging from the generosity of his smiles, and his eagerness to please, I think the feeling is mutual. In his best Harpo Marx impersonation, he puts his pacifier in his mouth backward—handle first and plug-side-out—and laughs and laughs at his own joke.

Because Eli is my third baby, I’ve had a lot of breastfeeding practice (by my calculation I’ve racked up 29 months or 52,200 minutes of breastfeeding, and I know that’s a conservative estimate). But it helps that Eli is to breastfeeding as Tiger Woods is to golf: he’s done it well since birth. When he was tiny, he kneaded my chest with his stubby little baby fingers, reminding me of a dream I had when I was pregnant with Eleanor, in which I gave birth to a kitten. (Eleanor displayed modesty in utero not seen since her birth: you’d never know that the 5-year-old-girl who strips down to her underwear at every opportunity was once so shy she wouldn’t reveal her gender during the ultrasound. The Great Unknown of her gender inspired a myriad of crazy gender-guessing dreams, including two where her Private Area was blurred out—as in censored—and one where, after lifting my furry, fang-toothed baby to my breast, thinking, “hmm, something is different about this baby, I realized she was, well, a kitten. “Don’t worry, I’ll still love you and take good care of you,” I remember promising the kitten.)

As Eli grew, and learned about object permanence (“Whoa! Mama still exists, even when I’m not looking at her!”), he took little breaks during nursing—the warm milk running out the side of his mouth as he turned his head upward—to smile at me. “It’s you,” his smile seemed to say, “I knew it was you all along!” Sharing those smiles, communicating “I know you,” and “you are mine,” I bid adieu to the previously uncharted territories of my heart.

These days, as Eli approaches his first birthday, he nurses with one hand tugging my necklace, his fingers worrying the beads like the faithful praying the rosary. Always multitasking, his top leg flops up and down like a happy puppy wagging its tail. He pauses, almost involuntarily, to practice his new clapping skills (“hooray for milk!”), and then nurses again, while his hand explores the contours of my face, charting each bump like a blind-man reading Braille.

I love Eli’s predictability, which rivals Greenwich Mean Time in its consistency. He is tired exactly two hours after he wakes up in the morning, and he hints to me with a vigorous eye-rubbing that he’s ready for nap. Eli wakes up happy, reaching his arms up and rewarding me with smiles and babbling. He buries his head into my shoulder and wriggles his bottom as if trying to dig a snuggle burrow. He compulsively signs “change” when we’re changing his diaper, his chubby little fists sliding back and forth on each other in a half-circular pattern. Each bath-time, Eli puts his face into the water and coughs on it; he just has to be sure of its level. After his final nursing at night, he burps twice. Never once; never thrice. He’s as predictable as the treasury debt, but a whole lot more fun.

Nothing about Eli is ordinary, and his crawl is no exception. Three out of four appendages work cooperatively in a traditional hand-hand-knee configuration. But his left leg is rebellious; impatient, it refuses to touch knee to floor and instead stays up in bear-crawl position, providing a kick start to propel him forward at a more satisfying pace. When he sees something he wants, he sniffs and snuffs as if he’ll get it faster with the assistance of nose-power.

Recently Eleanor said, “Hey Mama, Eli looks like we’re going to tie-dye him.” I had no idea what she was talking about, so I didn’t respond right away. Then I got it: “Do you mean it looks like he has rubber bands in the creases of his chubby parts?” I asked. Eleanor is right. And I'm proud of it. Eli’s soft-as-silk chubby sausage appendages represent hours of breast-feeding and patient baby food spooning. His chubbiness calls out to be nibbled and rooted, and draws me in like an open dishwasher attracts a crawling baby.

Next month we’ll celebrate Eli’s birthday with little Teddy Bear cakes, made from a tin that Eli loves to pull out of the kitchen cupboard (we might even wash it first). We’ll sing Happy Birthday and watch as Eli gets a taste of sugar. And when it is quiet, I will lean down and whisper in Eli’s ear: “We’re so glad you’re here, Littlest One.”

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Warning: Severe Behavioral Advisory in Effect

Today the news warns of severe weather conditions throughout Washington State. Flood warnings are in effect for most counties.

Our family is enduring severe conditions of its own: we’ve been lambasted by a behavioral storm that threatens to unearth the foundation of our previously peaceful home, shatter its windows, and send it crashing down in the middle of a Kansas wheat field.

In the past 24 hours our family has seen more fights than the World Heavyweight Championship. I’m not able to recount the causes of these battles, because I was never privy to them. But just so you can live vicariously through me (get a life, why don’t ya?), I will share the lasting impressions:

Sylvia in her room after a time-out, with wipes scattered on her floor like little patches of snow—yellow snow, that is—as she attempts to clean up the “accident” she had on her chair;

Eleanor’s best pal crying and covering his bloody ear as he runs down the stairs to escape his 5-year-old assailant during their two hour play-date that only lasts twenty minutes;

Eleanor’s lengthy, tedious, and ultimately unresolved cross-examination of Tobin and I regarding why she didn’t receive a birthday present from us (Being too young to fully understand consumerism’s impact on global warming, she isn’t keen on our new practice of giving experiences instead of stuff. Has the thrill of the Dead Stuffed Animals exhibit worn off already? I mean, come on!);

Eli, at 11 months of age, issuing the Emancipation Proclamation for Babies Everywhere, which holds this truth to be self evident (I know I’m mixing my metaphors here, but cut me some slack): babies want and need to feed themselves; they do not want any help; and they will cry and scream if you try to feed them, even if they are simultaneously crying and screaming because of severe hunger.

Last night, with a pinch of desperation and a dash of retribution, I hastily gathered up all of the Halloween candy and threw it in the trash (there wasn’t really that much left since we’d been stealthily culling it each night after the girls went to bed). “Do it! Do it quickly, before you change your mind,” Tobin encouraged. Viewing the candy as the source of the behavioral funk, I attempted to rid ourselves of its evil influence, like the Brady Bunch boys returning the Tiki idol to the ancient burial ground after it had ruined their Hawaiian family vacation. So far, I cannot report any corresponding change in behavior.

I just checked http://www.weather.com/ for a 10-day forecast. Until Tuesday, November 14—when the weather will return to “mostly cloudy”—the forecast can be summarized as a large, dark cloud leaking chubby blue raindrops.

I sure hope the storm in my home passes before then.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Great Expectations

If you had visited my house in August, you’d have received a tutorial on volcanoes. Regardless of your knowledge upon arrival, you’d have left our house swimming in a sea of volcanic factoids, pushing and moving them in an attempt to escape—half delighted, and half panicked—like a child in a ball pit. Later, chewing on the end of a pencil, trying to compose your grocery list, you might have found yourself absent-mindedly and involuntarily mumbling “active, dormant, extinct, active, dormant, extinct.”

Inspired by an energetic, creative preschool teacher named Rebecca, who helped the children learn about volcanoes by creating them—complete with a real volcanic eruption!—Eleanor’s passion for volcanoes now rivals Oscar the Grouch’s love of trash. If you care to listen, or even if you don’t, Eleanor will evangelize about the hot lava that bubbles under a volcano’s crust, how it grows and grows, and finally pushes out and explodes (“with a big BOOM,” she’ll say) when the volcano interrupts. With the excitement of a sports-fan recounting the stats of her favorite player—her voice racing, her eyes wide, her hands conjuring up mountainous images from mid-air—Eleanor will list off the many volcanoes in our area. When she sees a mountain range, or even a large hill, she’ll want you to determine whether it is classified as a volcano. If you’re like me, you’ll find yourself nonchalantly covering your ignorance with “hmmm, let’s look that up when we get home, just to be sure.”

Given Eleanor’s enthusiasm, and with her fifth birthday approaching, it’s no wonder that the idea for the Volcanic Adventure Birthday Trip popped into my head. We gave Eleanor the choice: “would you rather have a birthday party at our house, complete with cake, entertainment, and unlimited guests, or would you rather invite one of your best friends and go visit a volcano for the day?” I might as well have asked her whether she preferred a mound of slimy, green vegetables or a bucket of Halloween candy for dinner. Eleanor danced around in circles, yelling “Volcano! Volcano! Volcano!” before the question had fully passed over my lips.

However, some ideas are better in theory than in practice. Problem one: our family drafted and signed the Covenant Regarding Intent to Experience Volcanic Adventure in early September, while the temperatures lingered comfortably in the 70s, when the Parties to the Covenant envisioned a warm forest foray, complete with picnic basket, Frisbees, and layers of greasy sunscreen. By the time the Adventure actually began, the temperature had dropped to the 40s, and we’d entered the Rainy Season in earnest. It is November in the Pacific Northwest, after all.

Problem two: I stubbornly ignored the “don’t-put-all-of-your-eggs-in-one-basket” adage and insisted that Eleanor invite only one friend. This seemed a reasonable restriction given that we have three children of our own, and the precarious adult-to-child ratio was already endangered. But sadly, the day before the excursion, Eleanor’s friend’s mom emailed me and said that the friend couldn’t come after all because her grandparents were visiting from out-of-town. Luckily, the friend’s mom had hinted at such misfortune earlier in the week and I had called my Dad, a.k.a. Grandpa—Eleanor’s favorite person in the world—the one whose picture she’s taped on her bedroom wall, right next to her bed, so “he can always be with her”—and he graciously agreed to travel five hours to our house on Friday after work in order to spend Saturday traveling six hours in our van.

Did I say six hours? Because mapquest predicted two hours each way, which only adds up to four hours in my head. It’s either because of my fuzzy math, (don’t you imagine numbers dressed in cashmere when you hear that phrase?) or because we forgot that mapquest usually assumes a 60 mile per hour speed limit, even when the road is windier than a snake preparing to strike.

Driving to the mountain, with the angry rain noisily pelting the windshield—each drop warning “Turn around! Turn around!”—Tobin and I discussed the possible scenarios that we might encounter at our destination. The worst case, we agreed, would be if it continued to rain when we arrived, since our clothes would hold up to only a few minutes of rain-play. “Did it? Did it keep raining?” I hear you asking. Yes, friends, it did, and it was windy, too. We bundled with mittens, hats, and winter coats, (and snow pants for some), and we still barely made it the 50 yards from our van to the visitor’s center without freezing.

The Mt. Rainier Visitor’s Center (at Paradise) is slated for demolition and reconstruction in the summer of 2007. If you go there before its demise, you’ll quickly understand why. Built in the let’s-make-a-statement-by-building-the-ugliest-structure-we-can era of the 1960s, the center claims neither beauty nor functionality. Essentially, it is comprised of one large, serpentine ramp, with exhibits at each landing (think 1950s), culminating with an observatory at the top. We worked our way toward the summit, stopping first at the auditorium for a Mt. Rainier movie (“When are they going to show the interruption?” Eleanor kept asking, the irony palpable as she disturbed the quiet of the theater), and then at the Stuffed Dead Animals Exhibit, left over from a by-gone era (“Is that bear really dead? Can it move its eyes just a little bit? Can that coyote move its foot? Why not?” Eleanor wanted to know). When we reached the observatory, Eleanor was confused. “Where’s the volcano?” she kept asking, not understanding that the shocking magnificence of Mt. Rainier was hiding right behind a layer of fog as thick as the sample of Mountain Goat Hide that was bolted to the wall in the previous exhibit.

I’ll skip the details of the part where Eleanor, in a fit of rage, threw her hat over the precipice of the observatory, and how she screamed as it wafted all the way down to the bottom. And how, unable to stop crying, she buried her head into the thick plastic covering of a lodge chair.

Let’s fast forward to the parking lot, where there was the tiniest strip of un-melted snow on the sidewalk between the van and a tall barrier wall. Hooray for snow! Because, after reconciling the fact that Mt. Rainier in November is no place for a picnic, we had foregone the Frisbee and packed the sled instead. Tobin, super-hero Dad that he is, spent the next little while patiently pulling the girls in the sled, up and down the sidewalk, all in the pouring, pelting, windy rain, until the Park Ranger arrived in her SUV and extinguished that bit of fun like Smokey the Bear stamping out a forest fire: “there’s no sledding allowed down here because we’re concerned for the safety of the kids,” she said, smiling apologetically.

Still, we were blessed by small mercies on the ride home. As the drum-beat of the rain continued on the windshield, I strained to overhear my Dad sweetly singing to my children in the backseat: “the head-bone’s connected to the neck bone, the neck bone’s connected to the shoulder bone, the shoulder bone’s connected to the back bone, hear the word of the Lord,” and many other songs not previously in our family’s repertoire. Later Eleanor asked, “Grandpa, tell me a story about when you were little,” and I heard intermittent patches of his reply: “chasing girls at recess/ sorting strawberries, tossing out the bad ones and keeping the good ones/ driving a tractor to plow the field…” I could have reached out, grabbed hold, and enjoyed a long, gentle ride on the love-waves streaming in the air between those two.

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that we experienced a Pizza Miracle at dinner time. As we drove through the Land of the Strip Mall, Dad asked, “Tobin, what’s the name of that pizza place you love?” and then Dad looked over and saw it, just as Tobin uttered the words: Round Table Pizza.

Finally, comforted by the rain’s lullaby rhythm and the movement of the car, Eleanor and Sylvia drifted off to sleep and the grown-ups sang along with Adult Music, in peace, while still-awake Eli improvised his own little baby song.

It’s hard to be five years old, with a limitless ability to anticipate, viewing everything through the lens of childish optimism and grandiose expectations. Because when things don’t go as expected, it is difficult for a five year old to express in words the feeling of disappointment. This is the theory that Tobin and I hypothesized after the children were tucked safely in bed, attempting to explain Eleanor’s fit and uncontrollable crying at the visitor’s center. “Well sure,” I surmised, “wouldn’t you be upset if you forfeited a birthday bash for an amazing Volcanic Excursion and it turned out to be a six hour ride in the van to see an invisible volcano, hidden behind a wall of cloud, that you couldn’t even see but that your Mom assured you was there?”

We went to bed agreeing that the trip was a bust, but trying to focus on the positive parts nonetheless (after all, it’s not every girl who gets to see a Stuffed Dead Fox posed as if eating a Stuffed Dead Snow Rabbit).

We needn’t have bothered with the forced optimism, because the next day, while eating a piece of Volcano Birthday Cake (after watching the volcano cake erupt—yellowish foam oozing from the toilet-paper-roll-crater in the center—), Eleanor asked, “Papa, can we visit a volcano every year for my birthday?” Tobin paused, stifled a laugh, and then replied diplomatically, “Um, well, it might be more fun to go to the volcano in the summer next time.”

And so, dear reader, you need not fret: in spite of a small spat, Eleanor’s volcanic love affair lives on.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Earth Spinnings

Each week my girls attend separate sessions of a wonderful, engaging, beautifully-taught music class. Last week, while seated in my criss-cross-apple-sauce lap, Eleanor started wiggling, and reached up behind her to pull my ear close to her mouth. Expecting to hear "Mama, I have to go potty," I was amazed by what she uttered instead: "Mama, which direction is the earth turning right now?"

You see, Eleanor recently experienced a paradigm shift involving the earth's relation to the sun. She used to think-- as would any reasonable 3 or 4 year old, or any reasonable person, if you ask me-- that the sun got out of bed in the East, spent the day lollygagging around the sky, and then tucked itself into bed in the West, after giving the moon its wake-up call. This all changed recently when Eleanor's probing questions lead her down the path of scientific discovery, culminating in this understanding: "So you mean the sun actually holds very still, like this," she said, balling her hand up and holding it in the air, "and the earth moves around the sun like this," she continued, her earth-fist soaring around the sun-fist. "Hmm," she concluded in an upbeat voice, shaking her head affirmatively, as if to say, "well, that makes perfect sense."

But, as is often the case with Eleanor, after running the hypothesis through her brain, like a stone tossing around in a rock-polisher, it came out shiny, hard, and somewhat final. And then she began to consider its implications. Hence the question--worthy of absorbing her concentration--that was pleading to be answered during music class.

I understand that. Since law school, I have been fascinated, and sometimes a little obsessed, by the concept of The Tragedy of the Commons. You can visit Wikipedia for a thorough explanation,
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tragedy_of_the_commons, but this is the basic version that I learned: A Tragedy of the Commons occurs when people put individual gain over the common good, and ultimately exploit a resource and spoil it for all. Examples abound, but here's the first one I learned: Suppose female salmon were worth twice as much as males when caught. What would happen? Fishers would focus their efforts on catching female salmon, and eventually the salmon population would decline because females are essential for reproduction. It would take the cooperation of all or most of the fishers-- agreeing to take only the male salmon, and leave the female salmon to repopulate, despite the lower financial profit-- to save the salmon in the long term. Simple enough.

But its application is widespread. Look around you! Tragedy of the Commons is everywhere! Do you see the person in the SOV-SUV (single-occupancy-vehicle-sport-utility-vehicle) whiz by while you wait and wait-- for the second bus, because the first bus was full-- in the rain, for goodness sake, after walking your kids to daycare with two in a double-stroller and one in a backpack--earnestly doing your part to reduce emissions? Tragedy of the Commons! At work, do your meetings start late because you're the only one consciencious enough to arrive on time? Tragedy of the Commons! Are you an NFL star who refuses to take Human Growth Hormones, but find yourself getting bashed about by those who imbibe because they know they won't be tested? Tragedy of the Commons! In all of these situations, those who selfishly look out for #1 are rewarded-- with convenience (driving), time-saving (arriving late to meeting), and a stronger body (performance-enhancing drugs), while those who act for the common good come out wet, late, frustrated, robbed of precious time, bruised, and outperformed.

These are the things that have been tossing about in my brain, sometimes with front-loader efficiency, other times with more waste than the water-guzzling washing machine from your first apartment. I especially think about the Tragedies since recently experiencing an environmental awakening that spurred many household and lifestyle changes (including much more bus-riding, resulting in the not-so-hypothetical, uphill-both-ways-in-the-snow example above). I am obsessed with finding the solution: what is the cure to the Tragedy of the Commons, and more specifically, the current environmental crisis of global warming?

It came to me the other day. Not the solution itself, but at least a snappy name for it. And insofar as language shapes beliefs, and beliefs inspire action, I think this is a good start! The solution to the Tragedy of the Commons is (please make the do-do-do-do noise of a trumpet announcing the arrival of the royalty, the way that Eleanor does when she shows off an impressive art project she's been working on): The Victory of the Commons. This victory will come when we put aside personal gain-- which, in this day and age, usually comes in the form of money or convenience-- and act for the good of all people. I realize that folks aren't likely to do this on their own. So I, for one, will be using my handy #2 pencil on Tuesday, November 7th, to elect officials who support policies that make it expensive and inconvenient for us to maintain our NBA-meets-Godzilla-shoe-sized carbon footprint (
http://www.climatecrisis.net/takeaction/carboncalculator/), and give us incentives to check ourselves into detox for oil addicts. I hope that you will, too.

Then maybe, for a while, I can turn my thoughts to other important things. Like figuring out in which direction the Earth is rotating right now.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Real Good

If you’ve ever experienced the death of someone you love, you know that, even years later, grief can pierce your heart, like an arrow shot by a marksman laying in wait. That’s how it happened to me two months ago when, without much advance planning, we decided to harvest our apple tree, sauce the apples, and can the sauce. Never mind the fact that we'd never canned before in our lives, we had none of the supplies necessary for successful canning, we only allotted one day to complete the task, and we have three children under five. We armed ourselves with an irrational dose of ambition, and hit http://www.craigslist.com/ in search of canning jars.

We found a listing: Wilber’s wife answered the phone with a wobbly voice, and said that she could get Wilber for me but it might take a while. A few minutes later, Wilber and I conversed about the canning jars—nothing out of the ordinary—just how many, the price, and when and where I could retrieve them. After we’d settled the details, Wilber unintentionally shot the arrow: “okay, real good,” he said. I hung up the phone, slumped down onto the couch, and cried hot, burning tears that left me with a dull ache in my head and a dark hole in my belly. Before then, I wasn’t even conscious that the phrase “real good” had been favored by my Granddaddy, who has been gone since 1999. Wilber sold me six cardboard boxes, containing countless canning jars, lids, and caps, neatly packed with newspaper and styrofoam peanuts in the fastidious way of a World War II veteran. But he left me with a longing that no amount of saucing and canning could satisfy.

If you lost a Granddaddy like mine, you’d still be missing him, too. From the perspective my childhood, he was one of those rare breeds of grown-ups who instinctively knew how to make me feel secure and competent. He let me do things as if I was really able to do them. He was a carpenter, and a farmer, and he let my sister and I participate in the best of both those professions. He’d say to us, “all right, time to go change the pipe.” Sis and I would strip down to our underwear, and pad after him, “helping” him lift the irrigation pipes and move them into the right ditches. Granddaddy gave us toolboxes for Christmas—not the kind of cheesy plastic toolsets you see at toy stores these days—but real tools made for real, albeit miniature, carpenters. We sometimes visited him for lunch at his jobsites, and he let us dangle our legs over the 2x4s, like pint-sized versions of the famous “Lunch on a Skyscraper” print (http://www.fulcrumgallery.com/print_36642.aspx). He shared his canned cherries with us, piercing each one with a nail and handing it over for us to eat.

Sis and I got to spend each Friday night at my Grandparents’ home, and we’d often forget our pajamas so that we could wear one of Granddaddy’s old t-shirts. They were holey in the back from exposure to sun and rubbing against overalls, smelled faintly of Old Spice and detergent, and they epitomized coziness, safety, and warmth.

Granddaddy had a wonderful way of making me feel like a co-conspirator of an inside joke. He only had nine fingers because his brother had accidentally chopped off the pinky on his left hand when they were chopping wood as youngsters. My Grandmother would pray before each meal at their home, and while we held hands, Granddaddy would tickle my hand by wiggling his little stub of a pinky, just daring me to laugh out loud.

Granddaddy excelled at comedy, but not in a grand-standing, showboaty way. He had an understated, pithy way of delivering hilarious one-liners: I played cards with him and my Grandmother an average of once a week until I moved away to college, and Granddaddy rarely failed to mention that “it is a pretty poor scorekeeper who can’t win the game.”

I was watching a video of my brother-in-law and sister-in-law’s wedding when I got the call that my Granddaddy had died. I was comforted to think that we had just seen him in the film as a wedding celebrant-- his lips pursed and his face ruddy, blowing a bubble wand to create iridescent bubbles that floated upward at the outdoor reception. My heart imagined that his spirit had left his body and floated up, up, in the graceful, dancing motion of a bubble, at the exact moment that I’d seen him on the screen.

I’ve often thought that grief’s counterpart is gratitude, the benevolent, white-hat-wearing personage of death. Just as the sharp sting of grief sometimes ambushes, gratitude can quietly settle in like a child who sidles into your lap, ready for a story or snuggle.

That’s how it happened to me yesterday morning, when, in the cool, crisp morning of fall, we ventured outdoors to pick our plums. It is hard to capture in words the beauty that was our day. Tobin patiently supported Eleanor (age 4 and ¾), and then Sylvia (age 3), as they took turns climbing the ladder to reach the plums. The girls collected the plums in their Easter egg buckets, which they had decorated with glue, stickers, and all manner of happy shiny things last April. We annexed a white plastic toy box for our plum-washing station. The girls plopped the plums into the water, and stirred them up with wooden spoons. “We’re making plum soup!” Eleanor announced to Sylvia. I laid out a blanket on the front steps, where Sylvia helped me de-pit the plums, carefully copying my paring-knife technique with her own butter knife. “First I go like this,” Sylvia summarized, plunging the dull knife into the ripe plum and cutting it down its seam, “and then, oooopen it up, and there’s the pit!” “I’m running out of clean plums,” I’d hint, and Eleanor would run to deliver another batch from the cleaning station, her face scrunched and her eyes gleaming with the importance of her task.

Sitting on the steps, settling into the rhythm of the paring, watching my family in its cooperative, peaceful state, gratitude descended on me, and the warmth of it spread through my being like a drop of water on a coffee filter. I remembered making apple cider with my Granddaddy and Grandmother: how I threw the apples into the hopper, feverishly turned the crank of the press, and watched as cider magically emerged from the grinder, all amid the affirming sense of my Granddaddy’s approval. Yesterday, I saw in my children the same feeling of competence as I gazed upon them with admiration. And I thought, thank you, Granddaddy. Real good.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The Patron Saint

Today on the way to the doctor's office, I heard an interesting bit on NPR. Evidently stores specializing in religious icons are experiencing a run on St. Joseph statues. This is said to be a bad omen for our economy, since St. Joseph is the Patron Saint of Real Estate. People bury him by their "For Sale" sign and hope and pray for a buyer. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=6102267 See also http://www.catholic-forum.com/SAINTS/stj01002.htm

Patron Saint of Real Estate? I didn't know there was any such thing. But it got me thinking. I could use a few Patrons around here, the kind that don't mind being assigned to mundane or distasteful Sainthoods.

I'm talking Patron Saint of Potty-training.

Here's the general scene in our house: Sylvia, age 3, is mostly potty-trained. That is to say, she has a perfect record of potty performance at school. And a, shall we say, spotty record at home. Yesterday she just plain forgot that she's potty-trained, like the way you might forget, just for a moment, that it's your spouse's birthday. "Ohhhh, it's pee," she says, her eyes wide with surprise, as a dark, upside-down U takes shape on her pants. Or later, "here's the pee, Mama," taking my hand and leading me, quite proudly, to a large, green plastic container that is supposed to house legos. "I used it for my potty!" Sylvia looks at me like I should break into her reward: a super silly potty dance that we do together after successful pottying. "Um, Sylvia, that is not a potty. It is a lego container. This (taking her by the hand) is the potty." Sylvia regards the potty. The potty regards Sylvia. The introduction is complete, and Sylvia surveys the potty as if to acknowledge that they've already met, but with a certain shyness which expresses the fact that they haven't formed any sort of relationship. "We haven't bonded yet, Mama," she seems to think to herself; "we're just not ready for that next step, Mama."

Evidently Sylvia prefers square shaped potties. Or so we have inferred from the fact that Monday and Tuesday she peed while sitting at the dining room table in her booster chair. "Oops, there's pee in my chair," she says, without a hint of remorse.

The Patron Saint of Potty-Training should have a few features. First, and most importantly-- lest you accuse me of sacrilege-- is that it would remind the parents to pray. Second, it would be equipped with a timer and a reminder. At certain intervals, it would raise its head, and proclaim in a kind yet authoritative voice, "all children report to the toilet," or better yet, "Blessed are those who pee and poop in the toilet." Finally, the Saint would dispense treats to those who successfully completed the task. Here, I'm imagining a head that leans back so that the tongue can spit forth a nice goody a-la-Pez.

Next, I need a Patron Saint of Backaches. The web touts many saints, (http://www.catholic-forum.com/SAINTS/stj01002.htm), but the backache saint was conspicuously missing.

This week, for the first time in my life, I've been laid up with a backache. It started on Sunday, and worstened on Monday, September 18, which just happened to be our 13th wedding anniversary. Poor Hubby seemed to be destined to live out the "for worse" part of the vow he'd given me 13 years ago. He woke up late that morning, having not heard the alarm. He rushed upstairs, skipped shower, shave, and breakfast, brushed his teeth, and flew out the door to catch his vanpool. Then he got my call on his cellphone, which I made after discovering that I could not lift Eli out of his crib without causing tear-provoking pain to myself. Dutiful Hubby got to work, and promptly turned around and caught a bus "home," which didn't really take him home, but rather took him to a station, where he walked to another bus that really did take him home. When he got here he said, with far less drama that I would have mustered had I been in his shoes: "I need to eat some breakfast." So he's been home this week (Mon-Wed), taking care of the children and our house with little to no help from me. And with the potty-user-in-training living here, it has been quite lively around here. If it weren't my life, I'd have called it hilariously entertaining. I'm not even going to add the part about how Sylvia climbed out of her crib during naptime, tried to poop on the toilet, had trouble wiping, and enlisted Eleanor to "help" her clean up the bathroom. Let's just say that a whole lot of bathroom things ended up going right into the trash, despite my fervent recycling beliefs.

The Patron Saint for Backaches could be loaded with helpful features. First, a hot/cold option, so that the actual statue could be used as a heating or cooling device. Second, perhaps the Saint could be ergonomically shaped so that it could be rolled up into a towel to faciliate lumbar support. Finally-- and I know this is asking too much-- the Saint could have a treat dispenser just like his Potty-Training colleague, only this one would dispense Vicodin and Valium in times of need. No prescription would be needed; the Saint would truly know your need.

What other Patron Saints do we need? Hubby would like a Patron Saint of Table Manners, and a Patron Saint of Peaceful Naptimes.

And our last Saint speaks for itself: The Patron Saint of Not Squeezing Your Little Brother's Head Such That it Resembles a Ripe Tomato. Our family definitely needs that one.

However, all of this Saint-consuming runs afoul of the eco-friendly policies now in place at my house. So, maybe what we really need is a Patron Saint for All Seasons. This saint would come looking very plain, but you could decorate him/her depending on what Saint you wanted him/her to be, like a virtuous version of Mr. Potato-Head or Build a Bug. Maybe if the kids had more ownership in dressing up the Saint, they would respond better to its presence.

Or maybe, just maybe, we could offer up prayers on our own behalf, and leave the Patron Saints for those who really need them.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

I am a Marvel

You might not know this, but I am hilarious. I've always been funny, though not everyone appreciated my humor. My husband and I dated in high school, and he would often come over in the evenings to help me with my math homework (I know, I know, we're a living stereotype of the mathematical gender gap). During these tutoring sessions, I would crack jokes left and right-- probably to stave off the suicidal tendencies that math always evokes in me-- but my sister and I were the only ones who laughed. My future husband seemed to be clothed in a joke-proof vest that deflected my punch-lines like hail on a golf cart. He wasn't rude about it—there was no eye-rolling or sighing or saying "is that the best you’ve got?” He just didn’t laugh. It’s a good thing my self-confidence didn’t depend on his approval.

These days, just being near me, you might laugh yourself into a belly-ache. I am like the Jay (or let’s say Jane) Leno of Motherhood. If you don't believe me, just ask my 9-month old son, Eli. Between giggles and snorts, he'll tell you about the high, turban-like thing wiggling on top of my head when I got out of the shower this morning: it was a blue towel! If this doesn’t crack you up, he'll describe how he bangs his feet on the changing table like a tiny patriot tolling the Liberty Bell, proclaiming his Freedom from the Tyranny of Diapers, and the high-pitched "boop" sound that I make as his human soundtrack to accompany each bang. If you're still looking unamused, Eli might ask you to put him into the stroller so that he can demonstrate the hilarious game of peek-a-boo we play with the rain-cover.

Not into comedy acts? Then perhaps you’ll be impressed by my beauty. I have never stopped traffic just by virtue of my proximity, but I am very beautiful. If you don’t believe me, just ask my 4-year-and-10-month-old daughter, Eleanor. When she was three, I received an ego-boosting report from her teacher at preschool. During outside playtime, the teacher had off-handedly remarked to Eleanor, “you sure are starting to look a lot like your Mama.” For Eleanor, it was as if the clouds parted and a beam of light came down from the heavens to surround her being. She was still warm and glowing when I picked her up, as she told me-- growing an inch or two just by speaking the words-- “Mama, did you know that I’m starting to look a lot like you?”

You might be tempted to rationalize that, being little, Eleanor only sees the good in me. But, having endured the scrutiny of her pinching, sticky little fingers and the intensity of her eyes that probe her world like the blazing, all-seeing Eye of Sauron, I know this isn’t true. One day she yanked up my shirt, surveyed my love-handles and modest spare tire—the vestiges of pregnancy and nursing that I’ve been ignoring quite happily, knowing that I’ll work on them after Eli is weaned—grabbed a handful, and said with all sincerity: “How will these come off when Eli is done nursing? Will they just fall off in chunks?” Then there’s the time she lovingly offered to put a bandaid onto my cheek, her nose scrunched up empathetically, pronouncing her diagnosis: “it looks like an owie but I think it might be a zit that never goes away.” Finally, there’s the many times she’s commented—without judgment, just in a matter-of-fact way like you might talk about the grass being green or the sky being blue—on the size of my bottom: “Whoa, Mama, let me scoot over, your bottom is way-hey-hey too big for that spot!”

Well, perhaps I’m not what pops into your head when you see the word gorgeous. But surely, surely you will be impressed with my strength. I can carry any combination of two-out-of-three of my children at any given time; one on each side of my body, even up or down the steep stairs of our 1915 Craftsman home. Alternatively, I can push two of my children in a double-stroller, heavy-laden with a week’s worth of groceries attached to the handle with enough caribeeners to secure ten mountain-climbers, while carrying Eli in the backpack. In an effort to cultivate strong, independent women in my girls, I often brag out loud about my prowess: “look how strong I am, girls! I can lift this ladder all by myself!” I mean this in honest humility: I really am amazed at all of the things I am inspired to do when I know my children are watching.

In June, all three of my children were baptized in one joyous, heart-felt ceremony. As is part of the tradition at my church, the pastor read the Birthright Blessing, adapted from a poem by Ernesto Cardenal, to each child:

Do you know what you are?

You are a marvel. You are
unique. In all the world, there is no other exactly like

In all the millions of years there has never been another
exactly like you.

You are a child of God. And you will be a
child of God forever.

No one can take this birthright from

May you continue to grow into the fullness of life that is
God’s intent for you.

And may you always know that you are loved.
At the time, I choked back happy tears as I reflected on the wonder of each of my precious children. Now, when I look at myself through their eyes, I begin to claim the Birthright Blessing for myself as well.

I am a marvel.

And I have a hunch that you are, too.

Monday, September 11, 2006

The Power of a Bus

My kids are big fans of the bus. Eleanor (4 years, 10 months) knows exactly which buses I ride to work, and points them out to me excitedly whenever she spots one. "There's your bus 16 Mama! It's going downtown!" "There's your bus 44! It's going to the bread store!" As far as she is concerned, I not only ride those buses, I own them as well. (This makes sense, since, in her brain, I also own most of the buildings downtown by virtue of working in one of them. Whenever she sees them, she exclaims, "Mama! There's your tall buildings!") She knows the difference between a school bus, a city bus, and a long-distance city-to-city bus. And she is indignant when Sylvia (3 years) confuses the two. "Nooooo Sylvia, (big, disappointed sigh) that's not a CITY bus, it's just an ordinary SCHOOL bus!"

But hands-down the coolest, most exciting bus on the face of the planet is The Tumblebus. (
http://www.tumblebusseattle.com/). Imaginative Coach Tom took a regular school bus, removed all of the seats, padded everything, filled it with fun tumbling equipment, and painted the bus fire-engine red. Inside, there's a slide, a balance beam, a trampoline, and amazingly, a zip-line. Fitting all of this into one school bus seems like a circus trick until you remember that only miniature tumblers are invited to play on the bus. Coach Tom parks his bus in front of daycare centers, schools, and birthday party houses, and children instictively find it like spit-up finds a freshly bathed baby.

Eleanor has had many turns on the Tumblebus. She used to attend preschool half-days on Mondays, the lucky day when the Tumblebus visited her school. Sylvia and I would drop off Eleanor at school, and Sylvia would see the bus and pine after it. "I go on Tumblebus too," she would say, hoping to generate enough enthusiasm to convince me it was true. "That would be fun, wouldn't it, Sylvia," I'd say, and then, "maybe someday soon." Then after a few months I decided that whatever the cost, The Tumblebus would come to Sylvia's third birthday party. And this promise sustained Sylvia and I through many a morning when she was feeling small and excluded.

Saturday was the long-awaited Promised Day. Before the various 3-year-old friends arrived, my girls established a look-out post on the sofa, hoping to hasten the arrival of the bus. They manned the post with the nervous excitement of a groom waiting for his bride to walk down the aisle, and the intense vigilance of a mother watching for her son returning from war. Like a dream, The Tumblebus appeared suddenly from behind a low, foggy mist, amid the raucous cheers of my girls. Once the friends arrived, the bus magically accomodated 12 children and half a dozen parents. The bus appeared to grow in capacity each time a child boarded, like the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes combined with the marvel of a Narnian Wardrobe.

On the bus, I could tell you about all of the fun Sylvia had: how her eyes sparkled as she went down the slide, how she bravely conquered the balance beam-- her sweet, soft arms like airplane wings at her sides and her lips pursed in concentration-- and how, with wonderful Coach Tom holding on to her torso, and announcing "here comes Elmo," Sylvia zzzzzzzziipped across the ceiling of the bus, holding on to the handles of the zipline.

Or I could tell you about the hilarious, confused little boy, holding his mother's hand, walking to the Tilth Festival (taking place in a nearby park), who popped his head into The Tumblebus, asking with wide, dream-like eyes, "is THIS entertainment for the FESTIVAL?"

But what I want to share, and what I will remember about this birthday party, is something much more miraculous: the blooming of a boy. My friend, the mother of one of Sylvia's friends, is worried about her son's development. His difficulties are very subtle, the kind of thing you might not notice but you'd verify if you heard his mother's concerns. The beautiful and gentle brown-eyed boy misses some social cues, doesn't cope well with change, and doesn't like too much stimulous. Even though he's three, he has never gone down a slide by himself.

Tentative at first, the little guy soon fell under the spell of The Tumblebus. In one hour's time, he found the courage to do things that he hadn't done in three years. He ran around, exuding joy, despite the presence of 11 other children and the stimulating "celebrate good times C' MON" playing in the background. He interacted with other children. He went down the slide, by himself, without any coaxing from his mom. If you didn't know this little boy, you would have missed the miracle. But if you looked at his mom, you'd know that something amazing had happened. There, in her eyes, the spark of joy was reignited by the hope of what she observed in her son.

I never knew that a bus could be so powerful. But my girls did. I guess they've known it all along.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Why Zone Family?

I didn't intend to start a blog. But when I tried to post a comment to a friend's blog, I found that it was restricted to those with blogger accounts. So, time after time, I resisted commenting and creating an account. Then I finally gave in. And now that the account is here... well, it is hard to resist posting a blog of my own. I've always known I was a serial reader-- someone who reads everything within sight with virtually no discrimination as to content (cereal boxes, road signs, bus advertisements)-- but I hope I'm not morphing into a serial writer as well. Because who has the time?

On the fly, I decided to call my blog "Zone Family." This refers to two important aspects of my family. First, we are a family of two adults and three children. This means that the grown-ups play zone defense instead of man-to-man. We're outnumbered, and no amount of fancy footwork is going to change that. One day you might visit our house and find the adults strapped into highchairs, the children naked, running amuck weilding sticks and other dangerous objects like some creepy Animal-Farm-meets-the-Lord-of-the-Flies snapshot.

Second, "Zone Family" refers to a recent family transformation. We saw Al Gore's movie, An Inconvenient Truth, and we vowed then and there to do more to stop global warming and to live in a more environmentally responsible way.

So if you're interested in reading my blog, chances are that the entries will be a mixture of these two topics. We have many adventures in our new quest to drive less, consume less, and recycle more. And, of course, parenting is a never-ending story of laughs, cries, and everything in between.