Buddha, Jesus, and George Carlin Walk Into a Bar

(I'm sorry to say I don't actually have a joke to go with that opening; maybe I'll work on a punchline and get back to you) (or maybe Steve Martin will write a play and save me the trouble)

'Tis the season to fret about stuff. It's actually been on my mind a lot lately, as we try to turn our house into more of a space we actually love, a home that is functional and fun. The problem is that no matter how much surface area is available, it gets covered with clutter. Adding more space just invites more piles. We need containment, carefully planned out containment.

But: what I really need is a willingess to let go. Somehow I have developed a sort of modern version of Depression-era stockpiling. Drawers full of old rubber bands and matchboxes with one match and too many glass jars because they might come in handy some day! Clothes I've had since high school but haven't worn since college but still like! Mountains of used padded envelopes in case I need to send lots of fragile things in the mail! Candy canes from three years ago that are finally in season again!

It's the treehugging solar-powered locavore in me: I just can't throw things away. I can reuse and recycle with the best of them, but I hate waste. I still get sad when we let the spinach go bad, but at least it gets composted. I'm getting better about giving things away for someone else to use, but that's where I run into my attachment issues. Having moved a lot and culled a lot, I hit a wall at some point and just want to keep the stuff I still have. Because, you know, I like it. Or I liked it at some point. Or it has meaning, it was a gift, it's an emotional connection to a person, place, or time. I blame Black Friday, instead of Black Tuesday.

But it's time to let it go. Embrace Craigslist, Freecycle, Goodwill. As I'm bombarded with commands to buy, to do it for Jesus (Happy Birthday!), I'm going to listen to the Buddha instead. Or maybe George Carlin, with a twist: "How come your shit is stuff and everybody else's stuff is shit?" Or hell, even the bumper sticker on my car: "The best things in life aren't things."

It's a little sad to admit that when I threw away (recycled!) the wrapping paper from xmas presents yesterday, I felt a small thrill. It was like I was doing something daring and not-quite-kosher. It was wrong, but oh-so-right. Now if only I can bring myself to do the same with the bags full of old wrapping paper in the attic... (but what if there's a birthday, and I need to wrap something?!)

New Year's Resolution: get rid of at least one thing every day. And then stop thinking about it!


On hold, maybe

I've been feeling like taking a social network/blog break lately. People always go on about how the internet connects them and blah blah blah. It's true, sort of. I'm more in touch now with some old friends (and some other random people) and I sure do spend a lot of time online, mostly happily and without too much fallout. But. I think right now I want to put that energy into my actual flesh-and-blood life.

On the other hand, I may well get sucked back in at anytime. So. This may or may not be an announcement that I'm taking a break. See you soon, or in a while, or even later than that.


Suffragette City

Some food for thought on Election Day:

American women have been voting for less than a century. The 19th Amendment was passed in 1920, a hard-won victory that was a long time coming. (Iron Jawed Angels is a great film about it.) That's in the realm of oral history. It still kind of shocks me how recently that happened, and how we take it for granted.

New Zealand is usually mentioned as the first nation to give women suffrage, in 1893, but a handful of places did it in colonial times (New Jersey, Pitcairn Island) and didn't implode or bring the heavens shattering down upon themselves.

Swiss women didn't get the right to vote until 1971. That's almost in my own lifetime. For better or for worse, we expect that in places like Saudi Arabia (still no vote for the ladies), but Switzerland?! I thought they were so civilized.

Of course, I sort of thought we were civilized too, until the recent craziness took over the airwaves. At least we have Jon Stewart.

I almost didn't vote in this election, because I've felt shamefully uninformed lately, but I just couldn't let it go. I waffle between feeling really strongly about what's going on - to head to D.C. for the Rally (no, not Glenn Beck's!), to get out and canvass, to make my voice heard loudly and in possibly offensive rhyme - and feeling sort of apathetic, or maybe hopeless, about the whole shebang. But even though I didn't march, I felt something run through me when I dropped my ballot off.

So thank you, Susan and Lucy and Lydia and Elizabeth and Alice and Inez and Victoria and all the others who made it possible.


Dancing Queens

A while back, I wrote about the lost art of the mixtape. And I recently rediscovered one of the best. My first year of college, two friends and I created this tape to be the perfect dance mix, with built-in time to catch your breath. We laughed so much while we created it, and I wish I could scan in the cover art I made (we each made our own for our own copy of the tape). Think fishnets, and sass, and groovin' and love. Four years later, at a party shortly before graduation, someone put a tape on: it was the mix we had made! It had made its way around the school, passed on for its legendary powers to get people up on the dance floor. And we laughed and laughed as we danced. And here's how it went:

Side A

Dancing Queen - ABBA
Respect - ARETHA
Stuck in the Middle - STEALERS WHEEL
Into the Groove - MADONNA
Sweet Dreams - EURYTHMICS
Take On Me - A-HA
1999 - PRINCE
Groove is in the Heart - DEEE-LITE
Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon - URGE OVERKILL
A Fine Romance - LENA HORNE
I Will Survive - GLORIA GAYNOR

Side B

Let's Go Crazy - PRINCE
Tainted Love - SOFTCELL
Wonderwall - OASIS
Laid - JAMES
Big Time Sensuality - BJORK
Son of a Preacher Man - DUSTY SPRINGFIELD
Hooked on a Feeling - BLUE SWEDE
Take a Chance on Me - ABBA
St. Elmo's Fire - JOHN PARR
Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps - DORIS DAY
You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman - ARETHA
Girls Just Want to Have Fun - CYNDI LAUPER

And though we made this tape more than 15 years ago, and it was a mix of our different tastes, and it's a little scratchy from being played so much, and it breaks my personal mixtape rule of using the same artist more than once: it's still fabulous!

Be that girl.

Livin' La Vida Loca

Oh dear. I appear to have missed September completely. How did that happen? Actually, that kind of thing happens all too often these days. I say to a friend, "Let's get together soon," and soon turns into several weeks. Weeks that are full of not a whole lot, and at the same time, everything that matters. Hours spent chasing a ping pong ball as it bounces down the sidewalk. More hours spent hiking in the woods, baby boy snuggled close, twisting and turning to watch the dog scamper and pounce. Mornings at the farmer's market, afternoons in the park, ten minutes here and there climbing the back of the porch swing. The days just disappear, and I try to hold on to the moments.

Also - September means back-to-school, so that's been taking up a fair bit of time that I might otherwise be recording my grandiose opinions on the world. My head's been in Mesopotamia and Egypt, to the point that I'm not even sure who's running in the local elections. (and I've discovered that in some ways I'm incredibly unobservant: on a walk one day I'll ask if that house has always been that color, or that lamppost has always been there, and usually it has, and I've walked by it hundreds of times without noticing. So the political signs in people's yards are not so helpful)

It's not like I'm so super-busy doing this-that-and-the-other, although I get to the Y for yoga and pilates, and have the occasional game nights with neighbors. Not so many dance parties or poetry readings, not a lot of going out for dinner, or staying up all night being wild and crazy. Sometimes I miss those times, when I was just gearing up for the evening activities at a time I'm now usually in bed, maybe even asleep. It was fun, and part of me still wants to be that girl. Part of me still is, somewhere inside. But my life is loca in a whole new way, now.

And I am happy.


Of Meat And Men

I just read Julie Powell's second memoir, Cleaving. It's about learning how to be a butcher while she cheats on her husband. Or tries to get over cheating on her husband. Whatever. My verdict: the bits about the meat are good. Clear voice, fun recipes, compelling. The bits about the men? I don't care. And the bits where she tries to find meaning and metaphor about the men in the meat? Irritating. I wasn't sure I was going to make it through the whole book because of it. I did, and could have done without the whole last travel section as well. But the bits about the meat more or less made up for it.

My initial reaction was actually a lot more harsh - I said some mean things about her while I was reading, wanting her to focus on the interesting stuff and leave the forced introspection out of it. I had a similar reaction to the Julie & Julia movie (I didn't read the book) - I like the Julia bits, not so much the Julie bits. But now that I've sat with it a bit, she's grown on me some. It's her memoir, so she's entitled to write about whatever she wants. (kind of like blogging, no? Which is where she got started, after all. But I doubt I'll be reading that anytime soon.) And it's her life, to fuck up or fix up however she wants. I just wish I didn't have to read about so much of it.

Like: she starts with an interesting description of how to take apart a pig, and then goes off on the symbolism of how the flesh (aka she and her lover) clings to itself and has to be pried apart carefully to avoid tearing a ragged edge...blah blah. Get back to the juicy stuff. More meat, less men!


Choose Your Own Amendment

You're walking down the street on a sunny day when you spot someone who looks out of place. This person is loitering and anxiously looking around. He is wearing a funny cap on his head and is darker than most people who live in this area. If you: go up to him and ask in a friendly way if he needs help, turn to page 32. If you: check your bag to make sure your concealed weapon is loaded before calling a buddy for backup, turn to page 57.

PAGE 32: Well done! He just needed to find a public restroom he could use. You are a kind human being that offers us all hope for the future. Live long and prosper. Go forth and multiply.
PAGE 57: Good job! You scared him so badly he peed in the street, splashing your shoes. You are the antithesis of all that America stands for. Go directly to jail (or better yet, to school), do not pass Start, do not collect $200.

Selected Amendments, as interpreted by the squeaky wheels we love to hate:

The First? Only when it applies to me!
The Second? Hell yeah!
The Fourteenth? We don't need that no more.

And while we're at it, let's write a few more that will redefine the world to fit our narrow-minded perspective. (Is this where both sides whip out Leviticus to prove a point?) Apparently only a few red-blooded patriots really know what the Founding Fathers had in mind. God forbid any of the rest of us actually read the Constitution.

Oh, how the blood boils. It makes me inarticulate. The worst of it may be how poorly this represents our people, but you'd never know it from what you see in the media. (except Jon Stewart, of course, peace be upon him) Hearst created a war out of nothing (ok, not nothing, I'm oversimplifying history to support my point, just like everyone else) and it's happening again, people lining up to take sides over issues that didn't even exist until the flames were fueled by the Fox flock.

And the so-called "Mosque at Ground Zero"? Neither a mosque nor at ground zero. What a good opportunity for peacemaking and community-building that's getting twisted around until it will only end badly. Let's fight more wars - after all, what else do we have those guns for?!

I don't know about you, but when I chose my own adventure, more often than not, I ended up dead. Unless I cheated and looked at all the options until I found the happy ending. It was always there to be found.


Parenting Advice from a Jackass

It was too windy to read the paper in the park today, so I ended up listening to a nearby phone conversation while hanging out with the boy. (Ok, yes, I would probably have listened in anyway.) He was going on and on about all sorts of things, interrupting himself now and then to yell at his kid. Here's the nugget of wisdom he had to share, loudly:

If your seven-year-old keeps pooping his pants, you should make him wear them on his head and (I quote) "smell that shit all day until he learns not to do it again." If you don't have the heart for that, you don't let him out to play and you be sure to tell his friends why.

He also talked about a girl he knew who was scrawny because she was a junkie, but could drink anyone under the table and win bets. They'd split the cash. He was real proud of that. Delightful, no? I admit he sort of endeared himself to me when he talked about the dirty hippies who won't get a job and don't wash their hair. He was most upset about how bad dreadlocks smell, except for this one hot chick he knew with platinum dreads - all the rest remind him of his cat's hairballs.

On a vaguely related note (well, not related to hairballs), I came across some equally revolting parenting advice in the classic manual "What to Expect: The First Year." In a listing of games to play with little ones, they included this rhyme: "Clap hands, clap hands, till daddy comes home, cause daddy has money and mommy has none."

Yeah, you read that right. Welcome to parenthood, ladies and gentlemen.


Be: Here, Now.

My yoga teacher started class this morning with a lovely Mary Oliver poem (aren't they all?), about attention. Ironically, although I live in the present a lot these days, I couldn't do it during yoga. Every time she'd tell us to center and sink in, to pay attention, my mind would wander. And then I would notice the wandering, and try to focus, and still end up with eyes and thoughts darting around the room. The woman next to me kept doing poses wrong, and I wanted to correct her, or have the teacher fix it. The man in front was huffing and puffing and generally making a new age spectacle of himself. My pants kept sticking to me in funny ways because of how hot and sweaty I was. Nevertheless, it was a great class and a great way to start the day. Here's the poem:

The Summer Day

Mary Oliver (1992)

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?


And The Living Is Easy...

Summertime! A time for barbecues and hammocks, for popsicles leaving purple tongues, for dancing and swimming and late nights under the stars. Or, these days, for early nights watching tv, peeking outside and wondering if it's ok to go to bed while it's still light out. A whole new world. Actually, now that the boy is more or less reliable about bedtime, and we have a monitor that works at quite a distance, we've managed a few fun evenings with friends. But those carefree days are behind us - and ahead of us, as we watch our neighbor kids run shrieking through the sprinklers and tumble into a pile, laughing all the while.

We are trying to keep adventuring; we even went rafting, to celebrate the 4th, with baby on board. It was a tame and empty stretch of river, a handful of splashy spots amidst the gorgeous scene, just perfect for his first time out. Hopefully a sign of days to come. As we were de-rigging at the end, we chatted with a guy who said he started taking his kids real young and how his oldest son is a river guide. The future? (And then he slept through the fireworks that night, hurrah. Can't say the same for the dog, but she's always been a fraidy-pup with noises like that. Thunderstorms back in New Mexico sent her trembling into the bathtub.)

I live in each moment. The trees, not the forest. It all seems like it's going so fast anyway. The fish may be jumping (don't know if the cotton is high) but I have small waves of anxiety because I haven't planned for the fall yet. Has it really been six weeks since school ended? How did that happen? Here's how: one day the grimace at the sweet potato becomes an open mouth asking for more, bright orange giggles delighting in this new experience. Squeals of joy greet the sight of the dog hunting her tennis ball, ears flying in the wind, a pounce in a cloud of dust. Grunting marks the hard work of rolling and rolling and rolling, trying to push up, to stay up, to get where you want to go, and finding yourself going backwards instead. Somehow, in the midst of all the ba-ba-ba-ba-babbles, you are growing up, one day at a time.

One of these mornings / you're goin' to rise up singing / Then you'll spread your wings / and you'll take to the sky...


English Well Speeched Here

(If you're not familiar with that book - a collection of signs from around the world about ladies with nuts and suchlike - you should check it out; it's quite hilarious. As is Anguished English, a history compiled from student writing, in which Socrates dies of too much wedlock.)

There are two parts to this whole English language thing I'm thinking about: one has to do with making English the national language, and the other has to do with how well native speakers speak (and write) it. I'll start there, because it's more clear to me what I think, which is: spelling matters! And commas! And apostrophes! And knowing how to use them correctly! I laugh at all those cartoons and books with funny examples, but really it makes me sigh inside. I tell my students that all those other traits of writing they're taught - organization, content, voice, etc. - have to do with what people think of their writing. But the conventions affect what people think of them. I am incredibly judgmental of restaurant menus offering "onion ring's" or a van with painted sides promising to Get Your Windows "Clean"! (Is that code for something?) And especially newspapers with errors. They actually have people who are paid to make sure there are no errors, even if they're just typos that spellcheck missed. Do your job! Yes, I make what are probably unfair assumptions about the intelligence of people who make these mistakes. Suck it up and learn how to write right.

My favorite example of why commas are important: Let's eat, grandma! Leave that comma out and we're suddenly talking to Hannibal Lecter. The kids always get a kick out of it. That said, I support poetic (mis)use of the language. It's like what I was taught about painting: you have to learn the rules before you can break them. Once you can draw a good still life, you can go nuts with your spatter-painting and call it art.

The other part, the idea of making English the national language, well, it's a little more complicated for me. My initial reaction to the folks who propose that is that they are prejudiced and backwards and generally can't speak English all that well themselves (have you seen the signs at Tea Party rallies?). But once I get over it and start to think about the idea, I find that I'm not so sure. When I travel, or if I live abroad, I don't expect people to speak English to me. Yes, the reality is that in a lot of places people do, but that doesn't mean they should have to. Maybe folks in the tourist industry, but not the general public. I consider it my responsibility to figure out how to communicate with them, to learn the local language, even to say my name differently. I wouldn't expect to be able to get a job if I couldn't speak to the natives. So why wouldn't that be the same for people coming here?

And yet. It doesn't feel right to force people to live a substandard life because they can't understand English. To have a hard time getting good medical care. To be labeled stupid because they fail a test at school. To be unable to feed their kids because nobody will hire them. I don't know. I'm running up against my socialist libertarian tendencies again. Isn't there some kind of compromise that allows people to live decently and hold onto their own culture while also assimilating and acknowledging they're in the good ol' US of A? Can we celebrate our diversity and communicate clearly?

Of course this issue is tangled up in the immigration issue, which I won't get into except to say: when I taught in New Mexico, my students didn't realize there was such a thing as legal immigration. They'd only ever heard of illegal immigration. That kind of blew my mind.

Now I'm off to join Lynne Truss and her posse of guerilla grammarians, ninja mask on and sharpie in hand. All ye who err, beware!



I had a conversation yesterday about feeling unmoored now that school is out, even though I was only teaching two afternoons a week, and how it's important to have something to hang my days on - if not a job, then a yoga class, or a baby date, or a women's circle, or something. Something on the calendar, to anchor the otherwise aimless space. It's not aimless, of course, it's filled with the most important work of all: raising my boy. Nevertheless, especially after 7 months (!) of it, it feels like time to get out and do something else. I'm starting to hit my wall of going round and round with the baby toys, how can we entertain you now, what can I do to get that heart-melting grin and giggle, constant energy and attention. It's exhausting. And when it's nonstop, it stops being fun, and I don't want to stop having fun with my baby. So the time has come to bring in the babysitters and work out a balanced parenting schedule (I always wince using that as a verb. Well, a gerund here, I think, but still) and go dancing.

The other piece of it had to do with working and how we undervalue the work of being at home and raising a kid. (and I get the double hit, with my "real" work of teaching being undervalued too! Oh sure, we say education is the most important thing, but we don't walk the walk.) As I live it, even in an enlightened and progressive area, I feel how unfair it is. If you can't define yourself with money, you don't count. You don't get the benefits of being retired (think palm trees and daiquiris) and it's almost like you're not a real person. Yes, I know this is not news, but it is new for me to feel this way, to feel like I have to justify what I'm doing somehow, to fight for the recognition that I am working more now than I ever have before. No, it's not a "job" that pays me money, but I don't have a union guaranteeing me a coffee break every 4 hours either. (Sorry, kid, you can't get up from your nap yet, it's not time for me to clock back in) Ok, this isn't totally fair, a lot of people celebrate this time in our life and clearly do value it. They're not the ones I'm talking about. (I get a lot of props for teaching, too, but my microcosm isn't matched on a national level)

I don't know exactly what I'm trying to say; I'm not feeling particularly articulate at the moment, but that conversation has been bubbling around in my mind and I needed to get it out somehow. And I may not be getting drinks from the cabana boy, but I do have something way better, a most incredible little man that lights up my life and lives up to all the hype. So there, world.


Cleverly Disguised as a Responsible Adult

That's what a magnet on our fridge says, and it feels pretty true. Sometimes I just get overwhelmed by the things we're supposed to do, as dishes and dust pile up around us. Isn't there some cleaning gene that kicks in when you reach a certain age? I don't seem to be any better about it now than when I was a teenager with a messy bedroom. But it seems to come naturally for the adults I know. The real ones, that is, not like me. Maybe it's a generational thing. All I know is that we'll finally get so frustrated (or the smell gets bad enough) that it motivates us to spic'n'span the place, and then there's this optimism that it will stay that way, and it does for a few days, and suddenly the mess creeps back in. Then we swear we'll never cook again, and that will fix it! I hold on to a notion that if everything just had a proper spot, it would end up there and stay clean. But it expands to fit the place, filling whatever surface area is available; we're equally messy in a 1600-square-foot house as we were in a tiny campervan. Actually, I think we were better about it in the van, so maybe we need to downsize again. I also thought moving into a new house would make it easier to keep it clean - you can't blame the crud in the corners of the bathtub on the last residents - but no. I'm reminded of the argument I used to use against making my bed: it's just going to get messed up when I sleep in it tonight, so why bother? I just swept - how is there dog fur all over again? Why bother? Well, actually, unless we want to star in a Hitchcock film about deadly dust bunnies, that's worth doing. Especially now that the boy is starting to scootch around and get his face in it.

I'm looking at a pile a foot high of newspapers that I haven't (or have) read. Why is that still there? And the bag of outgrown baby clothes to take to the consignment store that's been sitting there for a few weeks? Who even knew that you had to dust your window blinds and stair railings? And your plants?!

One of my students tried to sell me a plant for a fundraiser, and I told her I have enough things to keep alive these days. Ice cream for breakfast, anyone?


It's A Small World After All

[This is an excerpt from a "personal statement" I had to write as part of an application for a seminar on teaching about Asia. I wasn't really prepared to write it and had to take advantage of naptime, so it's just what came to me in the moment.]

My first foods were rice and dhal, and my first bedtime stories came from the Ramayana. I spent half of my childhood overseas, in India, Kenya, and Sri Lanka, and have since traveled to more than 30 countries. My experiences define a strong undercurrent in my teaching: I want to expand the horizons of my students and introduce them to the world they live in. It's a little simplistic to say I think this is the way to saving the world, but I kind of believe it. So many of the problems we face stem from a lack of understanding and awareness - it's easy to destroy or ignore something (or someone) you know nothing about.

When the tsunami hit in 2004, I was living in Santa Fe and teaching 7th grade Social Studies. We were studying New Mexico history that year. My students didn't usually pay too much attention to the news if it wasn't an assignment, but of course they heard about the disaster and were horrified in an abstract way. However, it didn't really mean anything to them; some of them couldn't even locate it on a world map. One day I brought in pictures of myself at their age in Sri Lanka, and suddenly it became real. These were real people who had died, lost their families, their homes, their livelihoods. We looked at maps and followed the news. Students who had never left town were engaged in the lives of people half a world away.

That kind of cultural crossover, of making someplace abstract and exotic into a reality, is powerful. I want my students to be interested, to care, to believe in the possibility that these are places they can go and people they can know. The world these kids are growing up in is changing so fast and getting smaller all the time. They can hop online and watch video taken from a cellphone in Beijing. They can follow instant updates from a kid their age in Korea. It's easier than ever to travel. While growth and technology blur borders, stereotypes and insularity are growing too.

I want to teach kids to be fascinated by other cultures, not scared of them.


Milking the Signs

I've been signing more and more with the boy, not just baby books and songs, but reviving my college ASL days and signing what I can, when I can. I pulled out my sign language dictionaries to help, since it's been a lot of years and although I'm surprised at how much has come back naturally, I am far from fluent or even really conversant. When I was looking up the sign for "milk" to see if it was different than what they teach in baby sign (it's not), I happened to notice the sign for menstruation on the same page. This particular dictionary has little memory aid descriptions for each sign. Here's the entry:

"Menstruation, Period: Tap the right cheek twice with the palm side of the right "A" hand.
Memory Aid:
The cheek can suggest the cavity of the uterus and the action can suggest the loosening of material for the discharge of the menses."

Really, Perigee Visual Dictionary? Really? Because, yuck. I'm all for oneness with our bodies and finding joy and power in the natural womanly cycle, but come on now. That seems unnecessary.

Cheek uteri aside, it's really fun to get back into ASL and think back to the good times we had at school. It's such a good way to express yourself, and so often feels totally intuitive to me. For years I've used a handful of signs in my everyday life and at school - yes, no, I don't know, who, all done - things like that. I always eavesdrop when I see people signing, but have never been very good at keeping up with signs at speed, just like with any new language. But it's so pretty to watch, and it makes me feel good when I recognize a sign in the flurry. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival incorporates ASL into their productions frequently - most recently a deaf actor played the ghost in Hamlet, so those interactions were all in sign. That worked really well, but sometimes it seems more forced. I like watching it anyway.

It's one of those forking paths on the timeline of my alternate lives. I was thinking pretty seriously about getting involved with the National Theatre of the Deaf, which was just down the road in Hartford and put on some beautiful productions. I loved watching the synergy between voice and sign and body - it was a beautiful dance, and I wanted to be a part of it. (another one of those alternate forks was doing light design for dance - I was going to go work at Jacob's Pillow the summer after graduating, but took a road trip across the country instead. Which is a whole 'nother blog post or several. Did I already write about the hairy pits? I"ll have to check.)

Alrighty, then. Signing off.


Lost Art of the Mixtape

Kind of like Lost Wax casting, only not really at all. I was waxing (ha!) nostalgic to my teenage students the other day about mixtapes, and realized I was totally dating myself* when they didn't get it at all. "But you just make a playlist, it's so easy!" Exactly. It's so easy. And therefore it loses something. Yes, you still have to choose just the right songs, and can work on making the perfect cover, but it's not quite the same. Making a mixtape was a big deal. You had to spend hours cuing up the tapes and knowing exactly how long the songs were and waiting to hit stop at just the right moment. And all that came after poring through your music and your friends' music, tapes scattered on the floor all around, popping them in and out of the player to hear the songs, and hear if the transitions worked... There was that in-between period, of using cd's to make a mixtape, before you could burn it onto a new cd, which wasn't quite as involved but was still a very hands-on kind of process. Something about the tangibility of it all was magical. It meant something.

Mixtapes were the love letters of my youth.

That said, I totally dig the easy access to music these days, and those same students make me cd's, which is a great way to hear new stuff, and the internet brings its own magic. But I still miss the true mixtape.

*I love myself, I think I'm grand. When I go to the movies, I hold my hand. I put my arm around my waist, and if I get fresh, I slap my face. --Ogden Nash

UPDATE: a couple days after I wrote this I was reading Sherman Alexie's new collection, War Dances, which includes the poem "Ode to Mix Tapes." "...the last track/ Was the vessel that contained/ The most devotion and pain/ And made promises that you couldn't take back." As always, it's a book that hits you where it matters. He is such a powerful writer.


Twinkle Twinkle Little Vagina

So you know how every language has its hilarious faux pas, leading to mortified teenagers who grow up with the same funny story to tell? In French, if you say "Je suis pleine," meaning literally "I am full," you have just announced that you are pregnant. Ha ha! Or in Spanish, similarly - "embarazada" means pregnant, not embarrassed, though you will certainly be blushing if you make that mistake.

Well, I just learned about one in sign language that tops those. I was at a "Babies in the Library" group (for the first time, and possibly the last, because: chaos! And the hormones that make me care about my baby crying don't work for other babies, so they're just loud and annoying) and we were learning to sign some stories and songs. We made it through "Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?" with no problems, but when we got to "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star," one of the women stopped the lady teaching us (who teaches baby sign, so oops - how embarazada for her! But this other woman works with deaf kids and actually uses ASL, so she wins). She was trying to be gentle about it, all "doesn't that have another meaning?" Blank response. She had to lay it out: "I'm pretty sure it means vagina."

There we were, more than a dozen men and women holding our thumbs and fingers together in a diamond shape, waving our vagina hands above our babies as we sang to them. It was fabulous.

It's true that baby signs are often simplified, because they can't quite manage the grownup version - just like when they talk, they simplify words - but that's a far cry from mixing up diamond and vagina. Although kind of funny if you think about all those ads for diamond rings being swapped out. They're irritating enough with their message that men can buy forgiveness and love because all women are so shallow that they only care about the bling. But now I'm getting sidetracked.

And yes, we are starting to use some basic signs with the boy, in the hopes that he'll learn to recognize them and start using them in a couple months. We'll see how it goes, but I'm all for expanding our communication.

Also, my title was kind of misleading, so here's how the new version of the song really goes:
Twinkle, twinkle, little star
How I wonder what you are
Up above the world so high
Like a vagina in the sky...

Try it, it's fun!


Happy Meat

(oh dear, I now have an image of Kermit tap-dancing around hanging sides of beef, joined by some cheerful sheep and the odd goat; chickens to perform their own foot-scratching sensation later, perhaps even juggling their eggs with a flourish...)

So anyway. I've been trying these past couple of years to eat in a way that makes me feel good about myself, not so much for my physical health but the health of my soul. Mostly this has meant avoiding meat from the industrial agricultural behemoth, and looking for local/sustainable/organic/humane flesh. What it comes down to is that I finally cannot ignore the images of cows standing in rivers of their own shit as they are injected with all kinds of drugs and fed a mix of grains and offal, or pigs with their tails cut off so they won't be chewed on by the other pigs, or chickens with Dolly Parton breasts, unable to support their own weight, or any of the other horrible things going on in the world of meat.

There are lots of compelling arguments for eating the good kind of meat: healthier, tastes better, works in harmony with the environment, and so on. All positive, but just kind of the silver lining for me. I am driven by the hope that the animal I'm eating lived a happy life. Guilt (as the Jews and the Catholics know) is a powerful motivator, and if I am going to eat meat at all, I need to find a way to feel good about it. Yes, I realize that in the end they die, no getting around that, but I'm actually ok with that part of things - assuming the slaughtering is also done as humanely as possible. (I do think you have to face that fact, and we actually learned how to slaughter and butcher a chicken a couple years ago, and may do a lamb or buffalo at some point.) Even the big guns (McDonald's et al) are a lot better about that than they used to be (thanks in large part to Temple Grandin), but that's still just the end of their life - which they wouldn't have at all if we weren't raising them to be eaten - and I want to know the rest of it was good, too. You know, visions of the happy farm animals we give to children in coloring books. Sunshine and flowers, cows with big brown eyes and long raspy tongues finding the delicious clover, pigs rooting in the forest for acorns, chickens picking fat juicy bugs out of the grass... Meanwhile, the system takes care of itself, working together as nature intended (more or less). Can't you just hear the hopeful and triumphant soundtrack? I mean, they don't have to play Mozart and massage the beasts, but a certain amount of carefree frolicking would be nice.

These days, with the omni/locavore movements picking up speed, it's becoming easier to do that and easier to explain to people (just mention Michael Pollan and the farmer's market). Where I live, it's even fairly easy to find happy meat at restaurants. Granted, when I travel, I have to decide how much of my principles I'm willing to put on hold (and how many images of suffering animals I'm willing to watch dance through my head - is the pepperoni pizza really worth it? Probably the pig wouldn't think so...) but I have hope that these ideas will spread and people will begin to make choices that will ultimately change the industry.

For our part, we've joined a meat CSA with a local ranch. We get 5 pounds of frozen meat a month - cow, pig, chicken, lamb, and/or goat - and emails with little updates of how the animals are doing (springtime brings babies!). It feels good and tastes good and is good for our local economy and the environment. Everybody wins. One of these days we'll get out there for a visit and meet the meat.


Operating Instructions

I am finally getting around to reading this book by Anne Lamott, which is a journal of her son's first year, and I am totally entranced. She captures the ecstasy and agony of motherhood so perfectly, even though her situation was fairly different from mine. I have to make myself put the book down so I can savor her entries, and I'm already thinking about reading it again. Maybe even right away. Which is fairly unheard of, for me. This may be a keeper; one I'll buy as soon as I've returned this copy to the library.

I've been journaling about the boy off and on, more off than on, which often makes me disappointed in myself. I know there's no "supposed to" with journals, but I can't help feeling that mine won't be what I want, years from now. And, oddly enough, I find that I self-censor what I write (which Lamott decidedly does not) - maybe because I do intend to read it again, or pass it on to the kid, and am already constructing the memories I want and sweeping others under that proverbial rug? Not willing to admit the really hard stuff, or at least glossing over the truth with a throwaway line, a joke about being tired, or papa earning points to do fun things? Contrast that to Lamott, who readily admits to calling her son a little shit and understanding child abuse (though not ever hurting him). Most of my entries end up in the second person, so it seems I am addressing the boy's future self, though I'm not sure that was initially my intent. Who knows if he would ever even want to read this stuff? It's so hard to imagine what he'll be like as he grows, though I talk to him about it all the time. We've agreed that he won't play football, though most other forms of activity are fair game. And he has to be gentle with the hearts he's sure to break. [aside: I can't quite call him "my son," sort of like I couldn't quite say "my husband" for a while. It's just too weird.] Maybe I need a second secret journal, with a heart-shaped lock and key, like my childhood diaries. Of course, those keys were always the same as the ones for cheap luggage locks, so really anyone could have opened them, but it felt more private. That didn't stop me from hiding it, nor did it stop my older brother from finding it and reading it. Oh, the laughter (his), the tears (mine), one more battle in the sibling wars. Actually, we got along quite well, but you just can't escape some things. [another aside: do you think all those gruff TSA folks spend their breaks reading little girls' diaries?]

I don't know if I would have appreciated this book before starting this whole kid adventure, but I highly recommend it. Certainly for anyone in the throes of babyhood now, but not only. It is brilliant, beautiful, funny, painful, and most of all, true.


March Forth

The small boy turned four months old on March fourth! Four long months that have zipped by. Already it's hard to believe he grew inside of me - I lived through it and I still can't wrap my mind around it (I guess that's why it's a miracle) - and came out, half as big as he is now. He eats, he naps, he pees, he poots and poops, he drools and squeaks and squeals, he grins so big it defies gravity. His favorite toy is a hand, fingers wiggling to watch and grab. And he french-kisses his monkey rattle. It's possibly the most adorable thing I've ever seen.

Meanwhile, my out-of-body self is watching me try not to become a cliche, as the baby has become the center of my universe. Certainly when others ask about him or compliment him, I'm happy to share, but otherwise I'll bring up other topics instead. I don't carry pictures around (except in my heart), and I have time away, time to be me and to interact with the world as a whole adult human, not a mother. And yet. As much as I appreciate and need that time and those activities (teaching, circles, the Y), I miss him, even if I'm only gone an hour. It's not that I'm missing him and thinking about him while I'm gone; actually, it's almost as if I don't have a baby, but as soon as I get home, all I want to do is snuggle and kiss him.

(oops - I hear him waking from his morning nap, so this will have to do for now - that's how we roll these days)


Take Back The Tea Party

They took the flag, they took family values, they took the whole idea of patriotism, and now they're taking tea?! Hell, no!*

I like to think of myself as open-minded and anti-polarization; let's all get together and talk to each other and work things out, y'know? Surely we'll find we have much more in common than not, and we'll approach the world with a new perspective. You'll take me hunting and I'll take you to a poetry slam, and we'll laugh about it over a beer afterwards. But holy shit, these tea party idiots just get my hackles up and send me to the other corner, ready for a fight. Peace, love, and understanding go right out the window.

Have they even read the Constitution? Do they know anything about our history other than whatever soundbites Glenn Beck and Rush feed them? Are they totally blind to their hypocrisy and idiocy? This is where I'm supposed to write about concrete examples and powerfully articulate my position, in a well-reasoned and somewhat witty fashion, leaving no doubt about the proper order of things, but I just cannot approach this in a calm way. A few points:

-"Government stay out of my Medicare!" Really? Because without government, there wouldn't be any Medicare. It's a government program, see. You don't even care enough to find out about your own health benefits?
-"Gay marriage threatens the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman." But divorce, adultery, and abuse don't?
-"The second amendment gives me the right to bear arms." Ok, but why do you need to get a new semiautomatic every month? What the hell are you hunting - Godzilla? Are you stashing one in every room of your house so you can protect your family (and increase the likelihood of one of your kids shooting himself or a friend)?

Don't even get me started on abstinence-only "sex education" (because how is that educating anyone about sex? Multiple studies have shown how ineffective that is) or "death panels" or Sarah Palin. When did we become a nation that cared more about having our politicians over for a barbeque than about how they run the country? I damn sure want the leader of the free world to be a whole lot smarter than me! I have to say, sometimes I'm tempted to reinstate some kind of required testing for voter eligibility. I know, I know, it doesn't work that way, and all the wrong people would get screwed, but it makes me so mad to see what's happening.

And I'm not an economist, but I am pretty clear on the fact that we need to pay taxes to run this country, and we need to make some sacrifices to make change happen. No, things aren't ideal, but you shouldn't protest something you don't really understand, and I bet all those folks with "Honk if I'm paying your mortgage" signs don't really understand. Our economy is complex, people; it's not so simple as you want it to be.

Yes, I know I will always fundamentally disagree with many Americans. There is no way a country this big (or any size, really) could all think the same way about things. But it would be nice if there was actually some thinking going on! I have to believe that if a lot of those people took the time to sit down and get educated, they would sing a different tune. Maybe not my tune, but one that was thought out and had some actual facts and solid reasoning behind it. Those folks I can share a beer with.

I suppose a kind of silver lining here is that although they get a lot of press, they haven't reached critical mass. So get out your teapots and your Earl Grey, leave your stupid colonial wigs at home, and have a cuppa!

*although it was kind of funny at the start with all the "teabagging" going on...


Butter Makes Everything Better

...especially when you copy the wrong number down in the recipe and use three times as much! Couldn't figure out why the cookies spread out so differently from last time, even dripping off the pan and causing some serious smoke alarm trauma (for the dog, anyway, and the baker; the baby was just fine). Our alarms are ridiculously sensitive and our vent hood fan is sucky (or rather it's not sucky enough), so it's a regular occurrence in our neighborhood. Note to designers and builders: kitchens are generally the place wherein one cooks, creating smoke at times. Please adjust accordingly.

But oh boy, were those cookies good!


You Can Even Make Your Bunkmate Squeal

(or so say The Skunks, in their ska version of YMCA. Take that, Village People!)

I went back to the Y (my gym) yesterday, for the first time almost since I got pregnant - so, it's been almost a year. It felt really good, but my abs are voicing their disagreement with that today. Suck it up, muscles, it's time for you to get back in action. Except really, I didn't hardly do anything. I'm taking this all very easy. I've been doing some yoga, and going for walks, and did some gentle weight stuff. Won't be signing up for a triathlon anytime soon. But I'm glad to be reclaiming my body (although the boobs still belong to the baby, let's be clear about that!).

That's really all I have to say right now. Just felt like I broke through some invisible motivational seal (or maybe the Y had moved to Narnia, or Brigadoon, and no matter how often I intended to go, I never quite made it...) and wanted to announce it to the world. Hopefully this is not a fluke, and I'll be showing off my washboard abs before you know it! (As if. My 3-month old baby has more of a chance of that than I do.) (Which is ok, really, I never wanted the crazy muscly look) (But the Linda Hamilton Terminator Mom look, that's another story) (T2, that is) (did she have a six-pack? I just remember her arms being damn sexy, and her kicking some serious robot ass, which is a totally handy skill these days, no?)

Y! M! C! A!


Memories of Mordor

As I get my equilibrium back and am figuring out how to balance baby time and mama time, I am actually starting to get some things done. One long overdue project was to create a backup copy of the blog we kept while in New Zealand. It still exists online (on a site we can no longer sign in to), but we have no idea how long that will be true. Some theories of the internet would say forever, but we would be sad if it disappeared one day. I actually think we tried to keep copies on a jumpdrive or our laptop while we were writing the entries, but if so, they are in hiding, so I started over.

Reading snippets as I went was fun and perhaps a bit dangerous: I feel the stirring of the wanderlust beast within... and our little boy just got his passport in the mail, after a somewhat silly discussion from the folks at the post office (where they accepted the application) about his photo not being perfect because the background was wrinkly. Really? He's a baby. He looks like a baby. The photo looks like a baby. By the time he gets the passport, he'll look different. By the time we go anywhere, he'll look even more different. Anyway, it wasn't a problem, and the passport's here, and now we're dreaming again.

It's very exciting, actually, with a new design (and microchipped? well, our dog is, so why not our baby) incorporating pictures and quotes to make the patriotic heartstrings swell. Just flipping through it, I wanted to break into song. No Canadian flags sewn on our backpacks! And so much possibility in all those empty pages.

As for Mordor, 4 years ago (4! years!) we had just hiked the Tongariro Crossing, which is where they filmed Mordor and Mt. Doom, and then were headed off to wwoof some more. Should you be so inclined, you can read all about it via claireandmatt.com. I can't believe it's been that long...time really does go by fast when you get old. So who knows where we'll be 4 years from now? Frolicking through the French countryside? Basking on the beaches of the Bahamas? Munching our way through the markets of Morocco? (apparently, wherever it is will require alliteration...) Or Down Under, once again, caravanning across the Australian desert? I do have campervan envy for my neighbor's EuroVan... Hello world, here we come! Someday.


Fromage de Chevre

I'm getting my cheesemaking chops back in action! My neighbor gets a regular supply of fresh raw goat milk from a local farm, so we teamed up to make chevre. I had the starter culture and the instructions, thanks to the New England Cheesemaking Supply (they're the folks Barbara Kingsolver wrote about in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle). We weren't sure about using the unpasteurized milk - we figured it's probably fine since they drink it all the time - so we decided to experiment with two batches, the raw stuff and some storebought milk. Unfortunately, the only goat milk still on the shelves at the store was ultrapasteurized and low fat. Not ideal, but hey, we're flexible.

I almost hate to reveal how simple it is to make this kind of cheese, for fear of losing some of the sparkle, but it really is simple: heat the milk to 86 degrees, turn off heat, stir in culture, cover and ignore for about 12 hours or until it sets to a yogurt-like consistency. Ideally the room should be about 72 degrees. Then line a colander with butter muslin and gently transfer your cheese, hanging to drain for another 12 hours or until it's as thick as you want it. Eat, delighting in your creation!

The tricky thing for me about cheese, even one as simple as this, is that I am not good with scientific precision. When I cook, I often ignore measurements, or approximate them. This is more or less a cup, right? And I'm not really sure how much it matters - all the experts make a big deal of exact temperatures and times and equipment, but I usually end up messing it up somehow - and then it turns out delicious anyway, but it's hard to know what effect my haphazard ways have on the final product.

In this case each pot of milk got warmer than they should have, up to 90 or 95 even (milk gets to 86 fast!). The division of the starter culture - an envelope with about 3/4 teaspoon of powder in it - may not have been exact, so one may have had a bit more than the other. I'm not sure what the room temperature was - probably around 70, and fluctuating through the day. It set for about 10 or 11 hours, not 12. We didn't have two pieces of butter muslin so we folded over layers of a wide-mesh cheesecloth for the store milk. Um...that may have been it, for variables. Not such a good experiment, then, since we aren't sure why they came out differently. Oh, and most importantly, we forgot to taste the two milks first to compare them in that form!

But: delicious results. Totally different, both yummy. And so beautiful and pure and white. The whole raw milk came out more or less as I expected, recognizably chevre. The flavor seems a bit more sour than I associate with it, but only a bit. (and maybe that's because I don't usually eat it for breakfast) The storebought ultrapasteurized low fat milk came out very wet and creamy, sort of like a mix of yogurt and sour cream. But I happily savored spoonfuls of it early in the morning, and had to put it away before I ate it all.

As I said, no idea which variables caused the difference. Only one way to find out: try again! Soft cheese are great for their relatively instant gratification. One of these days I'll build a cheese press and make some hard cheeses, but it's that much harder to repeat experiments when you have to wait 6 months to taste. Now I just need to find someone local with sheep, or water buffalo...mmm....