Wednesday, July 28, 2010


Last night while Cora and I were eating dinner she announced that she was the mommy and I was the daughter. This actually happens on a nearly daily basis. But, in a new twist, this time I was told that now that I was five years old, I had to stop sucking my thumb and be a big girl.


Cora herself is four, still a fairly new four, and still quite a devotee of The Thumb. The thumb-sucking as diminished over this year, mostly only popping up when she is tired, sad, scared, or falling asleep. Because it is diminishing, I haven't ever made a fuss about it. In the winter I try to get her to lay off a little due to the chapping (ugh), but that's about it.

Further discussion and role-playing revealed that I could still put my thumb in my mouth if I were really, really scared, if I was falling asleep, and if I was at home.

I should know better, but I am still sometimes amazed at her ability to plan ahead.

Now reading: Bad Mother, by Ayelet Waldman

Yesterday I found myself with an hour and a half between when a meeting ended and when I needed to pick up Cora. Not quite long enough to go home and accomplish anything before having to be right back in the same part of town. My meeting had been at a coffeeshop, so the last thing I needed to do was to go somewhere and have another cup of coffee. So, of course, I ended up in a bookstore. I can always kill some time in a bookstore, though there is the substantial risk of purchasing something.

Needless to say, I succumbed. I walked out of the store with a copy of Ayelet Waldman’s Bad Mother, a nonfiction book. I’ve read most Waldman’s other books, the MommyTrack mysteries and also the novels, and I remember when she was branded a “bad mother”. It is always nice (if you ask me) to see good work come out of something like that, and Bad Mother is definitely good work.

The book caught my eye because this very subject has weighed on my mind quite a bit in the last year or so. One of the questions Waldman asks in the first chapter is “Is there really no other way to be a mother in contemporary American society than to be locked into the cultural zero-sum game of ‘I’m Okay, You Suck’?” (19). She looks at those tropes of society, the Good Mother and the Bad Mother (and wonders why the bar is set so low for Good Fathers: “a reasonable, attainable goal; you need only be present and supportive” (11)). She looks at judgment, the judgments we pass on ourselves as mothers and on each other.

I’ve only read through the first chapter, but I am hooked. I knew I would like Waldman’s voice, but I also like the way she lays out the playing field, the way she ropes in modern references (Andrea Yates, Brittany Spears) and literary ones (Anna Karenina, late-Victorian poster girl for Bad Mothers, and Medea). I like the way she is both very funny and very serious – that this is serious business is never obscured.

While I’ve never been held up for public excoriation, as Waldman has, I know that I have felt the weight of judgment from other mothers. And I know that even though my mantra with Cora is “different families have different rules” (different needs, different challenges, different ideals), I do sometimes wonder if in some cases different actually is wrong.

Of course, there are different rules which are wrong – abuse is wrong, I think we can all agree on. Shame is wrong, many would agree on. And so on. But between the clearly wrong and the lofty ideal, there is a lot of open space. There is a lot of room for difference, for comparison, for jockeying for position to be closest to Good.

I’m looking forward to the rest of the book; I may come back to talk more about it (fair warning!)

Monday, July 26, 2010

Those old-time fairy tales.

On one of the PBSkids sites, there is a drawing game. You're supposed to draw a habitat for a specific imaginary animal. We did something different. Then you have a chance to write a story about the animal. Cora told me what to draw and what to write. You can see that hearing about red-hot dancing shoes and wolf-eaten grannies has not influenced her story-telling at all. Not at all.

(I'm told that in the story, Julia does come back to life. But "that story isn't part of this picture" - I tried.)

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Long Live the Kitchen Table

There have been a couple times in the last few weeks when I have been in the kitchen and felt entirely at peace - which is a funny thing to say, because it is usually the times when I have two things going on the stove and something in progress on the counter, and a growing sink of dishes. It's like that old saying about the duck - serenely floating above the water, paddling like mad beneath - except that for once I actually feel like the top part of the duck!

(And here is how life with Cora is currently affecting me: I have an irresistible need to say Guess what? Duck butt!)

I am having a good and successful time using up nearly everything from our Harmony Valley CSA box. (I cannot say enough good things about Harmony Valley.) I found a new cobbler recipe that is quick and easy and comes out the way I want it to. I made a cherry pie with cherries from a friend's trees that I loved, which is amazing, because I have not, historically, had much interest in cherry pies.

Every summer it seems like there are a few dishes that become the Dish of the Summer and that get made about every other week, or more frequently. And I'm not just talking about things like quesadillas or ham and pea pasta! Last summer it was a black-eyed pea-feta-and tomato salad. This summer it has been my version of a Rick Bayless Beans-Greens-and-Chorizo taco filling and a wilted spinach and bacon and egg salad. What I find astonishing here is the presence of greens and spinach - not previously staples of our table - but this summer we are all about the greens. Even Cora, though she is a dedicated raw food purist when it comes to her vegetables. And her fruits - she is not a fan of pie. Or cobbler. Or tarts. Or even blueberry pancakes (!!) - she wants her blueberries on the side, please.

The kitchen often feels like the one area of the house, and my life, that I am in control of, or where I feel fully prepared and competent. Even though our kitchen is off in a corner of the house, it feels like the center. And if I can keep centered there, then I can carry that into the other areas.

I admit it: lately I envision myself as an octopus. Only psychically, of course. Or does that sound worse? But, I do try to pull myself, my tendrils or tentacles, from that center, that calm and knowing center, rather than from the places where it all feels like chaos and limbo and anger and sadness. Those are the places I am not enjoying finding myself lately. Not much gets created in those places that is going to nourish anyone.

Today I ran into the poem "Perhaps the World Ends Here" by Joy Harjo. Her first line is "The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live." And later she writes "It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human."

Oh yes. And this summer, I would say that the instructions served up by our kitchen table are: Be creative. Learn to love what you thought you would not. Make something your own. Know where you are safe, and how to carry that safety with you.

July: Opera Month

This month has been opera month at our house. We finally reached the premiere of the opera Chris and I have been working on for the past three years - and lately I have been walking around marveling at the fact that we wrote a show that has sold out five performances in two locations! By the end of the month about 1300 people will have seen it. That is kind of amazing to me, still.

Last night, as I sat and watched and listened, I could remember doing the research for the story, learning about life in a small Wisconsin town in 1900, about lumberjacks and logging camps, about the nearly unmentioned abundance of "crazy" old men living hermit-style just outside the towns, almost all of them amputee veterans of the Civil War (call it Soldier's Heart or PTSD, it has always been there), about folksongs. I learned so much more than what made it into the opera! And then starting to put the story together, learning the characters, the false starts and abandoned plots.

The opera was commissioned to be about a moment in a small town's history, a moment when the town changed its name in the hope of attracting a factory, more jobs, more people. I wanted to be sure that, while staying true to the historical moment, it was also a story that was about people now as much as it was about people then - about having to make choices, about the hard choices we have to make when something changes, about how far a person might be willing to compromise, and when compromise becomes unacceptable. It's a story I certainly recognize, and it has been rewarding to hear that other people have, too.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Cocktail meditation

As I typed that title, it occurred to me that perhaps I could pioneer a new form of meditation. Like walking meditation, only this would be cocktail meditation. Mindful drinking. Think about it.

I've had the opportunity twice in the last week to go out for drinks with friends, which has been lovely and fun. Not, perhaps, meditative exactly. But I will say that on both occasions I felt very present in the moment, centered. Most recently, I was struck by the way a cocktail choice can capture your mood, your personality, or your aspirations.

My choice was the Rosemary Pear Martini – I liked the sound of it: herbal, light, sweet, clear. I've been trying to be more sweet and clear myself, lately, and while the pear is not my favorite fruit, in combination with the rosemary it sounded more interesting that plain pear. Oh, it was delicious! So delicious, that the next evening I did something I rarely bother to do. I tried to recreate it.

In such endeavors, it helps to be the kind of person who has a bundle of rosemary in the fridge and a half-empty bottle of pear cognac in the cupboard.

First I made some rosemary syrup: a simple syrup with some sprigs of rosemary thrown in. I used 1 cup water, 1 cup white sugar, two long sprigs of rosemary - boiled it all together until the sugar dissolved and the syrup took on a pale green color. It makes about a cup of syrup, which may seem like too much...but I bet it would also be good in a gin fizz, and in green iced tea.

In a shaker with ice combine:
pear liqueur or pear cognac
rosemary simple syrup
lemon juice and strip of zest

I tried the proportions of two parts vodka to one part pear to 1/2 part syrup, 1/2 part lemon juice. But I think it needs more pear, actually. And I would leave the syrup and lemon juice at equal amounts.