15 June 2008

From my Dad's Binder


Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he'd call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house.

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?

-Robert Hayden

More on my father and his "austere offices" later on today.

13 June 2008

I Knew I Was Smarter than the People Scoring My Tests

I was told recently that college admissions policies are moving away from standardized testing, a move I understand and approve of, but would not have served me well personally as I was always a good test-taker. (For all the good, ultimately, that it did me.)

I had assumed it was because tests paint an incomplete picture of a student's potential, but maybe it's just because they are so darn hard to score...

The Drunks, Dingbats, and Dilettantes Who Write and Score America's Standardized Tests

That's some good Friday morning reading!

09 June 2008

from Falling in Love is Like Owning a Dog

Over the weekend, my brother-in-law was married to my lovely new sister-in-law in a Quaker ceremony. The ceremony included a period wherein those assembled were invited to rise and speak to the couple.

My oldest son "screwed his courage to the sticking place" and leapt onto his chair to recite a poem we had discovered recently; many of those present have asked for a copy of this poem, and we like it so much I thought I'd post it here as well.


by Taylor Mali

First of all, it's a big responsibility,
especially in a city like New York.
So, think long and hard before deciding on love.
On the other hand, love gives you a sense of security:
when you're walking down the street late at night
and you have a leash on love
ain't no one going to mess with you.

Love doesn't like being left alone for long.
But come home and love is always happy to see you.
It may break a few things accidentally in its passion for life,
but you can never be mad at love for long.

Is love good all the time? No! No!
Love can be bad. Bad, love, bad! Very bad love.

Sometimes love just wants to go for a nice long walk.
It runs you around the block and leaves you panting.
It pulls you in several different directions at once,
or winds around and around you
until you're all wound up and can't move.

But love makes you meet people wherever you go.
People who have nothing in common but love
stop and talk to each other on the street.

Throw things away and love will bring them back,
again, and again, and again.
But most of all, love needs love, lots of it.
And in return, love loves you and never stops.

We found this poem in Caroline Kennedy's A Family of Poems: My Favorite Poetry for Young Children, a truly fabulous collection illustrated by the ethereal watercolors of Jon J. Muth.

I cannot say enough good things about Muth's artwork; in fact, I think I'm going to have to dedicate a separate post to it. For now, suffice it to say that this volume of poetry is an absolute must-have for any household with children in it.

28 May 2008

On Writing

Writing is easy; all you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead.
-Gene Fowler

There is something pleasurable in calm remembrance of past sorrow.

Literature: proclaiming in front of everyone what one is careful to conceal from one's immediate circle.
-Jean Rostand

A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.
-Thomas Mann

Having imagination, it takes you an hour to write a paragraph that, if you were unimaginative, would take you only a minute. Or you might not write the paragraph at all.
-Franklin P. Adams

Talking about oneself can also be a means to conceal oneself.
-Friedrich Nietzsche

Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of art.
-Oscar Wilde

No artist is pleased...
There is only a queer satisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.
-Martha Graham

(from Oxymoronica: Paradoxical Wit & Wisdom From History's Greatest Wordsmiths by Mardy Grothe)

22 May 2008

I am Crazy Busy All of a Sudden and For No Good Reason

but I have time to share another gem my father left behind.


I have this large tattoo on my chest. It is like a dream I have when I am awake. I see it in the mirror as I shave and brush my teeth, or when I change my shirt or make love. What can I do? I can't remember where I got the tattoo. When in the past did I live such a life? And the price of having such a large tattoo removed must be completely beyond reason. Still, the workmanship of the drawing is excellent, a landscape 8x10 inches in full color, showing cattle going downhill into a small western town. A young man, who might have been my great-grandfather, dressed as a cowboy and holding a rifle, stands at the top of the hill and points down toward the town. The caption beneath the picture reads:
"Gosh, I didn't know we were this far west"

-Louis Jenkins

I don't know who this Louis Jenkins chap is, but my father seemingly went through a Jenkins phase; the man is well represented in the binder. I may have to do some digging, read up a bit on him. 'Cause, you know, I haven't anything to read.

Beach Reads

Memorial Day weekend- going to the beach! (I have to admit to a sort of sick curiosity- How much is this going to cost me in gas? To that end, I filled my tank tonight for an accurate reading.) I am expecting that, as always, we will be sitting for some time in traffic. Lucky me, my husband can't stand to be in the car while I'm driving, time to break out a book!

What's a girl to read?

Quick Peek into my bag:

A Wolf at the Table by Augusten Burroughs: A memoir about Alec Baldwin. I mean, about Augustens's father. I can't wait for this one.

Skeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian, who also wrote The Double Bind, a book I read in one sitting because I couldn't bear to put it down. Yummy yummy.

Finally, finishing up Henry David Thoreau's Walden. Sadly, I will be toting an old paperback copy, as my time is up on the lovely 150th Anniversery edition; it goes back to the library tomorrow. This book is taking me forever because I have been mining for quotes; good God, every other paragraph contains something stunning. I am exhausted by his greatness.

There you have it- a book a day. Add sunshine, ocean waves, and the Great American Bake Sale: that's a recipe for a damn good time.

Best Title Ever

This gets bumped pretty far up on the "to read" list by virtue of its glorious title alone.
The less adventurous can read more about it.

20 May 2008

Jeff's 15 Minutes of Fame

Originally uploaded by robin&company

See the big picture? See the guy over on the left, nearly cropped out entirely? See his big honkin' headphones?

Reader, I married him.

Yes, I know, what a lucky lady am I. He was in the paper. In the Crossroads section. And he was a super cool high schol DJ.

I'm sorry, babe. Not that you would be caught dead reading my blog anyway, but dang, it's funny that this picture was floating around in cyberspace, waiting patiently to embarass you.

Two Tidbits that Made My Tuesday

From today's Huffington Post:

    NEWTON, Mass. — Pulitzer Prize winning author David McCullough has a suggestion for what young people can do for their country.

    "Please, please do what you can to cure the verbal virus that seems increasingly rampant among your generation," McCullough implored Boston College's class of 2008 at commencement ceremonies Monday.

    He said he's particularly troubled by the "relentless, wearisome use of words" such as like, awesome and actually.

    "Just imagine if in his inaugural address John F. Kennedy had said, 'Ask not what your country can, you know, do for you, but what you can, like, do for your country actually," he said.

    Graduates apparently thought his speech was, like, awesome. They gave him a standing ovation.

    AND I learned that the new David Sedaris book, When You Are Engulfed in Flames, will be released on June 3rd. That's only two weeks away!

    I already have some awesome (sorry, Mr. McCollough) books in my reserve pile at the library to read at the beach this weekend; what an incredible way to start the summer!

    19 May 2008

    Throw Yourself Like Seed

    Suddenly, bizarrely, I find that people are reading the things I write, that I am no longer screaming into the void, holding conversations with myself. How strange! I feel hesitant, somehow this affirmation makes me afraid; my confidence falters, my voice trembles.

    Again to my father's binder. What strength can I find there today?


    Shake off this sadness, and recover your spirit;
    sluggish you will never see the wheel of fate
    that brushes your heel as it turns going by,
    the man who wants to live is the man in whom life is abundant

    Now you are only giving food to that final pain
    which is slowly winding you in the nets of death,
    but to live is to work, and the only thing that lasts
    is the work; start then, turn to the work.

    Throw yourself like seed as you walk, and into your own field,
    don't turn your face for that would be to turn it to death,
    and do not let the past weigh down your motion.

    Leave what's alive in the furrow, what's dead in yourself,
    for life does not move in the same way as a group of clouds;
    from your work you will be able one day to gather yourself.

    Miguel de Unamuno

    18 May 2008

    Oxymoronica by Dr. Mardy Grothe

    Oxymoronica: Paradoxical Wit & Wisdom From History's Greatest Wordsmiths, is quite possibly the most fun in book form that I've had all year.
    Oxymoronica is a term created by the author, combining:

    Erotica. Literature or art that is intended to arouse sexual desire.
    Exotica. Things that are curiously unusual or excitingly strange.

    with the word oxymoron:

    In ancient Greek oxus means "sharp or pointed" and moros means "dull, stupid, or foolish." So oxymoron is itself an oxymoron, literally meaning " a sharp dullness" or "pointed foolishness."....The best examples of oxymoronica don't contain a simple contradiction in terms; they contain what might be described as a contradiction of ideas.

    I'm sorry, but if you did not find that passage extremely sexy, perhaps this is not the blog for you. To me, the proclaimed uber-booknerd, lover of the clever turn of phrase, this book borders on word porn. (I so hope that last sentence does not provoke all sorts of vulgar Google ads. Please tell me if it did.)

    Like my beloved Thoreau, Dr. Grothe has written a book to be savored in small bites, so I'm just offered up an appetizer tray of quotes this morning. Bon appetit!

    Architecture is frozen music.

    Tragedy is if I cut my finger.
    Comedy is if I walk into an open sewer and die.

    -Mel Brooks

    We think about sex obsessively except during the act,
    when our minds tend to wander
    -Howard Nemerov

    Criticism is always a kind of compliment.
    -John Maddox

    Loneliness is now so widespread it has become, paradoxically, a shared experience.
    -Alvin Toffler

    There will come a time when you believe everything is finished.
    That will be the beginning.
    -Louis L'Amour

    16 May 2008

    Henry David Thoreau's Walden

    I am still wending my way, slowly, deliciously, through Walden.

    I so fervently wish that, like Thoreau, I could go off and stake out a piece of land, cut my own lumber to build my own cozy little abode. I will have to be content with slinging Jeff's machete to take down the vines squeezing the life out of my trees. Except I'm not allowed to play with the machete. Or the axe.

    My favorite part, as a child, was how he tallied up the costs of building his house on the land he claimed "by squatter's right":

    Boards.............................................$8.03, mostly shanty boards.
    Refuse shingles for roof and sides 4.00
    Two second-hand windows
    with glass.................................2.43
    One thousand old brick..................4.00
    Two casks of lime............................2.40 That was high.
    Hair....................................................0.31 More than I needed.
    Mantle-tree iron..............................0.15
    Hinges and screws...........................0.14
    I carried a good part on my back.

    In all......................................$28.12 1/2

    It was with particular delight that I encountered this passage again. It was just as I remembered it; for some reason that doesn't happen a lot when I reread childhood favorites. The telling is shifted and changed in my memory, by time and circumstance.

    Anyway, the boards were recycled from a shanty that Thoreau buys for $4.25, after a particularly pretty recounting of his experience hewing and mortising the main timbers (no, I don't know what that means, but it sounds manly). He reflects that

    "They were pleasant spring days, in which the winter of man's discontent was thawing as well as the earth, and the life that had lain torpid began to stretch itself."

    He sees a snake "run into the water" and lay there for a long period of time, because it had yet to leave the torpid state. He muses,

    "It appeared to me that for a like reason men remain in their present low and primitive condition; but if they should feel the influence of the spring of springs arousing them, they would of necessity ride to a higher and more ethereal life."
    In the next paragraph, he describes the shanty he is about to purchase from James Collins;

    "James Collins' shanty was considered to be an uncommonly fine one....The roof was the soundest part, a good deal warped and made brittle by the sun. Doorsill there was none, but a perennial passage for the hens under the door-board...It was dark, and had a dirt floor for the most part, dank, clammy, and aguish."
    Ah, yes, it does sound uncommonly fine.

    So here we have a man who is obsessive, frugal, preachy; recycles; uses his communing with nature to inform his poetic musings on the nature of man; and then, in the next paragraph, gives a snarky description of another man's home.

    I am so in love with Henry David Thoreau.

    The edition that I have borrowed from the library (and sadly, will soon have to return) is the 150th (!) Anniversary edition, an oversized hardback with lush photography of present-day Walden Pond. It is the sleek black Jaguar XK edition of this book. It is beautiful.

    As much as I covet Amazon's Kindle and its ability to fit 200 books into its seven-and-a-half inch body, its search feature- oh, how I long for the search feature- there is no way it can compare to the experience of supporting the heft of this book, and turning its crisp, smooth pages.

    I just flicked over to Amazon to grab the code for the Kindle link, and read through all the features, and now I really really want the Kindle.

    Thankfully, I have my lovely stoic Henry David Thoreau to stay my hand. He reminds me that putting $399 on my credit card, plus the cost of uploading books thereafter, is a loser's proposition. After all,

    "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation...
    But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things."

    Buying things on credit is never the solution. Debt is slavery;

    "Always promising to pay, promising to pay, tomorrow,
    and dying today."

    Yes, Henry David. I am calmer now.
    I am so lucky to have you here, at my bedside, for another twelve days. So glad to

    "follow the bent of [your] genius,
    which is a very crooked one..."

    A humble house I found in the woods. Wonder who resides within?

    Book Review: Sink Reflections by Marla Cilley

    I have been focusing on the greening of cleaning over at my family blog this week; indeed, cleaning house has very much been a prominent topic in my mind for some time now.

    I think in some ways it was the emergence of Spring and the change in attitude that comes with that; the quickening of the spirit, the surge in energy, the need to throw open the windows and see sheer white curtains billow, to let the sunshine in.

    Of course, that sunshine then illuminates the dirt, the clutter; and one is inspired to clean, to free up one's space, within and without; to begin anew.

    However, if I am being honest about the true source of my newfound passion for keeping clean and tidy, I would be remiss if I did not credit Ellen at Everyday Crafty Goodness for introducing me to the phenomenon that is the Flylady.

    The Flylady is, in her own words, part cheerleader and part drill sergeant, and she is on a mission to save us from our own clutter, a condition she calls CHAOS: Can't Have Anyone Over Syndrome. This refers to the fly-off-the-handle crisis cleaning we do when visitors are unexpectedly on their way. I think we've all been there.

    Her website is a treasure trove of inspiration and motivation, but for me, the most important service the Flylady supplies is an option to receive daily emails, reminding you to declutter, to plan out your meals, to do zone cleanings. It provides the little extra push I need to do all the little things I have been meaning to do.

    And yay, Marla Cilley (aka Flylady) has written a book titled Sink Reflections, gathering all her optimism and advice in one brightly colored pink paperback. Let's start with the title.

    The Flylady's first task for you is to shine your sink. Physically scrub the bejesus out of your kitchen sink and then buff it up to a high shine. Why? She wants it to be your beacon of clean and shiny hope, to start you off on your way.
    "When you get up [in the] morning, your sink will greet you and a smile will come across your lovely face. I can't be there to give you a big hug,but I know how good it feels to see yourself reflected in your kitchen sink. So each morning this is my gift to you."

    Yes, it is a little corny. She is like a very affectionate aunt. And at first the notion of shining your sink seems silly. But eventually I was worn down by her enthusiastic admonitions by email, and I went and shined my sink. And, yes, it felt darn good. And it made the whole kitchen look cleaner.

    Here it is today:


    Step two is to get dressed to lace-up shoes. Again, this seems nonsensical. I am an at-home mom, I bake a lot, I garden. I am a filthy mess at the end of the day. Why should I get dressed?

    I'll tell you why. If the UPS man drops off a package, or if some guy runs out of gas and knocks on my door, I'm not embarrassed by what a sight I am. If I suddenly need to leave the house, I can leave right away. And most importantly, because getting dressed to shoes makes me feel better about myself, and ready for the day.

    Step three is a before bed ritual: pick out your clothes for tomorrow, and get a good night's rest. The Flylady scores again: My tomorrow morning goes a lot more smoothly when I follow this step. (It helps that the Flylady reminds me to turn off the computer and go to bed each night. )

    The Flylady program starts with the premise that we have become paralyzed by our need for perfection, that the knowledge that the mess in our houses is so immense that we don't know where to begin.

    "This mess is so big
    and so deep and so tall,
    We can not pick it up.
    There is no way at all!"

    -Dr. Seuss
    "The Cat in the Hat"

    Well, she 's going to tell us where to begin. Enter the"Babysteps", a progression of daily habits that enable you to take control of your life. Steps one through three I have covered above. After you've internalized these, you are ordered to start digging your way out of your clutter, through a series of "27 item flings", "5 minute room rescues", and 15 minute decluttering sessions. (A chirpy reminder that "You can do anything for 15 minutes!" often greets me when I check my Inbox.)

    After the clutter is under control, the Flylady has a system of zone cleaning that ensures that every part of your house will undergo a seriously thorough cleaning at least once a month, and a more general surface cleaning once a week. Everything is broken up into quick tasks that take fifteen minutes at most, so you are never overwhelmed.

    It seems like voodoo magic, but it works. It just takes commitment, and time. The emails definitely help keep you going, as do mantras like:

    • "Your house did not get messy in a day, and it won't get clean in a day either."

    • "Stop whining cold turkey."

    • "Your dryer is not a laundry basket."

    • "You can't change anyone but you."

    • "Set the example in love and quit being a martyr."

    When I started receiving the emails, I would open and read and delete them. I don't even know why I signed up, initially. Then one Monday morning, the Flylady asked me to wash out my bathroom trash can. I deleted the email. But then I felt bad. She's so nice, she's so positive, she has dedicated her life to trying to help people be comfortable in their own homes. How long could it really take to wash out my bathroom trash can? The thought rankled the back of my brain all day. Finally I heaved myself up and washed out the damn bathroom trash can. And man, it was dirty. It's funny how you don't notice those details because you see them every day, and it just becomes white noise. But just like the kitchen sink, it made the whole room look better. The Flylady is good for that.

    Unless you are some sort of weird Martha Stewart drone, I am going to hazard a guess that you don't get everything done, all the time. Marla Cilley is like a very helpful neighbor. She is a little over the top, but I am willing to overlook that, because her program really does work. Don't believe me? Go shine your sink, and see how much better you feel.

    14 May 2008

    Honey, I Have a Headache

    We experienced this thing I like to call rain on Monday, which knocked out our power, and I was held hostage by my three year old daughter. After scrubbing "washable" marker off 98% of her surface area, I read so many Little Critter books that I should be considered for sainthood.

    I am blaming Mercer Mayer and his Little Critter for the crippling headache I have suffered for the past 48 hours. It comes and goes, but definitely staring at the computer screen is not helpful. So, in my virtual absense, I am directing you to a little game I like to play.

    It's called the Literature Map- the "tourist map of literature". Basically you enter the name of an author and it maps out similar authors.

    It's the bees' knees of booknerd cartography. Have fun.

    11 May 2008

    Happy Mother's Day, Mom

    This was my mother, sometime in the early 1970s, in her native Vietnam. She was about 36 years old- she was always sketchy about her age, but also proud of being "so old" (and not looking it).

    They don't celebrate birthdays, apparently, in Vietnam as we do here; nor is age such an important part of one's identity. Simply put, there are the young and the old; the young are to be envied, and the old to be respected.

    Marriage, in Vietnam at that time, was also not as we find it here in the US of A. If a man showed his preference for you, and you lived together, you were considered married. Marriage was not a legal state, as it is here.

    My mother found herself married at a reasonably young age and bore three children. Her only daughter died young, of cancer.

    Her husband left her. I do not know the reason. I do know that this left her in a state of disgrace in her village, a mother without a husband. She was shamed into leaving her children with her sister, who was respectably married, so that they would grow up in a proper family. She was told to go and work in the city, to pay for the upbringing of these two remaining children, my half-brothers.

    Somewhere around this point on the timeline, my mother met my father, stationed in Saigon. I know nothing of their courtship. I know that my mother thought my father was "so handsome". I remember my father saying that when he first saw my mother, she was wielding a machete. The place? The year? The circumstance?

    I don't know. It is so frustrating.

    I know that my father pledged that he would bring her to this country and they would be married here. What was that like for her, the waiting? Did she trust in his word? Did she continually hope? I would have guessed that she would have little trust in men, or their promises.

    My father returned to this country to find all his belongings gone, sold, and no room for him in his mother's and stepfather's house. Somehow he found a place to stay, a job. He saved money for some amount of time- again, the anger of not knowing how long- and secured the papers needed to bring my mother here. She boarded a plane, missed her connection in Los Angeles- what happened then? What was that like, to be in such an alien place, speaking virtually none of the language? How did she get to the East Coast?

    Somehow, she did.

    Somehow, this woman survived in a culture of fear, of violence, of war. She saw things, as a child, that no one should ever have to see. Never. I really don't even like to think about it. But the images are horrific and vivid; they skitter on the periphery of my memory, along with the strange, blank tone of voice that she would use when speaking of them.

    She was so proud of her third-grade education; no other girl in her village made it so far in school. She was the smart one.

    When there was nothing to eat, she swam across the river and stole two fish from the village there, swimming back with the fish balanced precariously on her head. She was brave and wild.

    She put her faith and trust in a young American- barely more than a boy, more than a decade younger than herself- and travelled here, alone, to a land of peace and freedom, half a world away.

    I don't know that she found freedom or peace here. Where she was once imprisoned by violence and gender bias, she know found herself shunned for her ethnicity, her lack of education, her heavy accent.

    She had not understood how far America was, had not known just how big the world was, had not realized that she would not be able to ever see her family, her children that she had left behind. She lived in a constant state of guilt and worry.

    My father worked long hours at multiple jobs. She had few friends. She was often alone.

    Then I was born, and nearly seven years later, my brother. We misunderstood her, were embarassed by her. We did not see how fortunate we were, in comparison to her other children. I think she was often angered by that.

    She was not perfect. Growing up where she did, when she did, a culture and a time so vastly different to my own, she had issues and neuroses I can't even begin to tease out or understand. She had a hot temper. She was prone to violent outbursts. She was incredibly fearful and overprotective. She understood our problems and issues and hopes as little as we understood hers.

    Guess what- turns out I am not perfect either. Hopefully this is a fatal flaw that my children will overlook in me.

    "Endeavor to be patient in bearing the defects and infirmities of others, of what sort soever they be; for thou thyself also hast many failings which must be borne with by others."
    -Thomas A Kempis

    I wish that I had asked more questions.

    I wish that I had said some things, and left other things unsaid.

    I wish you could be here, that my children could remember you, that you could see how special they are.

    So much of who I am, I am because of you. The good and the bad.

    Happy Mother's Day, Mom. I miss you.

    09 May 2008

    Book Review of sorts: What Color is Your Parachute?

    First, a little background: why I would choose to read Richard Nelson Bolles' What Color is Your Parachute? when I'm not actively looking for a job?
    • I am 31 years old;

    • I have no college degree;

    • I have not held a real job in over a decade ( I am choosing not to count babysitting, occasional tailoring, helping out at the tux store, or "housewife")

    • My last real job was a photography shop, where I learned all sorts of useful things that have been rendered nearly, if not completely, obsolete by the takeover of digital;

    • Therefore I have no truly marketable skills.

    I have two more years before my youngest will be in school full-time, and at that point I will need to go full-time as well. What can I do to make myself more hireable before then? What am I good at? And given the choice, what sort of job should I look for?

    What Color is My Parachute? delves into these questions and gives solid, concrete guidelines for searching for a job. It outlines ways to ferret out what skills you have, what skills you like to use (and where those two distinctions overlap), how to stand out in a crowd of resumes, the etiquette of job interviews. It stresses the importance of looking for the job that fits your life, even if you have to find a job "for now" to cover your bills. In fact, this book is so useful for your day-to-day pounding the pavement how-tos of the job hunt, that it proved to be less practical for my needs, which are more hypothetical. Definitely I will refer to this book when I have a start date looming in the near future, and I highly recommend it for anyone looking for a job, or considering a career change. That's hardly new advice, of course; that's how it wound up in my hands. However, since I can't apply many of the applications to my current situation, I can't give any sort of "it worked for me" testimonial.

    What I can do is offer up the part of the book that lingered in mind days and weeks after reading it, so much so that I took the time to copy it down (hopefully accurately). It carries a distinct Christian flavor, which I'm not sure about, but the philosophy is sound.

    What stuck with me was the concept that we should all be seeking out our Mission in life, and perform it with enthusiasm. Bolles points out that the word enthusiasm has its roots in the Greek entheos, which translates as "God in us". Mission is defined in our trusty Webster's dictionary as "a continuing task or responsiblity that one is destined or fitted to do or specially called on to undertake".

    Bolles then goes on to clarify:

    Your first mission here on Earth is one which you share with the rest of the human race, but it is no less your individual Mission for the fact that it is shared: and it is, to seek to stand hour by hour in the conscious presence of God, the One from whom your Mission is derived. The Missioner before the Mission.

    Second, once you have begun doing that in an earnest way, your second Mission here on Earth is also one which you share with the rest of the human race, but it is no less your individual Mission for the fact that it is shared: and it is, to do what you can, moment by moment, day by day, step by step, to make this world a better place...

    Third, once you have begun doing that in a serious way, your third Mission here on Earth is one that is uniquely yours, and that is:

    a) to exercise that Talent which you particularly came to Earth to use- your greatest gift, which you most delight to use,

    b) in the place(s) or setting(s) which God has caused to appeal to you the most,

    c) and for those purposes which God most needs to have done in the world.

    Tweak the word "God" as needed to suit your views.

    Am I living out my Mission in the job I hold now, as wife and mother and human being? I try.
    • I try to find time every day to find beauty in the world, to find good in people, and to share these things with others.

    • I try to only perform actions that are consistent with my beliefs.

    • I try to use my influence as a mother to shape my children's ideals and morals, because they will fall back on these in adulthood.

    • I try to step back to allow them to form their own molds, not just conform to mine.

    For now, this is my most important work, helping my kids develop into the adults they will become, so that they can exert their own influence and help improve this world we share. What work will I find when all my kids are in school, and they rely less on my guidance?

    I don't know. I don't know. For now, if it's OK with you, I'm focusing on today.

    I know that many people feel that I am spoiled, that most people don't have that luxury, to focus on today. I don't know that it's a luxury. More and more, I think that maybe it's a necessity.

    We know nothing of tomorrow;
    our business is to be good and happy today.
    -Samuel Taylor Coleridge

    06 May 2008

    It was a Dark and Stormy Night: Best of the Worst

    "The most wasted of days is that in which one has not laughed."
    -Sebastian Chamfort

    I did not get much reading done these past few days, what with Zooey and all. Mostly I flicked through magazines, the literary equivalent of fast food.

    Today is a gorgeous day, 72 degrees by noontime, and I am not about to waste it; I'll spend the afternoon taking pictures and weeding the vegetable plot.

    But for now, I could use a good laugh. And when I need a good laugh, I turn to the winners of the annual Bulwer-Lytton fiction contest: in which awards are given to the very worst opening sentences for novels thankfully unwritten.

    So, without further ado! My favorite winners of 2007:

    Danny, the little Grizzly cub, frolicked in the tall grass on this sunny Spring morning, his mother keeping a watchful eye as she chewed on a piece of a hiker they had encountered the day before.
    Dave McKenzie
    Federal Way, WA

    She'd been strangled with a rosary-not a run-of-the-mill rosary like you might get at a Catholic bookstore where Hail Marys are two for a quarter and indulgences are included on the back flap of the May issue of "Nuns and Roses" magazine, but a fancy heirloom rosary with pearls, rubies, and a solid gold cross, a rosary with attitude, the kind of rosary that said, "Get your Jehovah's Witness butt off my front porch."
    Mark Schweizer
    Hopkinsville, KY

    Samson looked in the mirror and, when he saw what a fantastic haircut Delilah had given him, he went weak at the knees.
    Neil Prowd
    Charnwood, ACT, Australia

    Professor Radzinsky wove his fingers together in a tweed-like fabric, pinched his lips together like a blowfish, and began his lecture on simile and metaphor, which are, like, similar to one another, except that similes are almost always preceded by the word 'like' while metaphors are more like words that make you think of something else beside what you are describing.
    Wayne McCoy
    Gainesville Fl

    The tension was so thick you could cut it with a knife, not even a sharp knife, but a dull one from that set of cheap knives you received as a wedding gift in a faux wooden block; the one you told yourself you'd replace, but in the end, forgot about because your husband ran off with another man, that kind of knife.
    Lisa Lindquist
    Jackson, MI

    She had curves that just wouldn't quit, like on one of those car commercials where a stunt driver slides a sexy new sports car around hairpin turn after hairpin turn while some poor musician, down on his luck and having been forced to sell out his dream of superstardom for a lousy 30-second ad jingle, sings "Zoom, zoom, zoom" in the background.
    Amber Dubois
    Denver, CO

    Her hair was the color of old copper, not green with white streaks like you see on roofs and statues where birds have been messing, but the kind you find on dark pennies from back in the nineteen-forties or fifties after God knows how many thumbs have been rubbing Abe Lincoln's beard.
    Michael A. Cowell
    Norwalk, CA

    There was a pregnant pause-- as pregnant as Judith had just told Darren she was (about seven and a half weeks along), which was why there was a pause in the first place.
    Tracy Stapp
    Santa Ana, CA

    What a pity Dave was too young to have seen "2001: A Space Odyssey," for he might have been able to predict what would happen next, when the ape standing next to the big black slab picked up the tapir bone.
    Ann Medlock
    Lenah Valley, TAS, Australia

    "So that was your Earth emotion 'love'," gasped Zyxwlyxgwr Noopar, third in line to the holo-throne of S-6, as he hosed down his trunk and removed the shallots.
    Mike Bollen
    Brighton, UK

    Racing through space at unimaginable speeds, Capt. Dimwell could only imagine how fast his spaceship was going.
    Gary Smith
    Florissant, CO

    I was in a back alley in Fiji, fighting desperately and silently for my life, fighting desperately for oxygen, clawing at the calm and almost gentle pressure of the fabric held over my face by implacable, ebony thighs when I realized -- he was killing me softly with his sarong.
    Karl Scott
    Brisbane, Australia

    Morty, a dedicated track and field athlete, was disqualified and charged with animal cruelty after giving Viagra to his 20-foot boa constrictor and using the snake to pole vault.
    JL Strickland
    Valley, AL

    His hat fit his head as snugly as a manhole cover does the thing it fits into.
    Steve McAllister
    Austin, TX

    Miles Otterman thought he could get away with carving his initials on the old oak tree in the town square - and he just might have if Sheriff Mitchell hadn't recognized his MO.
    Terry Drapes
    Taipa, Macau

    If you think that the resemblance between the characters in this book and any person living or dead is only coincidental, you're just not trying hard enough.
    Janina Eggensperger
    Conway, AR

    Everything about Randy proclaimed him to be a man's man, though neither in the sense of being the kind of man women are drawn to and men want to be nor in the homosexual sense, rather, in the sense of being a highly efficient and well-compensated valet.
    Barbara Lauriat
    Oxford, England

    Jake entered the small suburban bank, his face as cold and frozen as Theodore Roosevelt's on Mount Rushmore while at the same time his sweaty hands clenched and unclenched nervously in his pockets like one of those fast motion movies of flowers blooming and dying, to open a savings account.
    Frank Leggett
    Sydney, NSW, Australia

    With "Bambi" eyes and an angelic face made for singing "The hills are alive" while traipsing across an Alpine meadow, Heidi Weissbrot seemed as pure as driven snow to older folks around Peach Blossom, but among boys her own age, there was a nasty rumor that her purity was more akin to snow driven to the river in dump trucks after being scraped from roads and parking lots.
    Tom Rohde
    Minneapolis, MN

    The crater of the volcano glowed red against the black sky, looking as if God had taken a drag of His cigar - if He smoked - which of course, He didn't.
    Wendy Spoelstra
    Hamilton, Ontario, Canada

    John lay in the morning dew next to his sleeping love as the pink hues of the sun rose over the rolling hills, illuminating a tender scene where for the first time satisfaction had come for a happy couple, who had fought all manner of obstacles to come to this one glorious moment, defiant in the face of Montana's repressive bestiality laws.
    Dan Stuart
    Burlington, VT

    Dane worked the Spyrograph furiously, first red, then green, then red again, and finally blue; the pattern he sought was in there somewhere, and the correct combination would open the doors to a euphoria only known to dogs getting their stomachs scratched and parakeets viewing themselves in the mirror.
    Matthew Warnock
    Elgin, IL

    "I'll have a pack of cigarettes please, no, Marlboro 100's . . . lights please, in a box, yeah, no, wait, give me a soft pack, no, not those, the ones right above them, no, no, right next to those, yeah, wait, make it two packs, no wait, how much are they . . . no, one pack will do me, and a lighter please, no the other one, yeah, that one will be fine," he said quickly.
    Shane Spears
    Blytheville, AR

    Happy Day! A new round of opening lines were submitted by an April 15th deadline, so soon I'll be able to showcase the 2008 Best of the Worst".

    Also: this means I have over 11 months to write up my own submissions. Go me in 2009!

    A Quick Word of Thanks

    Thank you to everyone who took time to email me or post a comment for Zooey yesterday. It meant a lot to me.

    05 May 2008

    Life After Zooey

    This morning I was not awakened by a wet nose nudging my hand or hot rancid breath in my face. Instead, the harsh beep-beep-beep of my husband's alarm.

    I opened the kitchen door to let the cat in, but no shaggy black-and-grey dog went out.

    No one kept me company or kept my feet warm while I packed lunches.

    There was no one to give the last of my daughter's cereal to. I had to throw it out.

    I did not bother locking the pantry door; no one was going to stick his nose in a cereal box.

    When I returned from the bus stop, the front door opened freely. There was no hundred pound bulk laying behind it, ensuring that he would be alerted when I returned.

    All my routines lie in disarray. I miss my dog. My companion of thirteen years, who knew me before I was a wife and a mother, who loved me without condition and in spite of all my faults, mistakes, shortcomings and fits of pique, who was such a part of my day to day life that every stupid little action feels incomplete somehow.

    He was a Good Dog.

    He didn't start out that way. He had a talent for sniffing out things that were new, and utterly, completely destroying them. He was especially good at finding things that were expensive, or had emotional value. Once he ate a wallet containing eighty dollars. And no food item was safe unless locked up in an airtight container, six feet off the ground.

    We had a screen door that was slow to swing shut, and every time someone entered the house, voices would ring out, "Close the door!!!" but it was too late, a streak of black would have charged through the open opportunity and he would run, run, run, in a straight line, gloriously free, an entourage of huffing teenage smokers in his wake, struggling to catch up.

    He would wait until there was only one book of matches left, in a household of chainsmokers after 7-11 had closed for the night, and then steal it with glee; waiting until you were close, so close, then show you the matches between his teeth before running past, up the stairs, down the stairs, loving the chase, basking in the attention...

    As a pup, at our old house in the city, he would run up to greet the local kids as they walked home from the bus stop. Then he grew to be a gangly giant of a dog, but not understanding the game had changed, he would continue to run up to the gate, barking joyfully. The new crop of kids, not having known the puppy, instead seeing this black beast hurtling towards them, barking furiously, would scream and run past. Zoo thought it was the best fun.

    When his water bowl would run dry, he would pick it up and carry it to where you were, drop it at your feet. If you did not fill it right away, he would think you were being particularly obtuse, picking it up again and throwing it down for emphasis, then dramatically licking the empty bowl. "Look," his raised eyebrows would say, "I'm trying to drink water and nothing's happening. 'Cause it's empty." And as soon as you would get up to fill it, he'd snatch it up and walk off with it, just to be a pain. He did that right up to the end.

    As he grew older, his penchant for drama grew as well. If I stayed up later than usual, engrossed in a book or a movie, he would heave himself up with an exaggerated sigh. He would try to nudge me up, and failing to elicit a response, he would walk to the doorway, glancing over his shoulder, and harumph loudly, not willing to retire to bed quietly, letting me know that he was disgusted with my careless and disrespectful ways.

    If I stayed out of the house for longer than he was accustomed to, he would trot out to the kitchen and somehow finagle the bread from its "secure" position atop the toaster. He would bring it out to the living room and eat a hole through the plastic bag, but leave the bread untouched. When I opened the front door, pushing hard against his bulk, asleep on the other side, he would get up and look at me reproachfully. "Woman, look what you made me do. I had to find emergency provisions in case you never returned."

    As the years passed, he grew slower and slower. No more wild runs for the hills. Stairs were taken carefully and only if no other option was available. Once content to allow the children to ride on his back, he would now only let them sit for a moment or two before gently flicking them off and rolling quickly onto his side to discourage any attempts at remount.

    He loved to give hugs and kisses, although in his latest years we accepted these hugs and kisses less, squealing and turning away, for he was stinky and gross.

    We loved him in spite of his excema, his dreadlocked lion's mane of hair, his foul breath, his horrible flatulence, his warts and lumps, his grumpy and curmudgeonly demeanor.

    He was a Good Dog.

    Friday afternoon he tried to get up after a long nap and could not. His legs simply did not want to cooperate. Believing he was stiff from lying on the floor, I helped him out the door, but things did not improve. He managed to stumble downhill, but we had to pull him back uphill and into the house on a sled. A lifetime sufferer of Lyme Disease, he had always resented people touching his legs and feet, but this day he allowed himself to be hoisted up. He understood that he could not manage without our help.

    And we were beside ourselves with grief, knowing that this night would be our last with him. How is it that we were so ill-prepared?

    The next morning was brutal, the waiting, watching the clock tick his last minutes by, hugging him and telling him how much I would miss him, knowing his deaf ears could not hear me. He reassured us, dropping his chin onto our hands, licking our faces, before sighing and laying his head back down. His heart was weak, his breath was labored, he was tired and he had given up. But his face was still cheerful, and he did not want us to be sad.

    Those who did not know Zooey will want to mock me, for feeling such a deep chasm of sadness, for taking the time to type out a eulogy for a dog- and such an unattractive and ill-perfumed dog, at that.


    Because just saying good-bye is not enough. I need everyone to know that he was a Good Dog, he had more character and humor and personality than many people I've known, and I miss him, miss him.

    There is a dog shaped hole in my heart and I don't know how long it will take to heal. And for that I make no apology.

    If anyone has any good Zooey memories, please please share them with me by posting a comment below. Please.

    "I believe I essentially remain what I have almost always been- a narrator, but one with extremely pressing personal needs. I want to introduce, I want to describe, I want to distribute momentos, amulets, I want to break out my wallet and pass around snapshots..."

    Molly has reminded me that Zooey loved nothing better than knowing he was in the middle of things, and would deliberately stretch out in exactly the worst possible place to be. She has sent me this photo from the beach:

    Thanks, Molly.

    02 May 2008

    My Favorite Song

    If I ever build a time machine, I will be traveling to find early 20s Bob Dylan (by which I mean Bob Dylan, in his early 20s), and we will be best friends forever.

    Side piece of personal trivia: when I was younger and even more inclined to the dramatic, I mentioned helpfully to my father that I would like this song played at my funeral. To me it is the prettiest and most heart-breaking song ever. My father replied with a swift indignance that he couldn't believe I would be so cruel.

    Considering it now, I can see his point, but still: nearly two decades later, it remains my favorite song, woven into the fabric of my being.

    So maybe they can still play it, but with the caveat:

    Please do not take this personally.
    Unless you really ought to.

    01 May 2008

    May 1st is Mother Goose Day!

    Aah, Mother Goose.

    The very first book that I can recall reading all by myself, a threadbare oversize hardback, in black-and-white checkered cloth.

    Cassidy has discovered Mother Goose too; she often chooses it as one of her three bedtime books. It's quite long, of course, so I always read it last, and she is invariably lulled to sleep by the lilting rhythms, an ebbing tide of verse.

    I have to disclose, however, a little secret: Even after her breathing has become deep and even, I will continue to read, because I enjoy it; many of the rhymes are fun to chant, dancing trippingly on the tongue; and I know that my boys are yet awake, slowly tumbling into slumber, and I read for them as well. You are never too old to enjoy someone else's reading aloud in the dark, letting the words flow over you, skating seamlessly into your dreams.

    How much do you recall of your Mother Goose? I daresay you remember your Jack and Jill and your Humpty Dumpty, Little Miss Muffet and Mary with her little lamb.

    I bet you know this one, too:

    There was a little girl who had a little curl

    Right in the middle of her forehead;

    When she was good, she was very, very good,

    And when she was bad she was horrid.

    But I was surprised by all that I had forgotten.

    Mother Goose dispensed some sage advice that I think I just skimmed over as a child. Things like-

    For every evil under the sun
    There is a remedy or there is none.
    If there be one, seek till you find it;
    If there be none, never mind it.

    Then there's some that don't end quite as I had thought:

    The was an old woman who lived in a shoe,
    She had so many children she didn't know what to do;
    She gave them some broth without any bread;
    She whipped them all soundly and put them to bed

    This ditty has a twist at the end as well:

    Oranges and lemons,
    say the bells of St. Clement's.

    You owe me five fathings,
    Say the bells of St. Martin's.

    When will you pay me?
    Say the bells at Old Bailey.

    When I grow rich,
    Say the bells at Shoreditch.

    When will that be?
    Say the bells at Stepney.

    I'm sure I don't know,
    Says the great bell at Bow.

    Here comes a candle to light you to bed,
    Here comes a chopper to chop off your head.

    Some may question the merits of this seemingly subversive nonsense. I love it. My kids love it.

    This one is Cassidy's favorite right now:

    There was a crooked man,
    And he walked a crooked mile;
    He found a crooked sixpence
    Against a crooked stile;
    He bought a crooked cat,
    Which caught a crooked mouse,
    And they all lived together
    In a little crooked house.

    And this is mine:

    Goosey, goosey gander,
    Whither shall I wonder?
    Upstairs and downstairs
    And in my lady's chamber.
    There I met an old man
    Who would not say his prayers,
    I took him by the left leg and threw him down the stairs.

    These are the building blocks of a sense of rhythm and flow, an inherent sense of rhyme, and perhaps most importantly, a sense of humor.

    Not to mention, a sense of culture and continuity.

    I learned to read with Mother Goose. My mother, who immigrated to this country when she was in her thirties, learned to read English with that same Mother Goose that I did, at the same time. I bet my father, and his father, had Mother Goose read to them as young children.

    And I do my part, passing on a legacy of generations, reading it to my children, hoping that they will cherish the memory enough to hold onto this book, keep it on their shelf like an old friend, visit now and then. Until they become adults and they read it to their own children, marveling at how the mind plays tricks, how the old becomes new again.

    29 April 2008

    I am Tired of Rain

    After the glorious taste of Spring that we have been treated to, my mood has been sullied by two straight days of cold gray rain that will not be wiped away, but rather smears my windshield, forcing me to view a world that is sticky and without shape. I am as morose and sulky as a spoiled child; who, used to receiving a red lollipop every Friday as a just reward for waiting in line to deposit her father's paycheck, finds herself before the teller, and the lollipop jar empty.

    I am panicky, I do not deal well with depression, I wrap myself with words my father gathered up like autumn corn and stockpiled in his binder silo. I am self-indulgent. I turn to Rilke.

    I will be all right tomorrow.


    I am lying in my bed five flights up, and my day, which nothing interrupts, is like a clock-face without hands. As something that is lost for a long time reappears one morning in its old place, safe and sound, almost newer than when it vanished, just as if someone had been taking care of it--; so, here and there on my blanket, lost feelings out of my childhood lie and are like new. All the lost fears are here again.

    The fear that a small woolen thread sticking out of the hem of my blanket may be hard, hard and sharp as a steel needle; the fear that this little button on my night-shirt may be bigger than my head, bigger and heavier; the fear that the breadcrumb which just dropped off my bed may turn into glass, and shatter when it hits the floor, and the sickening worry that when it does, everything will be broken, for ever; the fear that the ragged edge of a letter which was torn open may be something forbidden, which no one ought to see, something indescribably precious, for which no place in the room is safe enough; the fear that if I fell asleep I might swallow the piece of coal lying in front of the stove; the fear that some number may begin to grow in my brain until there is no more room for it inside me; the fear that I may be laying on granite, on gray granite; the fear that I may start screaming, and people will come running to my door and finally force it open, the fear that I might betray myself anf tell everything I dread, and the fear that I might not be able to say anything, because everything is unsayable,--and the other fears...the fears.

    I prayed to rediscover my childhood, and it has come back, and I feel that it is just as difficult as it used to be, and that growing older has served no purpose at all.

    -Rainer Maria Rilke
    Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge

    27 April 2008

    Everybody's Free to Wear Sunscreen! (ORIGINAL VERSION)

    I don't care how uncool it is to say so, I will listen to this every so often and it will make me cry.

    22 April 2008

    15 Great Books that Turned Me Into a Dirty Hippie

    Oh, wonder!
    How many goodly creatures are there here!
    How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
    That has such people in't!
    -Mr. William Shakespeare
    A Midsummer Night's Dream

    In honor of Earth Day, my top green influences:

    It's Easy Being Green: A Handbook for Earth-Friendly Living by Crissy Trask. Good tips for making changes day-to-day, chock-full of great quotes.

    Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century by Alex Steffen. Social and environmental consciousness on a global scale.

    Living Like Ed: A Guide to the Eco-Friendly Life by Ed Begley Jr. Huh- Ed Begley Jr. is smart, funny, and worthy of my respect- who knew?

    Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver. Wonderfully written and wholly inspiring, this book totally altered the way I think about food.

    Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America's Farmers' Markets by Deborah Madison and The Art of Simple Food: Notes, Lessons, and Recipes from a Delicious Revolution by Alice Waters. Two cookbooks that help to answer the question: What am I to do, exactly, with all this kale and rainbow chard in my produce box?

    Noah's Garden: Restoring the Ecology of Our Own Backyards by Sara B. Stein. Gives us permission to cultivate a wilderness (i.e. not mow the lawn) and valuable information to back it up.

    Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv. Made me consider the role nature plays in our lives, as children and as adults; how that fits in with my ideas of spirituality and social responsibility. Also touches on the importance of real freedom in children's lives. I think this is one of my favorite books, ever.

    Organic Housekeeping: In Which the Non-Toxic Avenger Shows You How to Improve Your Health and That of Your Family, While You Save Time, Money, and, Perhaps, Your Sanity by Ellen Sandbeck helped me to overcome my chronic germophobia, and save big bucks developing my own homemade cleansers.

    Slice of Organic Life , multiple contributors. Maverick loves this book too, particularly the sections specific to poultry-raising. Ways to maintain an organic lifestyle even if your closest connection to nature is your kitchen window. Again, more of a "for beginners" book, but with such pretty pictures that it is totally worth your time.

    365 Ways to Save the Earth by Philippe Bourseiller has 365 of the best nature photos ever. You can't help but yearn to save an earth so beautiful.

    Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters from Marketers' Schemes by Sharon Lamb and Buy, Buy Baby: How Consumer Culture Manipulates Parents and Harms Young Minds by Susan Gregory Thomas got me good and mad about the ways marketers use to control my children. Now I've completely rethought what it means to shop and what my dollar supports.

    Walden: 150th Anniversary Illustrated Edition of the American Classic makes me want to build my own house with my own two hands. The incredible photography inspired me to photograph my own Walden, our little patch of wilderness, with hopes of inspiring someone else in turn.

    Finally, the book and movie that spurred me into action:

    An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What We Can Do About It by our friend Al Gore. Al reminded me that it's OK to be passionate about something, and that considering the environmental implications of my actions does not automatically mean that I have regressed to my 16-year-old self, wearing peasant skirts, smoking cloves, writing letters on behalf of PETA and sporting a Greenpeace sticker on my bookbag.

    (No, I totally quit smoking forever ago. This time around, we're all about Heifer International and Defenders of Wildlife. And really, is it my fault peasant skirts are back?)

    21 April 2008

    Week in Review

    Books dropped off at local library:

    My Life as a Furry Red Monster by Kevin Clash
    Financial Peace Planner by Dave Ramsey
    Another Thing to Fall by Laura Lippman
    Made to Stick by Chip Heath and Dan Heath
    The Road to Wealth by Suze Orman
    What Color is Your Parachute? by Richard Nelson Bolles.

    Also returned the movie I Am Legend, what a brutal waste of time this was.
    Alas, if I had left the room, I would have achieved my stated goal of a book a day.

    Luckily, I can cheat by counting all the children's books I read to Cassidy.