Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Depths

The waters have gotten rough again. Through some obscure universal law, be it karmic or cyclic, a couple boats have sprung leaks at once.

Mihiretu, who has been such a pleasure the past couple months, caught a cold a few weeks ago. Suddenly we are back in the land of the negative; mysterious crying jags ("Lala hit me!", shuddering with grief, a full five minutes after Lana bopped him on the head - understandable reaction but why the delay?), rascality turned up to eleven ("I gonna wake up Mae." "Please don't wake up Mae." "I gonna wake up Mae." "Please don't wake up Mae." "I gonna wake up Mae." "Look, Mihiretu, a matchbox car!" Car thrown at forehead), and general irrationality (3 a.m. "I wanna dog!" "Let's talk about this in the morning." "I wanna dog!" "Mihiretu, you're going to wake up your sisters." "I wanna dog NOW!!" "Huh? Mama? He wants a what? Why is it still dark out?").

His cold is gone but the behavior remains. It takes everything I have to keep my own temper in the face of the Mihiretu tornado. If I don't - and sometimes I don't - the spiral deepens. He trusts me less, he tests me more. Soon I'm looking for any avenue of escape when really what we need is positive time together. Positivity, after weeks on end of bullshit, is almost impossible to muster.

When the girls were two and three and four, they, too, cycled through periods when they were difficult and periods when they were (relatively) easy. It makes sense that Mihiretu would do this, too, and given his rough road, with more spectacular highs and lows. I know, in my head, that this will get better. My heart doesn't believe it. Though each dip he takes is more shallow, every time I'm confronted once more with his enormous hurt and need, it overwhelms me all over again.

My mother has also taken a nosedive over the last few weeks. She doesn't feel physically well, is spending too much time in bed, is swinging her cane at the caregivers in the dementia ward, is victim to all sorts of scatological issues, internal and external, seems anxious and depressed. When I visited last week, she spent the entire time scratching with her thumbnail at invisible dirt on the table, mumbling that she "needs to clean up this crap". For the first time, she didn't seem to remember me. Or maybe she was just too consumed with the crappy table to care.

Beyond the added work of trying to figure out what to do for her, seeing her this way eats at me. I, myself, have been anxious and depressed along with her. At first I didn't realize that it was rooted with my mom. I just found myself unduly worried about wrapping Christmas gifts, about making fudge and cookies with the girls, about what kind of vegetable I would serve on Christmas Eve. All this free-floating angst made me feel crazy. Made me wonder if the Wellbutrin was working after all. It wasn't until Ben and I could get a pocket of time to talk that I traced it firmly to my suffering, vacant mother. Pinpointing it, hearing from Ben that it was normal to be worried, normal to be heartsick, helped enormously. But I'm still anxious. This time about where to put the kids' newly acquired toys.

When it's December, when I'm bundled in three sweaters staring out at the rain, it's difficult to remember the pool in July, the sun on my bare legs, the kids hosting tea parties in the deep, the cascade of mommy chatter flowing over me like a river. When I had pneumonia last summer, I was, of course, dying. Likewise, when I'm depressed, there is no future, only years of darkness to endure.

There are a few tricks to stay on the raft through the rapids. Ben's presence, even if we're knee-deep in children, is comforting. To know that I have a partner in my battles, that I'm not in it alone. Exercise, be it inhaling huge gulps of cold, wet air on a run or prying my ears gently from my shoulders in yoga, or swimming lengths of the community pool, chased by phantom mothers and Mihiretus, wielding canes and matchbox cars. Writing here, taking one big step back and seeing more of the picture. Dark chocolate, preferably raw, works chemical magic. Even the sight of a stack of meaty novels on the bedside table cheers me up. And, lately, we've been downloading movies almost nightly. Last night we all watched "Big". Two nights before it was "Groundhog Day". Watching these silly old favorites, delightfully new to the kids, is soothing. I spend a couple hours in the eighties, a time when my father was alive and my mother, though often foggy with depression, at least knew I was her daughter. I sit with Lana snuggled up against me on one side and Ben on the other, Mihiretu sprawled asleep in Mae's lap. Tom Hanks dances on the giant piano keyboard at F.A.O. Schwartz, stomping out "Chopsticks" and I feel certain that we will all get downstream to where the river widens. Not today, perhaps, but soon. In the meantime, there's "Caddyshack".

Thursday, December 16, 2010


Ten years ago today, on a cold, clear morning, Ben and I were married.

We hadn't planned on having a December wedding, our original date had been for the following June, but a semi-unplanned pregnancy had, traditionalists - at least in that respect - that we were, sent us to the altar ahead of schedule. Unfortunately, I had miscarried that baby two weeks before the wedding day. Strangely, instead of being devastated, the miscarriage was freeing. I had felt co-opted, taken over as host to this foreign body, made sick and grumpy. For whatever reason, six months later, when we conceived Mae, I was fully on board and embraced every bit of the pregnancy. And of course, if we had had that baby, we wouldn't have had Mae. And what would we do without Mae?

And so, this wedding, originally planned very quickly to make room for baby, was a mash-up of fast decisions, which, in the end, was perfect. I love fast decisions. There's a lot of art, a lot of fate, in fast decisions (also, of course, a lot of grief - "I know, let's move to San Jose!").

We planned the wedding for outdoors, without any real contingencies for rain. Of course, it poured for a full week leading up to the big day. But somehow, maybe it was just the weight of my confidence, when I pulled open the blind that morning, pale winter sunlight filtered into the room.

We were married in Mill Valley, the town where we both grew up. The actual venue, the Mill Valley Outdoor Art Club, is smack in the center of town. As a teenager, I had sat in my brown and orange polyester uniform in the cashier booth of the movie theater across the street and watched brides coming and going, wondering where and when and who I would marry. Little did I know it'd be a boy I already knew, in that very garden, when I was thirty (which would have seemed outrageously old to me then).

It was a very D.I.Y. affair. Insisting on reinventing the wheel, as we've done with many wheels since, we eschewed the wedding industry and made our own invitations (our high school senior portraits side by side) and our own party favors (tiny refrigerator magnets featuring goofy photo booth specials). My dress was Ben's mothers', a polyester J.C. Penny original from 1960. Our flowers were picked up by my mother-in-law at the flower mart in San Francisco early on the wedding day and then arranged by sisters-in-law. Instead of bridesmaids and groomsmen we had a few friends and family stand during the ceremony and read poetry of their choosing. Ben's mother and my brother officiated. The ceremony itself was a piece of creative writing, a he-said she-said account of why we wanted to marry each other ("Because she's 'sacho', that rare combination of sexy and macho in the best girl way possible", "Because I remember him when he was eleven, a puppy of a boy with a bowl cut and madras shorts"). The wine was poured by more family and friends. Another friend played DJ. The wedding feast was served in the street, from the In-n-Out roach-coach. My mother, who had graciously offered to pay for the shin-dig, asked me, when she heard the lunch plans, if I wouldn't want something "nicer". I wanted exactly what we had. And we took a certain pride in bringing it all in under five thousand dollars.

The day had its hiccups. Somehow, with extra family visiting and our desire to spend the night before the wedding apart, Ben had ended up sleeping in his mother's closet. My sister insisted on sharing my dressing room, spreading her make-up across the vanity, blowing dry her hair, monologuing, compromising my vision of my last moments of maidenhood (at least maritally speaking) spent alone with Megan and Evany, women who were more my sisters than the one I whom I happened to share blood. Ben's step-mom, Eulah, God love her, managed to not only lovingly usher her dog past the "No Dogs Allowed" sign into the architectural landmark (which I'm certain she didn't see, or if she did, assumed it didn't apply to her adored Soo-Ling, who was, in her eyes, more human than dog), but to actually snuggle up with the pooch in the official wedding portrait, unbeknownst to me. That picture now hangs on our wall and, now that I love and deeply know Eulah, it makes me grin every time I gaze on her wide open smile, Soo-Ling cradled in her arms.

It also had it's magic, of course. Ben's mother's dress fit me perfectly (which seemed Freudian, but no matter). And as we were saying our vows, the sun hit the golden star atop the Catholic Church across the street, illuminating it like the North Star, which somehow felt like a visitation from my father.

We had been told that this was to be the best day of our lives. Ben and I both disagreed. We viewed the wedding, the big party where we officially became a family, as merely the beginning of the best days of our lives. And we were right. It was a lovely day, exactly the day it should have been, but every day since, even the dull ones, even the out-right bad ones - maybe especially those - have constructed this thing we call our marriage. It has ten years of texture now, this tapestry we're weaving together. I'm so interested to see the shades of color, the warp and weft, the picture emerging as the years go by.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Capron Phrase Dictionary

In our family, as in most families with young kids, not every word is English. Or any other language known outside these walls. We speak Capron.

When Mihiretu says, "Memba? Yestiday?" he means "Remember when we did this before?" Yesterday could mean two months ago or fifteen minutes.

As in "Mihiretu, when's the last time you went pee?"

"At school. Yestiday."

When Lana says "egg nah" she's talking about egg nog. As in "I love Christmas so much because we get to have egg nah!"

"Attendant" is Lana for "tenant". As in, after meeting a woman who had come to see the apartment in the lower half of our house, "I like her. Is she going to be our new attendant?" Which immediately conjures images of this rather retiring fifty-something cat-lady bringing us breakfast in bed on a tray and fanning us while we eat it.

Lana and even sometimes Mae say "aten" for "eaten". As in "I aten that broccoli before and I DIDN'T LIKE IT!" To which Mihiretu might respond, "Yestiday?" Ben then reliably trots out a modified version of my old joke - "I can't eat another bite. I'm all aten out."

"Kiffer" as reported here in past posts is Mihiretu for "Clifford". As in "Kiffer da Big Wed Dog".

"Mama, I wan dog. Like Kiffer. BIG like Kiffer. I wan dog NOW! I wan ten."

"Sorry" is "solly" in Mihiretu. Whenever he says it - and it's fairly rare, though always welcome - I imagine an elderly Russian rabbi, good old Solly, his warm, twinkly eyes peeking from under his black fur hat, ready to provide the wisdom of the ages.

When Mihiretu says "Mama ass me", he means "Mama told me". It insinuates that the other parent once said it was okay to do what he is now being forbidden to do. As in "No, Mihiretu, you can't sit on the counter." "But Daddy ass me." Or "No, Mihiretu, we are not having chocolate for breakfast." "But Mama ass me." Sometimes Mama wants to ass him, but she refrains.

Ben has his own lingo, derived from years of cycling, language that I, after ten years of marriage, I use myself. "Off the back" means not leading, falling behind - the rider that can't keep the pace and falls off the back of the peloton. It also means, more metaphorically, someone who's not leading, who's not forward thinking. I'm currently off the back on the laundry.

To "hammer", in bike terms, comes from hammering on the pedals, applying all your force and effort to go as fast as possible. You can also BE a hammer, one who is extremely competent and at the top of their field. Ben and I are hammers at remodeling stinky houses and making them cute. Sometimes I find myself using this particular term in strange contexts. Like lifting a completed halloween costume from the sewing machine at a stitch-and-bitch session with my girlfriends and saying, "I totally hammered on that zebra outfit!" Blank stares.

If you are "shelled", you've ridden so hard that you have no energy left. We're not sure of the derivation. It could be from the military - you've been shelled by bombs. Or, and this is the way I picture it, you've given all you've got to give, all that's inside, and what's left is an empty shell. At any rate, at the end of virtually every day, Ben and I are shelled.

We have our own language, our own culture, our own little microclimate. And in this terrarium, we are blooming some unusual orchids. Orchids that march out into the world requesting egg nah, saying solly when they trespass upon others, trying really hard to not fall off the back. They're hammers, all of them.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010


We had nineteen family members to Thanksgiving dinner. They were all on Ben's side - parents, step-parents, siblings, nephews, cousins, even an aunt. These are people that I have known for many years now, people I feel close to, people I consider my family. In many ways, Ben's family has supplied the extended family for mine. My father is gone, my mother is, too, for all intents and purposes. My sister has long since forged her own path away. My brother, thankfully, my dear brother, is here. Jean-Paul and his wife, Tracy, and my two small nephews live one town over. Tracy was brought up in Michigan. Her adoptive parents are still there and rarely make it west. And so Ben's parents - all four of them - have stepped in as grandparents to my brother's boys. We spend every holiday all together. It's an amiable bunch.

This Thanksgiving, JP and Tracy decided to spend the day on their own with their boys. I was fully in support of the idea. I love the family holiday but I also love to live without obligation, as much as possible. The fact that we choose to be together is part of what makes it so special. Also, the idea that I could, one holiday season, cut the cord and go, say, to the Caribbean with Ben and the kids is also appealing.

When my mother went into assisted living, I cleaned out her house. I boxed fifty years of family in three woozy days. I touched all the objects I had known all my life. Objects that may have only been lamps and plates and figurines but were, for me, icons. Some went to Goodwill. Most, including my parents' beautiful mid-century Scandinavian furniture, went to me. My siblings didn't have room. I had a new mid-century house that needed exactly these objects. And, perhaps more deeply, the presence of these things, these bits of my childhood, was comforting.

And so my kids sit at the same table I did when I was their age. Their feet dangle from the same chairs, their crumbs fall in the same crevices. It makes for a lot of deja-vu.

It wasn't until I was layering slices of homemade bread in concentric circles on my mother's wooden plate on Thursday, the very same plate on which she layered homemade bread in concentric circles, that it hit me. Here on Thanksgiving, for the first time ever, I was the only one present of my original five. I felt a rush of homesickness for my mama, for my family, for what was.

My parents were married on Thanksgiving. November 25th, 1954, the very same year our current house was built. And in this house, on Thanksgiving, on November 25th no less, a family gathered around their table. We carved the turkey with their carving knife. We passed stuffing and gravy and potatoes in their serving bowls. Everything was here but them.

I have a new five. A loving and ever-fascinating husband I don't know how I had the wisdom to select after kissing so very many frogs. And these three children, these three that I would do anything for. That, in my worst nightmares, I am separated from. We five sat around that old table, together, surrounded by our family. Not the family I was born into but my family all the same. I raised a toast to my parents, to their marriage, to their anniversary. We all raised their glasses and drank.

Monday, November 22, 2010

That Black Kid

I was at the park the other day, happily reading a book about Columbine, the kids somewhere out of sight, when I heard a child say, "That black kid just smacked me in the face."

I looked toward the voice and saw a blond girl, probably about seven, standing on the next bench over, reporting her news over the fence to an adult and a couple other kids.

This was discouraging for a number of reasons. The first one being, she could only be talking about Mihiretu. He was the sole black kid for miles around. At some point soon I'm going to have to address the ridiculous lack of diversity in my beloved corner of the earth.

Secondly, she identified him as "that black kid". Not "that African-American kid". Not "that kid". I use "black" myself on occasion but usually semi-ironically, as in "What's that little black boy doing in our living-room?" Immediately, and assuredly incorrectly, I imagined her parents sprawled on their aging plaid couch, scratching their crotches as they reached for another Bud Light, complaining about "the blacks".

Then there was the general parenting problem of the fact that my kid just probably smacked someone in the face. Mihiretu, at this point, uses his hands to solve arguments no more or less than the next four-year-old but he was undoubtably rightly accused.

I regretfully returned my book to my bag and set off in search of my small band of houligans. As I sidled by the girl, who was still milking the drama of her assault, I shot her a bit of a stink eye. She didn't see me, she certainly didn't deserve my scorn, but I had to throw up a bit of psychic protection around that black kid. My black kid.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Morning Drill

Since the time change, our early mornings have gotten earlier. My practice with the kids in years past has been to ignore the time change in either direction. In the summer their bedtime is an hour later, in the winter an hour earlier. Our winter rhythm is school-focused, cozy, sleepy. Our summer rhythm is more social, more outdoor, looser.

Because of this practice, however, Mihiretu, who, having shed his nap, retires early, is now waking up in the five o'clock hour. There were a couple of mornings last week that started at four-thirty. Ben and I also go to bed early so it's not as crippling as it could be, but it does make for a whole lot of morning. By the time we're riding bikes to school at 8:45, the day seems half over.

The upside of this long morning is there's ample time to complete the morning chores. Though, from the moment I open my eyes to the moment the front door swings shut behind me, I'm hustling. Making beds, making breakfast, making lunches, feeding the children, the cat, the guinea pigs and the chickens, bathing and clothing the kids and myself, grooming everyone's hair, brushing teeth, washing breakfast dishes, tidying up toys brought out for morning play and then, if I'm feeling ambitious, applying mascara - only to myself.

I looked at the row of packed lunches this morning and felt a wave of accomplishment, then an accompanying wave of embarrassment. Really? I'm proud of getting the lunches made? But then I thought, well, okay, maybe making lunches in and of itself isn't a big deal, but when you add that to the hundreds of other small gestures of nurture I make in a day, not only the chores but the small kindnesses, each gift of praise, it probably makes up a bigger picture. A picture of a family that's well cared for.

Maybe these incredibly busy years, these years chock full of boring tasks, of laundry, groceries, mopping up spills of all varieties, wiping noses and bottoms, enforcing homework and bedtime and general non-violence, these years of drudgery, are my most impactful. Maybe this, these lunches lined up on a counter, are my legacy. My effort at raising kids that feel loved in big ways and small, kids who will maybe go on to become happy and healthy adults. Adults who might do some good in the world. Or, at very least, be good parents.

Sometimes - often - all I want to do is turn my back on the vacuum and the laundry basket, the mewling cat and the screaming child, and curl up alone with a book. But when I see Mae poised so confidently on the stage at school, calmly reading the list of Halloween costume victors, or Lana quickly and correctly answering Mae's multiplication homework, or Mihiretu tentatively emerging from his protective chrysalis, unfolding himself, revealing his delicate, multicolored wings, actually risking our love, it seems like I am maybe doing something right. Maybe a few somethings. Maybe all those pennies dropped in the jar are adding up.

Worth getting up at 4:30 in the morning. Most days.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Ingrid Betancourt

I was listening to Ingrid Betancourt the other day on NPR. She's the woman who, while campaigning for the Columbian presidency, was taken captive by the FARC and held for six years. Fascinating, without a doubt, the whole story, but one aspect of her tale particularly struck me. When she was kidnapped, her children were fourteen and sixteen. It's horrible in any case to be separated from your loved ones for any period, let alone six years, but the thought of these children that still needed their mother, who weren't done growing up, waiting and worrying for so long really got me. Ingrid, herself, said that those six years, those years of torture, of isolation, of sitting chained, quite literally, to a tree, made some things very clear. She had been fighting the good political fight for Columbia for years but she was more than ready to let that go. The only thing she was determined to return to, the only thing, she realized, that made her happy, was being a mother. I don't know what the hell that says for feminism but I feel the same way.

Later that day, I was in the van with the kids, headed for Ben's dads' house to carve pumpkins. It was a rare moment in the car that they weren't screaming at each other or swinging fists so I took advantage of the seat-belts holding them in place, my little captive audience, and told them about Ingrid Betancourt and what she had learned. And I told them that the one thing in my life that makes me happiest, by far, is being their mother. I may complain, I may get grumpy, I may even yell but always, underneath it all, I'm so grateful to be able to be home with them, to nurture them, to watch them grow. Them, particularly, those three disparate, complicated creatures. That I'm lucky to be their mom.

As I finished my spiel, Mihiretu pointed out the window. "Mama," he yelled, "Bus!" Lana said, "Yeah, but Mom, will we get treats at Papa and Nana's?"

But Mae, bless my Mae, looked into my eyes in the rear-view mirror and said, "I feel so lucky, too, Mom, to be your daughter."

And so I live to fight another day.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

A Blue Streak

On the last page of Vanity Fair every month is "Proust's Questionnaire", in which some celebrity (Shirley MacLaine! Gore Vidal! Liza Minelli!) answers an identical list of queries. "What's your favorite journey?" ("New York to Paris, unquestionably") "What do you most value in a man?" ("Courage, strength and a sense of humor") "What do you most value in a woman?" ("Beauty, grace and a sense of humor") and my very favorite, "What's your most overused phrase?"

To that, I realized the other day, after trying to thread a needle three times unsuccessfully, my own answer, were Vanity Fair ever to come calling, would be "God fucking damn it." I say it a lot. Mostly in my head or at least under my breath, but a lot. Almost any time I'm confronted with frustration great or small, my first response is "God fucking damn it" before I plunge in and try to right the wrong.

It's a ridiculous collection of words. What does it mean, beyond stringing together as much blasphemy as possible? Packing in the foul? But, for whatever reason, when I'm faced with the kid's dirty, discarded clothing on the floor of their bedroom or a duvet I just put on the comforter inside-out, or a trail of small, muddy footprints leading from the front door down the hall, it's somehow satisfying, somehow comforting to unleash this particular compact package of profanity.

I was washing the dishes the other day - it seems like I'm always washing the dishes - when a glass slipped out of my pink rubber-gloved hand and shattered in the sink. "God fucking damn it," I breathed. Lana, puzzling through her math homework at the counter looked up in surprise and amusement. I grinned at her. "Silly, right?" I said, "Silly thing to say?"

"God fucking damn it", she said, grinning, too, abandoning her arithmetic to retrieve a paper bag in which to put the shards.

Saturday, October 30, 2010


Things are getting easier with Mihiretu. There, I said it. He's a two step forward, one step back kind of guy so I'm superstitious about putting this progress in writing. Undoubtably we'll backtrack a little but for now we're on the move.

Yes, there is still a lot of shrieking, much of it designed to injure eardrums. There is the chasing of sisters with deer antlers. There is the willful dropping of water bottles in the car. There is even the occasional thrown shoe.

But, largely, Mihiretu is a hell of a lot easier to live with. His words are coming, faster and faster, which makes for less frustration all the way around. He surprises me with "That bee 'ting me, Mama" or, surveying the framed photos of Mae and Lana as infants, "Where my baby picker?" - that one got me a little - or "I miss San-zay". Who knew he'd miss San Jose?

This morning, Mae and Ben headed off for Mae's first triathlon (she's such a child of Marin) and Mihiretu, Lana and I snuggled into the rainy day in our pajamas, watching "Shrek", munching on cinnamon toast.

It's been busy lately. Too busy. Soccer games and homework, manufacturing Halloween costumes and even campaigning for a local public school measure. Okay, maybe it's me that's busy. But that busy, that probably unnecessary stress, touches the kids. A morning of not going anywhere, not hurrying, appealed to all three of us.

Eventually, around eleven, we got the gumption up for a puzzle. Lana pulled out a favorite fairy puzzle for her and me and, kindly and strategically, stacks of easier puzzles for Mihiretu. Mihiretu sat in front of his puzzles, slowly fitting cows into cow-shaped holes and tractors into tractor-shaped holes. For every successful match, he'd say, "Look, Mama!" To which I'd say, one eye on him and one devoted to the fairies, "Good job, Mihiretu!"

At one point I must have given a particularly genuine congratulation because he said, reaching for another puzzle piece, "Tank you, Mama." I don't know why, but the sweetness of the delivery, the fact that he was thanking me for a compliment, something I've never known him to do, really touched me. This little guy is softening up. He's getting juicier and juicer. The walls are coming down, on his side and on mine. This falling in love, it's happening, we're finally falling now. We've fallen.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

All Dressed Up...

It's been said here a few times but I've got a thing for clothes. Not just for buying them - though I like to - but for making them, for accessorizing them, for putting together a kick-ass outfit. Generally, this is strictly for my own amusement. There's been more than once that I've shown up at the schoolyard for pick-up in some dramatic ensemble - knee-length motorcycle boots, jeggings, wool wrap dress, vintage floral headscarf, giant parachute bag - that only the most faithful Project Runway aficionado could understand. Most of the other moms and dads just probably think I'm weird. And have too much time on my hands. If only it were so.

We went to a wedding this past weekend. The groom was our friend, Peter, who I met in swim class when I was four, who, together with Ben, terrorized the public with skateboards in middle school, who, in high school, accompanied me and our gothish clique to Old Mill Park for a midnight swing or Fernwood Cemetery to drink beer with the moonlit headstones. He's a good friend, our Pete, we've seen each other through a lot and last Saturday he married his sweetie, Jenn. Who, by the by, had the most fantastic wedding dress I've ever seen - a knee-length fifties-cut number with bright red pumps.

I find at weddings, virtually every wedding I can remember, that at some point during the festivities, I am pulled aside by a gay man - generally a gay man I don't know - and told, sotto voce, that I look fabulous.

For someone who focusses so keenly on her clothing, I don't get this very much. Yes, my girlfriends appreciate my efforts. But as far as male approbation, the straight men in my life generally don't have the eye. They like pretty, don't get me wrong, but often the fashion-forward details sail right over their heads. I have a number of gay friends who have no interest in fashion but there's a certain lovely slice of the gay community that, as stereotypical as it might be, love a good look.

It's nice, as a woman, to get a compliment like that from a man. In some ways, particularly from a gay man, because you know they're not trying to get in your pants. They are simply loving the peacock for it's plumage.

Weddings, of course, are when I pull out all the stops. There's always some drama - this last time supplied by an enormous, borrowed African wool wrap. I muster as much glamour as I've got to give. On Saturday, I was happily chatting with my friend, Emily, another second wife (like me, like Jenn), gracefully receiving our first glass of wine (I would surely not be as graceful for the second) when the waiter, his brown eyes warm with recognition - he knew a member of his tribe when he saw it - sidled alongside me and whispered, "Girl, you look stunning. Just. Stunning."

There were years, post-acting, post-writing-program, pre-blog, years of small childrens' constant demands, that choosing my clothes in the morning was my sole act of self-expression. And while, yes, they're just clothes, to really be seen, my artwork fully absorbed, by these momentary wedding friends, is gratifying. It's not an Academy Award, it's not the New York TImes bestseller list, but it's something. An appreciative audience, what more does an artist want? I hold my own private title as the Liza Minelli, the Joan Crawford, the Marlene Dietrich, the Madonna of the suburbs.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Handful of Pebbles

It was blistering hot this last week. Somehow our summer and fall switched order this year. Summer, cool and breezy, our pool membership mostly neglected. Fall, over a hundred, dying for a body of water, none at the ready.

After school on Tuesday, I carted the kids off to Fort Cronkite, a beach near the Golden Gate Bridge. The scene of teenage bonfires, wine coolers, deadly walks through the quarter-mile, one-way tunnel leading out there. But here I was, in a whole different era, three sweaty kids and a grocery bag of ridiculously expensive snacks from the health food store.

The girls quickly settled into digging a giant hole in the sand. Why that's always the go-to activity at the beach, I don't know, but it's tried and true. Mihiretu wanted to chase the waves. Reluctantly, I left my blanket and novel and bag of hydroponic grapes and joined him at the water.

The sand at Cronkite is not fine. The beach, in fact, is composed of tiny rocks, getting tinier as the centuries wear on and the ocean continues to batter them. As Mihiretu ran with the waves, I kneeled on the beach, running my hand over the glistening, wet stones. Soon I had a small collection, maybe six pebbles, each, on close examination, unerringly beautiful. One a rich brick red, probably a tiny bit of lava spewed from some long ago volcano on another continent. Another the most startling pale blue-green, a blue I swear I've never seen before, veined with ivory. Another, an actual shell, worn by the years into a simple smooth bone-white.

I examined these pebbles in my palm, took a deep breath of salt air and raised my eyes to my son, dressed only in dinosaur underwear, dashing away from the tide, laughing, his still skinny legs lengthening in front of him. I looked over my shoulder at my daughters, so deep now in their excavation that only their dark blonde heads poked above the ground, engrossed, working together, their mouths moving in conversation. I beheld the ocean, that giant breathing creature, forever comforting and terrifying. And I gazed back at these stones, these tiny particles that made up this big beach, these perfect gems that I wouldn't have seen had I not taken the time. And it struck me that my life right now is a vast beach, endless tiny rocks, a million little moments that are so hard to see because they're moving past me so quickly. But when I sit here at my desk, when I write, I can take one or two out, put them in my palm and really look. I can take them out of context, frame them so that they stand alone and their meaning is evident. And then, for a moment, I can see the masterpiece, the elegance that's right under my feet before my feet again are moving, running, that day at the beach to pull Mihiretu upright after that persistent ocean finally tagged him back.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010


Mihiretu has taken to standing stock still, arms firmly at his sides, eyes directed determinedly skyward, and pronouncing, "I goin', Mama."

To which I say, "You ARE growing, Mihiretu! I can practically see you growing right now!"

He then redoubles his growing efforts, his body so tense and focused that it shakes a little, eyes fiercely upward. "I goin' NOW, Mama." If there's a step nearby, he'll climb it. "See?"

All that goin' has made for a tall, lanky boy. A boy that looks his almost four years. When I tell him that one day he'll be taller than me, he laughs and shakes his head. "You tick me, Mama." And when I assure him that I'm not tricking, that someday he'll probably be as tall as Dad, he puffs his chest and looks once more towards the heavens, ever more fixed on his goal. That's something to shoot for.

Saturday, October 9, 2010


A neighbor told me that another neighbor told him that yet another neighbor saw a mountain lion on the road below our house a week ago Friday.

Though cougar sightings have been more frequent of late (there was one reported in downtown San Anselmo), this is the first we've heard of one near our house. Unlike snakes of which I am absolutely terrified, mountain lions just mostly fascinate me. The thought of a lion - a lion! - roaming amongst us suburbanites is a tiny bit delightful. The fact that we have yet to send them into extinction is somehow comforting. A little bit of wild mixed in with our over-processed modern world.

One morning last week I woke with Ben at 5:45. Occasionally I go running at this terrible hour - Ben leaves the house at 6:45 and often this is my only shot at a work-out. Lately, of course, it's been dark on my runs. Like, dark dark. Not isn't-it-a-gorgeous-dawn-dark but it-could-be-two-a.m.-dark. And what with the recent sighting of our friend the cougar, I was a little hesitant to head off into the night.

"You think it's safe?" I asked Ben, pulling on my running clothes. "Mountain lion-wise?"

He considered as he sipped his coffee. "The chances of you being attacked are very small," he said thoughtfully. "But dawn is when they hunt."

And so I redirected to the rebounder - the small trampoline I bought last spring whilst in the grip of a new exercise-diet regime and have barely been used since.

As I headed out into the yard to bounce myself into health, Ben called, "Will you bring that thing on to the deck?"

"Why?" I asked, pulling the trampoline out of the tanbark by the play structure, "Lions?"

"Yeah," he said, cereal bowl in hand, mouth full of cereal, "You'd be some kind of bait. 'Hi! Here I am! Mighty yummy!'"

I laughed and then sucked in my breath with a new realization. "And I'm on my PERIOD!"

"Blood in the water." He nodded knowingly, closing the sliding glass door as I yanked the rebounder safely onto the deck.

I bounced in the dark, eyes becoming attuned to the light - or lack thereof. Listening to the birds tentatively testing their morning songs. Watching the sky lighten over the hill. Starting a little when our cat leaped onto the deck. Watching a large tawny shape emerge in the gloaming by the playhouse - a doe grazing, probably a good indicator that our cougar was not on the prowl. Drinking in the silence before a busy day of noise and children, hopping ridiculously. A tasty little tidbit bouncing in the dark.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Escape to New York

On Friday morning, I left Ben and the kids at home and got on a plane to visit one of my oldest friends, Megan, in New York City.

I've done this a number of times over the years. It is always a giant, delicious gulp of fresh air (okay, maybe that metaphor's a little off seeing as how the air itself is considerably fresher in San Anselmo, but no matter). It is always a turning point. The first time I visited as a mother, Lana was just over a year. I had just reclaimed my body from the babies and I was still working my way through the maternal frumps. Three days with Megan, three days of accessorizing and leaving the apartment with only a little handbag instead of juggling a diaper bag, a snack bag and changes of clothes for adults and children, three days of artful outfits, both borrowed and purchased, that I didn't need to protect from vomit or poop, was a rebirth. I returned to the Liz of old, the girl that enjoyed being pretty. I haven't let a day pass since without putting on the glam. Not because I feel like I have to, not because I'm concerned with what other people make of me (or okay, not much) but because it makes me happy. There it is - a cute outfit brings me closer to God.

These trips, finding myself in this sophisticated city, walking and eating and shopping with a woman who is my sister in every way but genetics, a woman with whom I was a teenager, with whom I'm still a teenager, drinking and laughing and gossiping until our heads hit the pillow at night, these trips have become a palate cleanser for me, the sorbet between courses. A way to remember who I was and am so that I can more firmly and happily embrace my family when I return.

Some highlights:

People-watching on the parking shuttle and covertly observing a young married couple, particularly the woman that was me ten years ago. She was in turn watching me and I wondered if she knew that I was a mother. Maybe, I fantasized, she thought I was unattached, professional, mysterious. Then I realized that the lanolin I was pulling out of my bag to put on my lips, the leftover Lasinoh "for breast-feeding mothers", was probably a give away. Not to mention the emergency lollipop, used to keep Mihiretu from the unintended nap, jutting out of a zippered pocket.

Watching "The Real Housewives of D.C." from West coast to East and "The Real Housewives of Atlanta" from East coast to West, munching on organic junk food - raw chocolate pistachio brittle, cacao-coconut truffles, gluten-free peanut-butter cookies - and, to really up the sinning, ordering a Diet Coke from the flight attendant. And, oh, could I get more ice?

Stretching out on the air-mattress the first night and realizing that under the comforter was a quilt I had made Megan ten years ago. Walking through her new apartment and seeing all her belongings that I know so well. There's the painting that hung in our apartment in L.A. when we were twenty-four, the one Megan made of feathery wings on a hanger - the background a blue I associate only with Megan - a meld of midday sky and cornflower. There's the photo of her mom, the inimitable Toni Boynton, in the late sixties, gorgeous and glamourous in a bouffant - a photo that I gazed at in wonder on the wall of Meg's house in Sausalito when we were freshmen in high school. The texture of a long friendship.

When I'm with Megan in New York, I completely let go of the reins and simply follow her around. I pay zero attention to subway stops, dinner plans or even where the hell we are. My life is, at this point anyway, all about being responsible for at least three other people at all times. I'm also pretty into control just generally speaking. For whatever reason, the combination of Manhattan, which is just foreign enough and Megan, whom I have a long history of following around, allow for a child-like freedom. It is like when we were fifteen and I was on board for whatever adventure Megan had planned - even if it was just walking down to Golden Gate Market to buy a Diet Coke.

On our trip to Century 21, the giant discount department store opposite the hole that is Ground Zero, I discovered the magic of jeggings. Jeans plus leggings equal jeggings. How else to answer my greatest current fashion question? Leggings too stretchy, jeans too bulky, oh my goodness, jeggings!

On Sunday evening I took a walk through Central Park alone, letting the crisp fall wind whip around me. As I walked contentedly, I made a series of realizations. Number one, I was strolling in New York City in a real cute new outfit, unencumbered by small children. Number two, Mihiretu is almost four. Number three, I live in Marin. It seemed that maybe, possibly, I might be on the downhill slope of the mountain of stress that's been the past eighteen months. Maybe things are getting better all the time. And so I started whistling a little tune. "I Have Confidence" from the Sound of Music. Soon I was exiting the park, walking around the block towards Megan's apartment, peeking past doormen into fancy Upper West Side lobbies. I approached two men on the otherwise empty sidewalk, deep in conversation. The one facing me looked familiar. As I grew closer, I realized it was Peter Krause, the actor from "Six Feet Under". Yay, a celebrity siting, something I had grown accustomed to in L.A. and have been sadly deprived of in Northern California. As I was abreast of them, the other man turned and faced me. I was gazing directly into the eyes of Matt Dillon. I passed and as I did, out of the corner of my eye I could see him turning, like a flower to the sun, to check me out. I was so deliciously happy for my thirteen-year-old self, the girl who lived for "The Outsiders" and "Rumblefish". When I got back to Megan's apartment, she assured me that he checks her out all the time, but that's cool, I'll still take it.

Getting back on the plane Monday afternoon, having had my full of best-friend-chatty, Malbec and jeggings, I was ready to again embrace my family. To quote my dear Maria Von Trapp, we all need to be out in the world, to be free. And how glorious it is to return to the nest and my chicks, mouth metaphorically full of worms.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Magic Eight Ball

We were coming home far too late from a party the other night, everyone giddily overtired. Mae had brought her Magic Eight ball with her that evening and Mihiretu managed to get his hands on it for the ride home.

Lana asked, "Are rocks real?" She loves to ask questions she knows the answers to, just to see if the thing is working.

Mihiretu, even if he had suddenly gained the ability to read, couldn't see the words in the dark.

Ben improvised from the front seat, "Reply hazy. Try again."

Giggles all the way around.

Now Mihiretu asked, "Aw woks wul?"

I said, "Outlook not so good."

Mihiretu, now shouting gleefully, "Aw woks wul?"

"September," Ben answered solemnly.


"Spaghetti," I said helpfully.


"Chicken face," said Lana.


"Lemon curd," piped up Mae from the back.

Finally, close to home, to defuse the excitement before bedtime, we assured all concerned that rocks were indeed real. And then I carefully disengaged Mihiretu from that very magic ball before he threw it at Lana. Those things are surprisingly heavy. Must be all that enchantment packed into such a tiny sphere.

Thursday, September 23, 2010


Lana is a piece of work.

Every morning, a good half hour before it's time to leave for school, I have her dressed, hair done (which involves dunking her head in the sink and then parting and combing meticulously), and socks on. Even so, when I yell from the bathroom through a mouthful of toothpaste, "Okay, kids, time to go!", at least half the time Lana decides she needs a different outfit or throws herself on the floor because a last minute glance in the mirror has confirmed her suspicion that her hair is "lumpy" in the back or, at very least, changes her socks and spends five minutes getting the heels exactly in place. When Ben and I went away a couple weeks ago, I forgot to warn the babysitters of this phenomenon and both reported that they arrived a half hour late for a commitment (school, soccer) because Lana lost her mind on the way out the door.

Today she quit soccer for the second (and final) time two minutes before practice because her toes felt squeezed by her cleats. The same cleats that she's been wearing for weeks, but no matter. She also quit last Sunday, reason unknown. I'm not falling for it again so suddenly our calendar is stunningly open.

She is so many things, my Lana. She's reading far above grade level, she's polite (in public), she seems to make friends easily, she has an eye for color that's not to be believed. And she's (privately) sassy, inflexibly fastidious and a real drama queen.

She's not necessarily a people-pleaser, my Lana. While I, generally speaking, will smile and apologize myself into a lather to win a stranger's good opinion, Lana is a more self-goverened dominion. She has friends at school but she doesn't seem to NEED friends at school. She's perfectly happy playing by herself. While Mae is an open, melting heart, Lana is cooler, more removed. I admire that quality, I have to say. I often wish that I cared a little less about what people thought of me. She's like one of those girls in high school who could sit placidly inside themselves and watch the rest of us geek ourselves silly.

And so I have this complex concoction of a girl. This cocktail of sweet, salt and rocket fuel. And I have to ask myself once again, for the tenth time today, the hundredth time this week, the millionth time since we first gazed at Mae in wonder, where the hell do these people come from? How do they develop into these complicated creatures? All I can do, most of what I can do, I guess, is hang on and enjoy the ride, because it, all of it, doesn't seem to have a whole lot to do with me.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Mihiretu Handbook

Yesterday Mihiretu told Lana, "You not da boss a me!" I guess he's American now.

The question of who's the boss of who is a good one.

His latest tactic when he hears "no" is a quick "Okay." Which, if you're an amateur, might trick you into thinking all's well. But a second later comes "Then I'm gonna..." As in:

"Mama, I wanna wat Kiffer" - translation "Mama, I want to watch Clifford."

"Not right now, Mihiretu, we're about to sit down for dinner."

"Okay. Den I gonna trow dis." At which point he picks up the deer antler that we found on the back hill. Why I continue to keep that thing in reach, I don't know.


"Mama, I wan gum."

"No, buddy, you just had a treat."


"No, I'm sorry, Mihiretu."

"Okay, den I gonna bite chew!" And then he runs at me, jaws open.

I do my best to avoid saying no to him, understandably. Not that we don't have rules and boundaries. Mae claims we have way too many. But if I can say, "Hey, look it's a bus!" instead of "No, you can't go to first grade with Lana" and get a flip-flop lobbed at my head as I drive, I prefer it.

I remember when Mae and Lana were this age there were certain triggers that I avoided. It's the same with Mihiretu. I've developed rules for myself. For instance, when I put Mihiretu on the back of my bike, I immediately take the flip-flops off his feet (clearly the flip-flops are problematic) and put them in the pannier. If I don't, I've learned, he'll kick them off in anger at some point during the ride. Then we circle back to get them. Then we're late to school.

Or if I have bad news, like he can't have another cookie, I wait to drop the bomb until he's strapped in his car-seat and I'm out of reach of swinging fists.

I try not to talk to Ben on the phone when Mihiretu is present. "Dada? Dat Dada?" followed by "I wanna tok, I wanna tok" until I finally relinquish the phone in self-defense. Then Ben attempts to talk to Mihiretu, Mihiretu is silent, accidentally hangs up on him, then throws himself on the floor in anguish and fury until I can get Ben back on the phone.

I can't let him have the hose. He will ultimately spray me. Somehow I made that mistake again this afternoon while we were filling up the chicken's water. Mihiretu filled the waterer carefully for a good five minutes but as soon as the bucket was full, the hose was turned immediately on me.

Whoever's putting him in his pajamas better damn well be in their pajamas or it's going to be a knock-down, drag-out.

If he's already had dinner and is getting drowsy in front of the TV (a desired effect at that time of day), I don't let anyone else eat in his line of vision because then, no matter how much food he just shoved down his gullet, he'll cry "Hun-gee!"

If I take a drive of more than twenty minutes any time after noon (an undesired time for drowsiness), I watch him closely in the rear-view mirror. If he falls asleep even for five minutes, bedtime moves from 6:30 to 10:00. Tactics to keep him awake include rolling all the windows down no matter the weather, blasting rap music (his favorite), or asking him what a doggy says. If I'm in luck, I'll get a very sleepy "Wuf".

I don't say the words "movie", "pop" (as in lolli), "ice-cream" or "nail-polish" or he'll demand that item for the rest of the day (he's a big fan of the mani-pedi). If he's refused that item, I'll get an "Okay, I'm gonna..." and before I know it every pillow in the house will be on the floor, the folded laundry will be freed from it's basket and strewn like party streamers from lamps and chairs and everyone will be crying. Including me.

No matter what, I never, ever, keep him in the house for longer than an hour or two. He's an outside boy, which makes sense given that his first two years were entirely outdoors. Outside, he's happy and fun. Inside, a super-ball bashing into vases.

From time to time, when I spot a trigger on the horizon and swerve radically to the left or right to avoid it, when I'm feeling penned in by these ridiculous constraints, I'm convinced that he's the boss of me. He's the boss of all of us; me, Ben, Mae, Lana. For now, my three-year-old, my dear whirling dervish. For now.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


I'm re-entering life at home after the dreamy four days away with Ben, something akin to a rocket bursting into flames as it enters earth's atmosphere. The kids, though ecstatic and relieved to have us home, are also exhausted and, well, angry. Yesterday morning, Lana and Mihiretu were serenading me with dueling choruses of "Stinky Mommy" (Mihiretu) and "I Hate Mommy" (Lana), ostensibly because I wouldn't let them watch "Scooby Doo" like the babysitter but more than likely because I had the nerve to go away and leave them. Just who do I think I am?

But as I packed the protesting children away to school, tended to the car that wouldn't start and the gushing hole in the water pipe below our house, I also entertained fond thoughts of Ben.

On Labor Day, we went to a block party. As we were sitting on our friends' lawn, sipping lemonade and watching the kids roll past on bikes and scooters, we made small talk with the neighbors. RJ, our host, introduced us to a couple who promptly announced they'd been married thirty-four years. We couldn't help but be awed, particularly because they also have an eight-year-old (I keep trying to do the math on that one and still have yet to crack the puzzle).

"Well," the wife said, smiling at her husband and squeezing his hand, "It flies by."

"Yeah," said Ben, under his breath as they turned to talk to RJ, "Except when it crawls."

We giggled covertly. "Yeah," I said, "If you're HAPPY."

More quiet guffawing. RJ glanced across the lawn at us, clearly wondering what the hell was so funny.

"It flies," Ben said, "Except when I'm married to YOU."

* * *

When we were at the Seattle airport last weekend, taking the train from the terminal to the gate, Ben and I were marveling at the preponderance of wheely-bags.

"Whoever patented that is a bizillionaire," I mused.

"Oh, I'm sure it's not patented," Ben said.

Ben, when he was all of eighteen, invented the V-brake for bicycles. He had his own little company called Marinovative. The V-brake went on to become the industry standard. Unfortunately, his invention wasn't patented. Instead of earning a percentage of every V-brake sold, he simply watches them cycle by, day after day, and continues to toil for our bread. It's a subject we've covered and covered again but the wheely-bags brought us back to it.

"We'd be millionaires," he said as another bag rolled onto the train.

"Yeah," I said. "But you probably wouldn't have married me if you were a millionaire."

"Why not?" he said.

"You'd have some crazy trophy wife."

"Honey," he said gently, "You are my crazy trophy wife."

The more I thought about it, the truer it was. My little badge of honor.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Orcas Island

Come December, Ben and I will mark ten years of marriage. Given that, and the pressure cooker that has been our mutual lives for the last year and a half, we decided to take a little honeymoon. We chose Orcas Island, part of the San Juan Islands, off the coast of Seattle.

We have never been here. I've never even been to the Northwest somehow, which seems strange given my love for all things hippy. We've come to the realization that if we go somewhere new to both of us, we can rediscover each other in the new landscape. We can fall in love with a new place and each other (again) at the same time.

And so, Orcas. We have a great love for islands. It seems like an island can only get so corrupted. Only so much American stress and fast-paced multi-tasking can make it across the water. Things are always slower on an island. And this island, let it be said, is gorgeous. The famous rains of the Pacific Northwest have made this place a wooded paradise, tiny ferns growing like shag carpet everywhere you look. From every vista, the sea holds islands and more islands - there's hundreds of them, apparently. And it's a foodie's delight - local produce, fresh bread, organic everything.

We are here for a luxurious four nights. Our pace, now half-way through, has slowed. We chat for hours as we hike instead of throwing information at each other for five minutes in the morning and five minutes in the evening as forks fly past our heads. Yesterday, after a four hour hike, we ate cereal for dinner and climbed into bed at five o'clock with a book (me) and craigslist (Ben), speaking only when Ben found a particularly good Airstream. Hours of companionable silence.

There's no one funnier than Ben when he's relaxed. Okay, no one funnier to me. For whatever reason, I laugh at every joke he makes. Often the stupider the joke, the harder I laugh. Yesterday morning, he lifted his coffee mug, the one with the Orca tail for a handle and said, "That's a whale of a cup." I laughed. Three minutes later, he, again, said, "That's a whale of a cup." I laughed. Harder. I can't really explain why I'm so susceptible to his humor. We always say it's evidence that he married the right girl. I think maybe it's that I love him so completely. I feel so close to him that those jokes, those stupid jokes, crawl right inside me and give me a tickle.

Beyond the dumb jokes, there are some really good ones. We were driving out of our neighborhood early Wednesday morning to catch our plane when we saw our friend, Stephan, walking down the street. Ben leaned out his window and bellowed, "Stephan!" Stephan, somehow unsurprised to see us at seven a.m., lifted his chin in the universal surfer greeting and said, "S'up." Stephan is six-foot-five, of Danish descent (a great Dane, I suppose), a man both mellow and sweet and also such a frenzy of activity that his nickname is "Photon", one of those microscopic particles of energy, always in motion. The rumor is that he never sleeps. Ben, musing as we drove, said that Stephan was like a speed-ball, half heroin, half cocaine. So laid back and so driven at the same time.

As we were nearing the airport, stuck in traffic in Berkeley (in the hundreds of times I've driven that stretch of 580, I think the road has been clear maybe once), we found ourselves next to a giant SUV piloted by a single driver. "That guy," Ben said, watching the exhaust belching out of the tail-pipe "should have a personalized license plate that reads 'Asshole'."

Later, once we hit the island, we noticed that male tourists of our generation wore shpants - half pants, half shorts, what would be called capris on a woman. Older men wore convertible pants, pants with zippers around the thighs that could, in a flash, become shorts. But Generation X (are we still Generation X or did we lose that once we stopped being slackers?) is devoted to the shpants. We feel a little shpants-ish. Ben and I then spent a half an hour giggling as we walked through town seeing men in shpants and trying to get our mouths around "shpants-ish". Try it, it's not easy.

The cottage we're rented is funkier than the pictures on the internet depicted. The view, yes, is incredible. Water as far as you can see. But the interior is a bit cave-like. It is crammed with white wicker furniture, blue glass figurines, eagle paraphernalia (including a candle-stick that looks suspiciously like the eagle from the Third Reich) and, best for last, books about sex. "Roman Sex" which features ancient illustrations of male orgies, "The Medieval Art of Love", "How to Do It", "Looking at Lovemaking", "Sex and Sexuality in Early America", "Sex, Ecology, Spirituality", "Sex, Drugs and Chocolate", "Castration", "Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures", "Taking Positions" and, just to mix it up, "Inside the Vatican".

I'm imagining the timid, middle-aged, inn-keeper, Elizabeth, maybe did a doctorate on sex? Then, counter-intuitively, moved her collection out to the vacation rental? Because what goes with wicker, blue glass and eagles like castration? And what's more romantic? The book collection has led to endless cracks about Roman sex. Last night Ben had one of the horrible microfiber pillows from the dirty love-seat wedged between his knees as he slept. In the confines of the double bed, it kept inadvertently bumping me in the butt. "Get that disgusting pillow out of my ass!" I yelled in the dark. "This isn't Rome!"

I miss the kids. Yes, I miss the kids. Ben played a video of Lana yesterday. I couldn't see it, could just hear her singing from across the room. I made him turn it off. Immediately. I love those little people. But it's so nice to see my man. To remember what all this, our family, our life, is built on. That first, it was just him and me.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Control Freak

Is there anyone on the planet more controlling than a three-year-old? Okay, is there anyone on the planet more controlling than MY three-year-old? From the moment he's awake until the moment he's asleep, my existence is a complicated dance of compromise (okay, you can ride your bike inside school grounds, but just this once), avoidance (girls, would you like to go to the P-O-O-L? Don't say the word if you don't want to do it - let's not get you-know-who's hopes up) and all out sneaking around (the box from the toy that Grandma got him is collapsed and recycled in his absence not because he loves it so but simply because he wants it to remain in the middle of the living-room).

Mihiretu's control issues are probably more than the average boy his age and with good reason. There's a lot that's happened to him that, plainly speaking, has sucked. He's seen the death and disappearance of his first family, has been landed in an institution he could not escape from, has been taken thousands of miles away from his first home to live with us. And we, though we mean well, have moved twice in a year and his dad who he loves more than anything else leaves frequently and (to a three-year-old) arbitrarily. The boy wants to lay his hands on something and know he can hold it.

That said, it's exhausting to live with. We've learned some of his triggers. He needs to lead the way, for instance. He can't stand anyone leaving him. Which, again, is understandable. And so he needs to be the first to climb the stairs to our house, ride away on his bike, walk into school. If he's not first, he sits down, be it on dirt or pavement, flings his flip-flops as far as he can and howls. This happens many times a day. And so we have learned to accommodate him. The girls, generally, are kind enough to let him ride ahead when we're on our bikes, are even willing to walk back down the stairs and wait until he has begun to climb before they do the same.

If we're not watching what he wants to watch on TV (which most of the time is Caillou), then he turns the TV off. If Lana (his greatest competitor) is watching with him and he decides he doesn't want her to, he turns the TV off. I have, on more than one occasion, seen her sneak into the living-room in the morning and crouch behind our lounge chair in her pajamas, clandestinely watching Caillou - which she doesn't even like - while Lord Mihiretu is snuggled up in a quilt on the couch. It's a rather sad sight.

Bedtime, as with just about any child, is the toughest time of the day. He squirms, he kicks, he screams and when that fails to dissuade us of our evil plan, pleads hungry. His belly can be taut with the three portions of spaghetti and broccoli he just put away and he'll still try to convince us of his terrible hunger.

A friend recently passed on advice she was given on how to deal with her almost-teen-age daughter. When in a power struggle, let go of the rope. And so, when I'm on my game, I don't directly resist whatever power play he's making. I change the subject, I ignore it, I give in to his demands if they're not too big a deal. I pick my battles. I win the war.

Probably his biggest trigger is when Ben or I show him that we're angry. He's defensive, I've realized. If he sees my temper, he insulates that hurt with his own temper. The more I react, the more he acts out, a terrible spiral. "You mad!" he'll accuse me, through tears. When I can get it together, I assure him in these moments that I'm not mad anymore, I wasn't fond of whatever he did that offended me and here's what he could have done instead but that I love him and then hug him and kiss him until he can't resist me any longer or shake the sillies out of him (which involves shaking him - gently - upside down). Anything to make him laugh and break the mood.

When I'm tired, when, as is the case now, I've been on my own with the kids for days on end, it's less pretty. I meet his control issues with my own. Tonight, after a good hour of trying to wrestle him to sleep, after he threw my book across the room and kicked me, when he accused me of being mad, I said, "You're right! I'm mad!" Not so constructive. In the end, we were both in such a state, all I could do was put him in the car and drive him around the block until he fell asleep mid-shriek.

I remember my girls at three. They, too, were often impossible. I comfort myself that things will change, and soon. Though, today Mihiretu threw a full-on hissy fit at Lana's school as we were waiting for her to come out of her classroom. Another mother from Lana's class tried to comfort me by saying that in a few years it'd be better. I told her that I was hoping for better times when he turns four. She said that four was much worse than three for boys. Just a "reality check", she assured me. I just about gave her a reality check between the eyes. I have to hope that we're on the road to better days, easier days. It's got to get better. It just has to.

Saturday, August 28, 2010


There's a restaurant chain in the Bay Area called Cafe Gratitude. The food is mostly raw and completely vegan. The accompanying ethos is neo-hippy and neo-corporate. The overarching theme, "What are you grateful for?", is printed on the menus, the cookbook, even bumper-stickers. Every item on the menu is an affirmation. "You Are Effervescent" is a carbonated ginger lemonade, priced at a mere 4.95 for a small glass and 6.95 for a large. "You Are Whole", my personal favorite, is a bowl of shredded kale, kim chi, tahini, sprouts and a sprinkling of teriyaki almonds (which, if you're craving more, will only cost you $4.95 for an additional fifteen nuts). The correct ordering method is to say, "I am effervescent, please. And I am whole." To which your hippier-than-thou server will respond soothingly, gazing deeply into your eyes, "You ARE effervescent. You ARE whole." At which point the eye-contact will be held a little too long and you will, blushing, sink behind your menu. It is, even for someone born and bred here, someone who canvassed for Obama in Colorado, who brews her own kombucha, who adopted a child from Ethiopia, for God's sake, a little much. If their food wasn't so delicious, their "live pizza" made of buckwheat, olives, cashews, sprouts and "Brazil nut parmesan cheese", their chocolate mousse made of Irish moss (what's Irish moss?), almond milk, dates and agave, their pate made of cashews and bell pepper, if it wasn't so yummy and guiltless, I'd never set foot in the place. But it's a neurotic eater's dream.

If Saturday Night Live ever wanted to parody Cafe Gratitude, they could simply shoot a documentary. It's just too easy, too ripe with earnestness. But, even so, Ben and I aren't above cracking jokes. We call it "Cafe Attitude" or "Cafe Platitude", and invent menu items such as "I Am Broke" because, goddamn, but it's expensive.

The very best/worst practice of Cafe Gratitude is the "question of the day". The server will ask, "What brings joy to you today?" or "Who in your life celebrates you?" My trick for a long time was to answer, "Wow, that's a good question. Let me think about that one. I'll get back to you," and scurry out the back once the bill was paid. Lately, though, they'd get an earful.

Because I am grateful. Beyond the usual daily blessings; Ben, the kids, our health, the warmth of our extended family, the roof over our heads, the beautiful food on our table.

School started this week. My complete community is spread before me in splendor. I walk through the school grounds and I'm greeted by friend after friend. I meet parents of new classmates and often feel sure that they, too, have the potential to be included in the enchanted circle of my nearest and dearest. I ride my bike through the green August morning, Mihiretu greeting cars and pedestrians, Mae speeding ahead on her new, giant mountain bike, the backpack she made on her strong shoulders, Lana careening from left to right just in front of me, always a hair from crashing and taking me down with her but so proud to be getting her own self to school. And everywhere, everywhere, people I know. People I love.

Every Wednesday, first thing, there is what's called "Morning Meeting". The kids sit on the blacktop, each class grouped loyally around their teacher. Parents huddle together in the back, whispering, gossiping, making inappropriate jokes. And the principal makes announcements and leads the school cheer. This first Wednesday, she led us in the school song, "We Are the Brookside Bears".

Our first week of school in San Jose, a year ago now, every time I dropped the kids off and scanned the crowd of strangers for someone I might know, someone I might want to know, as I pushed my bike across concrete and more concrete to the edge of this foreign campus, this song, this little tune about this sweet school by the side of a brook, would play in my head and, ridiculously, I'd fight tears. We are the Brookside (sniff), we are the Brookside (snuffle), we are the Brookside Bears (sob).

This week, as I stood with my pals, many of whom I've known since I was pregnant with Mae, some from as far back as high school, as the kids lifted their small pure voices uncertainly in song, I was filled with what can only be called gratitude. Gratitude that there is a place on this earth where I am so thoroughly among my people, where I am so exactly home.

The next time I order my I Am Whole with a small I Am Effervescent, please, and the stoned-on-vegetables hippy server asks me some drippy variation of "What are you grateful for", he's going to have to take a seat and kick off his Earth shoes because it's going to be a very long answer. I am a lucky girl.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Sugar and Bonnie

After the whole Farmel debacle, the next step was deciding on what pet would replace her (him?). I did some research. Turtles and geckos live way too long. I don't want to be cleaning up after Rodriguez the Box Turtle when I'm a grandmother. Gerbils, it turns out, are illegal in the state of California. Does that have anything to do with Richard Gere? Finally, I came to guinea pigs. Their expected lifespan is about four years. They're reportedly friendly. And, if their mess and smell prove to be overwhelming, we can set them up outside.

Next stop, craigslist. Ben and I are big believers in craigslist. We've bought three stoves, two refrigerators, a sixties-era chartreuse sectional sofa, and a playhouse hand-built with all the care one might take with a real house (insulation, double-paned windows, shingled roof), amongst other items. We're more buyers than sellers when it comes to craigslist though we did once give away a washer-dryer set for free only to have the seemingly nice young couple hassle us for three hundred dollars to cover their moving costs when they couldn't figure out how to make it work in their apartment. A good deed never goes unpunished, I suppose.

Craigslist is always a foray into sociology. Meeting a stranger, usually in their home or yours, could be a sketchy situation. Generally, though, it's pretty friendly. Friends always ask if I just trust something is going to work when I buy it. The answer is yes. I know where they live. And, admittedly I'm an optimist, but I like to trust other human beings. That's kind of what craigslist is all about.

A couple days ago I found a listing on craigslist for two female guinea pigs plus their cage for eighty-nine bucks. After a couple emails, I gathered that the dad in the situation was allergic, their house was small, the pigs, though his young daughters loved them, had to go.

And so, yesterday at five o'clock, in 104 degree heat, the kids and I loaded in the van for the hour's drive to Petaluma. We found his house in a neighborhood that had seen better days, boarded-up windows on two buildings on the block, ramshackle dirt patches where lawns once were. We knocked on his door. No answer. We walked up the driveway to the back of the house. Just a very old labrador sleeping in the shade of a shed filled with rusty bikes, cracking plastic kids' toys, and other assorted junk.

We walked back around to the front and planted ourselves on the porch steps. Already I knew that this was probably not a good idea. Given the general tone of neglect that I could already see - and smell - I knew that these guinea pigs were going to be sitting in their own filth, their cage cheap and coated with grime. I also knew that we were past the point of no return. If I'd been alone, I could abort and hit the nearest PetCo. But the kids had firm plans for these particular pigs. That was that.

Moments later, our man pulled up. I'll call him John. John was so sorry he was late, he was just trying to make a sale to his biggest client and well, did I try to call, oh his cell wasn't working, and what cute kids and hey, little one, give me a high five - where's she from - oh he - Ethiopia, wow - and man, he wished his girls were here to meet us but they were with their mom this week. He seemed like a nice guy, a good guy, a guy who didn't have his shit together.

He led us into the house. The actual house was a haze of battered eighties furniture, tired linoleum and the stench of bachelor. John, still chattering, apologizing that he hadn't had time to clean the cage, led us into the living-room. There, on one wall of a tiny room was a giant cage. The cage was just as I thought it might be, with the added bonus of two empty water bottles hanging on the side. They were green with mold. The animal themselves looked healthy enough, though when Mihiretu approached the cage, John quickly warned him that they might bite his finger if he stuck it through the wire. It wasn't their fault, he said, they were just hungry.

By now I was trying to move along the sale, grab the pigs and get out to the fresh, if hot, air. John, sensing that he'd cinched the deal, was on a roll, searching high and low for a guinea pig related "goodie". After a group trip back out to the shed, then when that proved unfruitful, into the kitchen, he produced a leash. A guinea pig leash.

Then, like a flash, he was giving us a tour of his girls' room. Look, he said happily, chalkboard paint! And, indeed, over each bunk was an amoeba-shaped patch of grey paint. Cool, I said, come on, kids, let's get those little ladies into the van.

Finally, what seemed like hours later, John was handing me an uncooked chicken (that's what he sells, apparently) and insisting on a hug. Not lasciviously, I don't think, he was just euphoric that these pets were off his hands and hopefully on to somewhere better and that he had eighty-nine dollars he didn't have before.

And we were off, driving an extra fifteen minutes to get a bombastic Mihiretu to sleep, hauling the cage up to our back patio to hit it with the hose and some dish-soap, finally, way past bedtime, settling the newly named Sugar (she's brown and white, like sugar) and Bonnie (Mae's idea, don't know where it came from but I like it!) into their revitalized home, their scrubbed water bottles full of filtered water.

In the end, it probably all worked out. Farmel, Mae's momentary frog, got to return to his/her home by the wooded lake and Sugar and Bonnie escaped John's grimy cave and emerged into what I can only imagine to be a better situation.

This morning, at seven, Lana was feeding Sugar a carrot and murmuring her private ideas in her little rodent ear while Mae and Mihiretu were far up on the back hill, walking Bonnie on her leash through the shifting brown grass. It seems we have a couple new members of the family.

Sunday, August 22, 2010


Today Mae went on a mountain bike ride with Ben, her friend Sasha and his dad. They rode around Lake Lagunitas, tearing uphill and coasting down. They stopped frequently to hunt for frogs. Not to eat, I guess it goes without saying, though those Frenchies like to, but to keep as pets.

They found a few but as the whole pet idea hadn't been cleared with the boss (that'd be me), it was a morning of catch and release. Later in the day we returned to Lake Lagunitas for a picnic with our extended family and that's when I got the plea. Sasha, it seems, caught a frog a year ago and has kept it safe and healthy at home in a terrarium his mom got for free off craigslist. Couldn't she, couldn't she find a frog and take it home?

A lot of back and forth until we finally reached the rather inevitable conclusion. Mae found a frog, stowed it in a tupperware with some creek water and a piece of wood to perch on, and we took it home. Mae decided that she was a she (from what basis I don't know but I wouldn't put it past that kid to know a male frog from a female) and that her name was Farmel. Farmel because she thought first of Farmer but felt it was too masculine. And Farmel sounded like Carmel and what's not to like about Carmel?

As we got ready for bed, we could hear Farmel croaking tentatively, plaintively. I imagined her calling for her people and hearing only us - girls chattering, Mihiretu screaming for "chicken", his reliable last ditch try for food before he falls over asleep. I casually said to Mae as I was urging her towards the bathroom to pee that I felt a little sad for Farmel, so far (ha, ha) from home.

Next thing I knew, Mae was hiding her face in her nightgown, swiping at tears. I immediately assured her that there was nothing to feel bad about, Farmel was doing okay, I hadn't meant to make her feel guilty, but Mae was felled by grief. Slowly we teased out her conflicting feelings of love and excitement over this new pet with pangs of sadness that this wild creature was not where it belonged. Ultimately, we came to the compromise of returning Farmel - tonight - to her natural habitat, the very rock on which Mae found her, and researching a small pet for Mae, a domesticated pet, a pet that might enjoy being in our home. A pet that she must, without fail, feed, water, and clean up after. Yeah, right.

And while I feel a little cornered into taking yet another living creature into my care, I have to admire my girl. She has such a big heart, my Mae. She can see beyond herself and her own desires to the needs of others in a way that seems beyond her age. I guess that kind of heart deserves a little something extra to love. Like a gecko, God help me.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Back to School

School starts on Monday. So many mothers I talk to proclaim to be sad that summer's ending. All I can think is, for real?

I've been anticipating the beginning of school since the end of school in June. I can not wait to see those kids off Monday morning, backpacks stuffed with waste-free lunches and number-two pencils.

Part of it, I think, is that I loved school. Loved it. Almost more than reading. And lots of times you got to read WHILE you were at school. Pleasure beyond words. My love of school was two-fold. I loved to learn and I was good at learning, which in turn meant that I had success at school and teachers loved me. Add to that my lurking loneliness and school's guarantee of company and you had yourself a winning combination.

As the ramp-up to school begins, as we get the girls' class assignments and, by a flurry of email, discover which friends are in their classes, I am excited both for them, because they, too, up to now have found happiness at school and also for me, reliving those long-gone days of known expectations and achievable goals. And as they re-enter their social scene, I re-enter mine. I'm reunited with my friends, the parents of my girls' friends, whom I've so missed for the past year. Class assignments are as socially important for me as they are for the girls. I don't go out to an office every day. I don't have co-workers. These parents are my compatriots.

The other delicious benefit of school is, of course, six hours per day of free childcare. Rather horrible to put it that way but baldly true. I love my kids. I love spending time with them. But I'm a hell of a lot more fun - and more happy - when I can get a little space. Summer is blackberry picking and lazy hours at the pool and ice cream in the middle of the day but it's also "Mom, I'm bored" and "Mae hit me" and "Make Lana stop singing". We can all drive each other a little crazy. How can I miss you when you don't go away?

Sometimes I wonder how I, of all people, ended up with three kids. Let alone a rambunctious, emotionally scarred, adopted third child. I don't see myself as the most patient of people. My love of order and cleanliness is not conducive to housing three little maniacs. Some of my happiest times are alone in the quiet house, writing, sewing, washing dishes, anything as long as I'm by myself.

I think I had three kids, including my Ethiopian Devil, to shake myself out of my perfection. They are a built-in mechanism to keep me from too much quiet, too much tidiness, too much aloneness. They keep me alive. Not in the sense that I'd be dead without them. But I'd certainly be a lot less interesting, a lot less engaged and a lot less joyful. And what the hell would I write about?

Come Monday, I send these little people, these darlings that make me crazy and make me real, back into the world, send them into that institutional order and routine that I love. For them and hallelujah, for me. And I will undoubtably be working to keep the tears on the inside of my eyelids instead of running down my cheeks as I watch them take one more official step away from me. And then I'll take a deep breath, go home, make a cup of decaf and finish that wrap dress I've been working on, NPR sedate on the radio, the sound of the clock ticking in my ears.

Sunday, August 15, 2010


I'm big into sewing. I come by it honestly, it seems. My sister, twelve years older than I, sewed when I was a kid. My mother, I hear, sewed once upon a time. After I was born the sewing came to a stop - too busy with her three kids, most likely. And her mother, the mysterious and long-dead Valeria, was, we're told, a seamstress in her native Romania.

I didn't sew much as a kid, actually. Made a few tiny, malformed, purple pillows on the machine, but that was pretty much the limit of my abilities. I watched my sister, though, and I think I must have picked up something by osmosis. When I was twenty-five, suddenly, in the middle of a career crisis, I started quilting, without a class, without a book, just made up my own method. The ladies at the quilt store literally laughed me out the door when I brought my first one in to get some advice on batting. Sour old bats. I somehow refined my process and got to the point of turning out a consistently well-made and, to my mind, beautiful, modern product. For years, that was what I stuck with but then, like the rest of America, I started watching "Project Runway", the show that has single-handedly brought back the almost-lost art of sewing.

I started with A-line dresses for the girls. Two pieces of fabric - no zippers, no buttons. Then slowly I graduated to simple skirts for me. The sudden freedom to make exactly what I wanted to wear instead of searching for it endlessly and fruitlessly in retail stores was bewitching. I now make shirts and dresses, even jeans. I can think of no better scenario than laying fabric out on the dining table to cut for a new project, "This American Life" playing on the radio, the kids off with Ben - somewhere - anywhere. It's so satisfying that when I contemplated moving to San Jose a year ago, I thought, well, if I can bring my sewing machine, I'll probably be okay. That, it turns out, was a bit of a blinkered view. My happiness, though greatly enhanced by sewing, is not completed by it. Shocking.

No surprise but the girls, Mae especially, have taken a great interest. Mae's consolation prize for being uprooted to San Jose was a pint-sized sewing machine. Last week, she did a sewing camp. Six eight-year-olds, six sewing machine, one very patient teacher and twenty hours to make some magic. Mae returned each day with a finished project - among them, an artfully deconstructed t-shirt, a tie-dyed skirt and, the very best, a sundress. I was bowled over with her blossoming ability. She'd come home from camp and immediately return to the machine, pulling out material from the fabric bins, sewing capes on Lana's t-shirts.

The girls and I are now designing their fall wardrobe. I have a vision of Mae and I side by side on dueling machines, NPR humming in the background, chatting occasionally, deeply content. She's certain to be, if not the best, the most creatively-dressed little lady in her third grade class. That's my girl.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Ladies' Man

Mihiretu has an eye for the ladies. He, like many men I know, is particularly impressed with boobs.

We were in line for ice cream yesterday at the Fairfax Scoop (if you're ever within a hundred miles of Fairfax, it's worth the trip) when Mihiretu spotted someone lovely choosing her flavor at the front. She was maybe nineteen, with long blond hair and - here's the best part - she was wearing a bikini top. She had a long flowing skirt on the lower half of her body, but the upper half was almost entirely on display.

Mihiretu saw her from behind, tugged on my hand and said, "Look, Mama, no shirt." Clearly this warranted further investigation so he made his way past the waiting customers and sidled up beside her. He looked her up and down then, and just so no detail would escape him, he scurried behind her to view her from the other side. She was immersed in the decision between Vanilla Honey Lavender and Blackberry Swirl and didn't notice the three-foot Lothario below. After a good long look, Mihiretu, satisfied, threaded back through the throng to me.

Ben said that when he took Mihiretu and Lana canoeing down the Russian River a few weeks ago, Mihiretu would point out any scantily clad woman. The more cleavage, the brighter the swimsuit, the bigger the hussy, the better. "Pitty," he'd tell Ben, with a lascivious smirk, shaking his head slowly in awe. "Pitty, pitty."

Can't wait to see who he drags home in ten years. Seems like he might have a Bill Clinton complex.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Scientific Inquiry

To try to achieve a quick recovery from my so strange pneumonia, I put the girls in an all day camp for the first part of the week. It meant that Mihiretu and I had a couple of afternoons alone, something that is very rare for us. Coupled with my new resolve to be positive with him at all costs, they ended up being really delightful interludes. Maybe I should have been doing this all along. Oh, the gifts of pneumonia.

On Monday, we joined my sister-in-law, Tracy, and her boys at their local pool. This particular facility has an excellent wading pool. It's huge and has a shallow end (one foot) and a deeper end (three feet). It was ideal because it meant I didn't have to get in the pool with him - something my infected lungs would probably not appreciate.

Mihiretu was splashing happily with his cousins when he spotted a very pregnant lady cooling her legs at one end of the pool. I was happily couched in the shade at the other end, feet up on a recliner, chatting with Tracy. I watched as he circled cautiously for a moment, his hands trailing the surface of the water, before he finally approached her, his curiousity overwhelming his reserve.

"What iz zat?" he asked, gesturing to her giant belly.

She kindly explained that there was a baby in there.

"Nooo," he said, smirking and eyeing her sideway. He clearly thought she was having him on. It is a very weird idea.

She said that, yes, indeed, for real, there was a baby in there.

He put a tentative hand on her lycra-covered belly and said, "I wan see it." I sat up a little, waiting, watching, not quite yet ready to do her boundary-making for her.

She laughed and said, "You can't see it. It's in my belly."

Mihiretu moved closer and, with two careful fingers, pinched her swimsuit between her breasts, gingerly pulled the suit away from her body and peered into the abyss.

That's when, pneumonia or no, I leapt from my chaise and scampered to the scene of the crime. She was quite understanding, that nice lady, even if it was her due date. I remember being very crabby on my due dates - both of them.

I found a diving stick to distract Mihiretu and threw it to the other end of the pool for him to fetch. Before he dove under, he smiled at me a little wickedly. I had to smile back.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Exile Island

On past seasons of "Survivor", there has been something called "Exile Island", in which one of the contestants is banished to an island of their own for a couple of days and left to build their own fire and forage for their own food. If I ever actually did make it on the show and then was one of the unlucky ones sent into exile, that's where you'd see Liz go mad.

I'm not good with lonely. Too much isolation as a child and maybe just too social a creature. I like my time by myself, don't get me wrong. It's when I'm alone not by choice, for too long a period, without something to accomplish that I run into trouble. This weekend was such an example. Yes, it was a gift that Ben took the kids out of the house, and yes, I needed that bed-rest to get over this pneumonia. It was all appropriate. It just wasn't comfortable.

I rented some movies on Friday foreseeing the long hours to fill. Unfortunately, I chose those movies while I had a hundred and two degree fever. I even went so far as to forget them at the store, returning an hour later, sheepishly, to retrieve them. I managed somehow to put together the perfect storm of depressing films. At this point, I can barely remember them. Saturday was a blur of fever, violent coughing and some serious spaciness. There were a couple of French films I watched back to back, straining to read the subtitles through my headache. I think one was about Edith Piaf. I do know that children were abandoned and abused, parents were ghoulish, cold, French monsters.

I have been feeling, in this very rough patch with Mihiretu, like a pretty terrible mother. It's been a dark period of snappy, grumpy overwhelm. I haven't been enjoying him, have only wanted to escape, even for a moment. Watching these horrible parents ruin their children, in my haze, I saw myself.

Even though I was so out of it, I knew I was on a downward spiral. I tried to shift gears and put "Survivor" in the DVD player. I can always count on it to make me happy, to help me forget what's bugging me.

But the storm swirled around me again. The episode we had reached was the one "Survivor" episode I can remember that made me cry. Not get a little misty, that happens a lot, but full-on lose it. One of the contestants, a young woman named Jenna, quits the game to return to her mother who is sick with cancer. Her mother has had the disease for many years, she was fairly stable when Jenna left, Jenna had even done "Survivor" once before - we're watching the All-Star season - but for whatever reason, every day on the show, Jenna grows sadder, more concerned, more remote. Ultimately, there's a big scene at a challenge where she reveals to all that she's leaving. Everyone cries. And, yes, that was sad but here's what got me. She gets on the boat and as we watch her go across the sea, we read "Jenna rushed to be at her mother's side. Her mother died eight days later." I can't even write that without tearing up. I, of course, remember being at my dad's side in those last weeks and days, remember how desperately I need to see him, touch him, know that he was there, at least for awhile longer.

By this time I was sitting on my couch sobbing in the dark. I'm failing as a mother, the one thing I really want to be good at, we all just die and leave each other anyway, and, Jesus, I have pneumonia so maybe I'm not Jenna. Maybe I'm Jenna's mother.

Ben called at that moment, thank God. He talked me out of my tree, or at least down a few branches. I turned off the TV and took myself to bed. Sunday I woke up with a much clearer head and, for the first time in five days, no fever.

By the time the kids returned with Ben at midday, I had made some decisions. Beyond my devotion to my husband, I knew that I loved my children and my role as their mother more dearly than anything else in my life. I always know that, I live that, but I because I hadn't seen them in a couple days, I could come to it anew. I resolved to come fresh to Mihiretu, to treat him with as much patience and respect as I could muster. I was going to remember that he was three, that he'd been through a lot, that when he pushed me towards the edge, the edge that I sometimes fear I could very well fall off, it wasn't personal. That when he says he wants a different mommy, he'd probably say that to the different mommy, too.

This morning, when Mihiretu was throwing his egg-covered silverware across the dining room because I wasn't cutting his toast correctly, I looked the other way. I praised Mae for how politely she was eating her meal. When he started to hit me, I got up from the table calmly and went to wash the dishes. When he finally sat down again to eat, I told him how great it was that he was sitting in his seat, that he was eating his eggs. And I wasn't the least bit sarcastic.

Occasionally, someone will go to Exile Island that you just know is going to lose it. They're the super-neurotic or the weeper. But once in a while, someone like that will emerge from the experience stronger and clearer. They'll have the dark night with themselves and it'll strip them to their elements. Maybe I'm one of those. Maybe I'm stronger than I think.

Saturday, July 31, 2010


Somehow I came down with pneumonia. I'm not one to get sick, especially in the middle of summer, but here I sit in bed.

Ben and the kids stuck with our plan for the weekend. They're at Ethiopian Heritage camp in the Santa Cruz mountains, hanging with other families who've adopted from Ethiopia and even some honest-to-God adult Ethiopians. I'm sorry to miss it. It was fun last year, even though we were still dazed from so recently bringing Mihiretu home. It's a delight to see families that look like ours and to get a taste, a scent, of Ethiopia.

So here I am with two days of silence and books and bed, exactly what I've been fantasizing about. It's a little alarming that it took getting pneumonia to make it happen.

My grandmother, Valeria, my mother's mother, died of pneumonia. This was 1935, just ten years before antibiotics. My mother was two when she died and I feel that her whole life has spooled out from that event. Her father, a destitute Romanian immigrant, was understandably overwhelmed with his three young motherless children and sent them to live in an orphanage temporarily. I never got a clear answer (or maybe - god, really? - I never asked the question) about how long my mom was there. I do know that she was separated from her brothers - boys went in one wing, girls in the other. I know that she, at two, formed memories of her misery there.

Eventually my grandfather managed to bring his children home. But he also procured another wife. Stella (a name I love but could never name my own girls because of the connotations for my mother) was the prototypical evil step-mother. She beat and ridiculed my mother, much more than the boys, lord knows why. She also was pathologically slovenly. Stacks of newspapers throughout the house, a mountain of dishes in the sink. My mother was once beaten for washing them without permission. Stella eventually grew so psychotic that my grandfather committed her to an insane asylum. Sadly, from what I can gather, this was after my mother had grown up and left home.

And so my mother, no doubt genetically predisposed to depression (every old photo of any Romanian ancestor seems laden with sadness) and even obsessive-compulsive tendencies became the often anxious, often melancholy woman I knew. She also, both in reaction to Stella and I think because it was her nature to begin with, was an incredibly kind mother and kept the cleanest house I've ever seen. And, later, as her depression became deeper and scarier, was terrified that we were going to commit her to a mental hospital - something, I believe, that's no longer legal.

And I, with my mother as a model, became a kind (most of the time, anyway), terribly orderly, sometimes sad and nervous person. How it might have gone if Valeria hadn't gotten that bit of bacteria in her lungs, I don't know.

And so here I sit in my sunlit, neat-as-a-pin bedroom, with the white bedding pulled around me, heavy-duty antibiotics coursing through my system, wheezing a bit and thinking on my beautiful namesake (Valeria is my middle name), the seamstress, the ghost that's haunted a couple of generations. I'm in 2010, thank god, I'm not (knock on wood) going to die of pnuemonia but while all this silence around me is lovely, I can smell the danger.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010


Things have been difficult lately and when the going gets tough in this house, the tough watch reality TV.

My girls were born twenty-three months apart and while those first years of parenting were joyous, they were also taxing. I took to self-medicating my discomfort in the form of candy, beer, US Weekly and reality TV. In the time since, I've realized that the beer and the candy makes me fat, which only makes me more miserable. As for US Weekly, after years of subscribing I found that it, too, was leaving me feeling kind of ooky. I still indulge once in a while but I find I'm much happier reading novels.

So that leaves reality TV as the lone escape hatch. I don't watch much. There are three shows I love; the classic Survivor, Project Runway, which re-ignited my passion for sewing and finally, embarassingly, America's Next Top Model. Yes the shrieks of the young girls as they meet their hero, Tyra Banks, sends me for the Tivo remote every time to fast-forward but having been an actress for so long, having spent so much time in front of a camera, the thing fascinates me.

Survivor has taken on an important role in my marriage. Ben and I discovered it at the end of the first season, right about when the contestants were accusing each other of being rats and snakes. Though we're not generally TV people, we were immediately hooked. We had just moved in together, were moments away from getting married and watching a little TV seemed properly domestic. From that season on, we've watched every episode, until very recently live. Thursday nights have become sacred for us. We put the kids to bed, sit side by side on the couch, hold hands and, at commercial breaks, pledge our love. It's become not so much about the show as about a tradition we have with each other. It is our holy hour.

This year, for the first time, the girls have taken an interest. Rarely, as a special treat, one will get to sit up late with us and watch. Just recently, with Ben out of town so much, the girls and I have happened on the idea of renting past seasons. Survivor, for me anyway, is very temporal. I'm avidly attuned to the contestants during their season but once that season ends, I have a very difficult time remembering what happened or even who won. Somehow the story just evaporates. Which, now, is perfect. I can watch along with the girls and be surprised with them.

We all get ready for bed, station ourselves on the couch and start the show. Mihiretu almost immediately falls asleep. I put him to bed and we keep watching. Most of the time we see one episode, occasionally two, once when I was feeling in deep need of a fix, a delicious three.

To follow the Capron family tradition, there's a lot of discussion of the show during the day. Ben and I, on our hiking dates, will, when the show is running, inevitably say, "Okay, let's talk about Survivor". While Ben and I discuss strategy, the kids are into picking favorites, often not for how good they are at the game. Lana gets attached to girls, usually pretty ones, or ones that are "into fashion" - i.e. they have tattoos and piercings. She even went so far as to name her new chick Angelinie - a combination of Angie, Eliza and Stephenie, her favorite contestants so far. (The other chicks, who are the cutest people ever, were named Romeo - Mae's in Shakespeare camp and thought it appropriate even if Romeo is a hen - and Meryl Streep, my choice.)

I've threatened to audition for Survivor for years. Ben even went so far as to send in a tape back when. I've never done it because I felt my kids were too young and I couldn't leave them for the month and a half necessary. Lately I've been feeling differently. Maybe it's turning forty, maybe it's the past difficult year, but taking off to live in the dirt with eighteen strangers sounds like the vacation I need. Plus it'd be a great diet program.

Last night Lana said that if I were on Survivor I would probably be her favorite. She'd have other favorites, too, she surmised, but she'd probably, almost definitely, want me to win. Good to know I have her in my corner.