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.

Friday, July 23, 2010


Ben is dyslexic. He's extremely bright and has overcome that disability in all kinds of ways. He is a trail-blazer, both professionally and well, on the trail. I actually have a theory about dyslexia - talk to me long enough and you'll learn I have theories on almost everything. Because kids with dyslexia are forced to learn in different ways, because the conventional teaching methods don't work for them, they, when they're resourceful, can reinvent the wheel. (So many bike analogies!) In their adult lives, when they're confronted with a puzzle that others, using traditional methods, can't solve, they can see the problem in a fresh way and often achieve a solution. I know - or know of - a lot of dyslexics that are superstars in business.

When Ben was a kid, however, being dyslexic, particularly in the relatively unaware seventies, was terrible. He was ridiculed, belittled, called stupid. It scarred him. Part of his own self-perception, a small part, but present all the same, is that he's not smart. It both kills me and amazes me that this is so. He is, in his way, possibly the smartest person I know. The idea that the kid in him can't believe that is so sad.

Not surprisingly, Ben is sensitive to kids calling each other dumb. Hence, while my children freely swear (though not at each other), the word "stupid" is verboten. And, of course, very popular. The girls know not to use it but it's popped out of their mouths enough times for Mihiretu to understand it's power. Therefore, when Mihiretu is in a mood, which lately is almost always, everything and everyone is "shupid".

Ben is gone for most of this month and I'm starting to get worn down. The longer he's away, the less secure Mihiretu feels and the worse his behavior. The worse his behavior, the farther down I'm ground. We're in something of a downward spiral at the moment. He pushes my buttons, I get impatient. He is hurt that I'm impatient, he pushes more buttons. And so on and so on.

Yesterday, we were getting in the car and he was mad about something. Don't remember what now. Wrong shoes? Music wasn't on? Or, and I think this was it, he had stepped on my sunglasses when he was playing in the front seat before I, laden with lunch and swimsuits and towels, could get to the car. I'm sure I got mad, asked him not so gently to please not play in the front, as I've asked almost every day. To which he responded, "You shupid."

And to which I said, under my breath but audibly, "Sometimes I think you shupid, too."

I've never called him or any of my kids stupid or even shupid before. That one probably isn't in the parenting how-to manuals. And for a guy that throws that word around like rice at a wedding, it was like I had struck him with a dagger. So hurt, so offended. Rightfully so, I guess. Though I don't think he knows what it means beyond being an insult. He only knows that the insults are only supposed to flow one way.

Don't call the social worker on me. I'm very much the imperfect parent right now. When I do get a break, I keep trying to center myself so that I can be patient and loving when I see him again. It doesn't seem to be working. When I'm in the valleys with him, and there have been many, it's so hard to remember the view from the top of the mountain, and to have faith that we will get there again. Shupid, shupid valleys.

Monday, July 19, 2010


I have this habit of using the kids' full names when I'm getting pissed. Not middle names but first and last. It serves as a warning, I figure, that my temperature is rising and they'd better get their act together. So, were you a fly on the wall of my livingroom (if you weren't, by luck, getting swatted with a pink rubber glove) you might hear "Mae Capron, keep your hands and feet to yourself!" Or "Lana Capron, open this door by the count of ten or there will be some serious repercussions!" Or, and here's where it starts getting good, "Mihiretu Capron-" a name I never thought I could say with a straight face it's such a raw melding of cultures - "put that ziploc bag full of water in the sink right now or you'll go sit in the car!" The car, it should be noted, is the only spot I've come up with for a time out for that guy. I strap him in his car seat and sit on the steps until he's had a change of heart. The whole go-sit-on-your-bed-and-we'll-have-a-talk, not surprisingly, has not been effective with him.

Months ago, Mae, is a fit of anger said, "Mama Capron!" Whatever argument we had been having dissolved into giggles. She's taken to injecting it when she feels tension growing. Maybe child after child is spilling milk or tracking mud through the house or screeching. When she sees my frustration growing and she senses that she might be visited by Hurricane Liz, she'll shout, half-smiling, "Mama Capron!", like I'm in trouble. It never fails to crack me up.

Lately, Mihiretu's gotten into the act. When he's in mild conflict with someone, say Lana (and it's usually Lana), still at the point when it can all be dismissed as a joke, he'll say in mock fury, "Lana Kay-pin!"

Last night, after a long day out which included canoeing down the Russian River AND a party, we were trying to wrestle the kids into bed. They were past exhausted, it was nine-thirty, an ungodly hour for children (at least our children) to still be out of bed. I had slipped guiltily out of their bedroom for a moment to brush my teeth, leaving Ben in the heat of battle. I could hear shouts rising, and then reaching a crescendo. Mihiretu's voice rang out angrily "Capron!" It was, for all the world, like he was shouting "Asshole!"

Saturday, July 17, 2010

My Mae

It's really nice to have an oldest child. While the other two may, at any moment, tantrum, shriek or sob theatrically, Mae has become my rock. Yes, she has taken to rolling her eyes at me occasionally and can dole out a healthy helping of teenagerly attitude but, for the most part, she's a pleasure.

When we went to family camp last week, Mae and I decided to take a hike. I love to hike. Walk and talk, there's no greater pleasure for me. Ben and my best dates are ones that include at least two hours of walking. The endorphins flow, we can leisurely chat, problem-solve or imagine our future.

Mae and I left camp by the paved road. We headed uphill for what seemed like miles. It was hot, it was our first full day at altitude, and Mae's energy flagged. She took to resting every 500 yards or so until I lured her along with ghost stories. The kid, like me, finds that shit fascinating. We ran through all my personal ghost stories (the chair that flew across the room during a game of Ouija, the Indian brave my brother's girlfriend spotted on our driveway long ago, the dream of that same girlfriend years later in which my father appeared with a message for us) and went on to some more generic ones (the haunted room on the 13th floor of the hotel, etc) and soon we were to the top of the hill. We walked into the forest and that's when the really good conversation began. We talked about life after death, reincarnation and Buddhism, comparing views and opinions. We got into it. I couldn't have had a better, more interesting talk with someone my own age.

Yesterday, the whole family went to the community pool. The usual scenario is me and three kids and while we all swim together, my eyes are always on Mihiretu, who, though he's learning fast, is not water-safe. He, the daredevil that he is, swims without warning into the middle of the deep end, only to get four feet, raise his head and start to sink, watery eyes wide open searching for help.

But yesterday Ben was on Mihiretu duty and I had the great pleasure of some swim time with Mae. Mae, like me, is a water girl. We're always the first ones in and the last ones out. We could play and race and handstand for hours. We are, we joke, part dolphin.

Yesterday I showed Mae my few water ballet skills, learned when I was probably her age from my older sister who was way into it. Soon she was trying them herself. We floated out from the wall on our backs and, at the count of three, lifted one pointed foot straight in the air before using our arms to push ourselves down underwater, the extended leg disappearing like an arrow. We worked up to a two-leg lift, a twisting two-leg lift, a twisting front surface dive, all syncronized. We spent an hour perfecting our skills, laughing as we came to the surface after a particularly botched trick, beeming in triumph when we achieved a new level of accuracy. I couldn't have been having more fun - with anyone. Mae is just old enough to be a small peer and just young enough to bring out the child in me.

I woke up this morning with sore abdominal muscles. Not from the yoga class I took yesterday but from all the piking and spinning, my dolphin time with my girl.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


I told off the psychic today.

Let me back up. The last few weeks with Mihiretu has been challenging. We moved, which is difficult for any child let alone one that has had as many major transitions as he has. Then, a couple weeks later, we went to camp. Confusing for him, I'm sure. Is this home now? Or the chicken-house? He's actually been asking lately to go home. While we're home. Today he even said, "To San Jose" or mumbled something that sort of sounded like San Jose. I knew what he meant.

And through this time Ben has been traveling. He's been here for a few days, gone for a week, here for a weekend, gone for ten days. It's our typical summer, Ben's busy time at work, but that, most of all, I think, has sent Mihiretu into a tail-spin. He asks on the hour where Dad is and when he's coming back.

The manifestation of all this turmoil is some really bad behavior. We're back to the old hitting, biting, screaming Mihiretu. I didn't miss him, I have to say. I far prefer the laughing, smiling, kissing Mihiretu. All day every day from the moment he wakes up (this morning shouting and kicking at five a.m.) to the moment he falls asleep (this evening at ten after a good hour of jumping and yelling in his bed, in, of course, the room he shares with his sisters) it's a whole lot of mayhem. We have some nice moments but we also have a lot of trouble.

Today we went to the farmer's market in Fairfax, unquestionably my favorite couple hours of the week. We were sitting on our blanket, eating strawberries and rotisserie chicken, listening to the guy play classical guitar, having a great time. Then things started to unravel. Mihiretu refused to put on his shoes to walk around the market. Thirty minute back and forth, him asking, okay screaming, why he had to put on his fop-fops and me trying to explain that I wanted him to wear shoes so that his feet didn't get hurt because I love him. We finally made it past the shoes and were making a tour of the market when he lost his mind because I misunderstood him. When he was asking for chocolate he really meant Afghani food. Duh, Mom. But even when I offered to take him over to the Afghani stand he continued to remained rooted in the middle of the market, screaming. And I've said it before but I'll say it again. I've never heard a shriek like his. It hurts, physically hurts.

I took a couple of steps away from him as I often do when I've had enough and need a breather. I was just far enough to hear a woman say, "That screaming! What an ill-behaved child!"

This happens more than you might think. People don't connect pale me with my chocolate son. They don't realize we're together. So, when he's acting out, and yes, he acts out, I hear all about it. I've put up with this for a year. Strangers shooting my boy dirty looks, rolled eyes, smirks. Today I had had enough.

The speaker was our local psychic. She dresses in draping white clothing, including a tall white velvet witch's hat trailing a long white veil. The Wiccan Bride. Last week it was a little cold so she put on a white zip-up hoody sweatshirt to complete the look. She's been at every Fairfax farmer's market that I can remember, going back ten years, passing out her card (which reads "Professional Witchcraft Services. Private consultation and custom spell work. No problem too big, too small or too weird.") and giving free Tarot readings, trying to get people hooked. I've always found her vaguely charming. Very Fairfax. Part of the fabric of the place.

"Excuse me?!" I said today, always a good way to begin a confrontation. The woman with whom she'd been discussing my ill-behaved child immediately faded back into the crowd.

I lit into her. I told her what I've been wanting to tell every person who's misunderstood Mihiretu since we've arrived home from Ethiopia. With a shaking voice, I said that she might want to take a look at the child she was disparaging, check and see if, oh, I don't know, there might be some conclusions she can draw. Brown kid, white mom. Maybe he's adopted? Maybe he's been orphaned, abandoned, institutionalized, then brought to a country where every single thing is foreign? That maybe he lost his mother a year ago.

Here the white witch, who (when she could get a word in) had continued to insist that he was still ill-mannered, looked confused. "He lost his mother?"

"Yes!" I heaved.

"Well, where is she?"

And it dawned on me that she still had no idea that Mihiretu and I were connected.

"She died!" I said. "I'm his mother now!"

"Oh," she said. What do you say to that?

She was now mumbling that everyone was very grateful for what I was doing, which for the record, I really resent. I'm not mothering Mihiretu to better the human race, to lighten our white-man's burden. I'm mothering him because I am his mother. Because I wanted a child. Because he is mine.

I couldn't even hear the apology starting. I walked away with a thrown-away "Fuck you." Not my proudest moment. When you resort to "Fuck you" you aren't thinking anymore.

Was she wrong in saying Mihiretu was ill-mannered? Probably. Did she deserve the raft of shit I dumped on her? Probably not. She got everyone else's belated serving plus all my stress of the past single-handed month. Maybe next week I'll apologize.

One bright spot. Half way through my diatribe, I realized that I now, after a couple of blank days, had something to write about.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Camping It Up

We returned this afternoon from a week of family camp. The camp we chose was Camp Tuolumne, sponsored by the city of Berkeley, nestled in the Sierras near Yosemite.

For those new to the idea of family camp, it's a fairly brilliant concept. You send the kids to camp but then you go, too. We stayed in a very rustic tent cabin, ate en masse in the dining hall, made friendship bracelets, tie-dyed whatever was handy, swam in the river, sat by the campfire, and, most importantly, sang. Some perennial Tuolomne Camp favorites, sang daily, sometimes hourly, include "Please Check the Seat-Chart Before You Come Inside", "Tuolomne Ranger", "Farewell, Jolly Campers", and, for almost any reason (a birthday, a child earning Tuolomne Ranger status) "Round the Hall You Must Go" in which the celebrated camper marches around the dining hall as all the other campers stand on their benches and clap in unison. It sounds, well, campy, but once in the spirit of it, and lead by a young and simultaneously tongue-in-cheek and quite-sincere, certainly boisterous staff, it was awfully fun.

Camp Tuolumne celebrates its eightieth year this summer. Since the beginning of the Great Depression (as opposed to our current Pretty Good Depression), generations of long-haired, erudite, sock-and-sandal-wearing Berkeleyites have been singing those same songs, eating at those same tables, lounging in those same battered green Adirondack chairs.

We're not from Berkeley, of course, but we might as well be. Marin is the more attractive, less militant sister to Berkeley. The prettier, younger, less interesting one. While our camp-mates were a little hairier, a little less fashionable, a little better-read, perhaps, we're all part of the same family.

We went to camp with our friends, the aforementioned Ben and Elizabeth, and their two boys, Axel, who is three and well on his way towards becoming Mihiretu's first real American friend, someone he plays with instead of just beside and of course, Hugo, who is married to Lana. This, if you remember, was to be their honeymoon.

The camp was divided into three generational strata. The children, of course, then the college-age staff members and finally, us, the parents, the (relative) old folk. The interplay within these groups and then between them was fascinating. The elders were watching each other, privately comparing parenting styles, maybe, just possibly, making a judgement or two. The kids were also eyeing each other, wondering if that girl over there could maybe be my friend? I hear she's six, too. And then the youth. I could have spent all day watching the quiet flirtations (they were employees, after all, they couldn't be enjoying themselves too obviously), the rough, loud friendships developing between the boys, the whispering alliances between the girls.

I spent the first day or two catching myself humming "Mrs. Robinson". I think the fact of my recent fortieth birthday finally hit home as I watched these young men, these boys, who I swear were my peers just a minute ago. I'd find myself thinking, oh, he's cute, I wonder what his major is? And then think, oh my god, he was born in 1990. 1990, of course, being the very same year I seemed to think I was in, at least momentarily. I wasn't looking for action, don't get me wrong, but observing people and observing my own reactions to them is probably my favorite sport. Thank god I never became the famous movie star I thought I wanted to be. I would have never have been able to watch as I do.

In our last twenty-four hours, an epidemic swept camp. A virus. A shitty, pukey virus. People were upchucking everywhere. On the Adirondacks, on Beaverhead Rock in the center of the swimming hole, in tents, out of tents. I woke in the middle of the night to an aria of retching. Ben had left a few days earlier to return to work so I lay wide-eyed on my cot, terrified that we'd be swamped with body fluids before I could get the kids down the mountain and home. Mostly I feared getting the thing myself, not because I'm afraid of barfing but because if I'm down for the count, who's watching the kids? Mae's extremely competent but I pretty sure she couldn't drive us home.

We Caprons emerged from our tent this morning still comparatively well. Lana complained of a stomach ache, Mihiretu was a hysterical mess and Mae confessed to diarrhea but all in all, no fireworks to speak of. I got a report from Elizabeth that Ben (hers, not mine) and Hugo had been part of the vomit chorus the night before. She looked pale herself. We scooted ourselves, our ailing families and our piles of stuff out of camp as fast as possible. The dining-hall staff insisted on singing us "Farewell, Jolly Campers" at breakfast, which we endured. But as the song was still fading from the rafters, we requested barf-bags for the road.

Mae did throw up on the ride home but Mae is a thrower-upper and prone to carsickness so it wasn't surprising. Since it was an isolated incident, I dismissed it. I picked up groceries before we got home. I unpacked the car and then as many bags as I could as the day wore on, convinced that the plague would hit at any moment. It was the equivalent of battening down the hatches before a storm.

The kids are asleep. Mae went to bed with a bowl. She said she felt nauseous. She rarely cries wolf on that one. It might be a long night. But, for now, we're home, we're clean of the dust of camp and, all in all, we had a good time. Happy campers.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Fly Hunter

I'm going to come right out and say it. I hate flies. Hate them.

Summertime brings those maddening little critters in the house and the kids and I have taken to hunting them. Early morning and late at night are the best times as flies can't move very fast in the cold. Mae goes at them with her bare hands, jumping and slapping mid-air. She has a surprising (and disgusting) success rate. Lana, of course, would never hunt a fly. Not because she wouldn't want to hurt it - far from it. She doesn't go near anything she finds distasteful.

This morning at six-thirty, Mihiretu came into my room as I was making the bed. He pulled me back towards the living-room where he had been getting his early morning Caillou fix. "Idea!" he said excitedly. "Idea!"

He brought me to a corner window where there was a big fat fly, preening its wings. "Bee!" he said, meaning fly. All flying insects are named bees in his world.

He grinned at me hungrily.

"You want to kill it?" I guessed.

And so we were off to the kitchen to collect my preferred weapon, the long pink rubber gloves I use for washing dishes. I gave MIhiretu one glove and held mine by the end so the the empty pink hand drooped towards the floor.

We tiptoed back to our unsuspecting prey. "Okay," I counseled, "Be real quiet until we get right up to it."

Once we were in position, our bodies stooped and ready to spring, I hissed, "Go!"

And so began the furious flapping of rubber, pink streaking our vision. The fly, poor guy, buzzed in a panic from window to window until finally we had him spinning on his back on the floor.

"Okay, Mihiretu," I said, generous mother that I am. "Finish him off."

Mihiretu looked at me uncertainly. I nodded my head. He raised his glove high above his head and whapped that poor fly into its next life, hopefully a promotion, a rat, say, or a cricket. Mihiretu grinned at me in triumph.

How did I get here, I thought, chasing flies through the living-room with pink rubber gloves at six-thirty in the morning, a little African boy at my heels?

I don't know. But I'm happy I'm here.