Saturday, October 31

Wild Things

Although these days I'm only dimly aware that people continue to make and release movies, somehow or another I know that a film version of Where the Wild Things Are is now out in theaters. Manohla Dargis's review in the New York Times intrigues me, and I generally admire the work of (director and co-writer) Spike Jonze and (co-writer) Dave Eggers, but I doubt that Beckett and I will be paying the sitter for a night out to go see the adaptation. The visual and verbal poetry of the original are perfect; no other children's book is as pleasurable to read aloud (although the closing cadences of Goodnight Moon come close). I'm not sure that I want anything more than just what Sendak gave us.

I also love the book for its portrayal of the relationship between Max and his mother. I suspect that Max's mother is a wild thing, like her son. After all, she is the first to yell, in an all-caps roar: "WILD THING!" And, like spanking, sending a child to bed without his supper seems to me to be more likely done in anger or desperation than for any other reasons (and certainly not for any good ones). So it comforts me to know that Max nevertheless knows that she loves him "best of all." Because I, too, am a wild thing — or, in contemporary parlance, "spirited" — and there have been days when I have been lonely, exhausted, and under pressure to meet a deadline, and my tamped-down spirit has let out an angry roar at my poor little Critter.

Please please please little fellow, know that I do indeed love you best of all!

Thursday, September 17

Happy Birthday, Critter!

Wasn't it just April, the leaves just beginning to appear, and the Critter not yet crawling? And now it is September, the days growing cooler, the nights falling earlier ... and the Critter one year old today!

At the beginning of August, I took on a bunch of work, which I managed poorly, and I found myself wishing away the miserable, too-hot month. I kept reminding myself, it will be over soon enough, and then the summer will be gone, and how has it gone so quickly, anyway? And before I know it, it will be Hallowe'en, and then Thanksgiving, and then Christmas and yet another year about to begin ...

I have a theory about why time seems to pass so quickly: it is because of my calendar, filled up with deadlines and plans. It was not always so. Every year my family received a Travelers Currier & Ives calendar from my Aunt Mary, who worked for Travelers. When I was very young, I would study the calendar and contemplate the mysterious words at the top of each column of numbers. Sun made sense to me, as did Mon, which I understood as moon. I decided that Tue meant two, but what did the number two have to do with the sun and the moon? And what was a Thurs? No wonder time and the seasons felt vast and spacious to me then — I had not yet learned to chop it up into hours, days, weeks, years....

Lucky Critter, unaware of any plans, or even that it is his birthday today!

Wednesday, September 9

I Am Becoming My Mother

A scene from last night ...

Beckett: What are you making for dinner tonight?

Me: Poison.


What strikes me about this scene isn't as much the script, lifted word-for-word from my childhood but with me now speaking my mother's line, as much as the violent irritation I feel when asked what I am making for dinner. It is as though Beckett is checking whether or not whatever I have decided we will eat for dinner meets with his approval. He claims that the query is neutral, but. It is as though, and as though is enough to irritate me.

Monday, August 3

Correction, maybe?

The picture caption in my most recent post may not have been accurate, in that the Critter may not really have a BATNA relative to his relationship with Beckett and me, because that relationship, unlike marriage, is probably not a negotiation. Probably not, maybe not ... or maybe so??? Again, Mahony's definition of a negotiation is “any situation in which two or more people are interdependent, have some perceived conflict, can use strategic behavior, and have room for agreement.” Let's see. Interdependent? Yep: the Critter sure needs us, and I've written before about how much I (we both!) need him. Perceived conflict? Oh, many: for example, I want the Critter to nap in his crib; he, not so much. Strategic behaviour? Yep: I wield the power of the boobs, for example; the Critter has his overwhelming cuteness on his side. Does he use it strategically? I'm sure. Room for agreement? But of course ...

Friday, July 31

Maybe Mom Was Wrong

As I wrote earlier this week, Rhona Mahony’s book Kidding Ourselves has gotten me thinking about my power to bargain with my artist husband. Mahony argues that women will not achieve economic equality until the cessation of the sexual division of labor, in which fathers tend to be the primary breadwinner in their families and mothers tend to be the primary homemaker and parent. Though Mahony does not argue that every couple should evenly split the “second shift” of unpaid labor—she rather envisions a future in which labor is evenly distributed between men and women across society—she does hope to give women the tools to negotiate for a better deal in their marriages.

According to Mahony, marriage is itself a kind of negotiation, which she defines as “any situation in which two or more people are interdependent, have some perceived conflict, can use strategic behavior, and have room for agreement.” Partners cooperate to create value—money, time, security, and happiness—and also compete to claim that value (which is not to say, by the way, that they don’t also share some of that value). In competing for that value, partners can stick tight or make trade-offs between and among interests, needs, and positions, and one partner tends to have an advantage over the other in this competition. In heterosexual relationships, the partner with the advantage tends to be the man, because the man tends to have the better “BATNA”, or “best alternative to a negotiated agreement”. To put it bluntly, men tend to have less to lose by leaving the marriage, which gives them better bargaining power within the marriage.

Before the birth of the Critter, I clearly had the better BATNA than Beckett. Even as a freelancer, I earned more than he did; plus, my potential for earnings are greater, my vocation (unlike his) does not tie me to living in or very near an expensive urban center, and the costs of pursuing my avocation are much lower than his, which include the rent on a studio and the need to purchase expensive paints and other materials. With the birth of the Critter, however, as happens for most women in heterosexual couples upon the birth of a first child, my threat point went much higher. In other words, any threat that I might leave is now much less credible than it might have been before: I am unlikely to leave both Beckett and the Critter, and leaving with the Critter would be way, way, way more difficult than it would be without him. The current economic downturn has also raised my threat point; my income just isn’t what it used to be (whose is?), and for the first time Beckett is bringing home more than I am (though we’ll see where things stand by the end of the year).

Below: The Critter, raising our threat points to new heights, despite having the worst BATNA of all

Despite my newly higher threat point, Beckett is gamely taking on an increasing share in the household work, and often (though hardly always) without my having to make much of a fuss. Maybe my BATNA, and thus my bargaining power, is still relatively good, or at least not that much worse than Beckett’s; maybe he’s just a great guy. But I shouldn’t fool myself. For one thing, by far the majority of the Critter care falls to me—more on that later. And for another thing, we’ve been “dealing with” a good part of the household work by doing it less frequently or not at all, which troubles me (and therefore costs me) a great deal more than it does Beckett.

Analyzing one’s relationship with a beloved spouse in terms of economics and game theory is probably not all that appealing to many (most?) people, but I must confess that I’m taking great pleasure in Mahony’s book and the insight it has given me just to see what changes I want to make and what obstacles might be in the way of making those changes. And anyway, I’m taking the economic analysis of our relationship pretty lightly, because the one thing that gives both Beckett and me a lousy BATNA has nothing to do with either our earning power or the costs of making our art. The truth is, both of us were pretty darn unhappy until we met each other.

Coming soon: commitment mechanisms and Critter care …

Wednesday, July 29

Why I Love a Thunderstorm

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Because of the cool, dim break from the damp, bright heat. Because I can feel both safe and a little scared. Because of the thrill of being alive to witness such awesome drama: the rumbling, the roaring, the clouds piled high, the sudden crack of lightning. And the rain, the relief of the rain.

Tuesday, July 28

The Third Shift

My mother once told me I should marry rich. Alas, alas; instead, I married an artist.

I have tended to think of Beckett’s artistic ambitions both as in conflict with my own and as a financial burden on our relationship. However, I've been reading Kidding Ourselves, by Rhona Mahony, and am now reconsidering many of my assumptions about my unconventional life. Although marrying an artist has thus far resulted in high financial costs for me, it has also given me unusually good bargaining power, which I am probably not yet fully wielding exploiting using.

But, more on bargaining power later, I hope. I started to write a post about it this weekend, and some 750+ words later I realized that I needed to think things through more thoroughly before posting any conclusions. Meanwhile, I've learned that about a month ago at a conference on human resources, former General Electric CEO Jack Welch bluntly stated, "There's no such thing as work-life balance." Hem. Really? Maybe not if you want to be a CEO, but what about the rest of us? Are we all supposed to work as though nothing really matters but the job? I could say more on this angle, but much has already been said on other blogs, such as The Daily Dish (with Conor Friedersdorf filling in for Andrew Sullivan), 11D, and GeekyMom.

My take on this topic is a little different. First, let's be clear that the term "work-life balance" is a misnomer. Actually, what needs to be kept in balance is the time devoted to paid labor—one's vocation or job—and unpaid labor—homemaking and child care, or the "second shift" that falls disproportionately to women. So plenty of work is being done at home, and really the whole thing is one's life—paid labor, unpaid labor, and, one hopes, some time for leisure. Except that in my case (and in Beckett's case, too) the time for leisure is the time to take care of the "third shift": the artistic work. And so I tend to feel that discussions of work-life balance—or job-home balance, or whatever—don't satisfactorily address my situation. I imagine that I'm not the only woman who feels as I do. For one thing, whereas these discussions tend to assume that one's ambitions lie in the realm of paid work, for me, my job is really just a job. My ambitions lie elsewhere. And for another thing, the balance I must find is between not just the time and attention my job requires and the time and care the Critter and our home require, but also the time and care my writing requires.

Thursday, July 16

The Yellow Light Shining

I sometimes find myself wondering, What if I had not married? What if I had no Critter? My mind then turns to lines from one of Linda Gregg's poems, "Staying After":
Women have houses now, and children.
I live alone in a kind of luxury.
I wake when I feel like it,
read what Rilke wrote to Tsvetaeva.
How I sometimes long for that luxury: a large quiet space for my thoughts, for language, for poetry. While fetching a washcloth for the Critter's face one morning, I marveled at how busy I once thought I was. These days, I am lucky to jot a line or two in my journal, lucky to get to bed before midnight. And far too often my mind is like a puddle and my energy like dead leaves scattered and turning to mud in the puddle. Writes Gregg,
... And even now
I love the yellow light shining
down on the dirty brick wall.
Yes! That's what I want: not to look at the world as though through a muddy puddle, but rather to see the yellow light shining!

But. When I am tempted to wish that my life were otherwise, it is because I have forgotten who I really am. The truth is that in the long years before I met my love, I spent far too many hours wallowing in the muddy puddle of depressed self-pity. And the truth is that I once thought I was busy because I really was too, too busy at a job I did not much like. And the truth is that with or without a large, quiet space for my thoughts &etc., I've actually written my best poetry since shortly after I became pregnant. The yellow light is in fact shining all around me: on the sweaty, napping baby; on the piles of dirty laundry; on the unmade bed.

Tuesday, June 16

The Sounds of Bedtime

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At the end of the day, I nurse and rock the Critter to sleep. Meanwhile, Beckett washes the dishes that have piled up through the course of the day. In my own childhood, I fell asleep to the hum of the dishwasher, and now I hope that the Critter finds the splashing of water, clinking of dishes and silverware, and clatter of pots and pans that comes through the nursery door from the kitchen as comforting as I do.

Thursday, June 11

Of Snips and Snails, and Puppy-Dogs' Tails

I'm often taken aback by other people's ideas about what little boys and girls should be or have, just based on whether they are little boys or little girls.

The most startling example occurred several months ago, during story time at the local branch of the public library. At one point, the performer leading that day's activities asked for a male volunteer to be sheriff and a female volunteer to be deputy sheriff. Yes, indeed: she specified a gender for each role. So, evidently we are up to teaching preschoolers that it's okay for females to take leadership positions—just so long as a boy still gets the top job. The Critter and I don't go to story time anymore. (Okay, not because of this occurrence—the performer that day was actually a substitute—but because story time usually involves singing the Barney song, and I just can't do it. Never, never again.)

Other examples are less offensive, but just plain baffling. I've been shopping for outfits for the Critter to wear to his uncles' upcoming weddings. At Daffy's, another shopper moved a pale, greenish-blue, lacy, sweater-ish thing from the girls' section to the boys', stating that it clearly was meant for a boy. Why? Because it was blue. (Barely, but whatever.) Then, at home, looking online for shoes for the Critter, I found that Target considers these Jack and Lily "trainers" to be for both boys and girls, whereas these nearly identical ones are for boys. Because, you know, they're blue. Seriously?

Monday, May 25

Getting into Things ...

I joined the Brooklyn Botanic Garden at the end of March, and since then the Critter and I have seen it come alive. Just a few weeks ago, the trees that are now heavy with lush green were still silvery gray, and in those few weeks, so many blossoms have grown, faded, fallen, and blown away.

Two Fridays ago we went to see the bluebells growing in the shade of the tall oak and beech trees; when I told my mother-in-law about our trip to see them, she said, "Don't you wish they would last longer than just a week or so?" Indeed. I remember my disappointment upon realizing that there is no long stretch of week upon week of long summer days. In truth, the longest day of the summer lasts just one day, and after it passes, the sunlight begins to diminish.

Meanwhile, my little Critter is crawling now and getting into things—this morning, for example, he tore off the cover of my Zen training manual and crumpled it up with much babbling joy. He really wants to walk and will use just about anything to pull him up to standing. Yes, spring will come again, next year, but it will no longer be the Critter's first. Who knows what he will be doing then? Pay attention!

Tuesday, May 5

The Loneliness of the Work-From-Home Mom

I sit in the darkened nursery, the curtains drawn, the Boards of Canada on the CD player, the Critter asleep on my lap: this is when I get my work done. There are days when the only other adults I see besides my husband are the strangers on the street and at the grocery store. Otherwise, I connect with other people mostly through the screen: e-mail, Facebook, this blog. I have the telephone numbers of a couple other local mothers, and I'm hoping to get over my natural shyness, call them, and make some "dates," however awkward they may be. In the meantime, this isolation cannot be good for the Critter. It's certainly not good for me. When did it happen that the workplace became the main nexus of community and companionship? In my first several months as a freelancer, I often got lonely, but nothing compares with the loneliness of a work-from-home mom with a Critter depending on her and deadlines to meet.

Like many other breast-feeding moms, I've thought a lot about this confused article against (or sort of against) breast-feeding that appeared not-so-recently-anymore in The Atlantic Monthly. Among the many things I have wondered in response to the article is where the judgmental attitude that the writer accurately perceives toward and among mothers—about all kinds of behaviors, not just breast-feeding or bottle-feeding—comes from. My sense is the villagers are anxious now that the village is gone and we're all out here on our own, creating whatever communities we can at the tot lot, through the Web, and over the phone.

Sunday, May 3

The American Question

In The New York Times Magazine this weekend, more reasons to wonder (and worry!) about the kind of education we should expect for the Critter. In response to "the American question," I have a few questions of my own: Why the rush? Whom or what are we racing? Why the obsession with standardization, measurement, and rigor? Does anyone who lauds their rigorous academic standards actually know what rigor means?

Whereas I tend to value most what cannot be measured. What do I want for the Critter? Paints, crayons, xylophones, and drums. Unstructured time outdoors. Good friends....

Wednesday, April 29

Whan That Aprille with His Shoures Soote ...

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I have tended to prefer May, the month of my birth, for its full, lush green. But in recent years I have begun to prefer April and its new green, a pale haze. And now—already!—the daffodils I waited through March to see are drying up, the petals of the magnolia trees are blowing away, and the forsythia have given up their gold.

As a work-from-home mommy, I have no time for novels. And so I nourish myself with poetry alone. Though I have been reading the work of other writers (Meghan O'Rourke's debut collection and, off and on since the Critter was born, Jane Kenyon), lately I find my mind turning to Robert Frost. Everyone knows about the road that made all the difference, I think; the poem unfortunately seems to have been sentimentalized, however, though its narrator seems to me more rueful than celebratory. Indeed, I love Robert Frost for his lack of sentiment, which is grounded in his being versed in country things. He knows that nature is indifferent to human fate, and that though it may be miles away, we are always headed toward winter. And even when he celebrates the new green of April, he focuses on its brevity.

Saturday, February 21

Spring Is (Almost) Here

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In past years, dreary January and February have seemed interminable. This year, even weeks ago it seemed that spring was not too far away—not just around the corner, but close enough. Has time sped up because I am older now and watching the Critter grow so quickly? Have I simply become more patient with the long nights and the cold? Is it because of the extension of Daylight Savings Time, now just two weeks away?

However close it may seem, spring is certainly not yet here—barely 30°F during my run this morning. Nevertheless, we've added Spring Is Here by Taro Gomi (of Everyone Poops fame) to our repertoire of bedtime books for the Critter. Its simple, lyric text and illustrations render the changing seasons, beginning with the birth of a calf. It is a perfect picture book, and I tend to order it in bulk so that I have copies to give to friends when they have children.

I have been known to tear up at the conclusion of the book, when, with the return of spring, "The calf has grown." But these days—perhaps because it is winter?—my favorite is the picture of four children dancing and sledding in the snow. "The snow falls," reads the text, "The children play."

Simple as it is, this part of the book stirs my sense of the incomprehensible vastness of things. There is a time when you are one of the children playing in the snow. Then perhaps the time comes when one of the children playing in the snow is yours, or, later, your child's child. Other times, the children are your neighbors', or your friends'.... There is your life: your childhood, your child, your grandchildren. And there is simply life: year after year, children playing in the snow.

Saturday, February 7

Mother's Milk

In November or December I noticed my sadness at images of bottle-fed babies. A photo that used to appear on the home page for Skype (and which has since disappeared, thank goodness) particularly disturbed me. It showed a family gathered in a living room: two young parents, their baby girl, and (presumably) her grandparents. The smiling mother leaned against the sofa as the grandfather bottle fed her daughter. The image was doubtless intended to be heartwarming; I found it creepy to see the gray-haired old man sitting in the mother's place.

And then came Christmas, when among my gifts was a photograph of me as a baby, lying on my mother's lap and wearing my christening bonnet and gown. At once, I realized the source of my sadness: I was a bottle-fed baby. Since then, many questions have welled up in me. Why was I bottle-fed? Did some dumb doctor (whom I imagine looking like the creepy Skype grandfather) tell my mother that formula was at least just as good, or better, than breast milk? Did my mother even consider breast-feeding? How did my mother feel when her milk came in and she did not give it to me?

My questions will never be answered, because my mother died about thirteen years ago. I know only one thing: my mother told me, "When you have children, breast-feed them." She died of breast cancer, and even then it was known that breast-feeding decreases the risk of breast cancer, including the aggressive, hormone-negative kind that my mother had.

For a few weeks, I was angry that my mother gave me formula and a plastic nipple instead of her own milk. My father thinks that my grandmother (not some dumb doctor) might have advised her daughter to bottle-feed, and not for the first time I wished that my mother had done her own thing instead of listening to her parents. Then my local La Leche League leader loaned me her copy of Milk, Money, and Madness: The Culture and Politics of Breastfeeding, a fascinating book from which I have learned, among other things, that in the 1980s the American Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons sent a memo to the FDA claiming that those "deformities," small breasts, "are really a disease," and that in China and Japan women sometimes nursed their aged parents or parents-in-law. The book, of course, does not answer any of my unanswerable questions. And so I see the sadness beneath the sadness that I was bottle-fed, my sadness simply that my mother is gone. Now a mother myself, I am mourning again.

Sunday, January 18

Heigh Ho, Heigh Ho ...

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As I mentioned yesterday, I'm taking in a lot more work these days. Between taking care of the Critter, getting my work done, and that other thing ... what is that other thing??? ... oh, right: sleep ... I find I have much less time to pursue my personal projects, such as this blog. I do not wish to neglect these projects altogether, however! Thus, my goal is to publish one post each week. You may have noticed that I have not met that goal thus far this year, and so I encourage you to subscribe to this blog.

Meanwhile, I also encourage you to check out 43 Folders, a blog I've been checking into recently, especially if you do creative work. (Don't check out this blog instead of doing your creative work, though!) This recent post about the desire to "feel creative"—as opposed to the reality of actually doing creative work—has been a recent inspiration. Lately, of course, I have been neither feeling creative nor doing much of my own creative work (see above), but the Critter won't be four months old forever....

Saturday, January 17

At Home, But Unhappy

Suddenly I've got more work than I know how to get done (and no babysitter). One current project is to write a handful of passages, items, and lessons for a test preparation book for first graders. Yes, indeed: for first graders. Debates about No Child Left Behind and high-stakes testing aside, I can tell you this much: spending time on the lessons in such a book might help a child improve his or her test scores, but it is unlikely to stir any excitement about reading. Certainly not the wide-eyed, bobble-headed excitement that I see in our four-month-old Critter's face when I turn the pages of The Very Hungry Caterpillar for him.

Ah, school. What else is it for but to crush your spirit? I do my work, the Critter on my lap, and consider these sentences:
Education on Freud's view is precisely the attempt to make children (and adults) forget about what most interests them. Our unique attachments to the world are what education is designed to erase, and it is those unique attachments that make knowledge real for us, as opposed to mere rote exercise.
I quote from an essay in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy, "'My God, It's Like a Greek Tragedy': Willow Rosenberg and Human Irrationality," about Willow's sixth season–concluding attempt to bring about the end of the world. It was while attending the International Reading Association's 2006 Annual Convention (about which I remember little other than the ugly carpeting extending toward all horizons of the massive McCormick Place, Chicago's convention center) that I read this essay, and, gazing at all that carpeting, asked myself, What have I been doing with my life?

Like Willow, I was good at school. Success at school involved a paradox, however: I was at home in the classroom—particularly the English classroom, where poetry, novels, and stories were the subject—but unhappy. There was always too much to do, and I felt I was smothering something else in myself in order to measure up to what seemed to be expected of me. And so I mastered the invisible curriculum, learning to put aside my own desires in order to accomplish what others expected of me.

Who were those demanding others? Parents? Grandparents? Teachers? Though I possessed an abundance of wild energy, like many children, I wished to please. So now that I have my own wild little Critter, I see just how important it is for us—parents, grandparents, teachers—to carefully consider what it is that we expect of our little ones—and whom (or what) those expectations really serve. And what worries me most as I write and edit the various lessons, teacher editions, and tests from which I make my living (what, indeed, am I doing with my life?) is that I consider very little of it good enough for my boy.

Thursday, January 1

The Year of the Critter

About eleven months have passed since my last run. I had planned to run as long as possible through my pregnancy, but because of the (slight) threat of miscarriage early in the pregnancy, I had to give up strenuous exercise. By the time I was told it was okay to run again, my body had changed enough that running just didn’t feel right anymore. Now I wait for the Critter to get big and strong enough for me to take him out running in our jogging stroller. Meanwhile, I miss my long Saturday runs under the cold, darkening sky of a winter afternoon and my early morning runs toward the sunrise, seeing the last shadows of night lift from the trees in Prospect Park.

Because I could not run, I spent the year of the Critter going on long walks through the park, taking different paths just to see where they go. In that time, I discovered waterways, bridges, and grassy knolls that in about six years of going to the park several times a week I never knew existed. If it weren't for the Critter, I might have kept on running on the same paths as before. I might never have followed the Lullwater Trail or climbed to one of the highest points of the park to see the silver ribbon of the sea at the horizon.

Below: the Critter on his first walk in Prospect Park. I did all of the walking; he slept.

It's difficult to believe that a year ago today, the Critter was hardly more than a wish—either just conceived or about to be. Among the scraps of poems, stories, and songs that my mind has returned to again and again since the Critter's birth is a passage in To Kill a Mockingbird. Dill has run away from his folks because, he says, they weren't interested in him and didn't want him around. Scout cannot comprehend this situation.
As Dill explained, I found myself wondering what life would be like if Jem were different, even from what he was now; what I would do if Atticus did not feel the necessity of my presence, help and advice. Why, he couldn't get along a day without me. Even Calpurnia couldn't get along unless I was there. They needed me.
Now that he's here—and has changed everything—how I need my little Critter.

Many blessings to all in 2009.