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My Writing Life: Procrastinate, Panic, Produce

24 Jun

My new internet writer friend Zsofi McMullin invited me to participate in a blog hop! I eagerly accepted! I love invitations! And then I realized I don’t really understand what it is? But it seems like it’s linked posts on the same topic, and nothing at all like a sock hop? Which is a shame on account of poodle skirts are really flattering on me. Interested and similarly mystified readers can find her blog hop post at her excellent blog Hunglish Girl. And then you can read my blog hop post, and be all like, hers was better. It’s fine.

1. What am I writing or working on? I should be working on an adaptation of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, due at the end of July, to be directed by me, opening November 21, 2014, at Four County Players. It will be my first time directing a full-length piece, and only the second full-length theatrical adaptation I’ve written. It all sounds a little daunting, doesn’t it? I should get right on that, don’t you think? I’m only hurting myself by putting it off, right?

I’m also contributing semi-regularly to the local alternative weekly, C-Ville Weekly, and its quarterly magazine, C-VILLE Kids. I have a couple more pieces due this summer, which is a super nice problem to have.

And I’ve been blogging for the Charlottesville Lady Arm Wrestlers (CLAW), which has been a fantastic venue for my free-ranging id, both on and offline. The only thing more fun than writing about wrasslin’ is wrasslin’! If you’re from around these parts, be sure to catch our last match of 2014 on Saturday, August 23rd, at the Blue Moon Diner.

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre? To answer this question I’d need to actually pick a genre, I guess. I like theatery stuff, and I like writing stuff. Making plays interests me from top to tail. Storytelling, which I’ve done locally with Big Blue Door for the last couple of years, also lights me up. I’m interested in the intersection of writing and live performance. And I am a confessor. Sharing, (over-sharing, some might say), helps me work out my feelings about the things that happen to me, and lightens my psychic load. Parenting is something that’s been woah WAY happening to me for the last ten years, so I write and tell stories about that a lot. My work is very personal, so I guess that’s how it’s different from other people’s very personal work. I’m a special snowflake, you guys.

3. Why do I write what I do? Because I can’t help it. Writing is tough for me. Looking back, most of my feints at having a career, and I include having two children in that, were kind of just efforts to have an excuse not to write. But, surprise! The children compel me to write, because my life with them is so frustrating and funny and fascinating to me. And now I’m middle-aged, and it turns out that if I want good parts as an actress, (or to take the stage as a storyteller), I pretty much have to provide my own material. I hate to write, but I love to have written, and writing serves my ambitions now more than ever. So I keep practicing and hoping I’ll get better, and that it will get easier.

4. How does my writing process work? Oh, boy. Let’s just say I’m very responsive to deadline pressure. I spend a lot of time at my desk getting distracted by the internet and my household to do list, and finally I have so little time left to write whatever’s due that I am forced by my sheer animal terror to crank it out. It’s a great system. In college I used to give myself one hour per page to write a paper, plus an hour to spellcheck, print, and walk the paper in. Like, a ten page paper was started precisely eleven hours before the drop dead due date. So, I still pretty much do this. A positive change is that I am now more responsive to self-imposed deadlines–like, writing something on my blog or developing an essay or story within a certain time frame. That being said, I would like to have written this particular blog post two weeks ago. Perfectly imperfect in every way.


And now is the time on Shprockets vhen ve pass the baton! Two lovely lady writers of my acquaintance indicated that they would be willing to be hopped on.

The Coconut Girl is Whitney Morrill,  an architect, writer, and mother of two. Her writing has appeared in SlateInformThe Courier Journal, and Streetlight. She’s written and illustrated a fictional book about architecture, and she’s currently working on a novel entitled But if She Knew, She Forgot. An excerpt from the novel, “Teardrop Opening,” won a short fiction award from the Charlottesville Writing Center and was broadcast on WMRA, the regional affiliate of National Public Radio. was the Blog of the Week on WCAV-CBS 19, and was featured in C-ville Weekly. All this, and she’s a total badass ninja, for real. Thanks, Whitney!

Denise Stewart blogs at DeeDee’s Living Will, and she runs Wellness Charlottesville, coaching individuals and companies regarding using ritual and discipline to enhance creativity, productivity and self-care. She’s toured her one-woman show, Dirty Barbie and Other Girlhood Tales, in Washington, D.C., New York City, and Edinburgh, Scotland, and most recently in Asheville, NC and Barboursville, VA. She’s a lecturer at the University of Virginia. She has an MFA in playwriting from UVA and a BA in theatre from Catawba College. She is also hilarious and a total booster of other womens in the arts. Yay, Denise!

Playing hooky from writing again, some more, with my small coconspirators.

Playing hooky from writing again, some more, with my small coconspirators.

The Game of Life

9 Jun

Fourth grade came to a close for my eldest this past Friday, so please join her bemused parent in a retrospective of the playground games she invented this year with a group of five other girls in the 20 minute excuse for a recess they get only on non-rainy, above-freezing days. I think you’ll agree they used their limited time well. Or at least creatively. And sometimes very oddly, indeed.

The school year began with several weeks of “playing Harry Potter.” Many of the girls were finishing up the series then (and probably working out their trauma as they were all too young to be reading that business, but I lost that battle, oh well.) This was their first foray into group gaming in this particular configuration, and there were some dynamics to work out.

9yo: “We can’t get along while we’re playing Harry Potter. We fight every day.”
Me: “You fight? Why?”
9yo: “Because everyone wants to be Ginny.”
Me: “Not Hermione?”
9yo: “She’s second choice.”
Me: “Does anybody want to be Harry?”
9yo (thoughtfully): “No, not really.”

Truly, that game was a non-starter.

To ease the constant conflicts, they eventually morphed the game into Dementor Tag. This was a lot like Freeze Tag except that once you were frozen, your soul got sucked right out of your mouth. No word on whether there was soul-to-mouth contact, or for that matter, mouth-to-mouth, but surely someone would have called me.

There was a short-lived foray into playing co-ed kickball, but according to 9yo, “the boys take it too seriously and ruin everything, and it’s too sweaty.” Could be said of so many activities, really.

A little while after this, I found her rummaging through her collection of hair accoutrements, picking out all the headbands and trying them on while she made moony faces at herself in the mirror.

Me: “Headbands give me a headache, because they grip behind the ears and give me those dents. Do they bother you?”
9yo: “Kind of, but I need to wear one because of our new recess game.”
Me: “Why’s that?”
9yo: “Headbands protect you from mind control.”

Who knew.

The next I heard of recess, they were playing a “game” called Mental Hospital. Each girl had invented a mental illness to suffer from, all except the two playing doctor and nurse. 9yo’s illness involved disturbing flashbacks that “make me fall down and almost have a concussion! And then the nurse has to help me get back up.” From what I could gather, pretty much all of the invented syndromes caused the sufferer to fall down and need to be helped up. I have to confess I was pretty glad they weren’t more informed/imaginative than that.

And then there was Happy Family, where a tribe of parentless children wandered in the wilderness eking out survival.

9yo: “I’m a four year old who has a lot of tantrums, but is a good cook.”
Me: “Oh. Typecasting, then, huh?”
9yo: “Moo-ooom. Actually that game was super annoying because of all the tantrums. It kind of never went anywhere.”

Again, could be said of so many activities.

Somebody must have let their kid watch relaxing b.s. TV with them, because next the girls played Divorce Court. 9yo was the lawyer representing the Bad Mom, who was in court fighting The Father and his lawyer in front of The Judge for custody of the Sad Child Caught in the Middle. Apparently, television-worthy histrionics ensued. Both tantrums and falling down were definitely happening.

They finished up the year by embroidering and extending the stories from the Percy Jackson & The Olympians series. All the girls played goddesses or half-humans with complicated relationships and back stories.

9yo: “It’s REALLY fun. We even had someone… (Pauses. Cuts eye at me.) DIE.”
Me: “Wow. Did she get to come back to life?”
9yo: “Well, not as her old self. She’s still playing the game, but she had to make up someone new to be.”

Making up someone new to be. It’s what playground games are all about, right? Life, too—you have to be inventive and resourceful, and willing to start over from scratch. If these crazy creative fourth grade girls are any indication, the future of the world is in good hands.

Sometimes they even play on the playground in uniform!

Sometimes they even play on the playground in uniform!

Cake Club

28 May

How To Make A Rhubarb Cake With Ginger Crumble For Your Book Club

1. Go to the google doc asking book club members to sign up to bring a dish for the annual book club potluck dinner. It’s a nice event, worth bringing something real to—not, like, hummus and veg. But it’s on a Wednesday, which is crappy schedule day. There’s no way you’ll have time to make something real. So, guiltily, you hover over dessert. But, isn’t EVERYONE super busy on Wednesdays, and all the days? Who’s going to get stuck bringing the mains? You attempt to salvage your desserty lameness by grandly signing up to bring a Rhubarb Cake with Ginger Crumble that a friend who’s an excellent baker made one time. She thoughtfully shared the recipe, too, something you never remember to do when people ask. Sigh. Just, BE BETTER, self. Start by making a nice rhubarb cake for your book club. Hopefully it will still taste fine even if you make it the night before.

2. Buy the last 3 stalks of rhubarb in the entire store. Isn’t it still rhubarb season? What the hell? They are enormous, like slender tree branches. And you’ve never baked with rhubarb before—c’mon, it’s RED CELERY. Well, whatever. It’s in cake, it’s not going to suck. Cake is delicious.

3. The crumble recipe calls for candied ginger, but all they have is soft, chewy ginger candy. Close enough. Because cake. Toss it in the cart.

4. Decide to put the cake together while you are also doing the dinner dishes, talking to a cousin who dropped by, and over-seeing the two kids’ piano practice and showers. What could go wrong.

5. Sugar the hell out of the rhubarb after barely managing to hack it apart with a cleaver. Sugaring it is not called for in the recipe, but, yikes.

6. The recipe instructs you to freeze the crumble made with melted butter while you put the cake together. So, you do. But after putting it in the freezer and before making the cake batter you spend 15 minutes at the piano, comb and braid your daughter’s wet hair, chat to your uncle when he comes to pick up your cousin, and load the the dishwasher. Then you make your cake batter. Then you go to retrieve the crumble from the freezer, and it’s frozen solid.

7. Microwave the frozen crumble. But not too much! Damn.

8. Manage to “sprinkle” the half-frozen-glob, half melty-hot-sand crumble over the cake pan of batter. Admire the way it looks in your cute heart-shaped pan. Is the heart-shaped pan a 9 inch pan, per the recipe? Oh, probably. Prepare to put the cake in the oven in triumph.

9. Wait, what the fuck are those 2 eggs doing sitting there?

10. Frantically scrape crumble globs off of batter into a bowl. Yell to your son that you’ll “be right up, just a minute!” Dump batter from cake pan into a different bowl and whisk in two eggs as best you can. (Don’t over mix! Ha!) Dump bright yellow slimy batter back into cake pan and re-distribute sticky, wonky crumble mess on top. Aaaand into the oven it goes!

11. Read bedtime story to son while chuckling to yourself about all the near disasters this cake has been through. Consider if you will tell the book club the story, or just let them eat the cake in blissful ignorance. It’ll no doubt still taste fine. Cake is delicious.

12. Upon exiting son’s room, notice the house smells like it’s on fire. Shit.

13. Dash down to the kitchen to find that the cake is running over the cute heart-shaped pan, dripping on to the heating coil, and smoking out the whole kitchen. Guess that pan isn’t 9 inches! Good thing you have another oven!

14. Open the oven door and the kitchen door to air out the kitchen, and put the cake into the other oven with a cookie sheet underneath it this time. Cross your fingers, re-set the timer, and head up to say goodnight to your daughter.

15. Come down to find the timer going off, and realize upon checking the cake that you never turned the second oven on. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.

16. Turn on the second oven and just leave the stupid cake in there instead of pre-heating and just re-set the timer for an approximate amount of time and just let the stupid cake do its stupid best in there. Do the cake-related dishes. Fume.

17. Pull the cake out when the timer goes off. It looks NOTHING like the cake your friend made—hers was pillowy and pale and crumby, yours looks flat, crispy, and deep brown. The crumble has flattened into the batter while it cooked, or maybe it all ran off into the top oven and there IS no crumble made with ginger candy instead of candied ginger anymore. The cake smells a little singed, but the small taste you break off is inconclusive. It’s sweet, certainly. It probably tastes horrible. Burned and dry and crispy and horrible.

18. Take the cake to book club.

Hey kids! Tune in next time to find out how the cake was received!!!!!


You had two glasses of wine and told the whole table the mini version of this tale of woe. AND you brought back-up store-bought pie because who would try the cake after all this ridiculousness? But your loyal book club friends DID try the cake, and they totally ignored the strange burnt flavor, and they didn’t even touch the store-bought pie. Because they are lovely ladies and nice friends. Who you hope are not currently suffering from severe indigestion.

Look at all the delicious food people brought! (Cake of shame not pictured, OBVIOUSLY.)

Look at all the delicious food people brought! (Cake of shame not pictured, OBVIOUSLY.) Photo courtesy the lovely Katie Barr.

I basically tried to poison these sweet people.

I basically tried to poison these sweet people. (One of whom is the lovely Katie Barr, who also took this photo.)

Find another post about baking adventures here if that’s your jam. Heh heh.


14 May

Although I find the term “gateway drug” faintly hilarious, smacking as it does of REEFER MADNESS-style clueless overreaction, I think the concept is sound. When I’m dreading a house’s worth of housework, I’ll ease into it by doing a few gateway dishes. Once the kitchen counter is clean, I can focus on sweeping the floor, then straightening the front hall, then heading upstairs for the bedrooms, etc. Same goes with writing work—I trick myself into it with some gateway tweets or a status update, just to get typing.

I didn’t recognize my 7 year old son’s passion for car magazines as his gateway to reading, but in retrospect, that’s exactly what it was. Our 10 year old daughter is a reader like I was, so her journey to fluency felt comfortably familiar. She transitioned from frustrated halting-sounder-outer of picture books to absorbed silent reader of chapter books seemingly overnight. I can remember walking into her room one morning to rouse her for kindergarten, only to find her dressed, sitting cross-legged on her made bed, and deep into a Rainbow Fairy paperback. (We may be similar readers, but she will one day kick my ass at cleaning the house.) I’ve never had to sell her on the benefits of reading. When she’s bored, nervous, or needs to wind down before sleep, she just naturally reaches for a book. Being of stubborn mindset, if she’d thought reading was good for her she might have refused to learn. She does it because she thinks it’s fun.

I’m just the same, even if my iPhone competes with my reading time more than it should. My number one choice of leisure activity is to read. Vacation plans, weekend downtime, and evenings at home revolve around a comfortable chair, a refreshing beverage, and a book. Sshhh, don’t talk to me, I’m at a good part.

My son has taken a different path. He’s the most extroverted of our family foursome, and he draws his energy and fun from interactions. He craves physical contact, and loves nothing better than an audience. On family vacations he pings and pongs between the other three of us, literally wagging his butt and nudging with his head like a puppy. Let’s go play! Wanna hear a joke? Play! Joke!!

So, I think for him reading has always seemed like a spoiler activity. It’s something other people focus on instead of him, something he’s crossly reprimanded for interrupting. He loves to be read TO—the cuddling, the chitchat about the plot, the collaborative choice of what to read together next. But he probably suspects that my dream is all four of us sitting together quietly absorbed in books, and not one of us wagging our tail and begging to play paddle ball, thus distracting from the climax of chapter 5.

One thing that has consistently–on occasion, usefully–kept him quiet for the last couple of years, however, is a glossy car magazine. Never mind that the print is tiny and the vocabulary beyond most grown-ups. He inhales them and commits their esoterica to memory, spouting back facts like a fire hose. I do spot check him occasionally, like when he tells me that a Ferrari goes 185 mph, or the new Prius gets 51 miles per gallon on the highway, and he has about an 80% accuracy rate. (He’s probably noticed that when he makes up facts, there’s hardly anyone able or willing to contradict him.) As far as I can tell, and based on his out-loud reading homework from school, he’s been able to decode the car magazines by brute force of will. Kevin Henke can trip the kid up, but Consumer Reports readily yields up its secrets.

However, just in the last few weeks, right here at the end of first grade, he’s turned the corner. It started when he went on a run of checking out “Jack and Annie” (or Magic Tree House) books from the school library instead of his normal picture variety. He’d amble off the bus, nose ostentatiously stuck in his big boy book, angling the cover so all the bus stop moms could see and admire it. “Oh yeah, just reading a CHAPTER BOOK here, no bigs.” But it wasn’t just for show—some of those Jack and Annie facts were sticking in his mind, too, as I found out when he wowed me with some impressive Egypt facts. Someone paid attention during Mummies and Pyramids! He’s now loving the A to Z Mysteries series, and even dipping into some of his sister’s old Rainbow Fairy books. And this morning, when I walked in to find him already dressed and perched on his made bed, totally absorbed in The Empty Envelope, he uttered pretty much the sweetest words this mama could hear: “Hang on, I’m coming. I just want to finish my book.”

Worked Out

24 Apr

It’s possible that as a lady-arm-wrestling-true-storyteller and chronic-social-media-over-sharer I don’t seem like a very private person to you. But if we belong to the same gym you’ve probably guessed the truth about my actual level of inhibited. Which is high.

For example, I am the person hogging a gym shower stall because she’s changing in it. And it’s actually not because I’m self-conscious about my body. It’s because I’m self-conscious about the fact that I can’t put on a sports bra without getting hopelessly tangled in it, arms pinned to my ears, suffocating in spandex. Those grunting noises are not me multi-tasking by lifting weights in the shower—they’re me cussing under my breath and wishing I was double-jointed.

That’s not to say that I’m not self-conscious about my body, or more specifically, about inadvertently putting parts of my body in your face when you weren’t expecting it. Nothing worse than coming around a corner and finding yourself face to bum with a bare-assed stranger bending over her gym bag. Butts to the wall, ladies, please.

I have a friend who categorizes people in gym lockers rooms as “striders or hiders.” Under this rubric I’m definitely a hider. But, it’s not like I’m worried that my middle-aged, post-kid bod doesn’t look like a swimsuit model’s or something. I just like to keep myself to myself. I find run-ins in the gym locker room incredibly awkward in the first place. I’m at the gym to get in the pool or to a class, get through the work-out, and get on with my day. I don’t build in 20 minutes for chitchat, so I’m always trying to tamp down my anxiety about the passage of time if I bump into someone I know. And if that person happens to be topless, directing my gaze appropriately plus trying to wrap up quickly without seeming rude combines to just shut down my mental processes. Apologies if I’ve ever seen you striding towards me, half-waved, averted my gaze, and scuttled the other way. Fight or flight takes over, it’s involuntary.

Maybe my problem is really with the forced intimacy of the gym. You go to some yoga class because you can’t make yourself do yoga on your own, and you’re old and you need to stretch. Then the class is crazy crowded and a person you’ve never laid eyes on before is breathing really loudly about 6 inches from your ear. Really exhaaaaling. And then that person starts to, like, groan and moan because they’re just SO INTO their yoga that they have to verbally manifest their effort. No. No, I don’t believe you. Shut up, loud exerciser. You’re in a public place, and you should not be if you get so lost in your exertions that vocalizations issue forth without your knowledge. And if you’re making all that noise on purpose, why? So we all think you’re a yoga stud? So the teacher looks over at you admiringly? So someone pats you on the back after class for your exceedingly loud hard work? None of that is going to happen. Pipe down, attention hog.

It’s one thing if you’re lifting weights, or putting forth a mighty effort on the spin bike, or doing twenty pull-ups or something, but you should not be killing yourself holding down dog. And even under duress, I’m more of a loud hisser of air, or a high-pitched “WOOO!”-er. I save my involuntary grunting for the privacy of the shower stall. That’s obviously where it belongs.

I know I sound really cranky and intolerant. What can I say? I turned 40 and turned into Andy Rooney. I’ll have ear hair and sky-high eyebrows before you know it. I’m already working the dowager’s hump which is why I keep TRYING to do yoga and then getting tripped up by my sarcastic inner monologue. I get into class all tense from the striders in the locker room and sore and sweaty from getting into my sports bra, and then I’m forced to silently mock the loud exercisers. Namaste my ass. Which is covered up at all times to the best of my ability, you’re welcome.

Who’s Fat?

25 Feb

We were watching a movie preview, 7yo, 9yo, and I. A roly-poly cartoon man, aka the Chubby Comedic Sidekick, appeared onscreen. The kids laughed at his antics and then the 9yo pointed at him and nudged her brother, “He’s so…” She paused. She cut eye at me and they exchanged a significant glance. “He’s so rotund,” she said carefully.

Sigh. I knew what she was doing, of course. The kids think that I consider “fat” to be a bad word, on par with the “sh” or even “f” one. Of course they do, since I fall all over myself every time one of them uses it, drowning them in a torrent of basically bat-”sh” word-crazy lecture speech.

How many times has something along these lines come out of my mouth: “That’s rude! Don’t say ‘fat.’ People of any size can be healthy, and health is what matters, and character is what counts anyway, and don’t comment on someone’s appearance, and it’s important to love yourself, and…” On I go, as their eyes glaze over. Ever have that realization that you’ve become the teacher from a Charlie Brown TV special? “Wanh WANH wanh wanh WANH wanh.”

Hey, but at least she’s building her vocabulary, right? Rotund, corpulent, bovine… Yeah, I think I’m doing it wrong. Seems like they’re taking in the letter of the “fat talk” but not the spirit.

If I made the subtext of my “fat talk” the text, I’d just straight up say to the kids, “Don’t anybody have an eating disorder, ok, please pleeeeeeeease? And don’t be little bullying punks!” That might get their attention, actually. (Makes a note.)

They probably learn more from my behaviors than my words, anyway. In my mind, my regular exercise habit is about stress management first and buttoning my favorite jeans second, but how does it look from the outside? In my mind, offering fruit for dessert, and candy and treats more rarely, and regulating snack portions is about teaching them self-control, and to appreciate natural flavors, and protect their teeth, but what are they actually taking away? “Do these things so you won’t be F-A-T?”

As they grow into tweens, I have ever more opportunities to wonder. For example, I ferreted out that the reason the kids shun their down vests is they think they make them look “puffy.” Me: “OF COURSE THEY DO THEY’RE ‘PUFFY VESTS’ IT’S IN THE NAME.” My daughter doesn’t care for the shorts I bought her–they’re too “loose and flappy.” My son hates Jams-style swim trunks because they “have too much fabric. They make me look big.” They’re vocal critics of McDonald’s: “Eating there will make you fat,” my daughter solemnly informed me. My son worried about our wallow in junk food during our beach vacation last summer: “I don’t think it’s good to eat all this unhealthy food, Mama. It’s not ok for our bodies.”

Honestly, there’s no way they’re learning ALL this stuff at home. No, seriously, have you looked at an elementary school P.E. curriculum lately? It’s all “healthy eating” this and “move your body” that and “vegetables” the other and “sweat every day” on top. The stats on rising rates of childhood obesity have everyone scrambling. Does it come across to the kids as officially-sanctioned weight judgment? Maybe it shouldn’t have been a surprise that the climax of an argument on the playground between my 9yo and a friend was the other little girl calling her “fat.” Well, actually, the other little girl called her “gros” and my daughter had to get yet another girl to translate from the French. These kids today! When she replayed this scene for me at bedtime, I did the frantic verbal box step:

“What?! You are not fat in the least! But if you WERE it would be no big deal. But you AREN’T! But if you WERE, who cares, it’s your wonderful insides that matter. But! You aren’t, not even a little!”

Translation, as above: “Please please don’t have an eating disorder PLEASE.”

I’ve tried and tried again to go “earnest” with my “fat talk,” so when the subject came up most recently, I took a different tack on the spur of the moment. 9yo and I were sitting at the kitchen table. 7yo came into the room, leaned against me, and said in a small voice, “Mama, am I fat?”

Me: “What?! No! Why would you ask that?”
7yo: “Because I look in the mirror and think I look fat.”
Me: “Show me. Show me the fat.”

(7yo lifted his shirt with a sheepish grin, gestured to his belly area.)

Me: “That? Psssht. That’s called ‘skin.’ Skin is important, children. It’s your largest organ!”

(They both actually laughed.)

Me (liking the good reaction, pushing recklessly forward): “You want to see some fat? Now THIS–(I raised my shirt to jiggle my generous pad of pooch fat)–THIS is fat. Look, it can talk! (I smooshed it together and apart, and lowered my voice to a rumbling growl.) ‘Hiya kids! Stay in school!’”

(They cracked up. I was kind of thrilled.)

Me: “So now you’ve seen some of my fat, you guys. Do you like me less? Do you think I’m not a good mom?”

(They shook their heads, still giggling.)

Me: “Whew! Because my body feels healthy and good, and that’s what matters to me.”

(Husband entered the room to find the kids enthusiastically palpitating my belly button.)

Me: “Look! Here’s Daddy! Daddy, we’re sharing! Got any fat bits you’d like to show off?”

Husband: “(Pause.) What ARE you doing?”

I’m think it’s clear that, as in most things parenting, I really have no idea. But, luckily or unluckily, I get the feeling I’ll have lots more chances to take a crack at this conversation.

Rotund Comedic Sidekick reporting for duty.

Rotund Comedic Sidekick reporting for duty.

Family Fun Remembered

6 Feb

Remember when our whole family did a play? It’s only been six weeks or so since the show closed, but for me the details are already fading. Husband and 9yo have moved on to other theatrical projects, leaving me and 7yo to rattle around the big, empty house at bedtime, bickering like Oscar and Felix. (“I TOLD you to hang up your wet bath towel. How many times  do I have to TELL you? And pick up all these–OW!–Legos!”)

While it was undeniably hectic and exhausting, doing a family play was also really special, something it’s easier to realize now that it’s over. It was truly the best of times, at least most of the time.

Like how we would all sing along to the local continuous Christmas music station on the half hour drive to the theater. The kids’ yowls of “Faaaallll on your kneeees!” put Martina McBride and Whitney Houston to shame.

Mandatory make-up was a pretty exciting development for both kids. My husband tells a story about watching the 9yo shellack on layers of lipstick before the dress rehearsal. After her fifth coat, he said, “OK, I think you’ve got enough.” And she snapped back, “Dad, I am actually allowed to wear make-up, and I am GOING TO ENJOY IT.”

Or the time I told my son I needed to put eyeliner on him, and he replied, “OK, let me go get the eyeliner from Dad. He’s hogging it.” To be filed under “Conversations I Hadn’t Imagined Having.”

The kids were mostly ok having me in a position of (mild) authority as the Assistant (to the) Director, but there were moments when it chafed. For example, I took the liberty of writing the whole family’s bios for the program, and submitted them without prior approval. Therefore, the 7yo’s bio, for example, read in part:

“When not playing a ‘sea urchin’, (‘No, that’s street urchin’), he likes to jump, wiggle, pull faces, skip, bounce, make loud car noises, squirm, and shimmy. Actually, he also does all those things while playing a sea urchin.”

He’s finally able to read with fair speed and accuracy, so he decoded the program himself. And then he betook his injured dignity to my husband to complain. Their exchange apparently went something like this:

7yo (pouting): “I don’t like my bio. That’s not what I would have said.”
Husband: “Well. (Pause.) Want to wear my top hat?”
7yo: “No. (Pause.) Yes!”

7yo was the big casting question mark, because he was drafted into the show for the relative convenience of his parents’ childcare needs. But, wow, did he take to the theatrical life with a quickness. I was helping him with his first change on opening night, and his enthusiasm for performing in front of a warm, sold-out crowd of grown-ups was impossible for him to contain. He burbled in my ear the whole time, a moist impassioned stream of, “Oh it’s so much fun with the audience I really really really like being on the stage it’s just so SO fun to do a play I really like it I like the people looking at me oh I’m just having SUCH a good time!!!” Mikey really, REALLY likes it.

The run of the show afforded many opportunities for backstage bonding. I’ve been backstage knowing my kids were in the audience before, but I’d never been backstage with my kids. I paged the curtain for 9yo’s first entrance as the Ghost of Christmas Past, which meant we waited together during the scene between Scrooge and Marley that preceded it. We became so familiar with the text of that scene that we could do a full lip-synced performance of it, complete with overwrought gestures and dramatic facial expressions. Some parents/assistant directors might have chosen to leave their kid/actor alone to prepare, but. Uh, it was fun?

Another ritual I loved was waiting for the curtain call with my 7yo. I wore a huge billowing cloak in my capacity as Ghost of Christmas Future, and my little sea urchin would escape the chill backstage by creeping under it and resting his head against my stomach. To the casual observer it would have looked like one head, one black pyramid of body, and four feet.

Speaking of the curtain call, 9yo broke a long, drowsy silence on one post-show drive home by sighing happily from the backseat, “My faaavorite part of the show is the curtain call.” It’s not just Lady Gaga who lives for the applause.

Towards the end of the run we had a couple of fun mixed-age cast parties. At the close of the first one, the cast kids surprised the adults by coming downstairs, after a long interval of loud bumps and muffled laughter, to present the opening musical sequence of the show, a cappella and practically note perfect, a feat the adults in the cast took weeks to pull off. At another, I got to watch my 6-then-7yo get serenaded for his birthday in three part harmony by the cast, while he basked in the glow of the candles atop a gorgeous cake made with love by another family involved with the production. I’ve never seen a more ecstatic birthday boy.

Closing night of the run, the family stumbled home together to endure a weary, tearful bedtime. As my husband kissed her goodnight, I heard my daughter choke out the question, “Daddy, is it always this hard?” And he replied, “Only if you’re lucky.”

"This way to enlightenment, my crotchety friend." Photo by John J. Stoll

“This way to enlightenment, my crotchety friend.” Photo by John J. Stoll

"Look! Over there! Your mortality!" Photo by John J. Stoll

“Look! Over there! Your mortality!” Photo by John J. Stoll

The family that plays together. Photo by Kylie!

The family that plays together. Photo by Kylie!

Ho Ho heeeee hee hee

14 Dec

Just keepin’ it real here, December can be stressful with its tightly scheduled forced fun and maximal wallet impact. But since having children, looking forward to their Santa letters has given me a seasonal lift. I thought last year’s letter from the then-8 year old would be her last non-ironic one, and this year it would be all, “Dear ‘Santa,’ can we stop arguing about whether or not I can have an iPhone PLEASE.” But as the 2013 letter attests, the 9 year old still wants to believe!  It’s a comedy miracle, excerpted below.

Dear Santa,

I really admire your work. I have three questions.

1. Some people in my grade don’t believe in you. (Not me.) What do you think of that?

2. Could you draw a picture of you and Mrs. Claus?

3. Have you always been Santa, or were you selected when you were, like, 20?

I’m sorry for all I did wrong this year (frowny face with a little tear.) I *am* getting better at impulse control, though!

Thank you greatly.

There is no actual need for additional commentary, the letter speaks eloquently for itself. But since she doesn’t have a iPhone yet and hasn’t found this blog, I can’t resist.

I want to start by complimenting the opening–”I really admire your work.” Smart kid to butter up the big guy before she asks the hard questions.

Item number one is a beautifully wrought example of passive-aggressive tattle-tailing. Considering writing back to her in my best Santa handwriting, “I think none of those little fuckers is getting anything but coal from me. Believe THAT.”

Her second item has me thanking my lucky Santas that I have a cartoon-enabled spouse. I hope he is limbering up his sketch book.

Item three tells me that she is wildly optimistic about what her future job search might be like. In fact, just the other day she was listing out her top three career choices for me:

1. Taste Tester for a Bakery (this DOES sound like a good job)
2. Glass Blower
3. Architect

Far be it from me to judge career aspirations since I am using time I could be working to let her unwittingly write a blog post for me, but.

She’s had her actual list picked out since approximately July, and it includes such items as a back scratcher, Pentaminoes (“you know the math thingies that you make into complex rectangles”), and “A big, original, Grimm fairytale storybook with all the original stories.” Also, “I sort of want princess lip gloss made by Disney Dist. by Townley Inc. 389 Fifth Ave NY, NY.” Not making that last item up. Love you, sweet 9 year old. Don’t ever change. Or, I mean, change all you want, but please stay crazycakes.

As for the 7 year old, making a list was unexpectedly emotional for him this year. There was wailing, gnashing of teeth, rending of garments, etc. His birthday and Christmas are only 10 days apart, and apparently he’d already asked for what he REALLY wants for his birthday, i.e. a mani-pedi and a shoe shopping expedition. Truly, he is my spirit animal.

Anyway, list-making was about 45 minutes of me throwing out ideas–Legos? No. Remote-controlled car? No, thanks. Books, games, puzzles, soccer ball, art supplies…? No, no, NO. He put his head down on the kitchen table in despair. Finally, finally he managed to come up with a travel alarm clock, some sew-on backpack patches, and a string of Christmas lights. New appreciation for the expression “old soul.” Because that’s only a weird list if you consider that its author is 7 and not, you know, 67. When I showed it to Husband, he said, “Good lord, we have to figure out SOME KIND OF TOY to buy that kid.”

So, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to shop for back scratchers, backpack patches, and SOME KIND OF TOY. But first, shoe shopping and glitter toes. Wishing you a December full of laughing at and with the people you love.

Family Fun

19 Nov

When last I wrote about the impact of my community theater habit on my family, I’d just finished up work on a musical that included my husband in the cast, rendering our children parentless nights and weekends for a couple of months. Which was totally fiiine. At least that’s the way I remember it. I have really good amnesia skills, though, you can tell because I have more than one child.

Anyway, this fall I had the opportunity to work with a director friend who asked me to adapt and assistant direct Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The project intimidated me, and that made me mad at myself, so I had to do it. The director also expressed interest in seeing my nine year old for a part. My daughter had already asked if she could audition for something, and having her come to rehearsals I’d have to attend anyway would certainly be convenient. Moms and girls, learning together! Mass hysteria! Sign us up.

First, I cobbled together an adaptation, learning a tremendous amount in the process. I may not have time or money for a formal playwriting education, but I do have tolerant friends willing to let me learn on the job. Then, my daughter auditioned and was cast. When my husband came to pick her up, we asked him to jump up and do a cold read of Scrooge’s nephew, Fred. And he nailed it–ugh, he’s so annoying–so he was in. The director and I decided it would be best for me to play Ghost of Christmas Future because it’s a lot of driving just to point ominously. And gosh, the thought of our six year old home by himself with a sitter while his WHOLE FAMILY did a play together was so heartrending that, against my better judgment, I asked the director if she’d mercy-cast him in a small role, which she graciously did.

BAM mostly by accident we were all in a play. Upside? No need for babysitting. Downside? No need for babysitting.

Our A Christmas Carol opens on Friday, so right now we’re inching our way toward the tippytop of that first big hill on the rollercoaster. Reminds me of this past summer when I rode the Grizzly at King’s Dominion with my six year old. I turned to him afterwards expecting him to be limp with laughter, and instead found a pale, quivering mass literally speechless with fear. Trying to say that at this point it could really go ANY WHICH WAY, y’all. Here are a few impressions of the process so far.

1. As a couple, it’s hard to parent together, it’s hard to work together, it’s hard to work AND parent together, PLUS parent people who are working on the same project. Is all I’m going to say about that. My husband LOVES to be directed by me. Oh, look, I said something else!

2. As a parent, it’s hard to parent, it’s hard to work and parent, it’s hard to parent people who are working hard, PLUS work hard yourself on the same project. It’s kind of cool to have my kids know me in this very adult realm and different context, and it’s also kind of weird. And now they know for sure that I know a lot of swear words.

3. Needing less babysitting is nice. But I’ve still needed babysitting, and constructing and staffing a schedule that accommodates four different rehearsal calls, plus other after-school activities, plus Husband’s intense work travel schedule, plus my other work, (both paid and volunteer), has been… Well. I don’t consider organization to be a natural strength, so it’s been LIKE THAT.

4. I am a lunatic about kid dinner and kid sleep. Since the typical rehearsal schedule runs four weeknights and a weekend afternoon or evening per week, I had some major Fun Police anxiety about involving the kids in this play. It hasn’t been as bad as I feared, actually, but here’s an anecdote from Sunday’s tech rehearsal.

It’s 8:45 pm. We’re working on the finale with lights and sound. My six year old doesn’t enter when he’s supposed to. The stage left Stage Manager calls out that she can’t find him. The stage right Stage Manager replies that he’s asleep on a bench on her side. She rouses him, he finishes strong, we get in the car to go home.

Me: “Were you nodding off backstage, buddy?”
6yo: “I was just resting my eyes. I was still listening, though.”
9yo: “Pfffft, yeah RIGHT, you missed your cue!”
9yo: “Did TOO.”
6yo: “Did NOT I was AWAKE!” Etc. etc. etc.

Yep, going great.

Obviously I can’t draw conclusions about this experience before it concludes, and I’m sure I will feel many different flavors of things even then. One thing I know, though, is that this was a special and unique adventure I’m proud of our family for undertaking. And another is that I will be wearing my extra-super waterproof mascara on opening night.

It's All Happening!

It’s All Happening!

Make time. Take time. Find time.

14 Nov

Two weeks ago, a friend’s 6 year old daughter was killed in a tragic accident. That week tragic accidents happened in lots of places around the world. That week other children died and life kept on being unfair and reality kept on being brutal. And that week, this brutal tragedy unfairly happened to my friend. But it didn’t happen to ME. My grief is nothing to her grief, to her family’s grief. My grief feels selfish and self-indulgent. My grief is useless to my friend, but I offer it. I can’t help but offer it. There is no bottom to my grieving about their grief.

I might pick up some chicken for my friend. I might bring her a coffee–she might be out viewing her daughter’s body, and thus not home. I might offer my time, my money, my embrace. I might attend her daughter’s memorial and weep from the depths of myself, bow my head and rock and keen. It’s not enough.

It can even be too much. Their house is packed with food, they’re swarmed with offers of help, I’ve heard that my friend says she’s “all hugged out.” There is nothing to do, but if I could, I would do it all, we would do it all, her community would do anything, everything. The parents of our town are rocked. Whether they know the family or not, the thought of this little child, this horrible tragedy, consumes. Friends who never met the little girl confide that they still can’t stop crying, can’t sleep, feel almost foolish in how deeply it affects them.

At one point in my life the worst things I could imagine happening all involved a violation of my own body or mind. But now the worst thing I can imagine would happen to one of my children. I don’t matter to me anymore, not like this.

I’m hugging my daughter goodnight and squeezing her tightly, holding her just a fraction too long. She interprets this gesture completely correctly and says softy, “I think you are more sad about this than me, because you’re a mom, and you’re the mom’s friend. I’m just a kid. It’s different.”

My nine year old also says, walking back from the little girl’s memorial, “A family is like a knitted sweater. And they have a piece ripped away. And all the little x stitches that hold the pieces of the sweater together are unraveling now. And now they need to try to fix the sweater, to stitch it together again. I think they can do it.”

People need lessons, and sense, and logic they can grasp, so they try to graft narratives on to this tragedy, to knit it into shape. But the death is not what holds the lesson. It was wrong, terribly wrong, and it was an accident. Random, horrible in its utter ordinariness.

When I think of this little girl and her family, I think of the trips they took together, their adventures, the experiences they made the time to share. The family meals, and the soccer games, and the early morning snuggles in bed. Every moment of that time was precious and vital, and this family embodied that knowledge. My friend’s little girl was loved and prized and cherished. What more can we offer our children than the gift of our time and attention? You don’t know how long you will share your lives together, you never know. Don’t miss it.

Standing with my friend in the park, in the sparkling bright fall sunshine, looking around at the celebration for her daughter’s life–the African drum circle, the hula hooping, the dancing, the colorful leaves and soft breeze and brilliant blue sky, the kids chasing each other around the playground and shrieking with laughter–she smiled and said, “Isn’t this beautiful? Isn’t this amazing? I want to do this every year. We should do this every year.” Yes, we should. Every year.