A Story in Pictures

21 Mar

I could pull out my thesaurus and use all the synonyms for the word “exhausted” to describe my experience of the month of March, or I could just do an iPhone dump. See iPhone dump below. Pix or it didn’t happen, after all.

A very cool and super tiring thing that happened March 1 is the musical Husband and I have been rehearsing nights and weekends for two months finally went up.

I made some flowers for the cast for our opening night.

I like to get my watercolor on now and again.

I like to get my watercolor on now and again.

I know some people wear scads of make-up every dang day, but for a lip balm enthusiast such as myself, spackling on this amount of paint just to get into costume tuckers me out.

What mole?

What mole?

Happy to report that we had a successful opening, and then Husband went out of town for work. Pretty much as soon as he crossed state lines, this happened:

8-10 inches of the white nasty.

10 inches of the white nasty.

It knocked out the power at Casa Amomynity and canceled school, and the children and I were forced to seek refuge at my parents’ house for 3 days. Which wasn’t all bad, I have to admit.

It was like sledding in mud, but the kids were determined.

It was like sledding in freezing wet mud.

Inside was far nicer. Jeeves! More hot chocolate!

Inside was much nicer. Jeeves! More hot chocolate!

We got power back at the house about two hours before we had to report to the vocal rehearsal they scheduled in lieu of a show, as power to the theater was knocked out as well. Luckily it was restored the next day, just in time for my brother-in-law and his lady friend to swing through town for a couple of nights and see the Saturday night and Sunday afternoon shows. That weekend also included 8 hours of theater movement training and a blow-out cast party at our place. By the end of it all, I looked like this:

Uncle, weekend!

I tried to have too much fuu-uuu-uuuun.

Then my mother-in-law came to town for a week, with a bonus overnight visit from my husband’s best friend. They saw the third weekend of shows and helped out with some clutch kid-care. After we said our goodbyes and they both got safely home, this past week has been quieter, plus the first day of Spring brought beautiful sunshine! Finally! I kicked the kids outside so I could enjoy a little sanity, but apparently I needed to provide specific parameters for outdoor activities. While one child doctored his old-time “Mr. Magoo” cars with Sharpies:

I love that he made them Saabs. What a snob!

I love that he made them Saabs. What a snob!

the other child uprooted, tore apart, and generally vandalized freshly sprung greenery for “potions.”

At least the carnage was given an artful presentation.

At least the carnage was given an artful presentation.

Siiigh. Well, we’re coming up on the last weekend of the play, which will be crammed with 4 shows, a long and complicated set strike, and perhaps a little late-night cast bonding. And March has one more big event in store for me, in the form of a birthday next weekend that is perilously close to the Big 4-o. At this point I’m feeling ready to look down and see this:

Sand piggies.

Sand piggies.

Bring on July, I say!

Stranger Danger (Kinda!)

13 Mar

The kids had been playing outside for about 20 minutes when the 6 year old burst in to tell me the 8 year old was showing a strange man how to get to Walmart.

Did you stop breathing after reading that sentence? Is your heart galloping, your leaden stomach threatening to drop out of your body and make a cartoonish, jaggedy hole in the floor? Oh my god, me, too!!!

But let’s back up. My little family happens to live in the very same neighborhood where I grew up, (I know, gross! I mean, cool!), just a few streets over from the house where my parents still live. I rode my purple Schwinn with the sparkly banana seat past the house where I now live grown-up style! And therefore, although times, and standards for child safety, have changed, I have ideas about what kids should be allowed to do in my neighborhood that were formed in the early 1980’s. In a nutshell: Pretty much whatever, without an adult being too conspicuously in the mix, as long as basic rules of safety are observed.

Up until now I’ve been on the conservative side about unsupervised play because I didn’t want the neighbors to judge me for having a free-range preschooler. But elementary school is now in effect so all bets are off. Let the wild rumpus move outside!

Kids outside/me inside is potentially the best thing ever, for lots of reasons. For example, kids have the “impervious to cold” superpower that allows them to play jacket-free and happy in 50 degree weather while I shiver on the front stoop in a sweater and coat. And they work through disagreements better when I don’t stick my nose into their business. And they constantly want to roam outside of eye and earshot even when I do park it outside. AND that thing on NPR about kids not being free to wander outside when it’s actually probably still fine for them to do that, even in these dark times! Probably! NPR mostly said so! At least until your 8 year old suddenly decides to show a stranger where Walmart is! (For the record, many, many miles from our house.)

My 6 year old is a cute little dude, but linear storytelling is not among his gifts. So although I immediately and totally panicked when he dropped his bomb, I also tried to gently probe for more details.

Me: “DID SHE GET IN A CAR WITH SOMEONE YOU DON’T KNOW?!”

(I didn’t succeed.)

Him (starting to cry): “What? I don’t? She just? Mommy?”

Me: “WHERE IS SHE RIGHT NOW?!”

Him: “She! She went! She!” (Points that-a-way.)

I pelted out of the front door screaming her name at the top of my lungs. Cool head in a crisis, that’s me! Can’t understand why no one ever encouraged me to look into being a first responder! Thankfully for my adrenal system, my daughter answered back right away, albeit from some distance. Summoned quite, er, emphatically, she rushed back and I was able to get the full 8 year old version of the story.

She WAS approached by a group of strangers and asked for directions!

To the nearby shopping center you can reach by cutting through our neighborhood on foot, so there was no car involved, but still. Also another neighborhood kid and his babysitter were outside at the time, and the babysitter inserted herself into the conversation, but still.

My sweet daughter politely offered to walk with the strangers and show them the cut-through to the shopping center!

The babysitter and other kid went with her, and she sent her brother to let me know what was going on, but still.

Needless to say we all went inside for A Talk. Do other parents find it incredibly hard to strike the right tone in this kind of Talk? The world is a scary and dangerous place and adults might want to harm you and you should always exercise extreme caution and good lord I may never allow you to play outside again! But also, the world is not THAT scary and and most people do NOT want to harm you and don’t be afraid! And you need to learn how to conduct yourself with good sense and trust yourself to make good decisions! But you should always check with me because you’re just a kid and you might NOT be making good decisions! And don’t bother me with every little thing, work things out on your own! But know what things to bother me about and a strange adult talking to you is DEFINITELY ONE OF THEM. The Talk went well, yep.

A little coda to this story is that the other day the kids went swimming with a neighbor friend and her parents, (yes, I let other adults take my kids swimming, even though my 8 year old once knocked a TOOTH out at a pool playdate I didn’t attend. I am an equal opportunity fate-tempter, apparently.) While they were gone I ran over to my parents’ house to help my mom with something, and it took a little longer than planned. I hadn’t brought my phone with me, or left a note, and the phone at my mom’s house was off the hook, and my husband was on a run without his phone. So my children came home to an empty house with the cars in the driveway and the front door unlocked. And apparently, they did just the right thing. My daughter took the home phone over to the list of contact numbers I’ve taped to the fridge for babysitters, and worked her way through each one. When she got no answer at any of them, (poor her), she calmly walked her brother back over to our friend’s house and told the parents what had happened. I found the kids there eating snacks when I ran home about 5 minutes later.

It was a perfect test situation for, “I don’t know where my parents are and I need some help,” and she did everything right. Neither she nor I would’ve known how she’d react in this situation if I hadn’t inadvertently given her the opportunity to demonstrate. So it’s clear that learning opportunities are going to keep popping up unexpectedly, and it’s important that I make my peace with that. They are both necessary and helpful. And here’s fervently hoping that my children always learn their lessons in such easily-remedied fashion.

Seasonal Application of Desserts

14 Feb

It was in college in upstate New York that I first heard of Seasonal Affective Disorder, here defined as a fancy name for the sludgy malaise that creeps over me in winter. Every fall I resolve to see the colder months as rife with opportunities for snuggling, reading under a cozy blanket, and indulging in buttery starches and red wine. Every fall I get claustrophobic being inside so much, can’t fit into my jeans, and remember that red wine gives me hangovers.

As she has with my love of Nancy Drew and inability to back down from an argument, my daughter seems to have inherited my winter sads. We were listening to the radio the other day and came upon a DJ reading out a “Top Ten Best Things About Winter” list. She disagreed strenuously with several of the items, such as building snowmen, (“Pffft, we never have enough snow for that”), and getting caught up on TV series you missed, (“Pffft, you’d never let us watch that much TV.”) (We will avoid mention of the Disney movie marathons I’ve been known to sanction on the occasional, er, slow-starting weekend morning. Red wine!!!)

“OK,” I said to her. “Then you make a list of ten things you love about winter.”

“Well,” she said. “Hot chocolate!”

“Good one.”

“And Christmas!”

“Yep, yep.”

“And… Uh… Well… That’s pretty much it.”

Spoken like a true issuance of my emergency c-section parts.

This fall and winter have been particularly rough on her for reasons I’m still seeking to understand, but her increased workload at school has certainly been a contributing factor. Too many afternoons of fretting over worksheet perfection and picking fights to channel her angst culminated in an end-of-semester meltdown that left our family shaken. The well-timed winter break offered a chance to step back and assess, and one thing I noticed was how much more smoothly things operate when we have nowhere to be, nothing to do, endless amounts of time to do it in, and two parents home and engaged. So, uh, none of that can happen with any regularity during the school year, but I salvaged what I could of the insight.

And so we established a Monday afternoon family cooking club. The kids choose a recipe (read: my daughter chooses a recipe and my son agrees to her choice.) It will shock and astonish you, dear reader, that so far they’ve only chosen desserts. I have veto power if what they want to do looks too expensive or fiddly, but after a month I still haven’t had to turn them down. I shop for ingredients on Sunday afternoon, with kid assistance if feasible. After school and homework on Monday, we start cooking. I let the kids do as much as my control-freak nature will allow, as long as it isn’t potentially dangerous (stove-work and chopping are limited.) I usually do most of the dishes, although the 6 year old is into bubbles, so last week he did the whole sinkful all by himself.

And so far, so good. I’ve found myself pleasantly challenged by the recipes they’ve picked. I generally avoid handling dough, as it’s not a strength, but our Blueberry Pinwheels turned out just fine, and I salvaged a bad pie dough by making it into a lattice top for Blueberry Pie.

PIIIE!!!

PIIIE!!!

The first week’s Lemon Bars were a favorite I’ve made many times, but I’ve only ever made one clafoutis, and that was years ago. I loved the recipe they found for this cherry one topped with a syrup made with lemon zest and cinnamon.

The lighting is weird. It didn't taste light blue in the slightest.

The lighting is weird. It didn’t taste light blue in the slightest.

The time together is not always stress-free, as there are the inevitable power struggles and disagreements, (and my kids bicker with each other, too, heh), but both children end up proud and excited to gobble samples of “their” dessert, and take a portion to school Tuesday to show off at lunchtime. Family cooking club has been a success in terms of bringing us together to focus on a child-driven activity. It has been an utter failure at helping me get back into my jeans, but you can’t have it all.

Apparel Peril

6 Feb

Before I was a parent I put a lot more stock in the importance of nurture to forming a person’s identity. And maybe my changing point of view makes it seem like I’m cracking under the pressure of raising little people, but I bet any parent will tell you that strong nature-ful personality traits come standard on babies. People enter the world already people, not just impressionable lumps of clay for their caregivers to mold into whatever shapes they most prefer. Want to make the gods laugh? Tell them your plans for your children.

My kids, from the start such individuals in a myriad of ways, are in elementary school now, and thus ever more conscious of the impressions they make on their peers. I’ve got a front row seat to their struggle to express the people they sense themselves to be. And as someone truly invested in their outcomes, I struggle myself with how much to intrude in this process. I know I have power and influence; it’s less clear to me exactly how much, and what role I should aspire to play in what will be a lifelong journey of becoming. This is on my mind a lot lately because of two separate incidents, one with each child.

In the first case, my 8 year old daughter had been sent upstairs to get dressed for a casual outing with her grandfather. She came back down wearing leggings paired with a teeshirt. I pointed out to her that she wasn’t actually wearing pants, and asked her to either throw on a dress or change into jeans. She grumbled briefly because she was impatient to leave, and changed. In subsequent days she has twice asked, “Are these things I have on pants or leggings?” suggesting that she, like so many others, has a hard time telling the difference. The end.

OR IT WOULD HAVE BEEN, had I not remembered this chart by Amy Sly on the Huffington Post, and been moved to post on Facebook and Twitter, “It’s never too early to teach your daughter the difference between pants and leggings.” I got funny and mostly supportive responses on both platforms, but a few friends pushed back a little along the lines of, “I LIKE leggings as pants,” and, “C’mon, 8 is too young to worry about stuff like that,” and, “Fashion is fun, she should be free to express herself.” (I’m paraphrasing; hope you don’t feel misquoted, friends!) (Friends…?)

Prompted by these comments to consider whether I might be over-reacting, I mulled over why exactly it bothered me to let an outfit that was a little bare out the door. And in so doing I had to confront how much I’m projecting into the future. It doesn’t take much for me to hopscotch mentally from a girl who gets inappropriately sexualized attention from boys and men by inadvertently, (or experimentally), dressing provocatively, to a woman who dresses that way intentionally in order to draw lascivious focus. Is that what my daughter was up to? Of course not, (and I also don’t think leggings alone would be enough to encourage looks or comments.) But I realized that I reacted so protectively because pretty much my worst case scenario is that she grow up to dress like the women who compete on reality TV shows. Hair extensions, stripper heels, hoisted boobs, booty shorts, gel manicure, fake tan… Horrors! I would rather she have an aqua mohawk and tattoo sleeves. Keep it weird, my girl! Keep it creative or nerdy or boring! Resist the forces of bimboification! And go put on some pants!

On the other hand is my sweet 6 year old son, who has exhibited a keen interest in “girl” accoutrements since, well, birth. His favorite color is pink. He borrows costume high heels from his girl buddies. For his 6th birthday he asked for a pedicure. This is how he rolls. Last week he came down accessorized for school in a wide pink plastic headband. I could tell he was determined to wear it, so I reminded him to stash it in his backpack if it gave him a headache, and left it at that. When he got off the bus that afternoon he was the picture of dejection–slumped shoulders, frowny face. “Headband drama,” his sister commented. “I HAD THE WORST DAY EVER!” he cried, and described being teased on the bus and by a pack of girls in his class. I hugged him, told him I loved him, and said I thought he should wear what he likes. And I wondered if that was going to be it for the headband experiment.

But the next day he marched down the stairs wearing a different (coordinating) headband. “Now that I know what the friends will say to me, I’m going to school ready for it,” he declared. In the days since, he has scootered around the block in one of his sister’s dresses, worn a gold necklace and carried a purse to a Super Bowl party, and added some kind of accessory to his school outfit every day. And he gets teased, and he doesn’t like it, but he persists. I overheard the following conversation between him and a friend during a recent playdate:

Friend: “Why are you wearing high heels?”
6yo: “Because I like girl stuff.”
Friend: “Oh. I have a friend who’s a girl who likes boy stuff.”
(They continue playing.)

Shrug. I think he’s on to something, and hope if his interest in pushing the boundaries of gender “appropriate” apparel persists, he will continue to do it with confidence and flair.

So my conclusion is that I would actually prefer it if my son grows up to parade around in highly sexualized femme gear than if my daughter does! But whatever happens, I hope I have the strength to love and support my kids, and keep (most of) my thoughts to myself. (Or commit them to my blog, whichever.)

24/7/1 night only

23 Jan

It’s been brought to my attention that I said this blog wouldn’t only be pieces about parenting, but, uh, so far this blog is only pieces about parenting. That’s appropriate insofar as parenting is my day job–scratch that, it’s a 24/7/365 kind of job–and trying to do it in halfway decent style is my overwhelming preoccupation. But all work and no play except Monopoly and scootering around the block makes me a dull mom, not to mention feel like a crazy person, so I do seek other outlets.

It’s only been in the last couple of years that I’ve given myself permission to self-identify, at least in the privacy of my own mind (and now the relative privacy of a blog with a micro-readership), as an artist. But creative work has always been an important part of my life. I acted in my first play, the musical The Velveteen Rabbit, at the age of 8 (I was the Fourth Building Block, a pivotal role), and wrote my first (very) short story around then; if memory serves it was about a four leaf clover fairy named Sprite. When I got to college, I felt I should designate one hobby as my main interest, so I majored in English. But then I spent all my leisure time performing in an a cappella group and a student theater group. Professionally I edited textbooks and wrote web copy, but craved performing. When we got settled in Virginia and I was finished nursing our second child, I auditioned for a community theater musical and have been so thrilled and relieved to get back to acting, but have also wished for a writing career that was more creative than copy writing, and more personally meaningful.

All this to say, for some reason it had never occurred to me to try to write a play, thereby combining my two passions, until I was offered the opportunity to write for a local theater festival called 24/7, in which 7 new plays are written, directed, and performed in a 24 hour period. The constraints accompanying this writing assignment included being given a theme, a key word, and the number/gender of actors I was to write for, plus the small detail of a 10-hour time limit in which to get the work done. (And because the work was to be done overnight, I knew that actually meant a shorter time limit; I couldn’t pull all-nighters in college, and I wasn’t about to try as a middle-aged mom with childcare responsibilities the following day.) I was nervous about my chances of success, but also grateful to have so many parameters–the terror of the totally blank page has defeated me countless times.

The theme for this year’s event was, “The elephant in the room,” and my randomly-generated key word was “tiny.” I picked a slip of paper out of a hat that instructed me to write for 1 woman, 2 men, and 1 male and 1 female cameo, cameo parts being characters who have a pivotal role in the plot but 5 lines or fewer, (as the actors who play the cameos are in multiple plays.) And then I was sent out into the night. I came home so I could be close to the wine in my fridge and coffee in my pantry. The theme and my key word inspired me to posit, “What if there actually WAS a tiny elephant in the room?” The resulting very silly noir-ish spy drama revolved around a child’s elephant-shaped coin bank, (my daughter just happens to have one of these), and a triple-crossing secretary and her several lovers, and ended with 4 out of 5 of my characters shot dead. Which is just a good return on the audience’s investment, I’m sure you’d agree. My husband helped me puzzle out some of the plot intricacies of who was zooming who and cheating who and shooting who, and by the time I got a structure I liked and started filling in dialogue, it was already midnight. I pushed through and managed a short nap before giving the play a final once-over at 5:45, and turning it in a mere 18 minutes after deadline at 6:18 am. (The return email from the festival producer–“Too late,” thankfully just a little joke–almost made me wet my pants.)

I returned to the theater that morning to watch the random selection of a director for my play, with whom I met briefly, and the 5 actors who were to bring it to life in 2 shows that evening. And then I went home to wait (and grab another nap.) I had a really good feeling based on the director and actor picks; I knew most of their work, and felt confident they would have fun with the material and make good decisions.

Two funny things happened before I got to see my show at 7 pm. First, I got a text from the stage manager of the festival that said, “The worst has happened.” My heart pounding, I wondered what she could mean–The electricity blew in the building? Someone had been hurt? Her follow-up text, a picture of my daughter’s elephant coin bank after it had obviously been smashed to bits and painstakingly glued back together, made me sigh with relief. I had warned my 8 year old when I borrowed her toy that it might get broken, and we were both very touched at how hard the staff tried to repair it. It won’t be the last time my kids suffer for my art.

Second, when I arrived at the theater at 6:45, my director rushed up to me and said, “I hope you won’t mind. We made some… Changes to the play.” He assured me they were not structural, just enhancements, and I tried to act casual like my trust in him was absolute–but I was apprehensive.

As it turns out, trust in him and the actors was more than justified. All the flourishes they added–sound cues, mannerisms that fleshed out the characters, blocking changes from what I suggested in the script, not to mention the superb costumes and set elements added by the crew–made the play 100% more effective and fun than it had been on the page. It was a total thrill to sit in the audience and watch the actors relish their roles. I listened to their well-earned gales of laughter and rounds of applause with a lot of satisfaction. My one question going into the experience–well, apart from “Can I write a play overnight?”–was whether I would feel sad not to be on stage. But I felt proud of myself for being able to contribute to an enjoyable night at the theater in a whole new way. The experience made me eager to test and stretch myself creatively in other forms. Maybe I’ll go back to that novel I was working on, or try some short stories, or pick the guitar back up, or…

Or just write a blog post about the whole shebang. Hey, a busy mom has to do what she can.

If you’re interested, you can read the play I wrote for 24/7 here.

The Revenge of Mr. It

23 Jan

This is the play I wrote for the 24/7 Theater Festival, sponsored by Whole Theater and performed at Live Arts in Charlottesville, VA on January 19, 2013.

Snippets of my play were read by the cast, and cast members were interviewed, on this news piece about 24/7 on the local NBC29 affiliate.

The Revenge of Mr. It
by Miller Murray Susen

Cast of Characters:

Cleaning Woman (female cameo)

Secretary Lady

Spy Man 1

Spy Man 2

The General (male cameo)

(Lights up on a large, official-looking desk and chair with 2 chairs for visitors. There should be 2 doors to the room with the desk, one SL, one SR. On the desk are papers, office supplies, framed pictures, and a child’s elephant-shaped coin bank [I have one of these to lend the production.])

(Cleaning Woman [female cameo] enters SL with broom, and pushes it along the floor of the office. She pauses at the desk, looks around briefly, and leans her broom against it. She picks up the elephant bank and turns it over. There is nothing on the bottom. She shakes it; no sound. )

Cleaning Woman:

Nothing yet. Damn.

(She puts the coin bank down, picks up her broom, and exits the way she came.)

(Secretary Lady enters briskly SR and delivers some papers to the desk. She looks around and surreptitiously pulls a small scroll from her hairdo. She turns the coin bank over and affixes it to the bottom. She looks around again. There is a knock on the office door, SL. She moves to open the door. Spy Man 1 stands outside in a business suit, with overcoat and briefcase. Secretary Lady pulls him inside.)

Secretary Lady:

Darling! Do you have the money?

(Spy Man 1 hands her the briefcase, then takes off his coat and drapes it over the top.)

Spy Man 1:

Yes, my sweet. And now, the password?

Secretary Lady:

My love, I don’t know the password, but it’s here. Mr. It has instructed me to tell you, “It’s the elephant in the room.” Now, come in and sit down. You’re a journalist interviewing The General about his retirement. Remember, he cannot know you’ve obtained the password… Or he won’t let you leave. Good luck, my love.

(They kiss passionately. Spy Man 1 sits in one of the desk chairs. Secretary Lady exits briefly to deposit his coat and briefcase offstage SR. There is another knock, and Secretary Lady bustles through the room to answer the door, winking at Spy Man 1, then steps outside and shuts the door behind her. Spy Man 2 stands outside the office door dressed in a suit and coat, carrying a briefcase.)

Secretary Lady:

Did you bring the money, my love?

(Spy Man 2 hands her the briefcase, then takes off his coat and drapes it over the top. He snakes an arm around her waist and pulls her close.)

Spy Man 2:

I’ve made my deposit, and now I want my prize. I need the password. And I need you.

Secretary Lady:

Darling, patience! I don’t know the password, you’ll have to get that for yourself. Mr. It has told me to say, “It’s the elephant in the room.” Now, you’re to be a journalist interviewing The General about his retirement. He cannot suspect that you’ve obtained the password, darling, or you won’t get out alive. Do whatever needs doing.

(They kiss passionately, and she leads him into the office and points him toward the other desk chair. Spy Man 1 and Spy Man 2 look at each other suspiciously. Spy Man 1 sticks out his hand.)

Spy Man 1 (with thick Southern accent):

Hi there! I’m Junior Johnson of the New Orleans Picayune. And who might you be?

Spy Man 2 (with thick New York accent):

I’m Max Largeman of the New York Post. You here to interview The General? (Looks at Secretary Lady and growls.) ‘Cuz I thought this was an exclusive.

Secretary Lady:

The General is a very busy man. We’ve had to double-book some of his appointments. But I’m sure you’ll get what you came for. Now, if you’ll excuse me…

(She exits SR. In her absence, both Spies leap into action and start casing the room while eyeing each other. They are flustered enough by each others’ presence to miss the small, unobtrusive elephant bank on the desk. They move continuously during their exchange.)

Spy Man 1:

So, down South for a big interview! Are you enjoying your stay in our nation’s beautiful capital city?

Spy Man 2:

Yeah, it’s great, whatever. So, tell me this, how’d the Picayune get access to this guy?

Spy Man 1:

Oh, I charmed my way in. It’s all about the people you know.

Spy Man 2 (smirking):

And what you do to them. I mean, for them. Sure. What’s your angle on the old guy?

Spy Man 1:

Well, Down South juicy gossip is what sells papers. Maybe now that he’s retiring he’ll give me some dirt.

Spy Man 2:

What the hell you think a general’s gonna tell YOU? I’d imagine he knows how to handle a podunk reporter by now.

Spy Man 1:

Perhaps so. But as long as we’re sharing and caring, what are you planning to ask? Going to try to get him to dish on…The African expedition, say?

Spy Man 2:

(Long pause.) African expedition, huh? Maybe you’re not such a podunk reporter. Wouldn’t you like to know what I know about that.

Spy Man 1:

(Stopping, turning to face Spy Man 2.) 

It might be that I would like to know what you know about that, but I would have thought I’d be more interested in what he knows about that. But who knows, really?

(They stare at each other, then look away. Silence as they both sit down, and unobtrusively check easy access to their weapons.)

(Secretary Lady enters escorting The General [male cameo] from SR to the SR door of the office. He is elderly and leans on her arm. As they walk, he reaches down with his free hand and gooses her. She squeals, and they pause to kiss passionately.)

Secretary Lady:

My goodness, age hasn’t slowed you down one bit, darling!

(They enter the office, and the Spies stand as she helps The General into his desk chair and makes him comfortable.)

The General:

Thank you, my dear. That girl is one fine filly!

(Spies look at Secretary Lady, notice each other looking at her, look at each other, and look away. They take their seats. Another subtle weapons check. Secretary Lady hastens off SR.)

The General:

What can I do for you, gentleman? Here to hear all my old war stories? I’m surprised to be getting so much attention, an old codger like me.

Spy Man 1:

You’re too modest, Sir. You’ve had a long and storied career.

Spy Man 2:

That’s right, Sir, your service will be remembered for generations to come. The way I hear it, you’ve had your share of adventures.

The General:

Adventures, whippersnapper? I’ve had a few.

Spy Man 1:

Well, to get right down to it, I’d like to know more about your time in Africa, Sir. Specifically about… The African expedition.

The General (chortling heartily, but ill at ease):

Gadzooks, is that old chestnut still making the rounds? Riches buried in the African grasslands? Signs of an alien civilization? Mumbojumbo about a map and a password?

Spy Man 2:

Yes, Sir. Now that you’re retiring, why don’t you give me the exclusive full story. For so many years now it’s been the elephant in the room.

The General:

Pshaw, the only elephant I see in this room is right here! (Holds up the coin bank as a cover for pulling out his gun.) My granddaughter made it for me! No treasure in here, though, I can tell you that!

(As The General lifts the elephant bank into the air and fumbles for his gun, the Spies see the scroll taped to the bottom at the same moment. Spy Man 1 flashes out of his chair, gun already in hand, and grabs the elephant bank.)

Spy Man 1 (abruptly dropping accent):

Not so fast, General, that elephant is treasure enough for me!

(He shoots The General, who slumps backward in his chair. Spy Man 1 then turns to fire at Spy Man 2, who is already on his feet, his own weapon at the ready. Spy Man 2 reaches with his free hand for the elephant.)

Spy Man 2 (also dropping accent):

The elephant leaves with me, chump.

(He shoots Spy Man 1, who falls to the ground. Secretary Lady has entered from SR at a run after the first shot. She carries the Spies’ briefcases.)

Spy Man 2:

And I’ll take the girl as well. You got the money, honey? Let’s go get rid of Mr. It and have us a little African vacation.

Secretary Lady:

Actually, darling, as it turns out, I am the mysterious Mr. It.

Spy Man 2:

YOU are?

Secretary Lady:

Yes, and Mr. It doesn’t like messes, so he hires a cleaning woman to do his dirty work.

(Cleaning Woman bursts through SL office door and shoots Spy Man 2, who falls to the ground. Cleaning Woman reaches forward and with her free hand takes the elephant coin bank from his lifeless hands. Secretary Lady runs toward her across the stage with the briefcases, high-stepping over various dead bodies.)

Secretary Lady:

Oh, my dearest one! Fantastic job! Now we have the money, we have the password, all the other players are dead, and we can get away clean! Let us wing our way to Africa, and discover riches beyond our imaginings!

(They kiss passionately.)

Cleaning Woman:

Eh, I’m afraid you’re not clean enough for me.

(She shoots Secretary Lady, who falls to the ground, dead. Cleaning Woman pockets her gun, crams the elephant bank in her armpit, and picks up the briefcases, one in each hand.)

Cleaning Woman:

Seeing as I’m Mr. It now, I think I’ll just leave this mess for someone else.

(She exits SL.)

The End.

January Stock Pot

8 Jan

My husband travels a lot for his job, and he takes one particular trip every year in early December that lasts through a weekend. It’s a hard time of year for him to be gone so long (although he follows it up with a two week staycation during the childrens’ winter break from school that’s reliably cozy and fantastic, so we get our reward for persevering.) One of the practical concerns raised by the timing of the trip is when to put up our Christmas tree. If we put it up before he leaves it means getting a tree right after Thanksgiving, which is an intimidating amount of tree maintenance and clean-up seeing as we leave it up until New Year’s Day. But if we wait until he gets back it’s only a couple of weeks until Christmas, and that doesn’t seem like quite enough time to savor the anticipation with our beautiful tree to assist us. So in the end we always err on the side of putting it up early.

This year we got the tree up so early that it was several weeks before anything came in the mail to put under it. This state of affairs bothered the children. A tree with no presents! So naked! So uncelebratory! It spawned in them a deep, and deeply messy, desire to craft the emptiness away.

For five days straight they spent hours a day hand-making this and that, “wrapping” the results, and stacking the booty in shaky piles that spilled all over the front hall, got stepped on, inadvertently watered when we were trying to reach under the tree, kicked, crumpled, etc. There were little snippets of paper and puddles of half-dry glue and scraps of felt and embroidery thread everywhere all over the house, plus arguments about who spilled the beads and who peeked at whose present and who used the last shoe box, and basically the whole thing was driving me bonkers. At one point my son had made sixteen presents for me. And he is six, so I just knew all the presents were pieces of felt that had been scribbled on with marker and scotch-taped together. It was going to take us forever to open all these things! And what in the world would we DO with it all? Disappointment and hurt feelings and bickering seemed inevitable, and I got tired just thinking about it.

So I laid down the law–“It’s enough with the presents, guys. Too many presents. Such a sweet thought, but it’s too much.” My husband backed me 100%; we joked, maybe even in front of the kids, about their irritating largesse, and reminisced about famous childhood non-presents of other Christmases, like the time my brother gave every member of the family 3 wooden blocks wrapped in yellow legal paper and messily taped to themselves.

Christmas morning was pretty great this year. The kids are still fully invested in Santa, so their excitement was sparkling bright. They waited until 7 am to wake us, as requested, and I cuddled with them in our bed and read one of the Little House on the Prairie Christmas chapters, a beloved ritual from my own childhood, while my husband put the finishing touches on the downstairs and made coffee. They were very happy with their loot, and we spent an enjoyable hour or so looking at it all. Then we had breakfast and treats, and found we still had plenty of time before we were expected at my parent’s. The timing was perfect to tackle the many kid “presents.”

They took turns presenting us with their surprises, explaining the creation of each, anxiously scanning our faces for signs of our pleasure in receiving them. And it’s true, I did receive a lot of fancified felt. But I also got an armful of pipe cleaner bangles (each wrapped separately.)

bling

My husband got 2 paintings of a waterfall, one from the perspective of each child. I got a wooden box that had been painstakingly decoupaged with scraps of origami paper. “It’s for your treasures,” my daughter said. “I didn’t rush, I took my time finishing it.” They worked together on a collage of hearts for both of us using all different papers. As they told us about making it, I realized my husband had tears in his eyes.

When we were debriefing that night we agreed that the best part of the whole day was the parade of handmade treasures from the kids. As my husband observed, their efforts embodied the “spirit of Christmas”–they gifted us with their time and consideration and loving thoughts, things the holiday is supposed to be about. It killed me that I had quelled their spirits and enthusiasm. Why didn’t I understand I should celebrate and support them? Why didn’t I get how loved and special I would feel to attend Christmas lunch with a stack of homemade baubles?

So here it is January once again, and the routine is up and running. The husband’s on a trip, the kids are at school all day, I have the quiet house to myself. I’m not really one for fresh starts and resolutions, because deep down I believe that wherever you go, there you are; new year, same old shit. But I’m telling my scroogey heart that 2013 is the year to expand three sizes. Look, listen, notice, feel the happinesses I am so lucky to have in my life. Appreciate them, nurture them. I’m not too worried about being able to dance like no one’s watching, but I want to be sure to watch when the people I love dance.

Whole Newtown World

19 Dec

Beautiful, beloved children die every day, and they die by gun violence every day, and although this fact should bring me to my knees, it doesn’t. I find a way to live with that knowledge, to carry it around with me. But the senseless horror of the school massacre in Newtown, CT on Dec. 14 is proving so difficult for me to get a grasp on, mentally and emotionally, that I feel guilty. Doesn’t every tragedy deserve this kind of reverent grief from me?

Oh, those little children. Those valiant adults.

December 14 was the day before my child’s sixth birthday, and so many six-year-olds died that day without a chance to celebrate seven. The event happened in a school similar in size and population to my kids’ sweet neighborhood school, the same one I attended myself. I spent the morning at that school on Dec. 14 handing out birthday cupcakes. The parallels haunt me.

Tonight I went to the first post-tragedy PTO meeting. The principal opened by hastening to reassure the gathered parents with information about safety drills, measures being taken to monitor the dialogue and mood at school, precautions to prevent such a tragedy happening to us. But as I listened to her speak, this wonderful educator whom I know without a doubt would protect my children with her life, this mother of two small children of her own, all I could think about was the unlocked front door of our school, and the way it opens on a hallway lined with plate glass, where all the administrative offices are. When she asked for questions, I raised my hand and said, “What about staff safety measures?” She answered gracefully, but as she talked it seemed to me that the unspoken truth is the staff knows they are the first line of physical defense, and see it as part of the job. Their unaffected bravery is absolutely heartwrenching.

After the meeting we gathered in the school auditorium for the winter chorus concert by the third and fourth graders. It was my third grader’s first chance to perform in the auditorium, and her excitement has been at a high pitch. She needed a white button-down shirt for the occasion, and we ended up just borrowing one from her younger brother–shrunken menswear being very much on trend, after all. As she walked out on to the back riser (she’s tall, just like I am–I always got stuck in the back, too), her knobbly wrists jutting out of the shirt sleeves, and her big feet clomping in new black shoes, her smile blazed as she caught sight of me and her father and little brother. Her eyes were huge and bright in her small, dear face. Our kids don’t know what happened, at least not yet. My daughter’s innocent joy in this unfussy occasion, her ability to be absolutely transported by the opportunity to perform for her parents and friends, her pure pleasure in the moment, were balm for my soul.

I’m sort of cumulatively tired of Christmas music. Every year it grates on me more, the manufactured emotion and stock sound effects and cheesy lyrics. But winter carols sung in the perfectly imperfect warble of elementary school children are another thing altogether. As I sat holding my precious six year old in my lap, watching his sister try to smile and sing at the same time, my nose buried in his fragrant hair, waves of gently dissonant sound washing over us, I felt so sad and happy and fearful and fortunate. There was so much love in the room, and I know there is so much love in the world. I wish the power of the love we have for our children was enough to keep them all safe, always.

Santa Baby

13 Dec

As a companion piece to my Religious Holidays for Dummies post, I wanted to transcribe the childrens’ 2012 communications to a higher power they definitely believe in, aka Santa. In looking back at my own checkered relationship with the big man, doubt started creeping in the year I was eight, and by the time I was nine we were donesies, so it strikes me that this is probably my last year to enjoy both of my kids’ unsullied faith in a myth I have carefully constructed and perpetuated. It’s bittersweet, especially as I hate to think about my daughter putting Santa’s name in air quotes next December, as in, “I hope “Santa” will carefully consider my request for a laptop.”

Anyway, my soon-to-be six year old kept things simple. He dictated and his faithful maternal scribe got it all down:

Dear Santa,

How are you and your elves? I hope you’re having a good time making toys. I would like:
1. A new kind of Magnatiles.
2. A dollhouse with no roof.
3. Really pretty necklaces with crystals.
Plus surprises. Please.

Love, M–

Nothing to sweat on this list, Santa’s feeling pretty good about her chances of procuring these items. I’ll be trying to skillfully coax a little more detail out of the kid on the “no roof” thing. Ditto “crystals”–I hope he isn’t thinking “diamonds.” Have I got a future Liberace on my hands? Time will tell.

My eight year old has a long history of bargaining for mercy with Santa. A few Christmases ago she composed a crookedy little Christmas Eve note to put with the cookies and milk that pleaded for last-minute leniency thusly: “I know I’ve been bad but it’s hard.” Her conscience was obviously smiting her again this year as she crafted her five-page opus:

Dear Santa (a heart balloon floats next to his name with ‘I love Santa Claus!’ written inside),

I know I’ve been a little bit bad but it’s hard being a big sister. I mean some things are only my fault but some things are because my brother and I interacted. You are one of my biggest heroes. Thank you for all the presents. Could I get your autograph? Autograph _____________. Thank you. Here are the things I want:

1. Easy Bake Ultimate oven
2. A glow-in-the-dark digital clock
3. Kit Kittredge’s American Girl doll bed

And please surprise me! I like fashion, real making food, and making fashion, etc.

Love,
One of your biggest fans,
I–

The kid clearly knows that flattery will get you everywhere, and sometimes the best defense is a good offense. A classic case of her doing as I do rather than as I say. The list itself is straightforward, although I’m wondering what kind of surprises would best please her–maybe a “Make your own Carmen Miranda fruit hat” kit? I’ll let my imagination run wild.

I was a little stressed about the autograph request, as it seemed like a “first chink in the armor” type of suspicion confirmation, but lucky for me I just got to do a dry run.

A week ago my five year old lost his very first baby tooth after about three months of toothy malingering–he wouldn’t let anyone touch it, and the darned thing seemed determined to wiggle around in there forever. Finally it came out while he was jumping on his bed with a friend–the details are hazy, but everyone was smiling afterwards, so whatever. That night, with the help/direction of his big sister, he left the Tooth Fairy a note requesting that she please leave him 1. the tooth because it’s “special to him” (cute), and 2. her autograph (SHIT.) Generally I leave the Tooth Fairy work up to my spouse, but he was out of town, so it fell to me and my shaky hands and creaky knees and cracking ankles to make the magic happen.

I knew I could never manage to get the actual note plus the pencil he’d tucked in beside it out from under his head, but I decided to make that negative a positive–because the Tooth Fairy is a FAIRY, so she’s SMALL, right? Instead I’d leave my own teeny tiny note, which I could scootch in there with the money. I found an appropriately sparkly piece of paper and, without even a warm-up, just busted out an eensybeensy curlycute signature. Turns out I’m a natural. See below.

Pen for scale. Eensy! Weensy!

Pen for scale. Eensy! Beensy!

I managed to creep into his bedroom, leave all my surprises, and creep back out without disturbing the young master. It felt good! I eagerly anticipated his morning excitement, and he gratified me by bounding in first thing to show me his… MONEY!

Me: “Wow, you’re rich! Was there… Anything else under your pillow?”

Him (puzzled): “Like what?”

Me: “Like… Didn’t you ask for the Toothfairy’s autograph?”

Him: “Yeah, what IS an autograph anyway?”

Me (rolling eyes): “It means you want someone to sign their name.”

Him: “Oh! Well she didn’t sign the note, the note’s still there and it doesn’t look different.”

Me: “Uh, but maybe… Uh… Could there have been… You know what? Let’s just go check again.”

I walked him back into his room and rooted around under his pillow. And my cute little note was GONE! I started searching the whole bed, thrusting my hand into the cracks between the mattress and the bed frame, then getting down on my knees to look underneath.

Him: “Mommy? What are you doing?”

Me (grunting): “I just don’t think the Toothfairy would have ignored your request for an autograph like that. I mean, she left you the tooth like you asked, right?”

Him (starting to lose interest): “Yeah, I guess…”

Finally, after a frantic five minutes of searching, I found my teeny slip of sparkly paper and showed it to him in triumph. He still didn’t seem too enthused, and I would have been a little chagrined, but I got my reward a few minutes when my daughter burst into his room yelling, “Did she come? Did she sign the paper?!”

I showed off my handiwork. She snatched it and scrutinized it closely, looking from the paper to me.

8yo: “This… This ISN’T your handwriting. Is it?”

Me: “What?! No! Of course not!”

8yo: “Huh.”

And so the slender thread of belief was extended just a little longer.

Religious Holidays for Dummies

11 Dec

I was raised Catholic by my father, whose deep faith continues to sustain and nourish him. Going to church with him was a great experience for me, one I feel lucky to have had. The mass itself was a little talky and boring, maybe, but the music–our church used the folk mass, so there were guitars and singalongs–was great. I loved sitting next to my dad every Sunday, harmonizing with him and taking some quiet time to think about things. Things like rollerskating and Nancy Drew, but bigger things, too, I’m sure.

Plus, every week before church we ate these honeybuns my dad had found in the freezer section of the grocery store and served warm alongside scrambled eggs–I would unroll mine into a long snaky strip, saving the middle of the coil between my thumb and index finger as a last sweet soft gluey perfect bite. And after mass the grown-ups set out trays of donuts in the lobby! The whole room smelled like coffee and warm fried confections, and my sister and I would sidle over to the table, swipe two or three, and sneak away to quickly cram them into our mouths, the goal being to have empty hands and a mouth full of the “one” donut we were allowed by the time Dad caught up to us. (Hi Dad!)

When I went away to college I tried to keep up with my faith, but the church on campus used the Latin mass complete with thick clouds of choking, spicy incense which made my eyes water, and my one religious studies class kind of tanked my opinion of religion, and I was trying to be a good lefty, and long story long I drifted away. Upon reflection what I had loved most about church was the time with my dad. And the food–no honeybuns, no donuts, no mass. Another couple of hours of Sunday sleep, please.

And now I have children. My husband was also raised as a church-goer, but neither of us is a devout adult, and we have very much enjoyed quiet Sunday mornings at home throughout our marriage. When we had a baby and a toddler, adding church to the schedule was unthinkable, but now the kids are older, and I must admit to some churchy pangs. I have a creeping suspicion that it’s our responsibility to expose them to a church so they can make an informed decision about church-going. And I feel guilty that they don’t know anything about religious doctrine; for one thing, they’re never going to get blasphemous jokes. Plus they have only a shallow understanding of holidays with religious underpinnings. I went to church faithfully for eighteen years, but my grasp on theology is only so-so; still, it’s better than theirs, so the other night at dinner I decided to make sure my kids knew the story of Christmas, the “Reason For The Season” (or at least the churchy one.)

Me: “So you guys know that Christmas is the day Jesus’ birthday is celebrated, right? I mean, that’s one of the reasons Christmas is a holiday. I mean, it wasn’t actually his birthday? Because he lived a long time ago and no one knows when his birthday was really, or if he even had an actual proper birthday, I mean we just don’t know a lot about him as a historical figure, but anyway it is a day that people who believe in Jesus celebrate his birthday.” (Already sweating.)

8yo: “Wait, who’s Jesus again?”

Me: “He’s the son of God. Like, he’s God represented on earth as a human being.”

Blank looks.

Me: “Like, God put his spirit into a baby, and that baby grew up to be Jesus, and Jesus went around telling other people what God thought about things.”

5yo: “Ok. But Mommy, what’s Easter, then?”

Me: “Right. Well. Easter is… So, imagine if someone was walking around saying they were the son of God and telling all these people what God thought about things, and imagine that a lot of people believed him, and then imagine that Jesus started saying that God didn’t agree with what the government of his country was up to. The government got really mad at Jesus and wanted to get rid of him, so they. Well, they put him to death.”

8yo: “THEY KILLED JESUS?!”

5yo (eyes huge): “How did he die?”

Me (wincing): “Uh. So you know those plus signs that you see on the front of churches where the down part is longer than the sideways part? That’s called a cross. And Jesus was, um, hungfromacrossandthenhedied. ANYWAY!”

Kids: “He died from being hung from a cro–how did that kill him–didn’t that hurt–how did they hang him–how did he stay up there–did he cry?”

Me: “Right, well, anyway, so it took 3 days and then they put him in a tomb and then his followers came back to visit the tomb and they found the stone in front of the tomb rolled away, and then it turns out God had brought Jesus back to life, and that’s what is celebrated at Easter! Jesus coming back to life!”

5yo: “Mommy, what in the world does that have to do with the Easter Bunny?”

Me: “That’s a really good question, buddy.”

8yo: “And why does the Easter Bunny bring eggs when bunnies don’t even LAY eggs?”

Me: “I have always wondered that myself.”

And it’s at this point that I realized I can’t even explain secular traditions properly. Well, this has been another dispatch from the House of Awesome Parenting. You’ll probably want to print it out for handy reference.