From Virginia Woolf's Jacob's Room:
     Had he, then, been nothing? An unanswerable question, since even if it weren’t the habit of the undertaker to close the eyes, the light so soon goes out of them. At first, part of herself; now one of a company, he had merged in the grass, the sloping hillside, the thousand white stones, some slanting, others upright, the decayed wreaths, the crosses of green tin, the narrow yellow paths, and the lilacs that drooped in April, with a scent like that of an invalid’s bedroom, over the churchyard wall. Seabrook was now all that; and when, with her skirt hitched up, feeding the chickens, she heard the bell for service or funeral, that was Seabrook’s voice—the voice of the dead.
     Mrs. Jarvis walked on the moor when she was unhappy, going as far as a certain saucer–shaped hollow, though she always meant to go to a more distant ridge; and there she sat down, and took out the little book hidden beneath her cloak and read a few lines of poetry, and looked about her. She was not very unhappy, and, seeing that she was forty–five, never perhaps would be very unhappy, desperately unhappy that is, and leave her husband, and ruin a good man’s career, as she sometimes threatened.
     Still there is no need to say what risks a clergyman’s wife runs when she walks on the moor. Short, dark, with kindling eyes, a pheasant’s feather in her hat, Mrs. Jarvis was just the sort of woman to lose her faith upon the moors—to confound her God with the universal that is—but she did not lose her faith, did not leave her husband, never read her poem through, and went on walking the moors, looking at the moon behind the elm trees, and feeling as she sat on the grass high above Scarborough...

That is my home

This is a text I received from my husband yesterday: "They're looking for a mountain lion near here so be vigilant if you guys get out of the car when you pick me up." That never happened in Chicago.

Speaking of which, this is where I walked my dog this morning:

And this is where I walked my dog in Chicago:

I was trying to get a picture of our friendly neighborhood rats when I took that picture. Oh, hey! We did have wildlife in Chicago! Not mountain lions, but probably even more hazardous!


Book Review

IvanhoeIvanhoe by Walter Scott

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Hard to get past the anti-semitism. Scott is incapable of mentioning Isaac "the Jew" without also commenting on his avarice. Literally. Every time. And Isaac is not a minor character--he's in virtually every chapter. On the other hand, Isaac's daughter Rebecca is a great female character. Her Saxon counterpart, Rowena, is quite flat in contrast. Ivanhoe is also pretty flat. There is very little insight into his or Rowena's emotional experience of the events of the book, particularly when you compare them to Isaac and Rebecca. So why am I giving it four stars? Because there are scenes in here that are unparalleled, any of which could alone justify Scott's reputation. E.g., Friar Tuck and Richard Plantagenet stepping carefully--and belligerently--into an acquaintance that quickly leads to a drunken sing-a-long before the altar of St. Dunstan.

View all my reviews

’tis time we were at church

The book that I am working on involves a lot of traditional religious imagery, and one of the thematic concerns I'd been considering was relevance. Practically speaking, I am an atheist, as are many if not most of the people in my life. In my little sphere of over-educated liberals, religion seems irrelevant, and encountering people for whom religion is a very central concern can be a little jarring. So it struck me that for my main character, this religious imagery might feel weirdly anachronistic, and I'd have to address that.

But then I was listening to some This American Life episodes about god and religion* (in other words, I wanted to listen to This American Life, and justified it by finding episodes about god and religion so I could call it research for my book), and was bowled over by this statistic: 83% of Americans say they belong to a religion. I really have a hard time wrapping my mind around that, given how little religion speaks to me these days.

I often wish that it did speak to me. My first year in college, a very desperate and confusing time for me, one of my neighbors in the dorm was a beautifully prototypical Iowa farmboy. He was big and strong and silent and sweet, and very Christian. One day he said to me, in his quietly unassuming way, "I've found that people who don't believe in God tend to be more unhappy." I'm sure I leapt to deny it at the time, but I think now that he is right. There are probably studies that prove it. And I've thought lately, as the depression that has dogged me for more almost 20 years now has been nipping at my heels with extra ferocity, that I could really use some sort of spiritual practice in my life.

I've been meaning to get back into yoga, which I think counts for something, even if it's just alone in my living room on the Wii Fit. (Hey, can you get Morning Vespers and Shabbat for Wii? Hmm ... pretty sure this is a joke.) I even looked into the local Unitarian church, before deciding I just couldn't stomach it. The Unitarians are just too ... hokey. There's no way I could ever find faith in the Catholic dogma I grew up with--I don't think I ever believed in it, despite my Catholic-school immersion--but I do love the solemn doom and bloody gloom of it. That's how a religion should be. More Nosferatu than Raffi. In my opinion.

* Incidentally, if you have never heard any of Julia Sweeney's one-woman show about losing her faith, you must check it out.


how I am punish’d/ With sore distraction

Here is the problem with a home office. No matter how comfortable, organized, or otherwise suited to concentration, it is connected to the rest of the house.

I think ideally a home office should have its own separate entrance. I could come back from dropping Nugget off at school and go in the separate entrance, and imagine that the rest of the house does not exist. No opportunities for a "quick break" to throw in a load of laundry, empty the dishwasher, bake a loaf of bread and a dozen muffins, refinish the dining table ... Also no bed upstairs to lay down for "just a catnap."

Of course, just about every office has the mother of all distractions built in. I'll just take a "quick break" to check my email, read my blogs, scan the headlines, browse the sales, indulge my hypochondria ... this is why Jonathan Franzen is brilliant, whatever you may think of his novels:
Franzen works in a rented office that he has stripped of all distractions. He uses a heavy, obsolete Dell laptop from which he has scoured any trace of hearts and solitaire, down to the level of the operating system. Because Franzen believes you can't write serious fiction on a computer that's connected to the Internet, he not only removed the Dell's wireless card but also permanently blocked its Ethernet port. "What you have to do," he explains, "is you plug in an Ethernet cable with superglue, and then you saw off the little head of it." (Time, Aug. 12, 2010)
He actually sawed off the ethernet cable. I love it.


Sweet Home Chicago, the Non-sarcastic version.

Check out Trent's really excellent obituary for his time living in Chicago. I'm trying to think of something to add, as a native, but he was pretty thorough. 


So much against the mettle of your sex

Nugget has become very opinionated about what he wears. I try to let him make his own decisions whenever possible, so I stifle my desire to put him in the preppy little polos I adore. He favors his cousins' old t-shirts featuring characters from Pixar movies. At least he's saving me money.

Of course, there have to be some rules. Appropriateness for the weather is the obvious one. But how much do I let societal norms and expectations dictate what he wears? He would wear pajamas all day or, even better, would go pantless if I let him. I don't. But it bothers me when I deny him something he wants simply because I'm worried about what people will think of me.

Gendered expectations are particularly difficult. They are completely beyond him at this point. One day I took him shopping for clothes at Target. While I begged him to reconsider his complete refusal to consider the plaid flannel mini-lumberjack shirts I coveted on his behalf, he headed for the girls' clothes. "Cute!" he said, pointing to some dresses. I steered him away, feeling simultaneously guilty and ridiculous for feeling guilty.

Another day we were discussing the fact that mommy wears dresses and Nugget does not. "My get bigger, wear dresses." He said. "You can if you want," I told him, "but you know, usually boys don't wear dresses. It's mostly girls who wear dresses." He got upset and insisted that he would wear dresses when he gets bigger. "Okay," I said. I certainly hope that Nugget grows up to be the kind of kid who wears a dress to school because he wants to and doesn't care what anyone thinks. That is the epitome of cool, to me. But it doesn't always work that way in middle school. I'm not looking forward to helping him navigate the social minefield of those years. I've already failed miserably at navigating them myself. I was the worst possible combination: I tried to act like I didn't care what anyone thought, but I did, desperately. I went back and forth between flouting peer pressure and caving to it, usually at the worst possible moment for each.

For the most part I stick to the conservative line of teaching my boy to be a boy, indulging his idolization of Buzz Lightyear and quietly avoiding Dora the Explorer and her pink-themed accessories, and laugh off my guilt as the overwrought liberal intellectualism of a parent who needs to get over herself.


Trent sent me this article from Smithsonian Magazine about how our expectations for what little boys and girls should wear have evolved. Ladies Home Journal advised moms in 1918 to dress their boys in pink: “The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”

The most interesting part of the article to me was a comment by Jo B. Paoletti, author of the forthcoming book Pink and Blue: Telling the Girls From the Boys in America. She explained that kids don't become conscious of geneder until 3 or 4 and don't understand that it is permanent until 6 or 7, "[s]o they think, for example, that what makes someone female is having long hair and a dress." I was suddenly proud that Nugget knows that men have penises and women do not.* But I'm still terrified every time he points to someone at the store and identifies them as a man or woman. Aside from the usual concern that he will misidentify someone and thereby cause offense, I worry that he'll decide to explain, in his too-loud toddler voice, what sort of equipment the man or woman has beneath his or her clothing.

* And yes, it has occurred to me that I've defined sex exclusively with reference to a male trait and now he's going to grow up perceiving women as Other. But I think he can wait to learn about vaginas, at least until he's mastered the ABCs.


Thou damned and luxurious mountain goat

I recently read Snow Falling on Cedars, by David Guterson, which is set on an island in the Pacific Northwest in the 1950s. It contains a lot of descriptions of people gathering or growing their own food; fishing, digging clams, growing strawberries, raising chickens, etc.--which, I imagine, was so mmuch more common back then than it is now. For some reason I was really captivated by this, and I've been kind of obsessed with the idea of producing or gathering my own food ever since. And then today I read this article by a woman who was forced by the "Great Recession" to start living a more sustainable life--she went from buying goji berries and espresso at Whole Foods and Starbucks to buying seeds for a vegetable garden with food stamps, and dumpster diving to find fresh produce for her family. I was alternately horrified and shamed in reading it.

Shame or no, I don't think I'll be diving into any dumpsters anytime soon. But I do have half a mind to plant a vegetable garden. Only thing is, I'm really lazy. Producing or gathering one's own food require commitment and work. Also readiness to learn about and understand plant and animal life. And then there's my picky eating habits--hard to live off the earth when you refuse to eat zucchini, eggplant, mushrooms, shellfish, and many other gifts of Mother Nature.

I do eat eggs (and willingly pay three times as much for eggs from vegetarian-fed, "free-range" chickens), and I like the idea of harvesting my own eggs from a backyard flock. The main deterrent there is filth. I imagine that chickens relieve themselves, and that it smells, and that someone has to do something about it. I'd rather that someone not be me. So I'll put that one off at least until my son is old enough to shovel chicken poop.

The lady who waxes my eyebrows (see? I can't even wax my own eyebrows) told me yesterday that she and her husband just got some goats. Her husband wants to use them for packing on hikes, she explained. Confused, I imagined a goat strapped to her husband's back. For the fresh milk? I asked, still obsessed with home food production. No, she explained: to carry his stuff. Oh. Goats are good at walking on mountains. Really hope she didn't realize I was picturing her husband carrying the goat up the mountain. Her goats are male. But I could get a female goat if/when we move outside the city limits, I thought. That would be cool. Also has to wait for Nugget to grow into his poop-shoveling duties though.

For now, I think I'll start with an herb garden on my windowsill. If the plants live, maybe I can move up to an outdoor vegetable garden.

Speaking of keeping plants alive, it just occurred to me that I was twice chastised by strangers today with regard to my dog. First for not having her on a leash and then for leaving her in the car while I went in the library (although technically I was not actually chastised for the library thing because I did not respond when the librarian asked "the person who owns the blue station wagon with the dog inside to please come to the front"). I don't believe I was endangering her (or anyone else), but my position also was not all that defensible in either case (thus my decision to slink away rather than argue about it with the librarian while everyone in the library craned their necks to see the abusive dog-owner). In general, unleashed dogs and dogs unattended in cars are a bad idea, I get it. But the encounters left me irritated at the way having responsibility for other beings--kids and pets--makes one particularly vulnerable to criticism for your choices. So maybe I should skip the goats and chickens.

Anyway. I'm off to the grocery store.


Out, damned spot!

Nugget continues to be pitiful about going to school, whimpering to break your heart all the way there about why he can't stay home with me. My certainty that this is what is best for him and for me is unflagging, but that does not make it easy. And while I maintain I do not feel guilty, it should perhaps be noted that when I picked Nugget up today (early), we went straight to Wal-Mart (sigh, shoot me, I know, but this is a small town and I don't have a lot of options, ok?), where I purchased: Candyland, Chutes and Ladders, a Cat in the Hat movie (the one with Wayne Campbell), cinnamon graham goldfish, a goldfish-shaped goldfish dispenser, and whipping cream to put on our strawberries.

And then a dinner that can only be described as trying, except to the extent that it might also be called tedious, reminded me why I don't have what it takes to spend 24/7 with a toddler. It's not that he is a picky eater. God knows I can thank karma for that one. (Hmm. I'm not sure that sentence is consistent, theologically speaking.) It's that he forces us to stand on our heads and juggle to get him to eat even when he likes the food. That's the part that drives me crazy.

To the extent I have any guilt about daycare, I would argue that it is due to my failure to use my free time appropriately, not to the existence of said free time. Even without any napping or novel-reading or tv-watching, today felt unproductive. Yet when I tallied it up like I was billing my time it wasn't a bad day at all. (See? this is why I miss it. Writing down everything you do in 6 or 15 minute increments can be surprisingly satisfying.) I went to the post office and the bank, finally rolled my 401k over, finally canceled my recurring contribution to Chicago's NPR station (plaintively assuring the lady on the phone, who did not care, that I moved and I really do plan to support my local station), finally replied to some week-old emails, researched local estate planning lawyers (finally getting around to a will ...), looked into transferring my vehicle registration (I'm still driving around with Illinois plates; which did prove useful when those people outside the post office with their unbelievably offensive Obama-with-a-Hitler-mustache (this is somehow linked to that ridiculous birther thing? I don't get it) poster didn't bother trying to talk to me; although the growly stinkeye I gave them probably helped), paid bills, created a chart to analyze our household cash flow (that's normal, right?), did laundry, flooded the laundry room twice (ok, three times. but more like two and a half), cleaned the laundry room (not by choice, clearly), and probably a few more things I'm forgetting (and/or are not interesting enough, even for this catalog of domestic minutiae). Here's the thing: I'm not convinced all that would not have gotten done with Nugget in tow. I don't need daycare just for that.

(Did you ever hear that story about the man who came home to find his house a mess and his kids eating cereal? His wife was in bed with a book, and when he asked her what was going on, she said, you know how you asked what I do all day? Today I didn't do it. Yuk yuk, stay-at-home moms work too, and all that. The thing is, families with two parents working outside the home do manage to get along somehow. You find a way to get things done when you have to. Qualitative differences and lifestyle choices aside, I hasten to add.)

Anyway, the point is, I really need to sit my butt in a chair and stare at a computer screen putting words on paper for a few hours every day if I'm going to be able to justify to myself sending Nugget to school. Even on days like today, when it felt like the domestic minutiae awaiting my attention was piled too high to be ignored. (Is it still procrastinating when you procrastinate by doing things you've been procrastinating about?)

It would also help if Nugget would hurry up and realize that other kids are way more fun than I am. Not to mention a dog and a rabbit and an orchard and a pumpkin patch. All I have is a recurringly flooded laundry room. And if you think I'm going to let you put on your rain boots and splash away in there with a toy boat? Hello. I'm your mother. I don't think we've met.