Monday, March 26, 2012

Outdoor Ickiness

Winter in Minneapolis has disguised itself as spring, even summer, under billows of warm air. There has been no hunkering down. We've fled indoor confinement for the open space of our sidewalks and yard. Little A and I have been on the search for outdoor activities. We're willing, sort of, to get a little messier, to change our clothes more than once a day, to sit on warm concrete and rocks, and to put ice cubes in our beverages.

Last week I came across a toddler activity that involved freezing prehistoric critters (plastic, not, you know, created from DNA captured in amber) into blocks of ice and letting your kid free them with toothbrushes and spoons and plastic knives and water and paintbrushes and their own ingenuity. These, like many toddler activities found on beautiful blogs full of long-haired gender-neutral kids or sugar and spice girls and snakes and snails boys, are the sorts of things that the mental picture of myself aspires to do. See -- they aren't even things that I aspire to, they are things that my aspirational self aspires to.

It's warm in Minneapolis -- but not ice-block paleontologist warm -- so I opted to create our excavation site out of gelatin. Messy enough to be relegated to the outdoors but not cold enough that I'd have a "the time my toddler got frost burn in 70 degree weather" story.

My idea would be that I could plop her down on the lawn where she'd spend hours carefully extracting small plastic animals from the gelatin I'd made the night before. She giggle at her own amazement and problem solving skills while I sat in the sun with a novel and iced tea. Afterwards, she'd be messy and sticky, but happy and I'd be clean and relaxed. I'd dunk her in the tub and she'd play with her newly rescued animals and then sleep soundly upstairs while I crocheted an afghan. Oh, aspirational self and your mental images: one day you will be brought down to reality.

I successfully created the mold the night before (OK, fine, I had to stay up an extra thirty minutes past the last episode of Friday Night Lights that we'd watched in order to set the animals in gelatin that was firm enough that the animals wouldn't sink but not so firm that it would crack.) In the morning, after Little A's dad went to work, I set out the gelatin on a cookie sheet with plastic and wooden spoons and knives and forks, pointed my kid in the right direction and sat back.

"Oh!" she said. She rubbed her hands gingerly across the slimy mass. "It's cold! Animals stuck in there!"

"You wanna get them out?"


"Look. There are knives and spoons and forks you can use to get them out."


"Not too sharp. You can use them."

She stabbed a knife into the mold.

"Sit your lap."

"I'm just going to sit over --."

"No! Sit your lap!" OK, I thought, just get her started on it and then you can sneak off.

She sat in my lap. We stabbed at the gelatin together, her hand wrapped around the tiny pink handle and my hand wrapped around hers. Gradually, a chunk of gelatin containing the sheep slipped off.

"You can use your hands," I told her, holding the blob out to her.

She poked at it with her finger tip. "You do it!"

I sighed and reluctantly pulled dots and dabs of the clear stick substance off the sheep.

"Look! It's free!" I said.


"Do you want another one?"

"You do another one."

"You can use the spoon while I use the knife."

"You do it."

Remember the novel I was going to sit back and read? Remember my glass of iced tea? Remember my sticky, messy, happy kid? Yeah, so do I.

The truth was that she ended up sitting on my lap the whole time. We poked and picked at the mold. We freed animals together, which we were both excited about. She wiped her hands on her dress a lot. I mostly used the tips of my fingers to poke and prod.

My kid, I realized, just doesn't really like to get messy. I thought this as I washed her new animals and my hands in the sink. I wonder where she got that from? Is it just genetics or is it because she's watching me not wanting to smash my hands into the gelatin, wanting, rather, to sit back and read a novel while she gets messy and I don't.

Afterwards, most of the animals free and only the last few stiff legged and frozen in the messy globs, Little A sat on the back step and lined up her animals next to her. She picked up a tiny, rose-colored octopus and tried to rock it in the crook of her arm. She might not like to get messy, but at least she can find affection for even the most cold-blooded of plastic animals.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

My MINE! Phase

For a day or so, two-year-old A has been dragging around a copy of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and insisting, "My book."

The first few times she declared it "hers" and started paging through it, my husband and I were charmed and our thoughts, comments, and questions showed it.

"She's so advanced!"

"A real feminist!"

"What do you think the impact of the first person point-of-view is on the reader-narrator relationship?"

Mostly A responded with "My book!"

We've been struggling a little with the whole notion of "mine" these days. I heard an Early Childhood and Family Education teacher once say that the "mine" phase was a necessary evil to get to the sharing stage. After a whole day of "My coat! My foot! My dog! My potty!" I find the "mine" phase mostly just evil.

The worst, perhaps, are the public "mine" meltdowns.

A and I make two or three visits a week to our local food co-op. (I know, food snobs. Feel free to hate us.) She genuinely seems to look forward to these trips. Mostly, her enthusiasm is because of the "tiny cart," as she calls the child-sized metal contraption that she gets to push around the store. I consider this these carts to be a blessing (I need to get her excited for our semi-weekly trips) and a curse (I spend much of my trip herding her along the aisles and making sure she doesn't ditch our tiny cart-full of food when she realizes there are samples available in the cheese department).

But the real problem with the tiny cart occurred the first few times I let her use one. At first, when she realized we had to leave it near the front of the store and could not bring it home with us, she was mildly bereft. "My cart," she mumbled as she watched from over my shoulder as it disappear behind the sliding doors.

"It belongs to the store," I explained. She was easily talked off the ledge. That time.

The next time, however, we returned the tiny cart to the otherwise empty corral just in time for another little boy to lay claim.

"My cart!" A screamed. She arched her back. She struggled against me trying to physically calm her with my arms already loaded with groceries.

I was confident that most of my fellow food snobs heard her scream all the way to the car. In a quieter moment, away from the immediacy of the cart and the food co-op and the little boy who had "taken" "her" cart, I tried to explain that the carts belong to everyone.

"We take turns," I explained because taking turns is something that she seems to understand better than "sharing." Taking turns is immediate, concrete. Your turn. My turn. Your turn. My turn. Whereas "sharing" is so abstract. Do we use it at the same time? Who does it really belong to?

After a few more trips to the co-op (during which she didn't have to witness someone actually taking "her" cart) and a few more calm, away from the moment discussions, ("If you want to use the tiny cart, you can't cry." "The cart is for everyone." "We take turns.") it finally seemed to sink it.

"Tiny cart," she'd say. "Take turns. No cry." And she seemed fairly happy about it.

But now I had this Margaret Atwood book to deal with.

One afternoon, I went to pick it up off the counter near where she was enjoying a snack.

"My book!" she declared and pulled it from my hands.

"No," I sighed. "It's Mama's book," as I reached for it.

"Mine!" she demanded in that terrible nasally, whiney, bratty voice.

It's that voice. It's that voice that does it to me.

"No. It's Mama's book."


It was the voice. It was that I just wanted to put the book away so that it would be on my adult bookshelf (and I don't mean "adult book" in any kind of pervy way) and not buried under nonsensical picture books in which animals talk and everybody spends way too much time counting and talking about colors! It was many things. But mostly, and I'm not happy to admit it, it was not one of my finer parenting moments.

"Look, Ada. It's Mama's book. You don't even have money to buy books. In fact, you can't even read it, much less get the subtleties of Atwood's style and message."


"NO," I exclaimed. And, no, I don't know why I didn't just let this go. I was turning into some sort of a toddler myself, desperate to lay claim to everything in my small, small kingdom. "This is Mama's book." I gave up on trying to actually put it away. "But you can take a turn with it."

"OK!" she exclaimed, her emotional state flipping like a coin tossed in the air.

"OK," I said. I walked away as she was commenting "birds flying!" as she looked at the cover illustration.

No, I thought. Those are the hats that the women have to wear in the story. You don't know anything about that book, do you? But later I realized that Atwood does call them "wings."

Had I won that argument? Had she learned something about what is and is not hers? I'd like to think that, if nothing else, she might have learned a little something about our separateness. When she was a newborn, I fretted over whether she would "bond" to me, if she would "attach" enough. But now there are days when I worry over her separating from me, over having boundaries between us. I want her to know she is her own person and, just as importantly, I am my own. We must, after all, go through this mine phase in order to understand sharing with each other. I want her to know that her body is hers and my body is mine. That my thoughts are mine. And hers are hers.

And that book, Goddamit. That book is mine.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Harried Housewife Bread

I've long had this vision in my head that I'd be the sort of woman who woke up early to bake bread, whose house would smell warm and doughy, who would always serve floury goods from scratch to unexpected (and expected) guests. I felt I should have some sort of innate mother earthiness that would tie me to women all over the world who rise with the sun to put on the rice, roll out the tortillas or injera, or fry the dough. But as romantic as my imagination can be, I like to sleep in.

And so that vision has largely remained where it belongs: in my head.

Until, that is, I came across this recipe (via pinterest) for a super simple crusty and yet soft bread baked in a cast iron pot. It's so easy, even I did it.

Here's the rundown (more details including lots of pictures and advice on how to make it fancier and what types of pots to use on the link above):

whisk together 3 cups flour with 1 3/4 t salt, 1/2 t salt in a large mixing bowl
add 1 1/2 cups water, stir (in my case, have your two year old help pour and mix because that way she won't pull all the tupperware out of the drawer and will enjoy the bread more the next day because she made it)

cover with plastic wrap, set aside for 12 to 18 hours

(This is the part where my husband, who used to do yeast-related research, gets all dubious and starts asking me what temperature it has to be because yeast grows best at 30 degrees and then he gets all science-y and loses me. And I have to tell him, "Just have faith. We'll see what happens," and this makes me actually feel sort of mother earthy and wise.)

preheat oven to 450 degrees and put your cast iron pot in for 30 minutes
pour the dough onto a heavily floured surface, cover with plastic wrap

place dough in EXTREMELY hot pot, cover with lid, bake for 30 minutes

That's it!

Mine didn't rise quite as much as the one at Simply So Good, but it was still delicious. I only let it sit for about 12 hours, so next time I might give it a few more. Also, the yeast I was using might not have been up to par. I'd like to give it a shot with at least some whole grain and, of course, try the suggestions on the website of different cheese and herbs.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Writer's Space: Cris Beam

I am obsessed by the spaces in which writers do their work. I'm going to feed this obsession by posting regular (short) interviews with writers about their latest projects, their future projects, the writing life, and, finally, where they create and craft.

I emailed a few times with Cris Beam, about her thoughts on writing, publishing, and memoir. Beam is the author of Transparent: Love, Family, and Living the T with Transgender Teenagers, the young adult novel I Am J, and most recently, the memoir Mother, Stranger. Falls the Shadow: The Crisis of American Foster Care will be coming out next year. (In the interest of full disclosure, Beam is a fellow Columbia MFA graduate).

I am interested in all the alternative presses and ways and means to publication that are available (and becoming available) right now. Mother, Stranger was published by The Atavist, an on-line publisher of extra longform nonfiction. How did you decide to go with Atavist? How has your experience publishing through this venue been so far?

CB: It’s been a really exciting journey. I like that the Atavist publishes super long-form journalism, because these are the kinds of pieces that are especially tricky to publish. They’re too long for magazines, too short for books, and yet writers themselves love doing these stories—we have all the room we need, to be as lush and creative or nuanced and complex as we need to be, and readers can feel that pleasure. Still, I was reluctant at first to go with an electronic publisher because I have always been loyal to real paper books and literary journals, and didn’t want to sell out on the form I love the most. Then I read all the work that the Atavist had produced, and I saw the way they foregrounded the narrative of each of their productions—all of the multimedia enhancements were just that, enhancements—and I thought it would be interesting to stretch, and to work with a team. I’ve done radio stories before, and really appreciated what music and ambient sound and so on can bring to a written story, and I found that the multi-dimensionality of Mother Stranger was really beautiful. The production people there are so talented.

Mother Stranger is rich and dense. There hardly seems to be a moment or word out of place and yet the material is so complicated that I'm sure this could have easily been a much longer work. How did you make the decision to keep it limited to a shorter work?

CB: It may still be a longer work one day. I’ve written much more than I published with the Atavist, but honestly, it’s such vulnerable material, it was a relief to be able to publish a shorter work to sort of test the waters. I could see how it was received, and see how I felt about that reception, before I go on one day to write further about my childhood and life.

How did writing Mother Stranger change how you view yourself as a mother?

CB: It didn’t, not all that much. At least the writing itself didn’t change my self perception in that regard. When my mom actually died three years ago, I felt a sense of relief and a deeper connection to my daughter, because there was no longer this fantasy that my mom would suddenly literally reappear and somehow wreck everything I had built. I don’t actually talk to my daughter that much about my mom; for her, I think, I exist mostly for her alone. And that’s okay. I like that I can give her a sense of security.

Your work includes YA fiction, nonfiction, memoir, radio and even erotica. Can you share any quirks, habits, or tips that you have as a writer?

CB: Like most of us, my writing life probably looks pretty boring from the outside. I’m usually working on more than one thing at once, or at least thinking about my next project while finishing something up. I write in the mornings, usually, and force myself to get out two pages a day when I’m working on a book. In the afternoons, I edit something that’s at least a few weeks old, to give the newer material time to breathe. If I edit something that’s too fresh, I end up shredding it beyond recognition.

I'm fascinated by writing spaces. Describe where you write.

CB: I love this question! I live in a loft with my partner and two cats and two dogs—it’s essentially one big open room, with animals running everywhere, so visually, it’s too chaotic to sit on a couch with a laptop and write. So we built two half walls in a corner and made me a little office, which I love. I have a big wooden desk in there, and an electronic piano to fool around on when I get stuck. It’s like a happy cave.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Literary Mama Writing Prompt: My Subject Chose Me

From Literary Mama's Literary Reflections Section:

In this month's essay, Lindsey Mead recalls the day she took her children to Walden Pond and the lingering effect it's had on her writing. She writes: "My children changed so fast I could hear time whistle as it flew past me, and I was desperate to remember the small details. In the process of writing them down, I realized that other, subconscious instincts had propelled me to the page: in the act of recording small memories, I unearthed the meaning of these small fragments of my life."

List three memories you and your family made last week and then five details about each that you don't want to forget.

This morning A and I sat at her little art table in her tiny vintage gold and red chairs painting together. It was grey and damp outside -- the kind of day that makes us both want to stay inside, curled up with videos and books and crafts. We have frightening synchronicity at times: our moods mirror each other so completely that the question of nature versus nurture seems to be constantly roiling beneath the surface.

She'd asked to "paint together" and had retrieved the yellow-orange tubes of paints from the dark closet and pulled up chairs and so I had no choice but to say, "yes." I squirted thick pools of color into the mini plastic muffin-tin-like tray and we took turns dipping our paintbrushes.

"What that?" she asked, pointing at my sheet of brown butcher paper.

"A butterfly." My strokes were filling the page uneasily.

"Oh!" she exclaimed, delighted. "This a bee." She pointed at her own thick orange brown rendering.

The paint ran out in each of the compartments of the tray, so we knew we were done.

"Look, Mama!" I looked. "It's beautiful."

She picked up my paper. She held it close to her face, carefully circling each detail with her eyes.

"Oh," she said. "That nice!" And she meant it.


When we get to the L-M-N-O-P part of The Alphabet Song, Little A wiggles her hips.

She always wants to do things together: "run together!" "sing together!" "dance together!" "paint together!" I spend my days feeling included.

When a toy is missing, she wanders around the house, shouting its name. "Baby!" "Thomas!" "Monkey!" They do not answer and soon I am on my hands and knees.

She says "tarry" rather than "carry."

When I leave the house, she calls after me, "drive face!"

Yesterday, she stood at the edge of the playground, begging one of the four year olds to play with her. The older girl didn't hear her "pleases" and didn't see her holding her hands, palms together, in front of her in a gesture of pleading and supplication. I couldn't help but laugh along with the other parents and hope that this was the last time she showed such sad desperation.

The Writing Prompt
I've been thinking about this writing prompt for a few days now, wondering how I would attack it. There are many things I'd like to remember but I'm reluctant to focus too much on trying to remember things for fear I won't enjoy these events as they happen. I started an email account for Little A a while ago. When we remember, my husband and I send photos and notes to the account. Neither of us go in for baby-books much and this solution to the problem of how to have something to give A to remember her childhood satisfied my husband's love of technology. The things I send to her are little notes about mannerisms (like Two above) or milestones or funny/thoughtful/quirky that she says. They are not fleshed out -- and they definitely don't include moments of sad desperation. It occurred to me how differently I write down things I want to remember and things I want to share.

Monday, March 5, 2012

AWP Redux

Little A and I had four glorious days in Chicago for the AWP conference. We went by train and felt oh-so-much-more civilized than traveling by plane. My mom met us in Chicago so that I could attend panels, meet friends, and drink and eat without having to worry about my three-foot companion getting plowed over in the riot of writers.

And a riot it was: ten thousand writers, editors, teachers, publishers, and their ilk descended on two hotels. I attended one panel on which my friend Kate Hopper and four other mama writers shared their thoughts on negotiating motherhood and the writing life. Take home message: jotting down little notes while waiting in the carpool line and at sporting events is key. Also: Hope Edelman eloquently conceded the ways in which writing can take away from mothering but thoughtfully dissected all the things that writing brings to motherhood.

I listened in on another one for first time memoirists, where I found that other writers struggle with the same issues of reportage versus personal story and finding the balance of the two.

But most importantly, I got to meet some new friends and see a few old friends from my Columbia MFA days. We sat down over drinks and food and talked about writing and reading and life and teaching. I realized how much I've missed the intensity of being surrounded by writers, of accessing a shared vocabulary to talk about craft and narrative and sentences and books. I realized I've been going along feeding the fire with tiny bits of kindling and scraps of wood and then this weekend came along and brought with it a barrel of kerosene and two cords of wood.

Now to keep the writing fires burning...