Friday, December 31, 2004

Year in Review

There are a lot of reasons to feel grim about 2004, starting with the fact that our children’s futures have probably been irredeemably blighted, and going on to what is perhaps the worst natural disaster in human history. But though I have enormous reservoirs of negativity and pessimism, I also have an inner Pollyanna, and she’s determined to make her presence felt today.

Yesterday I took the girls to lunch at S’s restaurant (where we were ignored for the first ten minutes after we sat down, and then the waitress and hostess realized who we were and hovered over us for the rest of our meal). ESPN was playing in the bar, as it always is, and suddenly M yelled out “There’s Johnny Damon!” (like all pre-teen and teenage girls in Red Sox Nation, she loves Johnny). So we got to watch Red Sox highlights on ESPN’s Year in Review, and remember that there was something good about 2004 after all.

I’m really a pretty lame Red Sox fan. It had been so long. I suffered through 1975 and 1976 and 1986, through the Reds and Bill Buckner and the Yankees, always the Yankees. Though I still hoped, sometimes, a little, it was hard to believe. Every April, S really does say “this is the year.” I scoff and then ignore both him and the Sox for as long as possible. When they rally in August, as they always do, I prick up my ears skeptically, and then I’m not surprised when they collapse in September.

When they don’t collapse in September, it’s a different story. I am an excellent Red Sox playoffs fan. This year I was one of the best (insert late nights, biting of nails, David Ortiz, Johnny Damon, Curt Schilling’s ankle, Manny, Pedro, more biting of nails, the Yankees (ha!), oh, and the Cardinals).

If I had to choose between Kerry and the Red Sox winning it all, of course I’d choose Kerry in a heartbeat--well, maybe a heartbeat and a half. And there was that gleeful week when it was possible that they both would win and the world could become a good place again. But the Red Sox winning the World Series was still pretty great. Actually, unspeakably great. I smiled so hard my face hurt. M had her first sip of champagne. For just a late night moment, it was all worth it and everything was good.

Sometimes it still hits me anew: I’ll remember as I sit in my car at a red light--the Red Sox won the World Series!--or I’ll catch a glimpse on TV or in a magazine of the pile-up on the field after the last out--the Red Sox won the World Series!--or I’ll just see one of those familiar blue baseball caps with the red B--the Red Sox won the World Series! You could say the Red Sox winning the World Series doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world, and basically you’d be right. But when I’m an old granny rocking on the porch, I’ll still remember that the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004, and that it wasn't all bad.

Thursday, December 30, 2004

More Red Sox, Less Red States

We haven’t sent cards this year. I can’t decide if we haven’t gotten around to it, or if I don’t really want to.

My parents never sent cards. Cards are one of those things, like godparents, that they said Jews didn’t do. (Do you know how many Jews I know with godparents? Lots. But not my kids.) My parents have also lived in East Coast Big City for almost 45 years. I, on the other hand, have lived in five different states as an adult, and I started sending cards to keep in touch with the friends I had left behind. But that admirable motive is long since gone. Now I really do it just to show off my kids. I mean, what’s the point of having cute kids if your friends all over the country can’t see them?

There were years when I sent dozens of cards (though a couple of those years the card did double duty: change of address when we moved to the heartland and then again when we bought our house; birth announcement when E was born in the middle of December). But the thing is, we hardly get any cards. I itch with jealousy at friends’ card-crowded mantelpieces and wonder what’s wrong with us. Maybe our friends just aren’t card people. Maybe too many of our friends are Jewish and Jews really don’t send cards. Maybe our friends are way too busy with their own jobs and small children, and they mean to send cards but don’t get around to it. Or maybe they just don’t like us. It’s a tough call. And it’s hard to decide whether showing off the kids (and, of course, staying in touch) is enough motivation on its own, or whether we should keep sending cards in hopes that someday we’ll get some, or whether we should just give up.

At least if we do decide to send cards, I have a good picture of M and E in their matching Girls Rock t-shirts, and I have good text: may the new year bring more Red Sox and less red states.

[Note: I am aware of the preponderance of red-state bashing in recent posts. This is not my general intention and we will return to our regularly scheduled subtleties soon.]

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Warning: Unapologetic Aesthetic Elitism Ahead

When we were in Paris last spring, it seemed absurd to even try to write. What could I say about Paris that Ernest Hemingway, Adam Gopnik, and a host of others hadn’t already said (and said and said), and probably much better than I could ever say it? So I wrote some stuff that has probably been written before, and I’ll spare you most of the details. But one of the things that has stuck with me about Paris--and yes, it’s as much of a cliché as crepes, chic Parisiennes, and lovers kissing in cafes--is how often we encountered the beautiful there. I’m not talking about masterpieces in museums, though we encountered those too. I mean serendipitous, nobody makes a fuss over it, it’s just there beauty. The temporary nature sculpture exhibit in the Luxembourg Gardens. The display of fresh seafood outside a restaurant. The baby clothes in Bon Ton. The artificial flowers made of dried fruit in the shop down the street--I don’t know who thought of them or who buys them, but they were amazing.

There are plenty of pretty enough things where I live: my children, the Victorian houses in our neighborhood, the woodsy park between our suburb and Red State Capital City, the art glass gallery downtown. But there are also vast expanses of big box stores and fast food outlets; the flower shop with its shelves of plastic flowers, birthday balloons, and ceramic figurines--and a small refrigerator case of chrysanthemums and roses in the corner; house after house decorated inside and out in Olde Countrie Style. I’ve learned to appreciate the subtle beauty of a cornfield in winter, but it’s a bit depressing when six months later that field is filled not with corn but with brand-new Tudor McMansions.

It took me a long time to realize how aesthetically starved I am in the heartland. In fact, I usually don’t realize how ugly it is until I’m not there anymore. We drive the Thruway across New York a lot, and it usually hits me around Utica, as the hills start to rise on either side of the highway. I wonder why I feel better, and I realize it’s because the landscape is beautiful again (yes, I know, beautiful to me, but after all this is all about me). I get to the mountains or the ocean and I can breathe again, not just because they are the landscapes of my childhood, but because they give me a pleasure I never get in my daily life. And in case I come off as some kind of nature purist, beautiful things make me feel the same way. On this trip it was the purses, teapots, wedding dresses, even bathroom fixtures, that M and I saw as we walked down Expensive Shopping Street in East Coast Big City. They were all so beautiful.

The funny thing is that I’m not very good with the beautiful myself. My friend J is a doyenne of the beautiful: her home is exquisite, the food she cooks is gorgeous and delicious, the invitations she made for my 40th birthday party got more comments than the party itself (ok, that’s an exaggeration--the party got great reviews, but every single person who RSVPed commented on how beautiful the invitations were). Not me. My garden is a disaster (in fact my garden is one of the banes of my existence, but that’s another post) and my house is best characterized as comfortable. A few years ago, S and I were in Berea, Kentucky which is known for crafts, and we decided we were going to buy something nice. We must have gone into a half dozen shops, all filled with beautiful pottery and weavings and carvings and jewelry that I thoroughly appreciated. I just didn’t feel compelled to buy any of it, perhaps because I couldn’t imagine what I would do with it.

Maybe the fact that I can’t do beauty myself is why I appreciate it so much. Perhaps if I could do it myself, Red State wouldn’t be so aesthetically unbearable. But I can’t. And it is.

Today's News: Against Blogging

I don’t think Susan Sontag would have blogged.


This morning as I stood at the kitchen counter, the pages of tsunami coverage spread out before me, my mother commented, “I see you still read about disasters obsessively. There’s a movie coming out about Patty Hearst.”

In 1974, I would lay the newspaper out on the living room floor every evening to find out the news about Patty Hearst. I read from the kidnapping, through the bank robbery and the fire, to the arrest and the trial, as if by reading, by grasping every bit of information available, I could somehow wrap my head around this incomprehensible event.

Trying to wrap my head around the tsunami stretches it so far I feel like it’s going to break. The story about the Indonesian mother searching for her 11 children. The picture of the Swedish boy missing his parents and two brothers. The numbers. The images. I don’t need to link because you’ve seen it. I suppose more eloquent bloggers might have something to say worth reading, and I’m sure bloggers there are contributing valuable accounts. But for me, this is way beyond the bloggable.

Thursday, December 23, 2004


Off to East Coast Big City. Back in a week.

Sugarplum Whatever

Despite what my last post might suggest, I’m no longer the radical anti-Christmas ideologue I was as a child, when I sat stony-faced through Christmas carols and stomped out of stores if greeted with “Merry Christmas.” In fact, there are some aspects of the Christmas season that I quite enjoy. M, E, and I go on light drives to check out the displays in other neighborhoods. We love our friends’ Christmas trees (I feel the same way about Christmas trees that I feel about large breasts: I know that I could have them, but getting them would go against some of my basic principles, so instead I’m just fascinated by other people’s). And then there’s The Nutcracker.

One of the great pleasures of having girls should be putting them in party dresses and going to see The Nutcracker. Not my girls. After a bad Really Rosie experience at the age of two, M firmly rejected anything theatrical for years. I slowly eased her into children’s theater--Pooh was acceptable, and a Laura Ingalls Wilder play proved positively enjoyable. Finally, in London last spring, I persuaded her to go to the Northern Ballet Theatre’s astounding production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Sadler Wells. If that couldn’t convert her to theater, nothing could. Luckily, it did.

So finally, this year, we assayed The Nutcracker. There were little girls in velvet and tulle party dresses (not us, we don’t have that kind of dress, but we dressed up in our own ways). There were grandmothers (alas, ours don’t live around here). There were endless souvenirs, from little wooden nutcrackers to fairy headdresses (we already have fairy headdresses, thank you, and we try to stay away from overpriced souvenirs) (except at the circus a few weeks ago, where we went all out for an $8 slushee in an elephant cup and a $10 cotton candy in a ringleader top hat). There were Clara and Fritz and Victorian ball dresses and little children coming out of Mother Ginger’s skirt and Russian dudes highstepping during the dum-dididi-dum-dum-dum-dum-dum part, which is always my favorite.

It was The Nutcracker alright. But you know, it didn’t really do it for me.

Maybe I’ve gotten old--I remember a lot more kids in the party scene and the tree just didn’t seem to grow as big. Maybe Red State Capital City Ballet isn’t that great--the dancing in A Midsummer Night’s Dream made me wish I was a ballerina, but this didn’t. Or maybe The Nutcracker is just--dare I say it?--a little boring. The first act rocks. It’s got narrative; it’s got humor; in this production it even had a drunken grandmother and a little baby, which is always a plus for us. But the second half is another story. Like I said, Mother Ginger and the Russian dudes are swell, but then…well, there was a lot of rustling and whispering among the children in our balcony as the Sugarplum Fairy did her thing and the Arabian guys did their thing and the Dewdrop Fairy did her thing and the flowers did their thing. A few families even got up and left. After all, as a grumpy E complained, “I don’t want to watch this show anymore. It’s just dancing.”

[Postscript: The next day I asked E and M what they thought of The Nutcracker. E said, “I loved The Nutcracker. The Nutcracker was awesome.” She wants to be a Nutcracker for Halloween next year. M said, “It wasn’t as good as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but it was still good.” Someday they’ll take their daughters to The Nutcracker, and that’s as it should be.]

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

More Christmas? No Thanks

This week’s talking point for fundamentalist ideologues seems to be Christmas. Not “Merry”; not “Why did so many people in my neighborhood start putting up lights before Thanksgiving this year?”; not “Could we please do something about the sweaters already?” No, the issue of the moment is that Christmas seems to be disappearing and we apparently need to bring it back.

Excuse me, but I beg to differ. Here in the heartland, it’s been Christmas since the day after Halloween. The crèche is up on the courthouse lawn. In M’s third-grade class in December they read half a dozen Christmas books, did Santa word problems and Christmas tree math worksheets, filled out Christmas word searches, and made math fact and book report ornaments (I thought the Halloween-themed book report was silly, but this was ridiculous). By the time the last day of school holiday sing-along arrived, I’d had it. I picked her up at noon and we went out for lunch and shopping--for gifts for E’s babysitter’s Christmas party. “But who will sing ‘Dreidel Dreidel Dreidel’?” S wondered. “They’ll manage,” I muttered.

My radical blue state mom wanted me to say something, but I couldn’t. I want M to be comfortable and happy in her suburban public school (where, among other differences, she is the only Jewish child--in the whole school), so I pick my battles. And I felt like I’d set myself up on this one. Earlier in the year, her teacher got all excited about doing an integrated curriculum unit on The Polar Express. Leaving the hegemony of consumer capitalism out of it, I gently explained that M doesn’t like to go to movies (more about that some other time) and is not interested in Santa Claus, so I hoped the teacher would let her opt out of any activities she wasn’t comfortable with. I don’t know what happened to that unit--they might have run out of money for field trips, or maybe the bad reviews dimmed her enthusiasm. Still, I felt like I’d set a precedent: it’s ok for you to do whatever you want, so long as you don’t make M do it. But I had no idea she was planning a whole month of Christmas activities. And, sadly, she probably had no idea that a whole month of Christmas activities would be an issue for anyone.

It’s funny how every article and op-ed about the need to bring back Christmas mentions that same school district in New Jersey that banned carols. (Funny, too, how this sudden interest in Christmas has erupted just as things have once again gotten worse in Iraq.) Whatever the occasional incident of overblown political correctness, the basic fact is that Christmas is ubiquitous in this country. And, as M says, “I understand when they make a big deal about the Fourth of July or Halloween or Thanksgiving, because those are AMERICAN holidays. But don’t they understand that not everyone celebrates Christmas?”

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

A Blue Movie in a Red State

Not that kind of blue movie.

Blue as in “blue” state: A failed novelist and a sex-crazed mediocre television actor. California. Wine. Marijuana. Premarital sex. Extramarital sex. Interracial sex. Penises. Gratuitous mockery of W. and Rummy (on the TV when he goes to get the wallet). Intellectual conversation about books and wine. OK, there was golf--golf is pretty red state. But there was also absurdist golf course violence, which is certainly not red state.

We liked it. Liked it a lot, in fact. Liked it more than anything we’ve seen since we can remember. Laughed uproariously throughout and discussed for the rest of the evening. It was Sideways, the new film by Alexander Payne who made Citizen Ruth (liked it), Election (liked it), and About Schmidt (didn’t like it at all, though everyone else apparently did).

What’s to like? It’s funny--tears streaming down my cheeks funny. It’s unpredictable--I always know what’s going to happen in movies, but I didn’t (for the most part: I knew he was going home to get the bottle of wine, but I was wrong about where he was going with it). It has unpleasant characters who you end up liking anyways. It has great California shots and excellent acting. It has interesting and intelligent women. It’s the only American buddy film I can think of that isn’t overwhelmed by homosexual panic. Its dialogue consciously balances on the thin line between ridiculously pretentious and exactly right. It’s smart and sympathetic and so funny.

And, like I said, it’s totally a blue state movie (moral ambiguity up the wazoo). But there we were, in a strip mall multiplex just off the freeway right smack in the middle of a red state--in a roomful of happy moviegoers (except for the couple next to us who left ten minutes into the movie) (but S thinks that was because I had asked them if they could move over so that instead of having an empty seat on either side of them, there would be two empty seats on one side for us to fill) (but really they were just red state morons).

Still, as I’ve been saying to anyone who will listen, things are a lot more purple out here than it may seem.

Not a Project Mama

To begin with, I’m not a mama at all. That is, M and E, especially E, tend to call me Mama, pronounced “Muh-muh,” which is far enough away from Mama, pronounced “Mah-mah,” that I can accept it. And I hang out with some mamas and super-respect some others. My sister is definitely a mama, and likes her kids to call her Mama. But even though it seems to be the term of choice for a certain brand of young (I’m not really), kid-focused (I’m really not), hip (I try, really I do) mothers, the word just makes me cringe. A fingernails on the blackboard kind of thing. I prefer to self-identify as a mom, or even a mother. Mommy is fine too, if I’m directly referencing or being referenced by my kids.

But this morning what we were saying at my house was: “I/You are not a project mama” (luckily, pronounced “Muh-muh”).

With varying degrees of grace and grumpiness, depending on my mood and what I’d rather be doing, I can be a solid swimming mommy, a reasonably together cooking and baking mommy, an excellent hang out in a café mommy, a dynamite read aloud mommy, a fine computer game mommy, a super take care of sick kids mommy, an ok playing baby mommy, a quite fun bike riding mommy, and so forth. But I am not a project mommy.

What, you may be wondering, constitutes a project? Most art. Anything that arrives in a box with multiple components that are meant to end up as a single coherent object. Finger painting. Collages. Sculptures. Rug hooking. Clay-painting kits. Butterfly-growing kits. Chip-away-the-sandstone-to-find-the-Egyptian-artifacts kits. Spin art. Today, at least, especially spin art.

Unfortunately, I have project kids. Fortunately, they have a project daddy. Unfortunately, their daddy spends a lot of time at work. Which is why I found myself today trying to find the right screwdriver to open the battery case for the spin art, fitting the paper into the spin art, suggesting ways to make the spin art look more like the spin art on the box, arranging the drying spin art on sheets of newspaper, and having a thoroughly miserable time of it.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

The 70s White Girl I Really Am

I bought Carly Simon’s Greatest Hits the other day. And I’m not ashamed.

S was. He said he was going to bring the CD into work and put it on to make P crazy. I said he couldn’t use music I love as a weapon.

It’s not just Carly Simon (and can I tell you how excited I am that there’s a new version of her Greatest Hits that includes “Jesse,” because the one thing that kind of bummed me out about buying the one I used to have on tape, the one with “Anticipation”--which I heard on the radio the other day and inspired me to buy the CD--and “You’re So Vain” and “Haven’t Got Time for the Pain” and all that, was that it wouldn’t have “Jesse”). It’s not just Carly Simon but Carole King’s Tapestry and the Beatles and the Grateful Dead. I’ll take James Taylor too. And don’t get me started on the Eagles. For Hanukkah S got me tickets to see Elton John, though he’s excited about that too.

You might not think this is so shameful, but you don’t understand who I’m married to. While I was picking out my Carly Simon CD, he was looking for the new Mastodon CD. Yes, the new Mastodon CD. You don’t know? Neither do I. Here are the CDs currently in his backpack:

Hasidic New Wave & Yakar Rhythms, From the Belly of Abraham
Ted Leo & Pharmacists, Shake the Sheets
Nude & Rude: The Best of Iggy Pop

Guitar Wolf, Loverock
Tim Berne, Diminutive Mysteries (Mostly Hemphill)
Delays, Faded Seaside Glamour
Esbörn Svensson Trio Plays Monk

Charlie Hunter Trio, Friends Seen and Unseen
The Dillinger Escape Plan, Miss Machine
The Brazilian Beat Mix, Baile Funk
Panopticon, Isis
Les Savy Fav, Inches
David S. Ware String Ensemble, Threads
Steve Swallow Ohad Talmor Sextet, L’histoire du Clochard
The Fucking AM, Gold
Diplo, Florida

Some of those may not be quite right because I couldn’t tell which was the band and which was the title, but you get the picture.

The funny thing is, I have a reputation for being quite cool about music. I’ve just about always heard of the band, and I can give great CDs you’ve never heard of but are sure to like for presents. But any iota of musical cool I have comes from the most uncool of sources: boyfriends.

In college, a guy fell in love with me because when he asked what record I wanted to hear, I said “Do you have Music from Big Pink?” That I knew The Band was from Canada sealed his fate. Little did he know I only knew The Band because my previous boyfriend (who actually was still my boyfriend, though I hadn’t mentioned him yet) loved The Band. The men in my life have always loved music, played music, lived music. And I’ve mainly just lived with them.

Let me not misrepresent myself too far the other way, however. I do love The Band. And I love Wilco and Luscious Jackson and the Donnas (before they became hot--we’ve liked them since they were junior high rocker chick wannabes, really, we have) and Dave Alvin and X and Pink and the Jayhawks and oh I can’t possibly list them all (plus once you start listing things like music or books or movies you like, it’s hard not to think strategically about what kind of image you want to put forward, even though that is supposedly what I’m trying to get away from here) (but let’s face it, I’m basically a late-20th-century white girl). I’ve discovered a few of those on my own--a very few. But when push comes to shove, I’ll still turn to my 70s folk/pop favorites.

The major factor in my current relationship with music is how little control over it I have. I’m not one of those people who needs music. We have about 35 linear feet of records--yes, vinyl--and an equal length of CDs, and I rarely delve into them. Sometimes I want to hear a particular song or album; sometimes I just want music (usually when I have to clean). But I can live for a long time in silence.

However, I live with three people who can’t. S never doesn’t have music on, and M and E are close on his tail. These days it’s mainly E. Right now she’s listening to Pink, but a moment ago it was Dan Zanes and before that Rory Block. When S and M get home from M’s swim meet, it will be the Beatles (M’s current fave) or some obscure jazz or hiphop pick.

But at least I know that when the moment comes, the moment when I’m home alone or nobody else has claimed the stereo or is paying attention and I think it might be nice to hear some of my music for a change, I’ll have my Carly Simon CD. And I’ll play it as loud as I want and sing along too.

Not Quite Sure

I'm not quite sure about this, but I guess I'll blog.