Friday, October 30, 2009


Ezra seems to have figured out that when I'm sitting at the computer, I'm a captive audience. Because every time I sit down, he magically appears with a question. For example, I sat the kids down with their lunch and opened the computer--yay, I'm going to check on a couple of blogs while the kids eat. And imediately:

EZRA: Mommy?

ME: What?

EZRA: Can I have more goldfish?

ME: Yes, but you have to eat your fish first.

EZRA: Now?

ME: You only ate one bite.

EZRA: But it's very hard to find things to eat when you're always telling me stuff.

ME: What? Never mind. Just eat your fish, okay?

EZRA: Okay... Mommy?

ME: Yes?

EZRA: What to red and yellow make?

ME: They make orange. See? (I hold up two Ikea kids' plates in front of the window and show him.)

EZRA: Oh. What do red and blue make?

ME: Purple. See?

EZRA: What do red and green make?

ME: Um, brown, I guess?

EZRA: Can you find a green plate and show me? And can I have more goldfish?

ME: You still need to eat your fish, honey.

EZRA: Mommy?

ME: Yes, dear?

EZRA: What does tan do?

ME: What do you mean, what does tan do?

EZRA: What happens if you stir it? What would it do? I like to know about what colors do. And why are some crackers crunchy? I like to eat them like this, slow. Mommy? What's inside wood?

At this point, I've stopped answering and am just grunting in his direction, because really? "What does tan do?" I don't even know how to start answering these questions! My kid is (clearly) brilliant, and I try to answer all his questions, often resorting to Google Images, my favorite thing. ("How do raisins get made?") But sometimes, I just have to nod and make random noises until his battery runs down and he's out of unanswerable questions, and we can just go find his red fireman hat, because tomorrow is Halloween.

Immediately after I wrote this, I turned around to check on Ezra, eating the slowest lunch of any person ever, and saw his hand covered in mustard. He's been repeatedly chastised for eating condiments instead of food, so I reminded him not to eat ketchup and mustard with his fingers, then put the two bottles away. He called to me from the table, "I won't do it anymore! I promise!" And I came back and told him it's okay, I'm not mad, I was just cleaning up. And he said, "Okay, but your eyes, they looked like this... like this... like this."  And he made a series of eye-rolling, face-scrunching expressions that caused me first to wonder if I actually look like that when I'm mad, and then to nearly dissolve on the floor with laughter. Literally from the day he was born, he has constantly surprised and challenged me. Sometimes he can get under my skin like no other person in the world. But Lord, I love that kid. He may be a challenge, but he is himself and will never, ever be anything else. And what a gift that is.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Coffee With the Buddha

I grew up in a suburb some distance from Minneapolis, far enough out that kids made a special trip to go there but most people didn't go that often, close enough that a few of our parents worked there. And when I was in high school--newly minted driver's license and the freedom that came with it, grunge and coffee culture on the rise--I suddenly discovered this entire city that had been just out of my reach. It had multiple universities filled with the most interesting people, it had one-way streets which I was constantly trying to go the wrong way on, and it had all these coffee shops.

There was this one coffee shop in particular. It sat (sits, though I only ever drive past it nowadays on the way to the pediatrician) right on the edge of the U of M campus, where the university meets the bars, which meet the vegetarian restaurants, which meet the low-income housing. It's an amazing conflux of places, and in those days, it was an amazing conflux of people. Students reading, professors grading, homeless people staying warm, young punked-up parents with their green-haired toddlers--they all roamed around together and somehow seemed to all enjoy one another.

I had recently started smoking (don't worry, I've quit since), and every possible evening was spent with my friends in that coffee shop, smoking, playing cards, and drinking--as often as not, Jolt. (Remember Jolt? Man, I could totally go for "twice the caffeine" these days.) And we always made friends. One night, a very intelligent, though incredibly superior, man taught me to play Go. He spent hours explaining the history and significance of every aspect of the game. I can explain to you the many ways in which Go reflects the culture from which it originates; I cannot tell you how to play it. Another night, we met a man who wanted to play cards with us. In hindsight, and with greater sympathy, I realize he was almost certainly quite ill. At the time, he seemed simply entertaining. He didn't follow the rules of rummy and kept slapping down cards at unpredictable times, and he repeatedly tapped his cigarette over his head, even after we offered him an ash tray. Another man just stared at the fish tank all night, every night. One evening, my friend was waiting for us in line and started talking with the fish tank guy. He was a little confused, hard to follow, but really kind and easy to talk to. Turned out, most people were.

One night I was there alone--maybe I'd just been dying to get out of the house, maybe I was waiting for my friends, I don't remember. But I got to talking with the guy at the next table. He was probably in his 20s, graduated from the university not too many years before, just hanging out and reading the paper. And while we were talking about whatever it was, we hit on the topic of teaching and learning. And he told me a story about an introductory philosophy course he had taken. It was taught, he said, by a very well-respected man who was in every way the stereotypical professor--glasses, crazy graying hair, etc. (I always think of him as looking like Richard Dreyfuss, possibly because my dad is also a college professor and he looks a little like a cross between Richard Dreyfuss and Geraldo Rivera, but that's neither here nor there.) They were discussing Buddhism and the professor was explaining its basic tenets and the life story of the Buddha that had given rise to Buddhism. In the back of the class was a kid who was sort of the classic dumb college kid--got in by the skin of his teeth, athletic scholarship, taking this class and hoping it would be easy. And when the professor asked for comments or questions, this student burst out with, "Buddha was a cool fuckin' dude!" The class, of course, all laughed, especially my companion and his friends. When the class was over, the professor asked them to stay behind, and he asked why they had laughed. They said it was just such a strange thing to say about Buddha. And the professor thoughtfully replied, "Buddha was a cool fuckin' dude. And it just goes to show how unenlightened you are that you would laugh at another man's enlightenment."

My new friend didn't say much after that, at least not much that stayed with me. He left or went back to his paper. My friends showed up, or I went home. I don't remember. But I have always remembered that story. This morning, I overheard a person I didn't know saying that someone else I didn't know was "a cool dude." And for the millionth time since that night, I thought of that story. Moments of true enlightenment are rare and usually arrive unnoticed until later. But that was one for me. Like everyone else, I struggle with the daily battles, internal and external, that make up my life as I try to make sense of my world. And like the student in that philosophy class, I hope that I will always be able to see the truths that plainly, that I will always be able to speak them so clearly, and that I will always be brave enough to announce my own enlightenment. And that I will always be enlightened enough never to laugh at another man's.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

You Capture

This week, I'm joining in on a photo project called "You Capture." I thought it would be nice to have a project to think about all week, as well as encouraging me to pull out the camera. And I learned a couple of things: first, it's really fun to take pictures. Second, I am a lousy photographer. I think I actually got better results messing with the pictures on Picasa than I did trying to use all the fancy features on the camera. But I had a lot of fun with the assignment, "Still Life." And here are the results!

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This is the book shelf in Zachary and Ezra's room. The shelf itself was a hand-me-down when Zachary was born, and I know it had a long life before it came to us. It was always awkwardly shoved in a corner until we finished the construction and built Zachary and Ezra their brand-new big bedroom. Now it has a special place in the corner and the kids regularly go there to select books. Zachary's reading has recently exploded and in addition to being able to read a lot more by himself, he's more interested in longer stories and chapter books. So I gathered all the chapter books together, and on the lower shelf are all the I-Can-Read and similar books. One of the things I love about this picture and this space is the juxtaposition of the old and the new, the old bookshelf with the brand-new reader, the Wizard of Oz and Ramona books that were mine when I was little alongside the Magic Tree House and other new books that we're discovering together. Watching my kids grow up helps me to remember a lot about what it was like.

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On a completely different note, this is a fresh-baked loaf of bread. A few years ago, we realized we were spending tons of money on nice artisan bread, when we (which is to say my husband) could just be making it. And a Sunday tradition was born. It's been enough years now that the kids don't know anything different than Sundays spent kneading and rising, always making a small roll, or "circle bread," for each of the kids, the smell of wild rice and sourdough filling the kitchen. As my kids get older and more aware of themselves and their peers, I realize that I am setting examples, establishing traditions, creating memories. And that's a lot of pressure. It's nice every once in a while to be reminded that those things don't have to be high-pressure, perfect creations. The best memories are going to be the ones that were created organically, that were special to our family because that's who our family is. Like Sundays with fresh-baked bread.

So let me know what you think. How did the pictures turn out? I have to admit that I liked them a lot more once the pressure of taking the picture was off and I was able to think about why I wanted to take that picture in the first place. Do you have any thoughts on the nature of Still Life? What would you want to capture?

Monday, October 12, 2009

How to give three kids a bath

For anyone who has never attempted this, I offer you a tutorial on getting three children clean.

1. Inform said children that it is bath time. Listen to the oldest protest that he's not done building the Lego boat that, incidentally, will never be done. Listen to the middle one insist that he has to take bath first--or is it second? No, wait, he wants to go first. Probably. But he feels very strongly about whichever one it is. Chase the little one as she high-tails it to the bathroom, shouting "Bath!" Try to intercept her before she throws everything she can reach into the tub.

2. Fill the bathtub. Try to find the exact point at which the oldest can easily dunk his head, while the youngest will not simply tip over and drown. Insist, despite many arguments, that no, you don't have to leave the water running through the entire bath. Wish you had never started that when the 6-year-old was a baby, because now you pay for it at every bath. Agree that perhaps bubbles would be nice. Curse the fact that you didn't think to bring dish soap into the bathroom, and if you go get it now, the toddler will plunge headfirst into the tub. Try to convince them that a bath without bubbles is also fun. Lose argument, and finally fill the tub with hand soap, which makes reasonable bubbles. Consider getting some (surprisingly expensive) bubble bath just to prevent these arguments.

3. Tell youngest that she can now put the bath toys in the tub. Help her locate the cabinet that houses the toys and lift out the plastic tub in which you store them. Take a moment to feel good about yourself for coming up with such an elegant solution to the storage of all those wet toys. Have that feeling taken away as youngest child throws all the toys into the bath, including the soap, splashing water all over the floor, then hurls in the plastic tub as well.

4. Tell middle and youngest that the bath is ready. Lift them into the tub and try to keep one ear out for the oldest, playing in the next room. Pray that he doesn't choose this moment to jump off his bed, decide he simply must glue things, or act on any of the other bad ideas he seems to be full of lately. Tell youngest not to drink bath water. Admire middle child's ability to stick his nose in the water, but clarify that it doesn't really get all his hair wet. Tell youngest not drink bath water. Try to get middle child's hair wet, fighting with him about when his hair is actually wet enough to wash. Tell youngest not to drink bath water, and take cup away. Sigh, as she replaces cup with a washcloth, which she then sucks on.

5. Conclude that they are both relatively wet and try to wash them. Agree that maybe they can wash themselves, and besides, the water is pretty soapy anyway, right? Hand middle child bottle of shampoo, and try to stop him before he pours the entire bottle into his hand. Remind him, after he dunks hand in the water, that he was supposed to put that soap on his body and hair and get clean. Try again. Put soap on youngest child's hair while she tries to steal it. Pour a small amount in her hand so she will hold still and get washed. Figure that she's probably pretty clean, and you're losing your patience anyway. Rinse them both amid much shrieking.

6. Tell children that it's almost time to get out. Remind youngest that if she stands up in the tub, she will have to get out. Try not to laugh as she smiles and sits down every time you say this. Insist that it's almost time. Remind them that the time has almost come. Inform them that it's time to get out now, and try to ignore the shocked cries that it can't be time to be done yet! Lift middle child out and dry him off as quickly as possible, while he tries to run away, across the wet and slippery bathroom floor. Tell oldest that his turn has come. Inform him that, at six years old, he doesn't need to be quite so concerned about getting undressed all alone in the room. Give in and remove youngest from the tub so that oldest can get in. Try not to slip on the wet floor as you carry youngest off to get diapered and dressed. Tell oldest that you're running late so he's going to have to get clean right away.

7. Get youngest dry and start getting her diapered. Stop to inform middle child that he has his underpants on backwards, and he's putting his legs in the arm holes of his pajamas. Try to find youngest's pajamas. Swear that you left them here, and tear drawer apart while she tries to get the ball point pen you left on the changing table. Give up and put her in leggings and a sweat shirt. She can wear them tomorrow too. Help middle child find the arm holes in his pajamas. Pick towels up off the floor and brush off the dog hair. Call to oldest that he needs to be getting clean. Get a very noncommittal "Okay!" in response.

8. Turn on whatever is on Nickelodeon (please be Spongebob) while you check on oldest. See that he is still mostly dry and has been "swimming" around the tub, sliding on the slanted back of the tub in a way you explicitly told him never to do. Try not to get upset and tell him that he really, really needs to get clean now. Go check on younger two, and take dog bone away from youngest child. Return to oldest child, and see that he's putting soap into dry hair. As calmly as possible, offer to get it wet. While you're there, quickly wash and rinse his hair. Tell him he really needs to get clean now, and go check on the younger ones. Yay, Spongebob! That buys you at least 10 minutes of TV hypnosis; maybe you can check your email tonight before you all fall asleep. Respond to oldest child's calls that he's ready to get out--now!

9. Provide oldest child with a towel to stand on and another to dry with. Agree to dry his hair. Feel a little frustrated that he won't do it. Feel a little grateful that this great big person will still let you dry his hair. Send him off to get dressed and go clean the bathroom. Empty the bathtub and start removing toys. Curse the stupid plastic toy tub, now as wet as the toys it holds. End up drying the tub with a towel and putting it away. Go check on oldest and find him yelling at middle child that he needs "to be alone right now" to get dressed. Giggle a little at the fact that he is naked while yelling at his brother that he needs privacy to dress. Remind oldest that he needs to take care of his dirty clothes and towel after he gets dressed. Go check on youngest and take the dog's bone away from her again. When oldest child emerges from his room, go check and resignedly put away his dirty clothes and wet towel.

10. When all children are dry and dressed, turn on a show for them, collapse onto the couch, and count the hours until you can go to bed.