Jun 29, 2005

Next to Godliness

No matter how good you think Ben and Jerry's ice cream is, it is not "homemade." And neither are the vast majority of products you can find in the supermarket, as everyone knows. The word did well with focus groups and that's why it is slapped liberally on food labels. One of the great things about web commerce is that you can actually buy homemade stuff because the artisan can market the product directly. To just randomly choose one of these entrepreneurs, oh, hmmm, let me see . . . let's take my brother Dan's Southside Soap. He really makes this in his home and has done so for years. Big, textured herbal-smelling chunks of real honest soap that clean ya real good, I can testify. He has also made ale, beer, mead, dog food, yogurt, lamps out of PVC pipe, and curtain rods out of copper tubing, thankfully none of which are offered for sale on the web. The mead is fermenting on his kitchen counter now, in an enormous bottle, to be consumed by knights and ladies in the mid distant future.

So if you're dirty, or if you're clean but running out of soap, or need to restock your gift supplies with unique but inexpensive consumables, then what's not to like about my brother's soap, eh?

Jun 28, 2005

Summer: Chapter One

I'm going to try to not think about last week. No preschool, no camp, no patience, and I had to get the house ready for weekend guests, no small feat. My routineless boys bonded a lot, let's say a whole lot. Jack and Will have developed their own shorthand. "Oh-ee, oh-ee, oh-ee, oh,ee," when yelled by Jack in the house seems to mean "Run around throwing things while yelling. When Mommy and Daddy show anger, laugh maniacally." Another one of these coded commands is "Jane has cut the pie too small." No idea where this came from, but when proclaimed at loud volume, while spinning around holding a potentially dangerous kitchen implement, it seems to indicate "Let's stop Mommy and Daddy from having a conversation by doing whatever it takes. Anything goes."

Last Tuesday when John was at his class (Why ever did I have to give him those clippings about grad program open houses last fall, anyway?), Will pooped in his underpants and peed copiously on their bedroom rug. Poop in the underwear must be dealt with immediately, thoroughly, and carefully. Jack was instigating mayhem and throwing his clothes up into the ceiling fan, and running into the bathroom where I was with Will and flailing, causing poop to smear in unwanted places. I cursed something awful, loudly, which Jack decided to repeat for several following nights whenever I was in the bathroom with Will.

I've been reading my grandfather's letters now and again, and in one letter to my mother, who was home with me (toddler) and my brother David (infant), he assures her she is a good mother. Sometimes I need that assurance, too. Now that the boys are excited about their half-day camp, we have more structure, and I've got some time to myself. Except for Will pushing all the neatly folded laundry off the dining room table yesterday and me screaming bloody murder, it's been a good week so far. Last night when they were getting crazy, I started playing my yoga DVD and they were mesmerized. Jack was even doing some of the positions, especially Warrior Two.

Jun 22, 2005

About that Weird Fish Paste in a Tube they Sell at Ikea

Don't buy it. That picture on the tube of a child smilingly taking a bite out of a cracker loaded with the stuff? Why do you think they used a drawing instead of a photo?

Anyhoozy, I want to share a poem with you that I wrote in sixth grade, April 27, 1970, to be exact. I found it going through family papers. I was attending Augusta Country Day School in Augusta, Georgia that year, and only for that year. That year I had two fabulous friends. Hilary was English and Chris was another Army brat, from Massachusetts. The rest of the girls were Southern belles in training. Hilary, Chris and I climbed trees, eschewed the blue eyshadow all the other girls were wearing, and got straight A's. It was my last year of childlike oblivion. A month after writing this poem we moved to Germany, where I soon attended a large American school with grades 7-12. Mannheim American High School was a place where I was certain I'd be crucified for wearing saddle shoes and white socks, and the innocence such clothing signified.

This poem must have been the result of an assignment on "something you learned from your mother." I do know my mother had slammed a few doors by the time I wrote this, contrary to the poem's claim. This poem is filled with lies, fake dialogue, clumsy versification, and drift of thesis, but at least I make fun of my own attempt in the last line. The footnote is original. Don't know why I had to make my brother Dan sound like a demented fairy. (On second thought, maybe I wrote this just for the hell of it, because there's no grade or mark of any kind.)

Patience--A Lesson Learned

Patience certainly is a thing I admire my my mother for.
For I have never heard or seen her madly slam a door.
Once my brother got his glider stuck up in a tree,
He kicked and screamed and yelled quite loud, and also bruised his knee.
My mother just then came rushing out
To see what all it was about.
"Why Dan, your glider's in the tree!"
"I know, I know, painfully said he.
My mother suggested then and there
To send a rock into the air
And that is just what he did do,
And hit the glider that 'twas brand new.
The glider then turned round and round
And soon fell, twirling, to the ground.
"La, la, de, da, oh happy day!"
That's what I heard my brother say.
And the moral of this story is,
Don't fly your gliders near the triz.*

*In other words, trees.

Jun 17, 2005

Sum Sum Summertime

Montessori is out for the summer, so I took Will out of his part-time child care as well. I started off the season by getting pinkeye in both eyes and twisting my back a little.

Yesterday we rescued some great chaise-lounges from my Dad's. He was going to have the "junk man" take them away before closing on his house. After we clean the heck out of the chaises, which are moldy and dusty, and my eyes and back are all better, I'm going to restart summer.

Summer for us is so all about the pool. Every community around here has its own pool. You have to live within strict geographic limits to join. So ours is, natch, the Swarthmore Swim Club. It's not fancy by any means but it's very pleasant indeed. A friend of mine, who just moved out of Swarthmore to West Chester (to pursue the dream of a large suburban house on a cul de sac, with one whole acre of yard) used to complain that the Swarthmore Swim Club was clique-ish. To which I say, of course it is, it's the Swarthmore Swim Club, for Pete's sake. We go for the pool, and we see a number of people we know, and the number is higher every year, and I really don't care whether there are cliques or not. I don't want to be in a clique myself, but if other people do, that's their problem. There was a time when such things would have bothered me.

Our routine is this: we plop our stuff down on the grass kind of behind the best spots, which are inevitably covered with other people's towels, clothes, newspapers, and other detritus. The boys take their shirts and sandals off, and we all go in the "big" pool (shallow end). Then someone migrates to the baby pool, they go back and forth between the pools, etc. At their ages, 3 and 5, I need to watch them to a certain extent, but I can socialize a little or read something light.

After a while comes the request that I dread: "Can we play Battleship?" The swim club has seen fit to keep lots of board games for the members to use, bless their souls. So one of the boys gets the game, we set it on the towels, and I pretend that we are actually going to play this in a civilized manner, following the rules, until someone wins. Will's too young to focus, but he likes to move the ships around randomly on the board, which is no good. Jack likes to play, and could probably play a whole game, if only he wasn't playing against Will and me. I try to keep things together, but sitting on a towel for a period of time moving little pegs around on a little board that is constantly tipping over gets old. So I try to find a distraction. "Hey, there's Alex! Wouldn't you like to get back in the pool with him?"

Some of the mothers don't go in the water, but my rule is to get completely wet at least once every hour. Otherwise, what's the point? My mother had a helmet-like "hairdo" that she got every week at the hairdresser, and so she never put her head underwater. You couldn't splash anywhere near her, either. It was hard to for all of us to live with her tenous, fragile hairstyle. I believe I think of her every time I dunk my head under.

Another joke for you, this time from Will:

What did the turtle say to the banana?


Jun 11, 2005

Boyz at the Pool

Husband and sons at the pool and I just got home early from the Philadelphia Writers' Conference.

Yesterday: two sessions were fantastic. Jane Eisner was the keynote. She writes the syndicated column American Rhythms. Another very interesting session was on publishing nonfiction books, which was given by Foster Winans. Winans was writing for the Wall Street Journal in the early 1980s, when he got busted for insider trading. After 8 1/2 months in prison, he dusted himself off and wrote a best-selling, well reviewed book on . . . insider trading (Trading Secrets). A few years later he wrote fictionalized sequels to The Little House on the Prairie. Next? A memoir called From the Big House to the Little House. Har. I made that up.

Then an abysmal, condescending session on memoir that I want to forget as soon as possible, and a useless, sleep-inducing one on magazine writing. Thank goodness I came back, because all of today's sessions were great. Jonathan Maberry, who heads up The Writer's Room in Bucks county, and who has unpredictably become an expert on vampires, talked about how to get editors to read your magazine queries and book proposals. He's pragmatic, efficient, ruthless, and persistent. Whereas I've been dreamy, inefficient, tentative, and sporadic. Also attended a session on literary short stories, in order to avoid another memoir droning session, and attended one on writing for children in order to avoid the magazine writing zombie.

Ah, Dear Readers (as Charlotte Bronte would say), when I said I would keep writing, I meant for publication. The blog remains occasional. Yes, Jo(e) and Scrivener, I've thought quite a bit about whether or not to read more blogs. I do read yours every few days or so, and, as you know, hardly ever comment. I guess I feel divided about the blogging and how much I should do it. I'm afraid I'll be distracted by blog-reading, commenting, and linking when I should really be doing my own writing for publication. On the other hand, blogging certainly counts as something that can be valuable. A great way to network, to "publish" in a way, to get exposure, and contribute to an online community. Guess I'm trying to define my boundaries and that's why I come across as fickle or inconsistent.

But here's another thought. Since blogging is actually a great way to hash out ideas that may go into print, I've considered just writing one entry a week and structuring it more. Readers could expect to read a new entry, say, every Wednesday, and that would be stated up in the description. Other days I could focus on reading and commenting on other blogs, or other writing. Any thoughts? Thanks for reading, everyone. Maybe someday I will write my Blogging Manifesto. Blogifesto?

We're having a pastoral candidate preach at church tomorrow and meet with the congregation. People will bring their show-off dishes to the potluck. I'm bringing a spinach salad with strawberries, mainly because we get a giant bag of spinach every week in the CSA and it's a little hard to know what to do with it all. But not as difficult as the virtuous and prolific "Asian greens," whose season is thankfully over.

Oh, hey! Here's a joke from Jack.

"What did the turtle say when the truck drove away?"

"There goes a butt."

That's it. That's the joke. Because the word "butt" is funny in any context, apparently. When I was reading Prince Caspian to him (of the Narnia series), it mentions a "water butt." Have no idea what that is, some kind of rock formation? It was funny, though, you betcha. And when butts become cliche you can always say "fart," also funny. Once John told a bedtime story about a farting leaf, very very funny.

Jun 7, 2005

My 25th College Reunion and How I'm Blowing It Off

It's this coming weekend but I backed out about three weeks ago. My college is a couple hours away, and John was going to stay home with the kids. Very nice of him, eh? But then I thought, hmmm . . . is this really how I want to spend a weekend without the kids and husband? So I decided to go to the Philadelphia Writers' Conference instead this Friday and Saturday. In 1990 I went to a college reunion to see if any good men were single (two, but then I wasn't sure how to follow up) and in 2000 I went to show off John and baby Jack, who could be transported adorably in a backpack carried by John, but this time? Without a clear, self-interested motive, what is the point of a reunion? It's so often not quite the right people who show up, anyway.

Yeah, I'm really supposed to be writing, but I've been procrastinating for a few months. I suddenly got motivated a couple of weeks ago, and I've sent a query letter out. I'd like to write an article about the future of this estate in Rose Valley. Mike, who wrote this plea to save the estate, doesn't know much about what's happening, but the pictures are very good. It's private property, and you can't see a thing from the street, so I don't know how he got them.

It's funny how I got into journalism. I taught at a small college in Virginia for a few years and one of the first classes I had to teach was "Newswriting." Ha! I was a literature professor, but at a college like that you have to teach many subjects that are almost completely foreign to you. Newswriting, Beowulf, whatever. I expanded the course to "News and Feature Writing" and after a couple of semesters I had thought of so many interesting features myself that I started proposing ideas to the editor of the local alternative newspsaper. She took me up on almost every idea I had. I wrote about community-supported agriculture, urban renewal in my town, modern-day jousting in the "hollers" of Virginia, life on a rural bookmobile, and more.

My most amazing experience was writing the article about urban renewal. Several blocks of black businesses, churches, and homes in my small city had been razed in the early sixties as a "slum clearance" project. Most of it had been blacktopped over, with one white-owned store reopened and a few other stores constructed. Mostly it was a pretty nondescript zone by the time I lived there. Most people who had sold their property to the city couldn't afford to buy anything, so they had to move to a newly constucted housing project, and no one had enough money to reopen their businesses. (This story could be told, unfortunately, for many cities and towns in the US at that time.)

Due to the growth of a large university in the town and a number of demographic and cultural changes, the history of this clearance was only kept alive by a handful of people who lived in the historically black neighborhood, most of whom were quite elderly. But when I worked as a census taker in 2000 I met a woman who knew all these people, and through her I met them and talked to them. I found pictures of the old houses and shops in a file at the housing authority and used some of the woman's family pictures. The story was on the cover of the paper with all these incredible photos. It created quite a wave of interest, I was asked to speak at the college and for a local activist group, it spurred some college students to embark on their own related history projects, and people were constantly asking the paper for reprints. Finally they even reprinted the whole thing in 2004. Working on that was about a thousand times more gratifying than writing an academic journal article, and I knew I could never go back. (Remind me to tell you a story about a blind date and a journal article I wrote.)

So anyway, here I am up here north of the Mason-Dixon line trying to start this up again. Oh, I'm working with a journal editor on publishing one of my blog entries. So stay tuned, and don't let me stop writing.

Jun 1, 2005

Suicide and Damnation

This post really is about suicide and damnation; the title contains no hyperbole or metaphor. It's a switch in tone from the Trader Joe's post, but that's the way life is: Happy, sad, happy, sad. No, wait, it's more like happy, mundane and boring, sad, mundane and boring, happy. I just try to keep the mundane and boring parts out of my blog as best I can.

My friend Bill's brother Matt (both pseudonyms) died of an overdose in West Hollywood on Saturday. He had been suicidal since the 1980's and had threatened suicide a week before his death, when his other brother had refused to give him money for crystal meth. Matt had lived in L.A. for many years and had been alienated from his family for a very long time. I had a brother like that, too, only in San Francisco, only he didn't kill himself; he died in a fire when his life was actually looking up, sort of. But this isn't about my brother right now. Bob and I used to talk about our brothers and what to do about them and always came up with this conclusion: nothing.

Matt was found by his landlady, his apartment filthy and littered with needles. He had been a user for years, and had finally overdosed. Was it a suicide? For Matt's family, this question is critical because they are all devout Catholics. Matt's eternal fate hinges on the answer to this question, but apparently prayer can tip the balance from hell to purgatory. So Bill says in his email to me,

". . . The question of suicide will most likely remain unresolved mainly because no one can now know for certain what thoughts were going through his head as he lost consciousness. I believe so fervently all that the Church teaches that I've found myself praying all the more for Matt and asking others do so so. Thanks for those prayers. "

I don't believe that God punishes people for being depressed or for trying to kill their pain with drugs. I am disgusted at Bill for letting his theology blind him to the realities of mental illness. Bill is an attorney, very bright, who also has an MA in English. But he hasn't read any contemporary (last 50 years) books in a very long time "There are so many good nineteenth century novels to read, why should I read anything new?" Bill had never heard or read the word "vegan" until I told him last year, and I had to spell it. Sometimes I think his mental world is filled with dust and cobwebs. And lots of Catholic theology. The older I get, the more aware of the world's mysteries I become, its paradoxes, ironies, sadness and joy together. But Bob is as dogmatic as ever. It's possible I'm not being fair.

Reading this post was like eating a brick, wasn't it? On a lighter note, Will is peeing quite well in the potty now, albeit with dubious aim, John dented our car this time, NOT ME, and Jack wants me to teach him to knit and my Dad had a sarcastic, sexist comment about that. Roofers coming Monday. I'm trying Neutrogena Self-Tanning Lotion on my legs, since they are incapable of tanning on their own. Sad, happy, mundane and boring, there you go.