Trivial correspondence, everlasting significance

Today over my honey nut cheerios and hot chocolate, I was reading Kenneth Silverman’s Edgar A. Poe, A Biography: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance. Light breakfast fare, right?

The story is that I gave a copy of this very book to my sister-in-law, Beth, for Christmas, not because she is an Edgar Allan Poe buff, but because of the Poe/Baltimore connection (Poe is buried in Baltimore) in which I thought she’d be interested. Plus, on January 19, 2010, Poe would have been 201 years old, so what better time to get reacquainted with one of the most famous and second only to John Waters as the creepiest Baltimorean of all time? When Beth opened the book she asked if I’d read it, and I replied, sheepishly, that I hadn’t, but that I would, and I am now making good on that promise.

What little I know of Poe is this: (1) His Baltimore home is in a really not-so-nice neighborhood. (2) He coined the often used word ‘tintinnabulation.’ (3) I would think twice before hiring him as a builder (you never know what you might find later in those walls).

So I’m reading the bio, in which E.A.P. is now about 3 years old, abandoned by his dad and orphaned by his mom. He’s living with guardians by the name of Allan. Dig this description of the wife, Fanny:

“She busied herself sewing, purchasing rugs and mirrors, ordering fruit cakes or quarts of strawberry ice cream and custard…the many spelling errors in her surviving letters suggest a limited education…Although often flirtatious and high-spirited, Fanny was also chronically subject to accidents (at one time she fractured her face) and to illnesses that her family and friends believed were often imaginary.”

The notes, appendices, and index in this book go on for more than 100 pages, but oddly there is no reference to anything like The Comprehensive Life and Times of Accident-prone Homemaker Mrs. Fanny Allan, so I can only assume that Silverman put together this ridiculous caricature of poor Fanny based on scraps of letters, records of belongings, and assorted 19th century receipts.

I cringe to think, were my children to become famous at some point, what such research might turn up on me 200 years after the fact. Something, I presume, like this:

Mrs. Scheir busied herself playing tennis, watching Tivo, and, at the advice of her friends, purchasing red shoes and ‘bling’…the many references to Jack Bauer on her surviving blog entries suggest an unhealthy affection for a flawed and fictional man…Although often externally cheerful and active, Cheryl was chronically subject to bouts of laziness and idleness (she once went 5 days without getting up from beneath her electric blanket) and to blathering talking jags that her family and friends thought were not only repetitive but wholly pointless and tiresome.”

Of most concern to me is the possible discovery of a note from the children that is now residing on a magnet board in my dining room. It reads,

HELP! Will Die if not interjected with Love by Mom and Dad!
-Hayley and Jake
P.S. Now!”

Oy. My historical reputation is shot.

Today’s quest: bling(ish)

I’m an at home mom married to an electrical engineer. With that particular set-up, there are really not that many occasions when “black tie optional” comes into play. I try to keep it stylish, but between the dog chewing my shoes and the acid, grease, and machinery hazards at Craig’s office, we’re not really red carpet ready.

So, in this month when he and I have fallen asleep in front of the TV before 10 pm way too often, we’ve decided to go out on a nightlife limb and take in a fundraising event called “Dancing with the Delaware Stars,” which features local community names competing on the dance floor for a good cause. The first hurdle was getting a babysitter. Done. The second? Discerning the meaning of “Black tie optional.”

I’m going to leave up to Craig his interpretation of the dress code. I know the poor boy doesn’t want to wear a tuxedo, and heaven knows I wouldn’t want to make him. The guy wore a tie every day at school from 6th to 12th grade, so he’s hip to what’s appropriate. For an event like this, I’m confident that we’re in no danger of the cowboy boot/string tie, holey t-shirt/torn jeans, or wrinkled polo/front pleat khakis variety. So, whatever you want, Craig—go for it.

My end of the fashion bargain is a different story, though. I’ve gone over a couple of scenarios, and here’s what I’ve come up with.

  1. The little black dress is a good option, but I’ve gotten really tired of what I like to call black, black, black, and black. As much as I’d like to wear my go-to black dress, I’m thinking of breaking out of the 4B box this time. Maybe I’ll do it with…
  2. …new shoes. My shoes fall into a couple of categories: black and brown. I have one pair of strappy, sparkly heels, and they always get a lot of compliments, but unfortunately they’ve developed an annoying squeek, so they’re on their way out. Much as I’d like to be one, I am not a red shoe girl, although I’m thinking that red may be the way to go this time. We’ll see.
  3. …bling. I’m not talking hip hop mogul accessories, here. Statement jewelry, my friends tell me, will take that plain, old outfit to new semi-formal heights. I’m thinking that may be fun—less of an effort to try on, more flexibility for future use. Not a bad idea.

So here’s the welcome wrinkle. The dinner portion of the event is sold out, so there are only spectator tickets left. While this might seem like a disappointment, I actually think, it is the answer to all my dress dilemmas! Now I can go out to dinner with my husband in our usual smart casual attire (jacket, tie, crisp slacks for him, and jacket, cute skirt, chunky shoes, statement jewelry for me), then join the fundraiser in progress. We’ll look great, but there’ll be no pressure whatsoever, as all eyes will be on the dancers. This rocks! Plus, no chance of being seated for dinner beside some Meryl Streep at the Oscars type whom I won’t know and will feel uncomfortable with, because we’ll be having dinner at someplace that’s more our speed and level of formality—alone!

The best of both worlds—and a night out besides. I love it.

Today’s your day!

I know this is going to sound a little cheesy, but I’ve always wanted to be the kind of mom who really uses the “You are special today!” plate. Do you know the kind I mean? It’s red, with lively white writing around the rim, writing that states unequivocally that when it comes to specialness, you (whoever you are) are it.

There are moms (and maybe some of my readers) who manage to use those kinds of plates with astonishing purpose, maybe rotating their placement at the table to recognize a different family member every day of the week or storing the plate until a birthday rolls around and then miraculously remembering (a) where it is and (b) to actually use it.

Unfortunately for my family, I am not that kind of mom. I forget. I misplace. The last birthday party I scheduled was three months after the fact, for goodness sake—you think I’m really going to be able to keep the “You are special today!” plate tradition spinning?

But yesterday, it hit me. Yesterday was January 21st. My birthday is June 21st. It was a half day of school, so I was trying to create a little something out of nothing anyway, and I came up with this scheme: every month, each member of the family, on whatever day of any month corresponds with his or her birthday (the 21st for me, the 25th for Craig, etc.), will have the opportunity to choose some small-scale fun thing to do, buy, or eat, subject, of course, to approval based on cost, time, and availability. My fun thing? Half price slushies at Sonic Drive-in’s 2-4 pm Happy Hour and fajitas for dinner.

Not much, but kind of awesome, no?

In writing this piece and trying to find the “You are special today!” plate online, I happened upon the website for an event planning company called The Special Day. In my once-a-month special-ness project, I may adopt their purpose statement as my own:

The Special Day will be the recognized creator of innovative events and momentous celebrations worldwide. Our eminent clients will exult in awe-inspiring experiences that generate smiles and memories for their distinguished honorees and guests.

The Special Day is about You and Your personalized experience. When it really counts, you can trust The Special Day to understand the significance you place on the special days of your lives. Rest assured… with our planning expertise, dedicated assistance, creative flair and global knowledge, your events will be revered for a lifetime.

My celebrations, momentous? My children, eminent? Their experiences, awe-inspiring? Our events, revered for a lifetime? Maybe, maybe not. More like it, we’ll just be glad if Hayley plans board game night on her special day and we end up without any crying or bloodshed.

I’m sort of over the intentional “making memories” approach to parenting. My approach is more along the lines of enrich them like crazy with stuff that’s fun for all of us and then let the chips fall where they may. I’m about us getting better and better at getting from point A to point B. I’m about helping us—all of us—to see more, do more, learn more, and get more secure with ourselves. For me, the special day thing will be one more way for my kids (and myself) to feel like individuals who have a little control over our lives, who aren’t just subject to the whirlwind that’s going on around us, and who can pause and hand ourselves a nice break once in a while.

Plate or not, I think it might work.

Gee whiz, a guest post!

In the style of the Berenstain Bears’ B Book, I present this, from my 9-year-old daughter, Hayley:

The G Book

Grand Gary.
Grand Gary gets Great Galinda.
Grand Gary and Great Galinda gather their goods.
Grand Gary and Great Galinda go on a glorious journey.
Grand Gary gets out of gas.
Grand Gary and Great Galinda go to Georgia.
Grand Gary and Great Galinda go to a golfing green.
Grand Gary and Great Galinda go get grub.



Yesterday I actually used in conversation these two new, if inelegant, terms, invented my me:

1. BURNIE, as in “When I turned the corner, I smelled fumes, but it didn’t smell so much gassy as it did burnie.” Homphone: the proper noun ‘Bernie,’ as in “Don’t Bernie me!”

2. GYMMIE, as in “Without the blue protective mats on the wall, the church’s multi-purpose room would look a lot less gymmie.” Homophone: the proper noun ‘Jimmy,’ the lock-picking term ‘jimmie,’ and the singular of the chocolate sprinkles synonym, ‘jimmies.’

Yes, I recognize that adding an ‘-ie’ to a noun does not a new word make (and does the speaker sound like a 6-year-old make?!), but, hey, that’s why I’m a writer and not a professional orator. Thinking about it, I have a feeling that I’m more of an -ie person than an -ish person, though I do dig words like ‘cartoonish’ and ‘impish.’ Then again, those are real words. At least I don’t use the non-word ‘ish,’ as in “Sure, I’m working now…ish.”

So here’s what I want to know. When it comes to made-up words, are you an -ie person or an -ish person?

Thankful in difficult times

Over the weekend, in describing her experience as a mother who is also a terrorism correspondent, NPR reporter Mary Louise Kelly said,

“Once you’re a parent, if you go looking for it, you’ll find danger lurks everywhere.”

I wrote down that quote, because when I send my son out to walk to the bus stop or let my daughter ride her bike around the block or send my husband off to work, sometimes, but not often, I think, “This could be it.”

I know that for some people in the world (as in Haiti yesterday) and some people in my world (as in a local family who lost a husband and daughter in an accident on Tuesday), sometimes our worst possible fears as humans are realized. We meet face-to-face the danger that was otherwise just lurking, and it pulls a rug out from under our feet that we hadn’t ever even realized was there.

Even as I’m thankful for my family, my health, my home, and my usually 100% carefree existence, I’m saying a prayer for those whose cares are weighing more heavily than I may ever imagine. I may not be able to do much, but at least I can do that.

In love with “Peony”? Not so much

Back in the 90’s I saw a movie called Truly Madly Deeply, which starred a pre-Professor Snape Alan Rickman as the main female character’s boyfriend. The bad news: the boyfriend died. The good news: the boyfriend returned! The really bad news: the dead boyfriend brought along all of his sad, cold, bored, dead buddies, who just wanted to hang out in the girlfriend’s apartment watching videos.

Except in soap operas and perhaps on Lost, when it comes to dead characters, even if they return as ghosts, you know that they’re pretty much still dead and, slacker ghost buddies or not, that they are not good candidates for long term relationships. Lisa See’s book Peony in Love covers the subject of ghost love against the backdrop of seventeenth century China, and, let me tell you, when it comes to life or death in the environment See portrays, I’m thinking that, given a choice, life and death come out in a (pardon me here) dead heat.

I’ll try not to spoil the story too much, but on the side of life, you’ve got women’s not-so-nice lot, in the form of foot binding, restriction of movement, segregation from men, arranged marriage, the overvaluing of male children and devaluing of female, rampant anorexia, ridiculously oppressive superstition about absolutely everything, and even the expectation that suicide beats the soiling and shame associated with rape. On the death side, you’ve got eternal wandering, eternal hunger, dependence on the neglectful living for a proper place in the afterlife, continuing competition and jealousies with the rest of the dead, and the very romantic practice of ghost marriage with a straw dummy as the stand-in for the already dead bride (lovely!).

In the book, See is giving us a picture of a culture otherwise unfamiliar to us Westerners. I get that. What I don’t get is why See, in an otherwise incredibly inventive story, continually returns to the themes of female infighting, oppression against women perpetrated by other women, and romantic love as so over-arching and women so prone to lovesickness, that being in love could be a lifetime obsession or a deadly proposition. She throws some bones to women, but they’re not enough to make us readers feel like she wants us to do more than just contextualize the practices she’s described and, in doing so, dismiss our repulsion of them.

In an interview about the novel, she says, “My point here is that other countries and cultures have different belief systems. One isn’t right and the other wrong…” Institutionalized sexism and racism are still wrong, no matter what a culture’s beliefs may be. The character of Peony in Peony In Love grew in a lot of ways over the course of the novel, but, for me, she fell somewhat short of that realization.

The darndest things

Three things my children have said this week that I have loved:

  1. “Mom, something happened today that made me feel bad about myself.” I don’t love that something made Hayley feel bad about herself, but I love that she had the words to articulate how she was feeling. I usually label that sort of thing ‘insecurity,’ but I like what Hayley says better. I told her that when that bad feeling comes, she should look at herself and check whether she’s done anything wrong. If not, then the bad feeling, while there, should not be honored. Now if only I can apply this to myself, we’ll both be in really good shape.
  2. “Mom, are you a senior citizen?” I don’t love this because of the implied perception of premature aging. I love it because it was part of Jake’s diabolical plan to save us money at the car wash. Jake figures that if I pretend to be a senior citizen, then on senior day we’ll save a dollar. Good plan.
  3. “Mom, when we get home, will you play Wii with me?” This I love because the Wii Resort game has a cycling program and when two people play our little Mii’s are riding a bicycle built for two. I think that I can say for certain that there is no better feeling than cycling up a volcano on a tandem bike with your child steering clear of the lava. We took a 6-day tour in 20 minutes and came in 31st place. Not bad for a mother-son team, especially when the mother is nearly a senior citizen. That doesn’t make me feel bad about myself at all.

The way the woodwind blows

I think I have a new addiction.

With my new acquisition of a used clarinet (which I have no idea how to play) and my grandfather’s approximately eighty year old elementary school violin (which I’m a little scared to try to play), my four person household now has six musical instruments, and believe me, we’re not that good.

Actually, let me clarify. My son Jake is coming along nicely on my dad’s trumpet. And on the viola I’m using up the measures at the same pace as the rest of my colleagues in the Dover Symphony, even though I may be playing only a percentage of the notes. Still, no matter what our good intentions, our collective work ethic is probably not up to the task of mastering an instrument in an entirely new (to us) instrument family. Or, in other words, strings I get, but reeds? Maybe not so much.

While I may not be changing sections of the orchestra any time soon, I have, with the purchase of the clarinet, bought myself a good little story, out of which I’ve already gotten some good mileage. Yes, with Christmas cash from my mother burning a hole in the pocket of my vintage surplus Canadian battle jacket (a $15 Army/Navy store purchase from my Brit rocker wannabe stage in the ’80s), I spotted that clarinet on a table at my local flea market, grabbed it, tried all the keys (looking like I knew what I was doing) and asked the question only a trained musician like myself would think to ask: Does it come with a case?

Turns out it did come with a case, one stamped DSC for Delaware State College, and it was $75 but he’d give it to me for $50 said a man behind the counter, who, by the way, was wearing a vintage wannabe varsity jacket, so all I can say is “kismet.” I oohed and aahed and told him I’ve always wanted to play the clarinet (which I have), and he told me that the case had a bunch of sheet music in it, and I told him that I was so excited and may have clapped my hands with joy, and he asked if I knew any jazz, and I told him I played a string and I’ve never played any jazz, and he asked me if I’d heard of Count Basie, and I said sure I had, and he said that he was (no kidding) Count Basie’s only grand nephew, and I said, “Really?”, and he actually took out a book and flipped to a photo of Count Basie himself, and darned if he wasn’t the spitting image of the man.

And then he told me he liked my jacket, and I was really sold.

Now you’re probably thinking that the guy was playing me, but I knew he wasn’t because when I went to take out my money I said, “I’ll take it, but can you do any better on the price?” and he said, “Since you’re really going to play it I’ll give it to you for $40,” at which point I was really, really sold.

I guess I’m still a simple girl if a bargain on an item that I have no idea how to use can manage to float my boat all the way through to the new year. I have to buy a new reed (germs, you know), and some other gear, and I’m trying to suppress the thought that I am now in possession of stolen property. I may not be able to trace the origins of the instrument I have yet to play, but, musically speaking, two degrees of separation from Count Basie is surely not nothing.

The season of chill

As I’m writing this, my children are upstairs “putting away books,” making more noise than a stampede of dinosaurs at Jurassic Park. They’re screaming, yelling, sliding furniture, laughing, and slamming doors, and you know what? I’m OK with that.

This, I think, is a sign not of neglectful parenting, but of my incredible calm and relaxation, the likes of which can only be derived from nearly two weeks of not really having to be anywhere, at any time, ever. Sure they’re making noise. Sure the tide will turn. Sure one of them will walk out of it crying, injured, or in need of intense therapy in adulthood. But right now I’m not really worried about that. I am so de-stressed, so drama free, so many miles from the blacked in squares of last year’s calendar, that only a trip to the ER might snap me out of it. Even then, I say “might.”

I guess I’m at the end of my drama rehab—honestly, it’s been going so well that I stopped keeping track of the days. The original idea was 40 days to drama-, worry-, and stress-free living, with the holiday season providing the best growing conditions for those particular strains. The initial hairy drama encounters and their subsequent highlights are recorded in my Drama Rehab Journal (see the column on the left of this page), but I’m happy to report that the closer I’ve gotten to the finish line, the fewer near occasions of drama there have been. And over the stretch from Christmas to New Year’s Day there’s been nothing to report.

I’m thankful to be starting off a new year with a more relaxed outlook. I fear that once the schedule inevitably revs up, my one step forward will turn into a fireman’s pole worth of sliding back. But I’m not going to worry about that, because I’m staying out of the worry business. This year I’ll try to avoid scheduling crunches, scheduling conflicts, overcommitment, and under-enrichment. I’ll practice rolling my eyes and smiling more, gnashing my teeth and steaming less. During these winter months I’ll try to make our home a haven for my family—a static-free environment where we can shut out the stress and recharge ourselves with mutual support and free-flowing home-baked goods.

Craig and I gave the kids a Wii for Christmas, and we told them that it doesn’t work in an environment of negativity (sort of like how we told them that the man from the car dealership said no snacks allowed in the minivan). So far that’s encouraged sharing and equitable turn-taking, but I think it applies to more than the Wii, doesn’t it? My 40 years of experience as myself has taught me that I don’t really work in an environment of negativity. It’s about time I did something about that.