Saturday, January 30, 2010

Truth And Consequences (or) Ode On A Dithering Mom

Keats may have said that beauty is truth, but I take issue with whether truth is beauty. Especially after reading a memoir by my ten-year-old this week. Granted, memoir to a fifth grader is a fuzzy concept. Let's just say he took a lot of artistic license.

This was part of "curriculum hour" in Jacob's classroom, where parents are led around to view the various tools and topics their progeny are engaged with during a typical school day. Let me tell you, there is nothing like a day in the life of your fifth grader to deliver a crushing blow to your previous sense of intellectual superiority. It turns out I'm actually not smarter than a fifth grader, at least when it comes to the latest technology. And science? I may be able to spell buoyancy, but don't ask me to define its principle.

But then Jacob shared his writing folder with me, including his journals, memoirs and fiction pieces. This was what I had been waiting for, and I enjoyed his descriptions of campouts, contests and other experiences he'd had. But the one that he had typed up on fancy paper for me to take home (and frame?) was called Rings on a Pillow. It was his memory of the day he was a ring bearer in my cousin's wedding three and a half years ago.

It began impressively with a building sense of anticipation prior to the ceremony, a great alliteration about the sound of his shoes hitting the floor as he walked down the aisle, and the crowd of hundreds with all eyes on him. I beamed with pride when I read how "the bride was dithering over the groom's tie." What fifth grader uses a word like dithering? Surely, he'll be a writer one day, I smiled to myself.

And then I got to the next paragraph, where he talked about me. I read his description of me wiping my "teary red eyes with a hankie." Red eyes? It sounds devilish, or at least very unattractive, although I conceded to myself that he was going for a visual image. But the next line was like a smack across my head:

"My loud-mouthed, hard-to-please mom smiled."

Now wait just a cotton-pickin' minute. Did he read this to the class? Did he get any feedback from his teacher? What, exactly, ran through her head when she read that line? And how am I supposed to hold my head up at the next parent-teacher conference?

But worst of all, is this how Jacob really sees me? Loud-mouthed? Hard to please? Just because I don't let him play LEGOs from the moment he gets home until bed time, but actually make him do homework, practice piano and eat vegetables? Indeed, if that's the case, there is no beauty in truth. At least not when you're ten.

I'm going to tell myself that he did this for effect, to illustrate that an 'ear-to-ear smile' is not something I flash every day, but that the wedding was a special occasion.

And you can be sure that we'll be having a little talk about his writing, when I'll promise him free editing services on any future works he produces--especially memoirs--from now until I die.

Hopefully he'll accept, thus preventing what would surely be my premature death by mortification.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Keeping It Simple

I want to be in second grade again. This week, Ben's second-grade class filled up their "warm fuzzy jar." This jar is in the classroom, and every time someone in the class does something nice for someone else--helps out, offers sympathy, shares--the teacher puts a cotton ball in the jar. I know. How cool, right?

Wait. It gets better.

The jar was finally filled this week, which earned the children a special treat: a pajama breakfast party. Parents all contributed something: waffles, chocolate chips, strawberries, whipped cream, syrup and milk. The kids were instructed to wear their pajamas to school.

I don't know which had Ben more excited: the waffles and chocolate chips, or being able to wear his pajamas to school. I often call him 'Hughy' for Hugh Hefner, because if I let him, he would never get out of his pjs. He is a homebody through and through, so the idea of combining his favorite breakfast with all his school friends and a day in his pjs gave him good dreams for over a week.

Today was the day. Ben got up, took off his footie pajamas and put on his long underwear and fleece pjs over them. He took his vitamin, drank his orange juice and brushed his teeth, and didn't even ask for breakfast (he was building his appetite). When it was time to go, he grabbed his backpack, gave me a big kiss, and hurried down the stairs gushing, "I'm SO excited!!" I honestly think he was vibrating with anticipation.

And that's what being seven years old is all about, right? Do your best to be kind to others, and get rewarded with food and warmth. Actually, maybe that's what life is all about. Be kind. Help others. And every now and then, reward yourself with the simple things that feed your soul.

Yummy on every level.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Change of Life

I am an inappropriate crier. I cry at weddings (real and movie), as well as at Hallmark commercials, videos of my kids when they were babies and sappy songs on the radio. But I don't cry after reading books. At least, not lately.

This, apparently, is a problem. I can hide behind "hormones" or "I'm just a big mush" when it comes to the first examples. But when everyone in my book group cries at the end of a book and I don't, eyebrows go up.

"You didn't cry?"


"What do you mean you didn't cry? Did you at least feel like crying?"

"Er, no, not really."

They look at each other and wonder how I got into this club. I can see their minds going, wondering what kind of cold-hearted, unfeeling biotch I am to have not cried at the end of this story. I actually consider lying and saying that I did, in fact, cry.

But the thing is, I used to cry at the end of books. When I was younger, and romantic stories showed me how love is supposed to be, what wonderful men were out there just waiting to fall in love with me, I cried. Mostly because my parents thought I was too young to date and therefore I had no way to meet these young princes, but still. The point is, I cried.

Until I became a writer.

Maybe this made me colder and more calculating when it came to words. I subconsiously read stories and think, "ooh, good line," or "no, that's not plausible after all we know about this character." Mostly, though, I think, "this could have been done better."

Granted, I'm not saying I could have done it better. OK, sometimes I feel like I could have. The point is, I no longer read stories purely for the emotional reaction they cause in me. I read them to learn how to write better. Or in some cases, how not to write.

So maybe this is not the book group for me. Maybe I belong in a book group made up of all writers, and our goal could be the same: find the formulas, the holes, the things that work so we can use them ourselves.

Or maybe I should just keep an onion near my nightstand when I am finishing a book. At least then I won't have to lie.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Dog Days

Ben: "Mom, there are three reasons Bailey's lucky to be a dog, and three reasons he's unlucky."

Me: "Oh yeah? Why is he lucky?"

Ben: "One, he doesn't have to go to school. Two, he doesn't have to do homework. And three, he gets to stay home with his mom all day."

Me: "Hm, yes, I guess that is pretty nice. But why is he unlucky?"

Ben: "Well, he can't talk so if he's hungry or has to pee, all he can do is whine. Also, he only gets to see his friends if you take him to a playdate. And three, he doesn't have opposable thumbs."

Me: "All true, Ben. So which would you rather be? A dog or a kid?"

He's still thinking about it.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Author, Author!

Ask anyone who reads voraciously what is most exciting to them, and they will likely say, 'discovering a new author to love.' The same goes for me. Finding a poet or novelist who affects, me to the point that I put off everything else to spend time with his or her works, ranks right up there with finding $20 in a coat from last winter and getting an unexpected vacation day.

OK, so it doesn't take much to get me going. But it's also difficult for me to find such writers. I recently discovered Westchester author Jonathan Tropper thanks to an interview I heard on public radio. Tropper was promoting his most recent novel, This Is Where I Leave You, and I found myself laughing out loud at the excerpts being read over the airwaves. I jotted down the title at a red light and later joined the long line of people on a waiting list to borrow it from the library.

It was worth the wait.

The book is a sharp, funny page-turner, but the characters have depth and emotion. Their family's dysfunction is award-level, yet they approach their relationships matter-of-factly, with frankness and humor. Early in the book, Judd, the main character, describes his brother Phillip:

Phillip is our youngest brother, born nine years after me. It's hard to understand my parents' procreational logic. Wendy, Paul, and me, all within four years, and then Phillip, almost a decade later, slapped on like an awkward coda. He is the Paul McCartney of our family: better-looking than the rest of us, always facing a different direction in pictures, and occasionally rumored to be dead.

Their father has just died, and Judd's sister Wendy says of Phillip,

"I've left messages at all his last known numbers. On the off chance he plays them, and he's not in jail, or stoned, or dead in a ditch, there's every reason to believe that there's a small possibility he'll show up."

Besides zipping through the book, I recommended it to several friends, added it to my shopping cart at, and reserved some of Tropper's other books at the library.

The best part about such a discovery is this: these books take me back to the wondrous world of reading I first experienced as a child, when I spent endless hours losing myself in books. Reality would fade away, and I'd wonder, worry, laugh and cry with the characters in my books. We'd find wrinkles in time, discover hidden worlds through wardrobes, unearth secret gardens. Anything was possible, and in my favorite authors' hands, I felt safe.

Such an experience is the epitome of childhood imagination. Finding it again as an adult is, in my mind, nothing short of magic.