Monday, November 30, 2009

Today Was the First Day of the Rest of My Week

Today I decided to follow the advice of so many facebook friends that I kind of knew in junior high, cult leaders, tattoos, and writers of inspirational words, and live this day as if it were my last, in order to truly appreciate the wonder of the world, and the miracle of the love of the people that surround me, or, you know, something along those lines.

Well, let me just tell you right now--it’s harder than you think!

First of all, I think statistically speaking, and with any luck, I’ll spend my last day in a hospital bed, hooked to an IV that will dispense large quantities of my opiate of choice. In fact, when you think about it, those opiates would probably contribute a lot to the project of appreciating life and love and beauty and stuff. But I guessed it would be pretty hard to set up that scenario, even though I’m friends with this one really nice nurse. Anyway, it would definitely be really expensive.

So I considered some less likely last-day scenarios. My favorite hypothetical death has always been getting hit from behind by a Mack truck that I never see coming, and killed instantly. Perhaps I could posit this as the end of my last day. But no: the whole appeal of that death is that it’s a complete surprise, just God flipping the off-switch. There’s no agonizing, no putting your affairs in order, no pondering the possibility of an afterlife, no finally working up the courage to tell your 7th grade crush that you still love him, and still cherish that collection of his used tissues and chewed gum you collected all those years ago in a shoebox under your bed. You’re just going about your business as usual, returning the videos, buying some health and beauty products, or maybe even stooping to pick up a penny, thinking it’s your lucky day, and then—whammo!—you’re not, the end. But too bad: not only is this happy scenario pretty unlikely—only .005% of pedestrians are killed by large trucks, and a good 78% of those hear it coming, as those suckers are pretty loud—not only that, but it pretty much defeats the whole purpose of this experiment, which presumes your awareness of your imminent demise, otherwise, what would be the point?

On the other hand, I know from experience that cancer—and probably most other long, lingering diseases—offer far too much wiggle-room to really lend themselves to self-discovery, deep human bonding, or mystic appreciation. You never know for a fact which exact day is going to be the last one, or maybe you can even get out of the dying part altogether, so you can put off awkward, soul-baring conversations, long, buggy walks in the woods, and jumping off of really high stuff, indefinitely. In my experience, cancer actually turns out to be the perfect excuse to gorge yourself on junk food in front of the TV, and catch up on celebrity gossip.

Now, I’m sure there’s some variation in this, but I think most people who know they’re about to die probably just totally freak out. They cry, they scream, they hyperventilate, they drink. If they have a couple of hours or days to spare, they might spend some time freaking out alongside their loved-ones—crying, screaming, hyperventilating, and/or drinking together. But I don’t think this kind of full-on freak-out—alone, or en masse--is the kind of true appreciation of life and wonder that my former-junior-high-acquaintances and their tattoo artists have in mind, although it probably technically should qualify.

After a lot of consideration, during which I took a break to check e-mail, and watch a pretty funny YouTube video a friend had posted of a singing banana, and then a couple of others that were linked to that one, I decided to leave aside the question of exactly how I was going to end my “last” day, and get around to seizing it. I told the kids that as soon as their dad got up, and we all finished breakfast and cleaned up the kitchen, and got showered and dressed, we were going to spend some time truly appreciating life and each other, and the things that truly matter to us most in the end. “In a minute, Mom”, droned the Big One, intent on his project of making a miniature Space Needle out of small chewed-up pieces of paper. The Little One growled at me and bared his teeth, so I decided not to push the issue, having given them fair warning.

When my husband got up, I told him my plan. “So I was thinking maybe today we could do that thing where we live as if it were our last day on earth.”

He was amenable. “OK, that sounds cool.”

“Cool. OK.” I waited for him to check his e-mail. “So do you want to have some people over?”

“Sure, who?”

“Well, we could ask the Brookses, but I think they’re out of town. Maybe the Franks? I don’t know, it’s kinda last minute. And the house is a wreck, we’d have to clean.”

“You wanna drive out to the beach?”

“It’s getting kinda late for that—we wouldn’t get there til about 2, and the traffic might be bad.”

“Do you want to go into the city?”

“What would we do there?”

“I don’t know, just walk around?”

“The kids hate that.”

“Damn kids.”

At this point, I remembered that funny video that I wanted to show him, which reminded him of one, and we ended up spending about an hour watching stuff on YouTube.

Well, you can see how it went. At about 4 in the afternoon, we decided to go for a walk around the neighborhood with the kids, which was pretty nice until the Little One fell down and the Big One got mad because we still wouldn’t let him have a tv in his room: “But Mo-o-om, if it was actually your last day on earth, you’d definitely let me watch tv in my room!”

By the time we got home we were hungry and cranky. We couldn’t decide what to make for dinner, so we ordered pizza and watched an Adam Sandler movie that we thought would be a good family movie, but turned out to be too dirty for the Big One, too boring for the Little One, and too stupid for us.

After the kids went to bed, I felt kinda bad, because if it was really my last day to live, probably I could have done a better job of appreciating everything, or at least finding something to do. My husband and I agreed that next weekend…no wait, it will have to be the weekend after that, because we’re visiting my sister-in-law next weekend…so the weekend after next, we’re definitely going to PLAN an awesome last day, get up early—like, 9:30 at the latest—and appreciate the heck out of it all.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


On Thursday we drove to Maine for Thanksgiving dinner at my parent's house. It's a familiar drive. The familiar drive, in fact--the drive that the car practically does on its own. Up dreary I-95, through the two tolls only 17 miles apart (my dad calls the New Hampshire turnpike "the most expensive 17 miles in the country", though I'm sure he hasn't backed this up with research), over the bridge--
"We're in Maine"!

--off the turnpike at the Wells exit. Past the Wells House of Pizza and Roast Beef, past the Maine Diner, where my father, as a teenager newly without a mom, ate most of his meals, cooked by Louis and delivered by Millie, who threw all the silverware down in a bunch on the table with a cheerfully aggressive clatter. Down the long, straight, wooded stretch of Route 9, where my son, at two years old, once astutely observed, "There sure is a lot of sticks in Maine".

And then--vista!

Just past the turn to Parson's beach, the road crosses a tiny bridge at the mouth of the Mousam river. Misty, pungent marsh, river bordered by woods, and far off to the right, a glimpse of ocean--all understated, polite New England beauty; part scenery, part pathos. The beauty of the scene is half in its familiarity, and the relief of homecoming it signals--the long drive is over; we are almost home.

This was our last Thankgiving in the house where I grew up. After living there for 30 years, my parents have sold it, and bought a new house in Kennebunk, not very far away. Their new place is beautiful, conveniently situated, and full of possibilities. I'm ok with the move, I really am. I'm writing this not to scold them for moving, but to remember, and give thanks: for the old house and its comforts; for the town to which I feel deeply connected; and for my parents, who have, by example, taught me the meaning and importance of home.

Kennebunkport is a famous town--it was a summering place for the New England upper-crust back in the 1800's, long before the Bushes arrived. The old shingle-style summer "cottages" they built, bigger and grander than most people's year-round houses, are at once beautiful and infuriating to us locals of humbler origins. When I tell people I grew up in Kennebunkport, I feel I need to quickly qualify our position there: we are not fancy River Club summer people, but true locals: my father, the first in his family to go to college, taught elementary school there, his father--among other things--built boats and pulled lobster traps, his father's father was the local blacksmith, and so on, back through 5 generations to the first immigrant Hoff, a sailor about whom we know very little, except the old family legend that he jumped ship after killing a shipmate with a belaying pin.

It's a small village, and almost as soon as we moved there from Kennebunk, when I was 10, I was given the freedom to roam around the town and the ocean. Every so often, I like to bore my husband as we walk around by telling him how many of the houses in town I have been inside, and why--friend's houses, relative's houses, houses on my paper route, houses I babysat in, houses I cleaned as a summer job. There are a lot of them, enough to make my husband beg me to stop before I'm nearly finished.

I can also bore him with family landmarks. At the end of our street is a small stone grotto built by my great uncle Benjamin, who was a stone mason.
Down that same road, near the river, there's a condominium in the spot where my great-grandfather's blacksmith shop once stood. The antique fire engine he built is still maintained by the fire department and trotted out every few years for the Memorial Day parade, "C. Hoff" painted in gold on the side. Across the river are shops where my grandfather's boatyard used to be. My father remembers, as a boy, helping his other grandfather, an electrician, to rewire the house in which they now live.

My parent's house sits on a road that winds alongside a small tidal creek. The house itself was probably nothing special when it was built in 1911--a solid, middle-sized house, for solid, middle-income people. It has a narrow, well-loved porch, front and side. In front is a tall ash tree, where my father built a tiny treehouse, a perch, really, for my sister when she was little. When my own children were small, my parents hung a swing from a long rope on one of its branches. In the fall, my dad would rake a huge pile of leaves right in front of the swing, and let the kids go crashing through the pile. The house is cozy, welcoming, sufficient. It's almost impossible to see it as it is, rather, I see the house as it was, and myself in it, as I was.

This is the kitchen where my father rustled around before dawn every morning for 4 years, to make me breakfast before high school. This is where my mother nursed me through bronchitises and mono, and my sister and I created hilarious-only-to-us poems and photo essays. This is the house where I brought my husband 18 years ago, to hasten the job of explaining my previous life to him. Here, I dressed for my wedding, and brought my newborn sons to meet the family. Here we have eaten a hundred big family dinners-- the recipes, and smells, and progression of the day always the same, the cast of characters always slightly different, children growing up, adults growing older.

As a young woman, I was transient, as young people often are now. I've lived in 15 different apartments and houses since I left for college in 1986. My older son moved six times in his first six years of life. The house in Kennebunkport, with my parents in it, was the constant through all those moves, the anchor that allowed me the luxury of drifting. When I think of myself in all of those different places, it's nearly impossible to see my life and self as a single, linear story, unfractured. With each invigorating, depleting move, I gained something, and shed something of myself. But I had a lingering sense that my original self was still stored away in that house, the street, the town. When I carry the last box of my things that are stored there to my own house, maybe that will be my final step into adulthood, after an absurdly protracted and spoiled adolescence.

On Friday afternoon, as we were getting ready to leave, I told my son he might want to go through the house and take some pictures, as it was likely to be the last time he would be there, at least with everything in its place. He insisted he would remember it all perfectly, that it was unnecessary to take pictures. I still made him photograph the fold-down ironing board in the kitchen, and the china cabinet I painted one summer, with its familiar bric-a-brac.

He took some pictures on his own, too, that I hope he will find in 10 or 40 years, and be glad to have. When it was time to go, we said goodbye quickly, got into the dark car, and, like good New Englanders, cried only when we were pretty sure nobody could see.

For all my sentimentality, I realize that this is a relatively small loss, and a common one. None of us is sick, destitute, or miserable. My parents, the core of that house's importance, are fine--wonderful even!--rejuvenated by this change, at a time in their lives they'd almost given up on big new adventures. I have roots in Kennebunk, too--it's where I was born, where I went to high school, and where my mother grew up--I can easily bore my husband with stories about this new old place. And I really am a grown-up now, with a home of my own, and some shallow, delicate roots, but roots nonetheless, starting to grow in my new place. I'll be fine.

And I'll remember.

Thanks, house.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Very Overrated Illustrator

Once, there was a children's book illustrator. He was hungry for fame, adulation, respect, and money.

On Monday, he made some cute collage illustrations for his friend's rhyming book for kids. It was very successful. But he was still hungry.

On Tuesday, he wrote a cute picture book all by himself--it had holes in the pages! It was wildly successful. But he was still hungry.

On Wednesday, he made 70 more cute children's books. They were mostly a lot like the first two. He sold 71 million copies! But he was still hungry.

On Thursday, he built a museum and named it after himself. It was spare and modern and important-looking, and contained personal artifacts, reverent biographical information, and hushed, darkened rooms showing some of the pictures from his books to people who were tall enough to see them. But he was still hungry...


How can a person possibly dislike Eric Carle enough to work up a whole overlong rant about him? And why should a person bother? These are two questions quite possibly worth answering; I shall now attempt to answer only the first.

As a young preschool teacher, I quite liked Eric Carle. I read The Very Hungry Caterpillar regularly to my 2- and 3-year-olds. The repetition was soothing, and drew them in, they liked to poke their chubby little fingers into the holes in the pages, they liked the picture of the beautiful butterfly at the end. In the late 80's there was some earnest concern among early-childhood educators about the non-healthfulness of the food the caterpillar gorges on, and whether it was appropriate to use the word "fat", but I pooh-poohed this--I liked the book, I approve of occasional binging on sweets, and that caterpillar was indeed fat.

But the more Carle published, and the more similar the books were to each other, the more annoying I found him. The books were bright and colorful, to be sure. But the stories written by him were tiresome to read aloud, and formulaic to an absurd degree: some animal with one attribute meets a bunch of animals in succession, says the same thing to each of them, receives the same response, and then something different happens on the last page. Weirdly, Carle likes to talk about how he's never sold out: "I cannot do a book that says market research has found that three-year-old girls like the colour red or that boys like tractors." Perhaps not. But there are now 4 "X Bear X Bear, What do you Y"? books, and 12! "Very X (Animal)" books. Dare I suggest that the children of the world would probably be fine with only 7 or 8?

For a long time I mostly ignored him. I noticed that in the world of early education, he was becoming increasingly sanctified: My kids' preschool teachers focused curriculum units around him, having discovered the "educational" values cleverly hidden in the books (where else could we find fruit to count, AND the days of the week!?), and that his style is wonderfully (tellingly?) easy for preschoolers to imitate, both prose, and illustration--as demonstrated by these two examples of wonderful Eric-Carle-inspired art by children under age 6:

But none of this troubled me very much. There have been worse educational trends.

It was our family's trip to his newly built (2002) eponymous museum, on the campus of one of my Alma Matereses, Hampshire College, that tipped the scales for me.

I was actually eager to see the museum. I'm a devoted fan of children's book illustration--I think some of the best artists around are lowly illustrators:

Beni Montresor

Peggy Rathman

Peter Sis

I could show you hundreds of these. There's so much wonderful art in picture books, and it's so rich and varied. How wonderful to go to a museum that would showcase it! And a place we could take the kids! My boys were 3 and 7 at the time. We walked into the cavernous lobby and immediately felt ill-at-ease:

This is an environment for children?

The exhibit gallery was one of the least child-friendly places I've ever taken the kids. It was more dimly lit than the Egyptian wing of the MFA, as if exposure to light would cause the precious relics within to disintigrate. There was a long, detailed panel recounting Carle's biography, and glass cases displaying and explaining his "artistic process". The cases were far taller than my three-year old, and there was no step up for him--he had to be lifted to see anything, and when I did, we were immediately cautioned by the docent who had been nervously shadowing us that we were not to touch the glass. He couldn't really see the art without being lifted, either, which was displayed high on the wall behind reflective glass. The blurbs were serious, adult-directed "art speak". That docent kept an eagle eye on me and my (well-behaved) son, even followed us from room to room, until we--fairly quickly--gave up and left. I let him toddle around the bare stone vault of a lobby until my husband and my older son also couldn't take it any more.

Reading a picture book to a child is an intimate, cozy thing to do. Rather than a space to honor this experience, and to make the art accessible to children--its intended audience!, here was another temple to Art-with-a-Capital-A, an attempt to raise children's book illustration to the absurd level of importance claimed by other Artists-with-Capital-A's. A place designed to impress, awe, exclude. For kids!

Thus Eric Carle hit the Trifecta of Annoying:
1. much less talented than oodles of his peers,
2. wildly commercially successful, through marketing touting "educational value" nearly as pointless as Baby Einstein's, and
3. willing to sacrifice the comfort and engagement of his audience (children) in exchange for respect and reverence hardly deserved by the greatest artists.

A happy ending:

...On Friday, the illustrator was devastated by a negative blog post, and, full of shame, hid himself in a cocoon that looked like a big brown...

Sunday, November 22, 2009

You don't have to read this.

Every so often, something thought-like starts to gnaw at me, and I start boring the shit out of the people around me. This little something will bother me so much that I stew and stew over it, and work myself into a little lather. I bristle with devastating arguments and witty retorts to imaginary defenses. In the throes of my thought-like something, I find a likely victim (often my long-suffering husband), and as I expound about the something--pilgrims, Taylor Swift, apostrophes, etc.--the pitch and volume of my voice rises, my eyes widen, sometimes my ears turn red. I laugh at my own jokes. Perhaps I stand too close. My listener/friend/victim (LFV) indulges me for a time, but cannot possibly participate fully in my rant, which is really just a partly planned-out soliloquy. If the LFV is a good, indulgent friend, sometimes they egg me on a bit by trying to argue with me. But often they are just fellow moms at school pick-up, passing acquaintances, who would rather just talk peacefully about where to buy kids' shoes, or what to make for dinner. Inevitably, far before I'm finished devastating my imaginary opponents, eyes glaze, bodies shift aside, responses dwindle to one-word responses and weakly polite, but not encouraging laughter.

Worse, many of my favorite LFVs have heard it all before. I grow old. In my desire to hone my rant to a fine point, I repeat myself; it's hard to keep track of who among my LFVs has yet to be enlightened. Most of my LFVs will lie politely, "Oh, no, I don't think I've ever had the pleasure of hearing your thoughts on Eric Carle. Are they shockingly unorthodox? Please do go on". I really do have lovely friends.

Only my husband will tell me the truth, when asked if I've already talked about this to him. But too bad for him, he can't stop me from repeating myself anyway, because that's the nature of marriage: an overlong opera where the principles are too old and fat to be believable romantic leads, and many repetitions and variations on a theme are part of the deal. (My husband has his habitual themes as well, for example, how much more powerful computers are than they used to be, and smaller, and for less money. Astounding! For him, it's important to remark on this at least every four to six months).

We have long toyed with the idea of solving the repetition problem by numbering our rants. Then, we chuckle, we could just say, "42", and we would know exactly what the other meant to say, without having to slog through another repetition of the same tired old shit that is somehow still interesting to the other. Interestingly, this lame joke is one of our oldest, and most tired.

And so, this blog. Perhaps it will get things off my chest, a virtual foam-bat therapy. Perhaps it will spare my LFVs some pain by offering them the opportunity to politely lie, "Oh, yes, I remember that blog post. You're so right about children's museums". At the very least it should keep me quiet for a little while.