Thursday, January 31, 2008

C'est Ridicule

Last night during dinner:

Jarrah: I need ketchup on my burger.

Sam: You just licked all the ketchup off.

Jarrah: I need ketchup.

Sam: (sigh) Okay, here's some more. Now take a bite.

Jarrah: And on that one. (points at other half)

David: Start with the other one, and we'll see how you go.

Jarrah: I need mustard. Daddy's mustard.

David: (squirting some under the bun) There you go.

Jarrah: (tossing burger patty on plate and licking mustard off the inside of her bun) I need pineapple.

Sam: You have your own pineapple, right there in front of you.

Jarrah: I need your pineapple.

Sam: Sweetheart? Are you annoying?

Jarrah: I'm just happy!

Monday, January 28, 2008

I Can't Get No Respect

(The bathroom door is flung open)

Sam: Jarrah, remember we're supposed to knock?

Jarrah: (closing door) Sorry!

(knock, knock, knock)

Sam: Come in!

Jarrah: Thank you!

Sam: What can I do for you?

Jarrah: I need to take your picture!

Sam: (hurriedly finishing business and exiting bathroom): Ummmmmm...okay.

Jarrah: Come closer. Look at camera. Now say cheese!

Sam: (posing saucily while noting that camera is old, non-working variety) Cheese! Okay, let me see it. (examines blank window) Wow! What a great shot! Is your mommy cute or what?

Jarrah: She's what!

Friday, January 25, 2008

The Mysterious Human Brain

There have been subtle indications that the discrete subsets formerly known as "Sam's conversations with Jarrah" and "Sam's conversations with everyone else" are no longer so discrete. Or, as George Costanza put it, "Worlds collide!"

For a short time now, Jarrah has been tuning in to my conversations, but usually just to repeat a word she hasn't heard before ("Percussion?") or to shout "Wha' happened?" in a tone less of concern than some macabre desire that the answer will include the phrase "fell down and cried."

But suddenly, I have been put on notice that "little pitchers have big ears." (This expression, which I first encountered in the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, has always seemed like badly damaged [or at least dented and dinged] parallel structure. Pitchers, of any size, don't have ears, so...huh? Why pitchers?)

Yesterday, I was pulling out of the Target parking lot when Jarrah announced, "I have leggings. I can wear them to teach Nia."

I laughed in surprise. "Well, yes, I suppose you can," I said. Long pause. "Do you want to teach Nia?"

"I teach Nia and wear leggings," she said. So it's decided, then. We'll have to spare her for a week while she gets her White Belt.

This evening, after a lovely dinner at D.Z. Akins (our local deli) which Jarrah enjoyed in her apple pajamas with her friend, Alex (we had just attended "Pajama Shabbat" at her school) we bundled into the car for the way-past-bedtime trip home. Jarrah announced:

"I can wrote about this in my blog."

David and I laughed, but now I'm nervous. I've got to come up with some kind of sign so you'll know it's really me.

Okay, I've got it: Cupcake. How's that?

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Afternoon Delight

I spend a lot of time whingeing (as the English say) about the tedium of my days, so I thought I would just come right out and announce, "Today I spent all day with my three-year-old, and she was adorable, funny and EASY." Oooh, that was hard to say. But I'm sure it gets easier with time.

My friend Robyn is in town from Texas, and we had an impromptu play date this morning at a park in Santee. It rained all night, but the morn was brilliantly blue and clear with little puffs of cloud as we ascended the hill on Mission Gorge that leads into town. Some locals may giggle, but driving to Santee always puts me in a good mood. Within two minutes of leaving our neighborhood, the horizon is jagged with rocky, green mini-mountains, and all traffic recedes into the distance. There are restaurants and ramshackle businesses by the side of the road that look like they've been there 50 years.

The park was lovely (and new to us) with a burbling creek around the perimeter. The equipment was kind of wet and Jarrah helped me inspect all the slides, nodding sympathetically when I lamented the lack of towels in my trunk (why don't any of the baby books include this? "In order to effectively parent toddlers, you will need a fresh supply of towels in the car at all times.") I dried off one swing with my sleeve, and pushed her for a bit, with birds the only sound.

Then Robyn arrived, bringing her two lovely boys, Joshua, 6 and Jared, 3. Jared and Jarrah used to go to school together, where no doubt they spent half the day whipping their head around when someone was calling the other one. Now the real fun could begin, such as throwing sticks in the creek, falling down on the slippery rocks, and getting covered in mud. Good times, good times. With the kids thus engrossed, Robyn and I were able to sit in the sun (after she gamely offered the boys' sweatshirts as "rain rags" for the wet equipment) and catch up a little. We heard nary a peep from anyone for about an hour, and then there was a polite request for snacks, which we granted.

Soon after, we headed out to The Omelette Factory, a Santee tradition of such longevity that Robyn's last visit there had included diners sucking back Pall Malls with their eggs. There wasn't a person under 70 in the place, but everyone had big smiles for us, and our fabulous waitress presented the kids with two BUCKETS of crayons that they happily destroyed for most of the meal. It's the kind of place where the biscuits and muffins are homemade and still hot, and the children inhaled pancakes soaked in syrup like we never feed them. I had the bright idea to seat the three small people on one side of the table so I was able to eat my food without a single syrup fingerprint on my arm, and I was pleased as all get-out.

After our meal, Robyn and the boys headed home for naps, but I decided to chance things with little J, and I'm happy to report that I was rewarded for my courage. First stop, Michael's, because I needed some size 7 needles, and though I tarried and dawdled, feeling up yarn as is my disturbing habit these days, Jarrah happily fondled her rubber jellyfish, stayed within two feet, and didn't complain once. In fact, as we pulled in and I announced, "We're stopping at Michael's!" she exclaimed, "They have dinosaurs for me to play with!" I responded, "Well...hmmm!" because I didn't know what she meant, but sure enough, that kid has a memory like Santa Claus, and there they were, a whole mess of dinos in a bin.

After that, I said we were making one more stop at the supermarket, and she nodded and said, "That's okay, Mommy. I need juice. And yo-gret." "And will you remind me to buy Kleenex?" I added. She nodded, very serious. We are serious about tissues at our house. At the store, I asked if she would like her own cart (seriously, they have these freakishly adorable kid-sized shopping carts) and she said yes and placed her camera inside (she goes everywhere with her camera these days, and I often glimpse flashing from behind my head in the car.) Then she trucked up and down every aisle, arranging each item I placed inside, and the cutest part, the part that literally HURT MY HEART, was when I'd reach for the tall pole stuck to the side of the cart for that very reason--so an adult can guide the cart while the kid pushes it--and she'd gently but firmly reach over and remove my hand, like Excuse me, Mommy. I am shopping. Please don't interfere. You go about your business.

And so I did. I strode up and down at full speed, grabbing items and placing them in the cart, and I hardly looked back. And though the cart got very full, and probably very heavy, she never slowed down, never missed a sudden turn, and never asked for my help. Each time we passed an employee or another shopper, they would pause in wonder at this determined little person pushing my groceries with no supervision that they could see.

When we got to the car, she said she was very tired and ready for nap pants. And that she was a baby. Coulda fooled me.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Oh, Goody!

Typelittlea tagged me with the following alphabet. Why? Because I begged her to. That's how much I crave talking about myself.

A - Age: Yes, everyday...I can't seem to stop it.

B - Band listening to right now: Band? I guess this is a quiz for cooler people than me.

C - Career future: Lounge singer. Stand-up comic. Inspirational speaker. You know, the usual.

D - Dad’s name: Arthur.

E - Easiest person to talk to: David (was I supposed to say "God?")

F - Favorite type of shoe: Flip-flops or anything comfortable. Man, this is starting to depress me.

G – Grapes or Grapefruit: Grapefruit with lots of sugar.

H – Hometown: San Diego.

I – Instrumental talent: I played the piano as a kid, but I wasn't talented. I was even worse on clarinet. I'm decent at karaoke.

J – Juice of choice: One part cranberry to two parts lime seltzer. I drink it EVERY morning.

K – Koala Bear or Panda Bear: This one is impossible! It's like choosing between my husband and my child! (see my profile)

L - Longest car ride ever: From Northampton, MA to San Diego, CA when I left UMass and headed west for UCSD. (1993)

M – Middle name: Hope. Cute, huh?

N - Number of jobs you’ve had: I couldn't possibly count, since I've been a temp and all my teaching jobs (15 years worth) have been limited contracts.

O - OCD traits: Must turn off all overhead lights. (I'm like Blanche DuBois: "I always depend upon the kindness of strangers.") I also have to open a new seltzer when there are two inches left in the last one, so the fridge is filled with near-empty bottles.

P - Phobia[s]: Claustrophobia, wicked bad in recent years. David was forced to flee the Seattle Underground Tour at a full gallop when I freaked out. And, judging by my operatic arias this past summer, any small, fast-moving creature that has infiltrated my living space.

Q - Quote: "50 percent of the stuff we worry about, never happens." -- Unknown

R - Reason to smile: Jarrah took her first hike today, and thought there might be a witch in the trees.

S - Song you sang last: "Rockabye Baby," believe it or not. That song is grim.

T - Time you wake up: Always earlier than I want to, but later than David, because he's my hero and gets up with the youngster.

U - Unknown fact about me: In second grade, I peed on the floor of Governor Brown's campaign headquarters.

V - Vegetable you hate: Asparagus.

W - Worst habit: Picking at my split ends.

X - X-rays you’ve had: Dental and abdominal.

Y - Yummiest food my belly likes: Cheeseburgers.

Z - Zodiac Sign: Scorpio.

Saturday, January 19, 2008


I was chatting with an acquaintance recently (names are not important, but she is someone I really like) and she asked me if we were thinking about another kid.

"Thinking, sure," I said, "But these days I'm mostly thinking probably not. We're not ruling it out, but at this very moment, I'm leaning towards no."

She asked me more about my thoughts, and I told her something like this: I am challenged (in every sense of the word) by motherhood. When I imagine adopting a second child (which, due to current wait times, would put a new baby in my life 3-4 years from now) I imagine 5-7 years in which I'd remain at that peak level of challenge. While I understand that after THAT, it would probably be extra-wonderful to have two children (they could be friends, playmates, comrades in the China adoption experience) and I might achieve peace of mind knowing they'll always have each other, there is that 5-7 years that comes first. I am striving to live in the present.

"Why should you feel guilty for feeling your family is complete with one child?" a friend asked me recently. "You and David spent nearly FIVE YEARS trying to become parents. It was a full-time job. It seems perfectly understandable that you're ready to sit back and reap the rewards." When I picture a multi-child household with me at the helm, I envision a level of chaos, noise and mess considerably heightened from what I now experience. And then, when I think about that lifestyle being a CHOICE, I remember that I am not compelled to make it.

I explained this to my friend, who was very understanding...or so I thought. When I said, "Does that make sense?" she nodded vigorously and replied, "Yes, totally, I think it's really important for everyone to know their limitations."

Zoink. Limitations. That stung a bit. Am I limited by the growing sense that I am temperamentally suited to parenting one child? Is it my moral failing that staying at home and maintaining a toddler's schedule sometimes feels to me like standing in quicksand?

I want to emphasize that my friend, mother to two children, meant no disrespect to me. On the contrary, I think she genuinely tried to see my perspective. But it reminded me of a time I told another friend that David and I had initially thought we'd try IVF three times, but after two, we were absolutely, positively done.

"And that's okay," my friend had said. "Some of us are just stronger than others."

Wow. I hadn't realized I was weak. In fact, I thought that deciding I was more interested in becoming a parent than in preserving my genes while gambling on life-long debt and clinical depression while I was at it, took some guts.

But you know what they say: some people see a vase. Some people see two faces about to kiss.

What do YOU see, Dear Readers?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

She Came in through the Bathroom Window

Okay, I swore I wouldn't sully my blog (and the reputation of my daughter) by airing (ewww!) any toilet business here, but I just gotta ask:


I do not ask this question idly. I really want to know, and really, really (this is the important part) DON'T WANT TO TO DO IT.

And why don't I want to do it? Because I am LAZY.

I don't want to resort to anything Draconian, but on the other hand, I really don't want to bring food into this arena. (Yes, I'm pretty sure she would find a way to stand on her head while whistling "Old Macdonald" for an M&M.)

Two (possibly) pertinent details:

1. Each time we ask her, "Do you need to use the potty?" she replies "No, thank you." She is unfailingly polite, only in this circumstance.

2. Each time we leave the house to visit a store, restaurant, library, etc. she will suddenly seem struck with an urgent idea, and say "I need to go to the potty now!" Not wanting to send the wrong message, one of us will take her, set her up, and then begin an approximately 1-minute staring match that ALWAYS ends with "I'm done!" and NOTHING TO SHOW FOR IT. And I mean NEVER. Not once.

Please help me. I'm begging you. Suggest anything that doesn't involve me staying in the house for days at a time. (See above where I wrote "I am LAZY.") Or shake me vigorously until the film falls from my eyes and I am blinded by the glory of the truth.

I figure it's gotta be one or the other.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Wiggle Your Toes and Blow a Kiss Today

Last night, David and I saw Julian Schnabel's Le Scaphandre et Le Papillon, which also won a couple of Golden Globes last night (a "press conference" took the place of the red carpet due to the WGA strike.)

Le Scaphandre et Le Papillon is actually called The Diving Bell and the Butterfly in this country (though the movie is in French,) but since my high school (and college, and grad school) French is limited to effective menu reading and an occasional smug "I knew THAT" when I see subtitles, I figured I'd bandy it about. (Also see under "How Sam makes people at airline ticket counters call her Doctor" for an analogous example.)

"TDBatB" is a true story based on the memoir of Jean-Dominique Bauby, once the editor of French Elle, a shameless womanizer, and a charming rake, who at age 42 suffers an extremely rare kind of stroke that leaves him with "locked-in syndrome." This means his brain stem no longer communicates with his spinal column, so while he is sassy as ever behind his one working eye, his body is left without movement or feeling. The movie is about how he embraces the humanity left to him--his imagination, his memory--and writes a book about the experience, but what it's really about is, "Damn, nothing like watching someone else be struck down in the prime of life to make the rest of us profoundly grateful for the little things."

Like being able to speak, for instance. In order to write his book, Bauby--with the help of his suspiciously gorgeous speech therapist and tireless secretary--learns a system of blinks to indicate when his dictationist (word?) has reached the letter he has in mind. The repeated litany of the French alphabet becomes a sort of mantra throughout the movie, a persistent reminder of the great joy and privilege of communicating with our loved ones, a privilege we often take for granted by saying nothing at all.

In one harrowing scene, Bauby receives a phone call (through a speaker) from his mistress, who has yet to visit him in his convalescence, while the mother of his children sits at his bedside. The latter is compelled to translate Bauby's conversation with the mistress even though every letter is like a stab wound, and Bauby, lying between them, suffers the indignity of having no control over any aspect of his existence, profound or trivial. In a more humorous moment, this is aptly illustrated by an orderly snapping off the TV during an exciting football game while Bauby--completely silent, completely still--screams "No, no, you idiot!" inside his head.

The first half of the movie is presented from Bauby's point of view, so the viewer experiences the unsettling necessity for people to loom directly into the patient's face, since he can't move his head. In the second half, Mathieu Amalric has the daunting task of presenting Bauby's inner life while strapped into a chair, his one frozen eye covered in a patch, unable to signal his thoughts with any expression. It's an amazing performance, and Schnabel shoots some gorgeous footage of Bauby and his family and caretakers out on the wide, empty beach of Berck, a seaside vacation town in France which becomes his home. The soaring expanses of water and sand make Bauby in his chair and a series of unflattering hats look tiny and insubstantial, an illusion belied by the majestic landscape inside his head.

What's most amazing about the film is how Bauby's writing soars, totally liberated from the condition of its author, and yet completely of his creation. The memoir was an instant best-seller, and based on the voice-overs in this film, I'm not surprised. Love and lust and beauty and nature and even the sensual pleasures of food emerge luxuriant and fleshed, defiantly unlike the frozen and shriveled husk from whence they originate. The film suggests that Bauby has simply willed the vitality of his former body into the limitless possibility of his mind.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

And When There Were Only Two Sets of Footprints, We Carried You

Jarrah is sick, poor lamb. Hot, red cheeks and sad little cough. But, as always, she's a mini-Mt. Vesuvius personified. So we decided to have a special outing to the beach today, where she could frolic in the fresh air, get a little wet, and hopefully have her head implanted with Vitamin D.

East-coasters, hate me not. I can't help that, in San Diego, a stroll on the beach in January is often MORE pleasant than in July, owing to the dearth of tourists. It's just sugary sand and glistening water as far as the eye can see. Maybe a few sand dollars. Even Jarrah commented, "I see only one peoples!"

We had everything all planned. Dry clothes and towels for Jarrah, sunscreen and a stop at Bayside Market for yummy picnic supplies. Oh, it was going to be heaven. Jarrah couldn't wait.

As we pulled up to our extremely convenient parking space at Coronado, I couldn't help noticing a film of chiffon cloud drop over the sun, then the buildings, the lifeguard towers, and roll toward the sand. Hmmm. Maybe we'd just dig those jackets out of the trunk. We stepped out of the car, and a spiteful little breeze swirled around us. Jarrah's smile vanished. "Want your jacket, boopsy?" For once she assented, even letting me put up her hood.

We began our brave descent to the water, trying to ignore the people who all seemed to be going the opposite direction. Down by the waves, there was a rather unsightly bulldozer ferrying loads of sodden seaweed to parts unknown. "Whas THAT?" said Jarrah.

"It's nothing," I said.

After selecting a dry spot on the sand, we unrolled our mat, and dug into our lunch. David and I were quite hungry, and the roast beef was very good. Jarrah bit into her PB & J and looked at her hand. She handed the sandwich to me.

"What's wrong?" I asked.

"There's peanut butta on my fingers."

"That's okay."

"There's sand on my fingers. I want wipe."

"We forgot the wipes. Try not to worry about it. Do you want a cookie?"

"Yah." She took a bite, then handed that back, too. "It's yucky."

"Aren't you hungry?" I saw she was eyeing the seagulls who were slowly starting to surround us. Somehow one had multiplied to four, then six. Almost imperceptibly, they moved closer. David waved a shoe at them.

"Wha' happened?" said Jarrah.

"Oh, the seagulls want our lunch."

"Our lunch! NOOOO!"

"Don't worry, they won't get it." I saw that she wasn't really listening to me, but watching a horde of sand flies milling over our things. I could feel a couple buzzing at the space between my t-shirt and pants, too. Lovely.

"Whas THAT?" said Jarrah.

"They're just sand flies."

"They can't have my ball! They can't have my lunch!"

"Don't worry," said David. "You're bigger than them."

"I don't like sand flies."

"It's okay."

"I'm cold! I wanna go home!" Suddenly, she burst into tears.

David and I looked at each other. This was unprecedented. We'd been at the beach 10 minutes.

"Take her down to the water," I suggested. "Go with Daddy and get your feet wet." The two of them rose, David took her hand, Jarrah moaning like she was being led to her execution. I watched them walk about 30 feet. There was more wailing, louder now. They turned around.

"No?" I said to David. He shook his head grimly. "Going home then?" He nodded.

We packed up our unused towels, dry sand toys, half-eaten lunch, and began the slow and piteously sound-tracked walk to the car. Mostly, Jarrah just cried quietly, but every minute or so, she'd announce "I don't like sand flies!"

In case we hadn't gotten the hint.

David clocked it: our whole escapade lasted 25 minutes, not counting the hour or so of driving, traffic and detours to get there and back.

Winter in southern California sure is sublime.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

She's Crafty

The Valentines stuff is already out in force. Jessica, Yea-Yea, Jarrah and myself purchased some heart glitter-glue, puffy stickers and other wonderfulness at Michael's today so we can make some Valentines. I told Jessica that she brings out the latent (dormant these many years) Crafty Gal in me. Oh, I was crafty in my time. In fourth grade, my friend Wendy and I had a thriving and profitable business selling "Future Worms." (It's a long story how they got that name.) Basically, they were fat, neon pipe cleaners with black-eyed peas for eyes, stripped-down twist-ties fashioned into spectacles, and fancy, feathered hats. But since we had cracked the Zeitgeist (this was in the middle of the "lapel koala" craze, if you can remember back that far) everyone wanted our new and exciting version. The business finally folded due to crushing demand combined with a lack of manpower. More's the pity I didn't patent them at the time.

Speaking of crafty, I have a new mania for knitting useful items. I've finished a bunch of scarves, but my latest triumph is a "Techno-Cozy" from the Stitch and Bitch book. It warms my cell phone quite nicely, and keeps it from getting bashed in my bag. Now I plan to sate my craving for fake fruit by knitting washcloths with apple and pear "illusions" in the center. Sounds cool and complicated, doesn't it? (Or maybe you're feeling sad for me that I'm knitting washcloths.) If you get one, act surprised.

It is so good to have Jarrah back in school. That two-week holiday sorely tried all the parts of me there are to be tried. On a bright note, I did have three visits from out-of-town friends and one from an out-of-town sister, and that made it feel like a holiday indeed. Two of those visits were from former students, now gainfully employed adults. It seems so long ago that I was teaching. That is one thing that gives me a pang.

And here are my goals for the new year. Please remind me of them at any time.

1. Learn more Nia routines. I am boring my students and myself silly with the ones I know.
2. Take that stand-up comedy seminar I mentioned a while back.
3. Feel awesome at my 20th (!) college reunion in May.
4. Submit at least one article to a magazine.

Care to add anything to my list that you feel certain I have overlooked, Readers? I welcome your input and insight.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

I Like Lists, or How Rain Can Help You Make Friends and Influence People

Today was Jarrah's birthday party. Like last year, we held it on January 6 at the YMCA. Unlike last year, it was pouring, and had been pouring for two days. Which is a bit of a hitch when your event is called "park party with games."

When I saw the forecast, I figured we were going to have to cancel the whole thing, but the event planner at the Y told me we'd just move it indoors. That's all she told me.

Now, those of you who know me, know that I'm not much of a "roll with the changes" kind of gal. In fact, I'm more of a "make lists and follow up with e-mails" kind of gal. But all my lists and e-mails were not going to make the ground less soggy.

Until today, I had no idea if:

a) we were going to be inside
b) where inside we were going to be
c) how to let guests know where we were going to be
d) what sort of room the party would happen in, and
e) what we were going to do there

So, I was a little stressed. I'm happy to say that Jarrah did not share my worries, and was in fine spirits from the moment we walked into the lobby, and discovered that:

a) the people at the desk had no idea who we were
b) the people at the desk had no idea where to put us
c) our planner was AWOL and no one was sure when she'd arrive

I may have gotten a smidge testy, but the gal behind the desk (conveniently also named Samantha) walked us to a conference room and said we could start decorating. My heart sank when I saw the room. True, it was very large, and had lots of windows, but it was uniformly gray--gray walls, gray floor, gray tables, mysterious gray stack of--phonebooks?--piled in the corner. A few minutes later, as my valiant crew (comprised of David, Aunt Lindsey, Uncle Thomas, and a cheerfully twirling Jarrah) was moving furniture and swathing tables in red plastic covers--I heard a disturbance by the door. When I poked my head out, I saw the other Sam and a pink-eyed, sniffling blonde woman. The latter turned out to be our event planner, who said she was sick and going home even though she'd just arrived. And the balloons we'd been promised? No longer possible, due to some emergency helium shortage in the greater San Diego area.

David pinned our lone "Happy Birthday" banner on a far gray wall and it hung there, bereft.

And then an amazing thing happened, Readers. Right before my cynical, crabby eyes, a completely different and wonderful scenario unfurled.

People started arriving, with big smiles and high spirits. Sam brought in a blow-up donkey, and Uncle Thomas led the first few kids in a rousing game of "Pin the Tale" on same. Friends helped put out the food, hang a sign on the door, turn on the music, slice up the bagels. Coffee was poured and the schmoozing started. It was convivial, and--dare I say it?--the kids were having fun. They cared not a whit that we were indoors. They chased each other around and screamed, and since there was nowhere for them to go, the adults relaxed and chatted, not needing to chase them.

Sam came back with an assistant (who shall ever remain nameless, since I didn't meet her) and helped me corral the post-nosh crowd down the hall to the gymnastics arena.

Now, I wasn't really clear on what might happen in here. I heard "obstacle course" and "trampoline" and "The Pit." The first two sounded fun; the third a bit dubious. But The Pit is where the magic began. After the kids lined up and leaped their way across some bars and squishy mats, we all arrived at a curious hole in the floor that was filled with...giant pieces of Spearmint Bubblicious? I really have no idea. But I do know that within seconds there were only heads and digits and screams where once whole children had been.

That looked good to me, Readers. After politely inquiring, I dove in myself. I was warned to remove to my socks, but I figured, pish-posh. I am certainly old enough to keep my socks on in a pit of Bubblicious. Readers, as it happens I was not old enough to keep my PANTS on. And I nearly needed to be removed by a crane, so tenaciously did those foamy chunks grip my nether regions. I loved every minute of it. Suddenly, the pit was teeming with yodeling parents, and soon after, grown men and women were screaming at the top of their lungs while they boinged their way up and down a trampoline as long as a runway. And did anyone hover or chide, reminding us to mind our p's and q's amidst the equipment? They did not. Sam and Co. sat back and watched us with big smiles. I felt like it was MY birthday party, and I don't think I was the only one.

We jumped and rolled and screamed for nearly an hour, and then it was not hard to persuade the kids to return to the gray room, since cupcakes beckoned. There was an impromptu floor picnic, with Capri Suns and tiny bags of snacks, and then Jarrah blew out her big "3" candle "all myself." This was followed by a frosting fest, which may have fueled a new round of running and screaming, and a dig through the goodie bags. As if the whole thing had been choreographed, the kids discovered the coloring area on their own, and we wound the whole thing down with everyone gathered around making some dinosaurs purple.

Jarrah was the very last person in the room. We had cleaned and packed up, and were on our way to the car, when I turned around to see her lying on the floor, head propped in her hand, coloring away.

Now that's what I call a success.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Book Review: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

I wrote the following review for our FCC (Families with Children from China) newsletter, and thought I would share it here:

Lisa See’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (2005) is an absorbing and intimate novel set in 19th century China, narrated by Lily, who reflects on her childhood and marriage in remote villages. Looking back over her life, throughout which she adhered to the domestic and feminine expectations of womanhood for that time, she sees her history in parallel with that of her laotong, or “old-same,” a relationship between two girls conscripted by their families and meant to last a lifetime. Lily’s laotong, whom she meets through a matchmaker when she is seven years old, is Snow Flower, a girl from a wealthier family and considered a very good match for someone of Lily’s class.

Throughout their lives, the two girls communicate via a fan, the leaves of which they fill with a feminine version of written Chinese known as nu shu. Through this fan, they plan their meetings, celebrations, rituals of marriage and motherhood, and communicate in hard times that a laotong is always there, in mind and spirit, if not in person. Through a miscommunication of language and syntax, it is this same fan that drives a wedge between them later in their lives.

See, whose ancestry is Chinese, spent a good deal of time in Jiangyong County in Hunan, researching and interviewing to obtain insight and insure the accuracy of her fictional tale. Indeed, it is the precise images of daily life for women in rural 19th century China that fascinate the most, especially the chapter on footbinding, which spares not a single gruesome detail of this process. Traditionally, a girl of six or seven ensured a fortuitous marriage by forcibly reducing her feet to a mere three inches in length, thus hobbling her for life. Her feet became “golden lilies,” considered perfect in their allure. Reading about the process was particularly heartbreaking because it was conducted in secrecy entirely by mothers and their daughters—women who could barely walk inflicting the same fate on the next generation. I couldn’t help stealing frequent glances at my own daughter, who, at three, has huge feet that I hope will grow even more impressive.

The most moving aspect of the novel, as might be expected, is the relationship between the two laotongs, who meet shortly after their footbinding at an annual festival. They are instantly fascinated with one another, even though Lily is quieter and Snow Flower is exuberant and opinionated. Over the years, their fates evolve through the course of their domestic training, engagements, marriage, pregnancies, raising children, and always, the terrible urgency to demonstrate their own worth through the production of sons. Over time, they both endure challenges, and experience joys (but few of the latter) as they perform their obligations as women. When they can’t visit each other, the one place they can confide their feelings is in letters and the ever-growing narrative of the fan.

The book shifts perspective between old Lily, who at 80, has far exceeded the adult life span of her day, and young Lily, who marks the milestones of her youth with her laotong. The novel, though it follows a life linked with tragedies, is never self-pitying in tone, since its narrator accepts her fate. I was riveted by this glimpse into a world of women that, from my perspective, is almost impossible to comprehend.