the key ingredient

Today I spent all morning doing some organizational work for an online forum that I belong to. It was making me kind of grumpy because it was taking far longer than I expected it to, and along the way I had to spend some time putting my two cents into a Very Important Issue that was being discussed there. When I was done with that I put some moldy blankets in the wash that got left out in the rain in Willow's secret hideout "Wonderland" while we were at the conference over the weekend. After that I looked at all the dishes in the sink and decided I wasn't quite hungry enough yet to deal with them. Then walking through the playroom it occurred to me that the board games take up too much room where there should be a nice display of pretty rainbow-hued wooden toys, and in the moment this seemed very important to me to deal with immediately. I decided they should go into the drawers in the dining room built-in hutch instead, which tends to get stuffed with stuff when we're trying to clean up quick for company, so I had to deal with that first if I was going to put the board games there. Going through piles of crap, some of which I might need someday but don't know what to do with in the meantime, had me feeling even more grumpy.

Then R spilled a glass of milk on the table which soaked into some of the piles and as I was scrambling to move them as milk flowed across the table and down onto the rug, I noticed that Jake and Noah took a brief moment in their video game playing to glance over at the commotion and decide that it didn't need their further attention so they went right back to their video game and that irritated me enough on top of everything else that I yelled, "WHAT ARE YOU DOING! CAN'T YOU SEE WHAT'S GOING ON HERE! I NEED HELP!" So they jumped up and Jake got a towel and Noah took R upstairs to distract her with Paper Mario because she was upset by my yelling.

After helping me mop up the mess, Jake said, rather pointedly, "I think it's getting to be chocolate season around here." And then, when I didn't respond to his satisfaction, "We need to go into town and get the key ingredient to happiness."

I mean, really, I'm laughing just writing that out. Who could stay mad? Thankfully the kids got their papa's sense of humor. Because clearly I take myself and my life way too seriously and occasionally need to be nudged back into the reality that these things don't matter and that by giving them power I am causing my own suffering (not to mention that of those around me.) "With a little help from my friends"... in this case the ones I gave birth to. Yeah, chocolate is good, but I know what the real key ingredient is around here.

suddenly, summer

Last week it was cloudy and cool, as it has been since November. Flowering plants signified that spring was here but I didn't feel it. Then the first part of this week the sun came out and winter melted out of my body and spirit. Thursday after Ultimate practice instead of going straight home as usual we walked to the park. The boys took their cleats off and went barefoot. Willow rode her bike up and down and up and down and up and down a grassy slope and when her chain came off she fixed it herself. Rowan climbed on the dinosaur bones.

I lay on the grass, eyes closed, breathing in the sweet scent of sun-warmed conifers, then opening them and looking up into the tall, tall trees swaying in the breeze. After a while it felt like they were moving of their own volition, dreamy and surreal and lovely. It was one of those days that makes you wonder how, if something like this can be, a person could ever be unhappy.

Friday when I went outside at 7:00 am to let the chickens out of their house and it wasn't cold, I knew it was going to be a hot day. I didn't want to believe it, but I knew it. We met Scott at his work at midday and Scott and the kids headed to the fountains while I went shopping for groceries, and because I didn't want to believe it they didn't wear sunscreen and their shoulders were tinged with pink when I picked them up. I filled them up with water and used up half my aloe plant which isn't very big to begin with because it hasn't seen the sun since November either. Noah looked peaked and felt like he was going to throw up, so I spread out a blanket on the sofa for him, covered his head with a cold washcloth, and he slept for several hours and felt much better afterwards, although his shoulders were still bothering him.

This morning we got up early for the boys' first Ultimate tournament. It was unpleasant for me because I could see the social and psychological hierarchies forming, the leaders and the followers, the confident and the not confident, the attractive and unattractive, with the attendant positive and negative reinforcement that only serves to strengthen their perceptions of their place. There is one girl, very fat, who I feel badly for. She's not a bad player, in fact the few times she got the disc she did well, but for the most part she was ignored, and over and over the disc would go to the more confident players, who would as often as not drop it or make a bad throw, but regardless they were the ones who almost always got the disc. I admire her for sticking it out -- she's been to every single one of the practices. But I just have to wonder how it's affecting her psyche to be treated as invisible like that.

Noah cried at one point. He was upset that something he did resulted in a small gain for the other team. Scott said the same thing had happened to him before, and told the story in a way that made Noah laugh through his tears. He told us too about how it took him a year to master the forehand throw. It had never occurred to me that he might not have just been born talented.

Noah then joined an unofficial scrimmage that was going on between games. He has such heart. He started to lag about three-quarters of the way through, I think his sunburn from the day before and the heat were just too much. I think it was probably a little too much for most of the kids. Why are playing fields always right out in the middle of nothing? Why not instead a clearing in the middle of a woods? Or why not plant trees for shade and breeze? And why are playgrounds usually devoid of shade for that matter?

Their team lost, and actually I think only scored a couple of points in two games. That was to be expected, as they haven't been training or playing together for very long. Even so, the boys are already excited about the next tournament coming up. I think this has much to do with how positive and upbeat and kind and encouraging their coach is. And little children know, right? Rowan was his shadow on the field, which was very cute. She wouldn't do that with just anybody. And after the tournament he gave the team gift cards to Dairy Queen. Including Willow and Rowan who are not even on the team.

But yes, it was hot. So suddenly. I got sunburned sitting in full shade.

Scott has gone to play poker now, three of the kids are reading comics (and even as I write have gone out to spray water on each other,) and Rowan is conked out. My face is red and my hair and feet are up. Fan is on, shades are drawn. Summer is here.
I grew up in the 1970's in northwest Portland, in a middle-class neighborhood sandwiched between the poor and wealthy sides of town. My dad was a longshoreman, belonging to a powerful union that guaranteed our moving-on-up lifestyle. He and my mom had bought on old turn-of-the-century house on Savier street that had been converted into apartments, and we lived in one and rented out the others. Our apartment was around 650 square feet. To get to the bathroom you had to go through the bedroom that my brother and I shared.

I have sweet memories of that house, and I dreamed about it for many years after we moved. The green shag carpeting in the living room, the television with five channels, the old davenport where my dad would stretch out to watch TV every night, the beautiful high windows on which my mom would paint scenes every Christmas copied from Christmas cards, my white iron bed, the turquoise vinyl-covered chest where I kept my collection of barbies, the large square fan on top of my dresser that covered the sound of the television with white noise, the piano crowded into the "den" with a sewing machine, an enormous oak wood desk, a typewriter, a dollhouse, and a five-foot-tall tiki statue that guarded the entrance to my room (which, unbeknownst to my mom, I was afraid of.)

This was where I went reverently, hushed, into my parents' bedroom which felt like a special land with its soft light and their personal things which were to me like treasures. This was where I asked my mom how Santa could get into our house if the stove pipe was sealed off, and where my dad's older son instilled in me fear of scary things in the basement (probably in an attempt to keep me out of his room.) It was where my mom made my tuna fish sandwiches for school lunch, and where she smoked and talked on the phone at the kitchen table, absentmindedly filling in newspaper ad type with a blue ball point pen. It was where I dreamed of monsters on the rickety back porch three stories off the ground, and where the sound of the rain on the metal garbage cans beneath my bedroom window lulled me to sleep. It was where I sat in my room with my head in my hands saying "damn, damn, damn" when my parents had a fight, the first time I'd ever sworn. It was where my mom made cupcakes with little plastic turkeys on top for my classroom celebration of Thanksgiving, and where she let me stay up past my bedtime to watch Ziggy Stardust on late-night television.

The neighborhood was filled with people fascinating to me. There was the family that rented from us who had brown skin and dark hair and exotic names and who let their children run around naked, to my mom's dismay. There was the mysterious woman who I only ever saw glimpses of, who went by the name of Unthank and played violin for the Oregon Symphony. There was the young hipster across the street who wore wire-rim glasses, played banjo in a bluegrass band, and had a pet owl (and who incredibly my conservative blue-collar dad had a friendship with.) There was the family with the house open from front to back, dark and breezy, and who had a table set up just for playing chess.

Most notably, there were Harry & Rose, an old Jewish couple who my parents socialized with regularly. They lived in a wonderfully shabby and filthy house in the industrial area of town. They liked to play bingo and made a career out of scouring the local flea markets for valuable antiques. Harry was small and sprightly, with a tuft of hair on either side of his head and grizzled knotted hands that could fix anything. He was always happy, always funny. He had no children himself, but he loved children, and he paid as much attention to my brother and me as he did to our parents. Maybe more. Harry had an organ he would play old-timey songs on for us. Harry was the only one of everyone I knew who was genuinely interested in my piano playing. He grew a lush garden of vegetables in his backyard that he was very proud of, surrounded by tall warehouse walls. My brother and I one year sang "I'm Just Wild About Harry" to him on his birthday. He was special to us.

Rose was a large woman, with an air of severity and a nasal voice. She did not feel like an unsafe person, but nonetheless she remained vaguely intimidating. She wore her hair clipped short and dyed dark, and she had a large mole on her lip that she covered with shiny red lipstick. Her favorite article of clothing was the house dress. She was the one, of the pair, who would haggle incessantly and tenaciously with sellers, which was both impressive and embarrassing to me. She made my mom her favorite cabbage rolls. We played blackjack with her and Harry, and she was on a mission to convince me that my future was as a blackjack dealer in Reno. Every time we went to their house she would point out to my brother and me that there was candy on the table, little roll-shaped taffies in different flavors and shiny colored wrappers. I could write a book about Harry & Rose.

My friends lived in this neighborhood. There was my friend Judith who lived in a white mansion (or so it seemed to me, in my tiny apartment) and went to Catholic school. She had a subscription to Cricket magazine and her own peach-scented soap and an easel for painting, and her parents took us to the Saturday market in a volkswagen bus. They would take me for night swims in a big dimly-lit indoor pool, and afterwards on their big screened back porch we would sit under a real salon hood dryer to dry our hair.

My friend Annie (Annie-bananie as my dad affectionately referred to her) was pretty and proper, and she did things like ballet and stamp-collecting. Her father was a doctor who played the fiddle and spoke with a german accent, and they lived in a dark, still house nestled into the edge of Forest Park. There was a globe of the world in their study, and a telescope, and books, and instruments of all kinds. The adults left us alone, so it felt like we were the only ones in this quiet house. There was a pretty housekeeper who I later thought her father married, but I could have been mixing things up. She made a cake for my mom one time, out of friendliness, that my mom talked about for years afterward because in her opinion it was inedible owing to the addition of citrus peel. (My mom took cake seriously and was of the Betty Crocker school of thought. Betty Crocker didn't use citrus peel.)

My best friend Cristin's parents were hippie and my dad didn't approve of either her or her parents, I think mainly because she said "Dammit!" a lot, but maybe also because of her joyful wildness (but no matter, because my mom loved her and so did I.) Her father was a professor of Arabic at the local university and they seemed to always be going off to foreign countries. Her mother was busy with community work, and neither of them were ever there. They had strange foods at their house like whole grains and fresh vegetables and carob chips, which meant that I was always hungry there. I traded Cristin a coveted Hershey bar for a little red piece of plastic shaped like a stained glass church window that she had shaped and polished in shop at school, and forever after felt guilty about it (but I didn't give it back to her, and I cherished it for a long time until it was lost.) We sat on her bed and listened to her sister's folk music records and read fantasy and science fiction and talked about philosophy, all of which became livelong loves for me.

There is a big part of me that wants this for my children, the variety of experiences and people that is unique to a wealthy inner city neighborhood. I want to take them back to the scent of the river on a hot day, the low bellowing of the tugboats and barges, the flashes of light off the water, the vivid blue sky. I can't, and not just because the pollution and traffic are insane now. I had a dream about my old neighborhood last night, so this morning I got up and did a search on Zillow for the apartment building we lived in, the one my dad bought on a salary that wasn't much more than my husband's now, adjusted for inflation, which according to the government puts us at poverty level. That building goes now for around $1 million, as do Cristin's and Judith's old houses. Harry & Rose's rickety wood-framed house is gone, having been replaced by a $500,000 condo.

When I saw that my heart broke a little. There is no going back.

Now we live rurally, somewhat isolated (it feels like,) surrounded by farmland conservatives. The little old church across the street where my children like to play has a large framed photograph not of Jesus but of George Bush right inside the front door. Our closest neighbors spank their children and send them to bed at 7:30 every night after having done their chores and homework. Around the corner is a fellow whose yard is filled with old cars and who has a scary dog who barks and barks and barks in the middle of the night. That's what I see and what I don't like.

I wonder what my children will remember and love and maybe wish they could go back to when they're older. Maybe it will be the alley of plum blossom trees, hunting for agates down by the river, the shadowy boat landing, our friends (their Harry & Rose?) who make sculptures out of found objects and collect velvet Jesus paintings and skeleton art and tell ghost stories around the fire pit with colored lights strung haphazardly overhead, climbing trees and playing in rock piles, the fountains along the river, the easy pace of the co-op, the prim white surfaces of the Mennonite bakery, the colorful hedonism of the Oregon Country Fair, the austere formality of the Ki-Aikido training room, their first taste of team sports being the friendliness of ultimate frisbee, selling melons at the farmer's market, a large green tree painted on the wall of a green living room, rainy days drinking tea by the woodstove, days filled with play, and not homework, ever. Maybe their memories will be just as good. I hope.

math 2

Noah tried to explain to me today how he does math in his head. He got so frustrated with me when I couldn't follow his description of the process. "Man, I didn't know it would be so hard to explain it to you," he said. "Maybe you just don't think enough like me." "I'm sorry sweetie." "That's okay. Man. I don't know why it's so hard for you."

I was trying hard not to laugh, because I remember being similarly annoyed when I was a kid excited about algebra and wanting to show my mom, and she wasn't grasping it at all. Then as I was starting to write this down, he happened to look over my shoulder to read and immediately protested that I wasn't reporting things accurately. "That isn't really how I do math, Linda, it was just that problem." (And he was right, he had actually come to me excited about a specific problem, which I carelessly generalized when telling the story.) "Well, how do you do math?" Exasperated sigh. "I don't have a way I do math. I just do it the easiest way I can figure it out!"