Monday, June 14, 2010

Sweet Treat (2.21.08)

At the end of a daytrip to the city with the kids, I always get a singular craving on the way home. We hit Lake Shore Drive going north and I must have a cupcake. Or two. A few bites of cake and cream are the perfect ending to an afternoon at the zoo or the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum.

I'm lucky. Cupcakes are hot hot hot these days. Besides Chicagoland's wealth of bakeries that offer cupcakes (Sweet Mandy B's, Bittersweet, Deerfield Bakery), stand-alone shops selling the diminutive cakes are popping up like daffodils in spring. (My friend Ann says Swirls makes the prettiest cupcakes ever.) My favorite? The simply named, simply appointed Cupcakes. In a tiny jewel box of a storefront just off Broadway, you will find an adorable shop selling nothing but the tiny round cakes, displayed like so many pretty hats. Their flavors are inventive (Dr. Pepper! Chocolate Merlot! Salted Caramel!) and they offer "buy some -- get some free" cards, but horrors! They close the shop when they sell out. We've been burned by that "Closed" sign, but hope springs eternal.

Last weekend, after a lovely show of The Selfish Giant and a couple of hours in the Field Museum's new Crown Family Playlab, Mia and Nora and I headed up Clark Street to take our chances on Cupcakes.

But wait! Do I see a new cupcake shop? With Rock Star parking? (That's family slang for an empty spot out front.) I couldn't resist.

Molly's Cupcakes had just the right mix of whimsy to charm my kids: The name comes from a teacher who shared her favorite recipe and just happens to bear the same name as Mia's pre-school teacher. We found a free table complete with empty chairs and a game of Connect Four. Mia got a chocolate cupcake in a tiny flower pot, sprinkled with cookie crumb "dirt" and adorned with gummy worms. Nora and I shared a plate of four miniature cakes in Molly's house flavors - chocolate, vanilla, red velvet and carrot. (Please understand "sharing" for us is Nora taking a few licks at the frosting, then Mommy gobbling up the rest.) The subtle bite of sweet-sour in the carrot cake's cream cheese frosting was a pleasant surprise. And at the counter we found wooden seats suspended from the ceiling on chains so we could take a gentle swing before we hit the road. Adorable. Perfect for kids.

Molly's Cupcake's conventional flavors may not be the most daring but the whole experience satisfied in a basic way, like a swig of cold milk cutting through thick sweet icing.

Where do you find your favorite cupcake?

Cupcakes 613 W. Briar Place
Molly's Cupcakes 2536 N. Clark Street

American Girl's Big Changes (2.24.08)

In the February 20 Business section of the Chicago Tribune, theater critic Chris Jones broke the news that American Girl has decided to close all theatrical operations at their stores in Chicago, New York and LA. The last Chicago shows will take place in June. Later this year, the Chicago American Girl Place at 111 E. Chicago Avenue will close its doors and the store will move to Water Tower Place.

A million years ago, before I had kids, I took my nieces from Kansas City to the American Girl store for a performance in their comfortable basement theater. We enjoyed the sweet-voiced and earnest actresses and I was pleased not a single one sang, "Accessories are great!" ("Of course," my husband points out, "they got you in the seats. That's all the marketing they needed to do.")

I don't recall the particulars of the story, but the upbeat message was pretty much, "girl friendship means laughing and hugging and understanding and sometimes misunderstanding but eventually figuring it out-ing and forgiving and hugging some more."

I bought my tween niece a doll. (Her teenager sister was content to observe.) My sharpest memories of lunch in their café are of the little spotted scrunchies that encircled our napkins and matched the black, white and hot pink décor, the tiny seat for Chloe's new doll to join us at tableside (are non-American Girl dolls unwelcome?) and the sweet Irish waitress on a summer work visa. No word on whether the café will survive the move to Water Tower.

An innocuous way to while away an afternoon, right? I'm not sure. I'm all for overindulging the visiting nieces and grandkids, but now that I'm a mom, I'm in no hurry to introduce my own girls, three and five, to "retail therapy." Right now, I'm happy they consider clothes a means to keeping warm and used toys as fun as new ones.

What did we actually do when we take our daughters shopping as entertainment? Reinforce the idea that consumption in and of itself is fun? Or spend quality time? Teach them to value the accumulation of material goods? Or to tell the difference between a bargain and an extravagance?

For me, all the fresh and fun girl-power vibe of the movie Enchanted ground to a halt when the little girl character (who was all of six years old) went on an extended shopping spree with her new princess friend.

The mood and music stayed lively in this brief montage sequence, but I was squirming. So the modern day princess no longer makes her own clothes, but whips out a credit card? How do all those shopping bags mesh with thinking for yourself and defeating your dragon?

I wonder how hollow "the American Girl experience" will sound when the theater shuts down and the emporium becomes little more than a store.

Check out Chris Jones' blog for more about this decision's impact on Chicago's theater community. The comments, some apparently from parents of performers in the American Girl shows, shed light on the possibility that the theatres are closing because management is unhappy at attempts to unionize.

SAD At The Movies (3.4.08)

My husband worked all night, the babysitter had to cancel because her car won't start, the front walk and steps need shoveling and little Nora woke me at five because she was frightened. My eyes are sore and my brain is slow with the fatigue, but here is the miracle: I'm fine.

I was fine last night when my five year old had a blow-out tantrum over, well, over everything - bath time, bathwater temperature, choice of nightgown, you name it. She slapped her sister, then burst into tears and flopped on the ground, screaming, "I didn't! I didn't slap her! You don't love me! I don't love you! I don't LIKE you! I'll NEVER LOVE YOU!"

And I was fine, calm and distant from her jabs. "That's okay, Mia, 'cause I'll always love you enough for the two of us. Now step into this jammie leg, will you?"

What's the difference between this capable mom-self and that more familiar gloomy-mommy I know so well?

I’m convinced it's the sun. Really.

Two more hours of daylight than the sky eked out and I'm revived. Seasonal Affective Disorder is common and easily treatable, I’ve learned, but it was only this year that I finally acknowledged I’ve got a case.

Remember that movie with Robin Williams about heaven? The reviews of What Dreams May Come were largely awful, but I like it because the movie was shot in Glacier National Park, where Randy surprised me by showing up, ring in hand, while I was on a backpacking trip.

In the movie, Annabella Sciorra kills herself after the death of her husband and children and is sent to hell. This afterlife isn't your typical craggy fire-filled cavern; this woman’s hell resembles her own home, transformed into a dark and haunted house, filled with cobwebs and debris. She is lost and afraid, alone and anxious. She doesn’t know she is dead; she doesn’t recognize her own husband. And shortly after he joins her, he starts to slip into the same depressive stupor.

This scene reminds me of my winters. Not that those months are hellish – oh no, far from it – there’s such joy in our snow angels and Christmas and sledding and the girls catching snowflakes on their tongues. But half of my November and parts of December and much of January can be dark and anxious around the edges. And like that lonely movie mother, I've been myopic about my own illness. I think I'm okay when I'm really not.

One sunny morning last week I held the girls’ hands as we walked to the car after gym and ballet. It had snowed the night before and I sang out to Mia and Nora how pretty the day was. The way I said it reminded me of Fargo and I suddenly understood that right now, with spring on the way, I am Officer Marge Gunderson driving in the front seat of the Prowler. My angry self is shackled in the back, silent, always silent, because he does not know why he does what he does. But now that I’m getting my daily dose of good sun, I can say, "And here ya are. And it's a beautiful day. Well. I just don't understand it."

Besides creating an indelible Marge Gunderson, the great Frances McDormand (did you see her cheering and crying in the audience as her husband accepted the Best Picture Oscar?) played another role that is the most realistic depiction of non-clinical depression I’ve seen in a fiction film. In Nicole Holofcener’s Friends with Money, McDormand’s character Jane stops washing her hair and yells as parking space thieves, but still has a thriving career and loving relationships with her child, husband and friends. I look at her and again feel twinges of recognition. Here is a woman who is angry but functioning, out of sorts but more importantly, still capable of love and tenderness and concern for others.

I’m gettin’ me a SAD lamp. Twenty minutes a day, first thing, and we'll be good to go.

The Hunt for that Elusive Beast - Flattering Swimwear (3/12/08)

Alice Munro, one of my favorite writers, wrote a story about a young girl who, with a child's active imagination and innocent tactlessness, asks her parents, "Is there any sort of chance I could be adopted?"

To answer her, the mother unzips her skirt to show her "stomach, which looked flat when she was dressed, now (with) a slight fullness and sag." Proof positive, along with her silvery stretch marks, of pregnancy.

Despite Hollywood mommies claiming "good genes," most women have a little extra skin left after the superhuman stretching act that houses her child and enlarges her uterus five hundred percent of its normal size.

Extra belly may be the mother's badge of honor, but disguising my own wrinkly honor was foremost in my mind on a recent shopping trip for a new swimsuit. My faithful pink and orange number from two years ago had suffered a few too many beatings from the wash cycle - who has time to hand wash?

Post-pregnancy swimwear hunts have taught me that separates are the way to go - you can mix and match the top and bottom sizes and the degree of coverage. These days I don't mind showing a little cleavage, but I do feel naked in anything cut on high on the, ahem, nether regions. "Try Land's End," confided the kind saleslady at the department store. "You can choose your own height of the leg."

The new suit I finally found was cute and I looked okay in it. Tankinis are the greatest invention ever for moms who would be more likely candidates for space travel than for a tummy tuck. In my top, extra fabric falls from the bra top, while the back is bare. The bottom I chose resembled a pair of short shorts with a skirty wraparound piece that tied at the side. Cute. Functional.

Then I stepped in the water at the park district's indoor pool.

As I tried to swim laps, surrounded by a cloud of floating fabric, visions of Lindsey Lohan's filmy fabric in the Marilyn shoot and of Moslem women splashing in their long robes came to mind. The foam-filled cups that had cushioned and hid my girls on land now were floating to the surface, leaving me on my own, so to speak. I felt strangely chaste and lewd at the same time.

It seems there's a big difference between a "bathing" suit and a swim suit.

The Motherhood Learning Curve (3.19.08)

Mia says, “Mommy, I want to go to the library that’s the one next to the place that has the stickers with no pictures on them.”

I think for a minute. We’ve visited at least nine local libraries.

“Mia! Do you mean the library across the street from the park?”


Translation: When Mia said stickers with no pictures, she meant the circle stickers at the Paper Source on Central . . . . the specifics don't matter. What's exciting to me is that we just experienced a flash of our personal shorthand, or as I like to think of it, mother-daughter telepathy.

(When it happens, I always think of that moment in Broadcast News when Albert Brooks tells his close friend Holly Hunter over the phone, “Ok, I'll meet you at the place near the thing where we went that time.” And she knows exactly what he means.)

My occasional mind-reading is a kind of mothering competency that snuck up on me. When Mia was born, the forearms I tried to wrap around her seemed too stiff and straight for the job - how do you hold a soft infant with these two sticks? The grandparents and their advice were hundreds of miles away; the doctor may as well have handed me a baby Martian. Now, five years of on-the-job training and a second daughter later, I'm still fumbling with how to be a good mom, but I've learned a little bit about how to be their good mom.

Now I know when my two girls are hungry, I should demand very little of them, get food in their bellies ASAP and NEVER leave them alone in the same room together. I know when I catch Mia in a lie, her shame can be so painful that she may collapse. I know to make the correction matter-of-factly, and let her save face. I know to put out the bowl of broccoli and carrots first. I know the power of distraction and the power of a hug. Today, when Nora stopped in the middle of a foosball game and looked at me, I knew instantly she had wet her pants.

My girls and I had lunch with two mom-friends and their kids the other day. I held my friend's nine-month old while she took her toddler to the bathroom. With a grabbing, curious little monkey in my arms, I was still able to eat my lunch and help my two girls with their noodles and drinks. And enjoy it all. When did this ease sneak up on me?

There's an old joke we used to tell in the teachers’ lounge:

New Teacher: Where did you get your good judgment?
Veteran Teacher: Lots of experience.
New Teacher: And where does your experience come from?
Veteran Teacher: A lot of bad judgment.

Of course I still have questions, doubts. I am happy that my children are not transparent to me - they need the private corners in their heads where they can go to be their own mysterious, wonderful selves. So nearly every day I find myself playing a game called Loving? Or Spoiling?

Round One. By request, I hold Nora's nose while she washes her hands after a big poop. Loving or indulging?

Round Two: While I'm reprimanding her, Mia pulls a Mary Catherine Gallager, flopping around and crashing into some conveniently nearby furniture. She bursts into tears and holds up the injured limb. My stern voice morphs into comforting murmurs. Indulgent? Or empathetic?

It's a doubting game I may never finish. So be it. Perhaps what I'm calling mothering competency is actually, simply, a form of intimacy. An imperfect and precious intimacy born of hours, days, years spent close together, learning my children as they learn the world.

“Blood Relation” Sounds Like Something Out Of Braveheart (3.27.08)

My daughters have a “Grandma Ruth” and a “Grandma Lulu”, although neither one is my mother. Mia and Eleanor have lots of young relatives that we call “cousins” and women we call “aunts. ” Those titles emerged out of love and for the sake of simplicity; the actual relationships are a little more complicated. My girls are five and three years old – I figure there will be plenty of time to clarify the actual bonds when they are older.

For now, Aunt is our name for special friends and relatives alike.

Above all, it is a moniker of affection. It adds a little specialness, and sparkle. “Auntie,” like “Grandma,” has such a sweet sound, the food industry uses it to name pretzels, pancake syrup, frozen sweet potato pie.

I beam when called “Aunt Cindy.” My nieces and nephews who start to leave off the “aunt” sound old before their time, our relationship less huggy, more handshake. Aunthood can be such a pleasure to have with children, and when I was childless, it felt like an easy pleasure. There was such fun to be had making posters to flash at the NFL cameras with Max and Paige, dancing at the American Idols concert with the Tallahassee nieces, laughing as Maggie and Chloe rode a 10-speed and a trike around our living room couch. All the fun, but I still got to put my feet up to watch Tivo at the end of the visit. It was like parent try-outs.

Now I have my own girls and I’m on the other side of the fence, appreciating the women friends who act like my girls’ aunts, aching over the lost opportunities for relatives who could be closer. My girls are too young to know the difference, but for me, it’s a lesson in patience, in tolerance, in gratitude.

Aunt Jeanne may not acknowledge or reciprocate birthday or holidays, but she still sends funny and sweet random emails that brighten an otherwise uneventful Tuesday. Aunt Nancy divorced my brother, but she has never paused in the love and affection she pours on my girls. Aunt Jan, Aunt Boo - how shall I put it? - love their nieces in their own way. And those who earned honorary titles are truly queens: Aunt Becky, Aunt Rena, Aunt Sally, Aunt Katie all rushed into loving and close relationships with my daughters and they are cherished friends to me as a result.

It's like the old saying, some are born “Auntie,” some achieve “Auntie” and some have “Auntie” thrust upon them. I'm glad for them all.

An Inclusion Preschool Experience (4/9/08)

"Aren't you afraid of the other children hurting your daughter?" asked the mom at the playground. “Oh no,” I hurried to reply. “Mia gets more grief from her little sister than from any of the kids at school.”

I’d expected a lot more reactions like the playground mom’s to the news of our choice of an inclusion preschool for our daughter, who tests without developmental delays. But most parents I told just took it in stride, as did Mia. Since the passage of the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1975, children with vastly different skills learning together in the same classroom is becoming a commonplace reality.

In our area, there is a wealth (ha! "Wealth" is for sure!) of choices for private preschool with philosophies ranging from Waldorf to Montessori to "montessori-lite," from Emilio-Reggio to something called "Best Practices." (Wondertime magazine had a great recent article breaking down the differences between these approaches. You've got to check out the hilarious cereal boxes that illustrate the schools of thought.)

Years ago I’d studied the benefits and challenges of inclusion while getting my degree in education. I liked the idea of Mia learning lessons about patience and tenderness, acting as a role model, and forging friendship with children who had skills and abilities different than hers. I loved the idea of a classroom environment that embraced difference. I know that special education methods, such as varied repetition and using a variety of senses to explore an idea, can be beneficial to all children.

(But this all sounds rather lofty and I must be completely honest. Mia had had some episodes of fury probably not untypical of a two-year-old but pretty alarming to me. With my tendency to catastrophize, I felt most comfortable with her surrounded by unflappable professionals who were experienced with challenging little ones. And as the school months unrolled without incident, I figured out Mia was just saving all her love for me, if you know what I mean. Me and my lack of patience, that is.)

Two miles down the road from us, inside six classrooms within a public grammar school, we found Connecting Kids, a play-based inclusion pre-school. Services are without charge for children who test with special needs. The program's goal was for the classes to be balanced with half the kids having IEPs (individual education programs.)

After an initial visit to the school, my husband and I were happy with the ethnically diverse population of the children, the small class sizes, and the state-certified teachers. Two aides assisted each teacher in addition to the physical and speech therapists who worked with all the children as a group and individually. Mia did love the jumping and balance work of physical therapy and I was happy the lovely speech therapist could work with her on "the yadybug yives in the yog."

The classroom was large, colorful and bright, filled with neatly sorted toys and decorated with student work. Children played happily in this sensory rich environment with clearly delineated areas for reading, circle time and table work. A water table was periodically filled with snow, leaves, sand and other fun-to-touch materials. The education professionals appeared happy in their work.

Despite our initial idealistic goals of Mia acting as a role-model and such, the joyous real life tangle of playing and friend-making and interacting with the other kids was never a story of "us" and "them." The kids were all just kids. Like another playground mom said, "Hey, we ALL have special needs."

The actual day-to-day experience of Mia’s school seemed to require more adjustment from me than from my daughter. Mia made friends and loved going to school. But I was the one who felt impatience rising during classroom visits when the teacher and aides spent what I considered too much time teaching a student to sit quietly and still during circle time. So what if he wanted to flop around instead of sitting with "criss-cross-applesauce" legs?

"Is this a lesson in conformity or self-control?" I wondered to myself. I've taught high school and I've felt guilt over the imbalance of attention spent on my students, with the compliant ones usually getting the least. But this was not my classroom, these were not my students and Mia going to this school was not my experience - it was hers.

Mia came home one day and said, “Mike is funny! He says, ‘Muh-muh-muh-Mike!’ when he says his name!” Then she broke into peals of laughter. I knew Mike and his wonderful mom. I was horrified, picturing my daughter turned into a finger-pointing toddler-bully, but I pulled a mom-in-control face and replied, “Oh really?”

Then I couldn't help slipping into lecture mode. “Honey, you know you shouldn’t laugh when someone is trying to talk.” She gave me a blank look and I hustled to schedule a minute with the teacher.

“Is Mia making fun of Mike?”

“Oh no,” replied the young (so young) woman. “Mia LIKES Mike. And he likes her. They’re friends. She's not hurting his feelings.” It never occurred to me that Mia wouldn’t see anything wrong with the way her buddy Mike talked. In the innocent way of a child, she thought he was genuinely funny and just perfect the way he is. Chalk one up for Mia teaching Mommy again.

A Chicago Walk (4.14.08)

Having a baby in the winter is hard. Having a baby in the winter in Chicago is very hard. This long slow spring we're having takes me back to the April when my firstborn was an infant. After six long months inside with Mia, I was desperate to get her some fresh air and get me some exercise. We set out to explore Chicagoland parks and we found some beauties. We worked that sling and later - when my back complained - a stroller, visiting the Wooded Island and Osaka Japanese garden in Jackson Park, and the wide expanses of the waterfront north of Montrose. I nursed Mia in the quiet sanctuary of Alfred Caldwell's Lily Pond and under the humid palms in the Garfield Park Conservatory.

My favorite Chicago walk was only a few blocks from home. We needed no car or bus to get there, just a walk east down Belmont and over the river. As I pushed Mia in the stroller, I would narrate the world to her, like they tell you to, pausing only to say ola or hello or not to the people we passed.

“And now, honey, we’re passing Clara's Best Hash Browns, I don’t know if her hash browns are really the best but the sign says so and sometimes you can see a guy sitting in the back booth peeling a big pot of potatoes. Oh look, sweetheart, across the street is the warehouse where Steve Albini records records. Can you say ‘Al-bi-ni?’ And you see these new townhouses? There used to be a boatyard here when we first moved in.” Mia would look at me or not, squint, babble a little, ignore the little plastic and felt toys I’d attached to the stroller for her amusement.

We’d cross the bridge and turn down the ramp nearly hidden by overgrown tree branches, walk past the loading dock of the dental instrument factory and we were there. The east edge of the north branch of the Chicago River.

This is the north branch, a leg of the same river that flows through the canyon of skyscrapers downtown, the same river that empties into Lake Michigan near the Wilmette beach I will now take my five-year old Mia to swim in the summer.

Both banks were overgrown with young trees and scrub shrubs. The garbage tangled in the undergrowth and the traffic noises receded as we walked away from the Belmont bridge. I don’t even know if you could call it a park - there was no sign to greet us. It's just a bit of wilderness in the city, a strip of sidewalk between the Chicago River and a patch of woods where Lane Tech teenagers launch their dirt bikes over groomed and rutted little hills. The walk is only a few hundred yards long, but you can see wildlife - ducks and the occasional heron. I swear I saw a muskrat swimming once, perhaps a rat rat? The water of the north branch is murky, but it still catches light and reflects the trees.

Mia said her first word here. "Look, Mia! Ducks!" I said, at the crowd of mallards and their mates, like I had many times before. But this time she answered me. "Ducka-ducka," she said and I felt like Annie Sullivan. What a thrill. It's a family story we tell and retell.

Just over the trees is DeVry Institute and the Riverview Shopping Center. It's hard to believe, but that unremarkable strip mall was once the site of a giant amusement park with roller coasters and water rides that rivaled Six Flags.

Riverview Amusement Park thrilled Chicagoans for the first sixty years of the last century. My Aunt Ruth, the aunt that raised me, tells me stories of walking from the 5500 block of south Marshfield to south Western Avenue, then taking the streetcar up to Western and Belmont to ride the rides in the 1930's. Now paradise is paved and cell phone stores and a Toys R Us have replaced the Tilt-a-Whirl.

After a block or two, the woods end at a patch of reclaimed prairie wildflowers and the riverbank slopes to a launching place for kayaks and canoes.

We christened Mia here on an overcast October day when she was four weeks old. In the pictures we took that day, the trees were full and green but I remember the wind was bitter. Randy’s hair was long and curly. I wore my black beret, no makeup and a tolerant smile. Mia was tucked away inside the sling.

Randy’s mother was convinced she would catch the flu from the cold wind. Randy’s dad had a tiny vial of water from the Jordan River, brought back from one of their many trips to the Holy Land. “Or you can also use tap water and just boil the hell out of it,” smiled my mother-in-law and I laughed, eased up a little. Randy's minister father said a few words and we mumbled our replies.

If you continue on the riverside path, you pass the broad soccer fields of Clark Park and reach the lovely renovated Addison bridge. Here one spring day I met two of my old students on a walk with Mia and felt a unfamiliar mix of momma-pride for my cute baby and teacher-pride at the maturing and friendly faces of the young men. I had said goodbye to them only a few months before, but I felt like years had passed since I had stood before these boys in a classroom, giving instructions, acting as an authority, wearing dry-cleaned and pressed wool pants. Now I felt somehow softer, a little vulnerable. "This is Mia," I said, after catching up on their junior year. I was pleased when they ooed and ahed. I gave the boys hugs and turned the stroller toward home.

The old philosopher said you never step in the same river twice. For me, the river is a symbol of constant and inevitable change. The city transforms a little every time I turn around, my children change in the space of a breath and remembering this Chicago walk makes me realize how much I have changed too.

Don’t Mess with the Fairy Castle! (4/23/08)

Our family codeword for the Museum of Science and Industry is "Petroleum!" announced in a voice something like a robot and something like an oily 1950's gameshow host. It sums up for me the dusty flavor of some of the museum's more outdated exhibits - like the stomach-churning (sorry for the pun) celebration of factory farms.

The museum has announced plans to revamp ninety percent of its exhibits over the next four years. What's in store for fans of the museum like us? I'm hoping the new and revamped exhibits' emphasis on science education won't be at the expense of the "industry" part. I'm fond of the scattershot collections that remind me of a mad scientist's attic - a little antique circus here, a little pinball machine promoting Swiss tourism there.

I'm sure you've had the experience of trying to engage your children in an experience that enchanted you as a child only to have them whine, "are we done yet?" or find more magic in the cafeteria bendy straws.

I was obsessed with Colleen Moore's Fairy Castle as a girl. A glamorous Hollywood star (albeit one I'd never heard of ... but she had one brown eye and one blue!) who built a doll-sized castle with murals painted by Walt Disney! Thrilling. I pored over a commemorative booklet we bought at the museum, memorizing each delicious bit - the weeping willow tree that cried real tears, a Bible the size of a fingernail. I loved the scratchy audio narration describing a fairy dancing up the twisty staircase.

On a visit to the MSI about a month ago, we found the castle in a dim room around the corner from Foucault's Pendulum. Seeing it as an adult and as a parent, I had a feeling its intricate beauty behind Plexiglas probably wouldn't stand up to the interactive and brightly colored thrills of the flashy kids museums my girls are used to.

"Look, Mia! There are the three little bears' chairs!"

"Where? I can't see them. Pick me up!"

"See, down in front, sitting on the head of a pin."

"Oh, I think I see it. Can we go back to the pinball machine?"

What My Blogging Can Do, What It Cannot (5/7/08)

The upper elementary students were writing with chalk on the sidewalks and steps in front of Mia's Montessori school last week. I got a closer look and saw the marks weren't doodles or random scribbles - the children were transcribing stirring quotes as part of a poetry project.

One child had written E.M. Forster's words: “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” That idea stuck with me all day. It reminded me of what I used to tell my high school students: "We write to learn." These days, as a mother and a blogger, I understand even more that writing about our crazy world can help us to understand the experience, to name it, to give it order and the shape of a story.

Although most mom bloggers are familiar with guilty twinges from too much time spent in front of our keyboards, I'd venture to argue that blogging can help us be better mothers because it can help make sense of the controlled chaos that is family life. Advice columnist Cary Tennis says "Writing is like a sixth sense used to apprehend a reality not detected by the other five." Sometimes I look at the debris of a tantrum (occasionally mine) and I ask myself, "What the f-- just happened?" Then I write about it. And the writing helps me figure it out.

But sense-making is only one of many reasons moms blog. I nod my head in agreement as I read women who speak of finding friendships, sympathy, venting space, invigorating arguments, parenting ideas and support through their computer screens. Yes, yes, yes.

But where blogging leaves me wanting is one of the most common, and perhaps the most perfect use of blogs: capturing the moments as our children grow and leave their old selves behind.

I started posting over a year ago and much to my surprise as I look back on what I’ve written, I have not created an on-line storybook called My How My Girls Have Grown! Not because I did not want to, but because I cannot.

I can record the funny things they say. “Where’s the merote?” when Nora is looking for the TV remote. “P.B. scuse?” when she wants to leave the table. Mia says, “This balloon smells like my dentist!” and Randy and I burst into laughter.

But what I can't blog is an understanding of why these particular stories, these particular children, thrill my husband and me so much. It is something more than ownership or pride, more than seeing ourselves in them. Perhaps our fascination emerges from another dimension of love, one previously unfamiliar to us.

I can try to describe their thick curls and silky cheeks and chubby calves. I tell you about how Mia's eyes turn into down-turned crescents of glee when she laughs. I can tell you how the illustration on the Mother's Day Brunch postcard made me sigh because it reminded me of sitting on the stairs with Nora as she finished the last few moments of her nap, breathing in the heat and the scent that radiated off her face like a halo.

But I can't stop time. I can’t make that moment of peace in the afternoon go on and on.

I can describe the rules of the absurd and elaborate games they concoct – “Puppy Circus,” "Ice Skating Around the Table" "Monkeys Stealing Bananas" -- but I can't put my finger on where my pleasure in their rule-making and even my occasional patience comes from.

I can try to describe the magic of their movement - a skipping, hopping, spinning forward propulsion that is something like a dance and something like an animal's quick reflexes. But I can't quite describe their intoxicating smell, a smell I'm drawn to like that of a lover. A smell that makes me remember reading a passage from The Woman's Room in high school, long before I dreamed of being a mother, a few sentences that made me pause and wonder "Is this how mothers love their children?"

Here, I looked it up: "There were moments of beauty. Sometimes, before she made the boys' bed, she would think about them, and love would gush into her heart, and she would lie down on their beds and smell the sheets, bury her face in them. The beds smelled just like the boys."

And I can't quite capture my pleasure, my sense of a circular journey when I also do this very thing.

I can try to write of the squeaky sound of their undeveloped vocal chords, of the way Nora's thoughtful use of the word "Actually," cracks me up, of our tolerance of Mia's new-found love of yodeling.

But I can't blog an understanding of the incredible satisfaction that comes from watching Nora eat her long spaghetti noodle, with concentration and relish. Yes, she is beautiful, I can recognize that in a detached impartial way. Her tangles are white-blond, her eyes are a faded sky blue, her cheeks are round. But people drive by sunsets, like the lovely one tonight that is slowly fading through the window behind my shoulder, dismiss them summarily as everyday occurrences. I'm not as sure that this is a deficit in my descriptive powers so much as the growing pains of my expanding heart.

I Heart Carpool (5.18.08)

Carpool is supposed to be one of those typical mom duties that we endure rather than enjoy, an endless and largely mindless task that symbolizes our demographic in a confining way. But I love it, always have.

With gas at the wait-that-can't-be-real price of more than $4.00 a gallon, it seems like the wrong time to be praising any activity involving the internal combustion engine. But any shared ride is one more car off the road, so it feels good to fill our hybrid up to the gills with kids.

Yes, there are tough days. Contorting my aching back over the rear seat, my ass up in the air as I struggle to snap the 17-point harness, then shove my hands between the hard plastic rough edges of the portable seats, searching for the ornery buckle in its finger-crushing crevice while the kids pull off my hat, demand snacks and scream with laughter or outrage as the cold wind whips my hair in my face and the line of cars waiting behind us nudges impatiently forward is not my idea of fun.

But now that summer break is approaching I'll admit I'm going to miss it.

I'll miss the magic moment in line before I pick up the three big kids, when little Nora has fallen asleep on the ride over and I have two or five minutes to read an old copy of the Onion or the library book I had the forethought to grab. I love how our Highlander shuts off rather than idles but still can be rolled forward, as silent as a golf cart. I love listening to the kids' giggles. I love sneaking peeks in the rear view mirror as Mia flails around "drumming," Henry shakes one hand as he plays "buh-tar," Ellie bangs the invisible piano and Nora bobs her head as we listen to Ralph Covert channel Johnny Rotten on "I Don't Wanna." It's such a beautiful and such a stupid thing, I have to lift my own microphone banana (at the stoplight only - both hands on the wheel when the light turns green, Momma) and do a little lip-sync of my own.

I love how the music sounds so good in the car. At home there are so many distractions I can't make it through a single song, but in the car, there's the luxury of time, the necessity of busy hands. The windshield frames the view, Neko Case whispers intimately in my ear and suddenly everything I see is moving to the rhythm of the soundtrack and I've entered a movie.

I love how carpool give a gloomy and listless February afternoon structure and purpose.

The movie You Can Count on Me opens and closes with two similar sequences: single mom Laura Linney driving to work. Some pretty big drama has happened to Linney over the course of the film, but the drive at the beginning and the drive at the end are very much alike. Both times we see shots of the small town Linney and her young son call home. Both days we see her driving, then taking her eyes off the road for a moment to check something, perhaps her boyfriend's car already at work? The lunch special on the chalkboard in the diner window? Without words, in a few moments, we get a sense of her daily commute, familiar, unavoidable, necessary. You feel the closed circle of her small town life, but also the satisfaction and comfort in her routine.

Carpool can be an opportunity to practice a little Zen, to put my mind into an unavoidable task and decide to love it. Peter Matthiessen writes of asking a holy man who was twisted with arthritis and who had not left his Nepal monastery in eight years if he felt isolated. The wise man laughed and replied, "Of course I am happy here! It's wonderful! Especially when I have no choice!"

I love relieving a tiny bit of the karmic debt I accrued this winter. I love the extra time I give my neighbors and I love receiving some from them in return. I love how carpool means they can count on me.

Sex Ed, Then and Now (5.21.08)

My formal sex education at home was limited to this single piece of advice from dear Aunt Ruth, who raised me: "Sometimes a boy will be dancing with you and he might bump up against your chest and it will hurt. Well, he didn't mean to hurt you." And that was it. Seriously, that is all I remember her telling me. Oh, and she showed me how to wash blood out of my underwear with cold water. Were you the kind of twelve year old who would ask a follow-up? Not me. Voluntarily go through another excruciating moment with a grownup who had obviously never known anything like the thrills I felt watching "Hungry Like the Wolf" on MTV? No way.

I can't blame sweet distracted Ruth who was born in '23, married at 23, and who, in her own adolescence, found Rudy Vallee about as heart-throbby as they get. My entrance into the teen years coincided with some major family upheavals; I'm sure it was less complicated for her to set strict curfews, limit nights out and say "no," than to actually discuss what might be going on outside the castle walls. (In truth, Ruth's enduring marriage - 62 years! with Uncle Phil! - has been her most powerful lesson.)

For relationship questions I could call on my friend Mary Beth who magically KNEW that Greg and I kissed that night on the way to band practice, even though neither one of us said anything. Mary Beth advised useful information like "Always order a hot chocolate when you go out with a boy. It's not expensive for them and it looks cute and cozy when you hug the cup."

Or I could confer with Kim, the friend from Girl Scouts who gave words to the formless weirdness when she confessed, "It makes my stomach feel funny," after we read the sex scene in a cheap paperback movie novelization.

Other sex ed instructors when I was a teenager: Glamour and Cosmo, Judith Krantz and Helen Gurley Brown, although Krantz and Brown's explicit teachings came across like a geography lesson of some exotic and far off continent.

My cousin Jeanne explained hickies and even offered to demonstrate. Carrie from speech club provided the instructional logic of, "Well, I just ask myself what Jesus would want me to do. I don't think He would want you to let the guy go below your waist. I think He would want you to at least keep your pants on." To balance this, I spent a little too much time studying that song from Grease, "There Are Worse Things I Could Do," fully missing the irony in its defense of promiscuity.

So I went out into the great unknown of college semi-independence armed with a load of Catholic warnings, a mishmash of technical knowledge and an enormous amount of curiosity. I knew a little about the mechanics, but not much about the power of sex. And it turned out the broken hymen didn't devastate me - the broken heart did.

Twenty-five years later I have a loving and lovely partner. We have two daughters, five and three, and their sex education has already started.

My three-year-old reaches up under my shirt to cop a feel of my belly skin every chance she gets, then sighs deeply in a sensuous way that I often love but sometimes don't.

"Please stop that, Nora," I try gently, then try to explain as she insistently reattaches her hand, "You need to respect your body and the body of others. No means no and if someone doesn't want you rubbing their belly, then you need to stop."

Nora wails, "I want to rub someone's belly! I WANT TO RUB SOMEONE'S BELLY!"

In the bathtub, Nora and her sister giggle as they poke themselves until I holler, "Stop brushing your yoni with the toothbrush! That's private! It's beautiful, but it's private!" trying for the same tough but loving tone I use when I call for them to slow down on their training-wheel-supported pink bikes.

These are the loud corrective lessons I give, trying to normalize talking about the body and its wonderful wonders. The quiet lessons happen too, every day, with the examples and attitudes I try to show the girls. I want my daughters to enjoy their bodies. I don't want them to be hurt or exploited. I want them to be responsible and well informed about anatomy and physiology, but also with their feelings and those of others. I want them to exercise wise caution, but I don't want them to be afraid.

Right now I love that they are unfamiliar with shame. It makes me laugh when they strip off their clothes in the backyard for no other reason than because the spring sunshine feels good and peeing outside makes them laugh. When one whispers "Peeee-nus!" the other will dissolve into giggles.

I can't wrap my daughters' hearts in bubblewrap - I don't want to. But I do want them to approach their friendships and deeper relationships with solid self-esteem and confidence, with trust tempered with wisdom, and with a belief in the basic good of others.

I'm hoping their attitudes about love and sex and affection can be an extension of the way they love the world right now and the way they love to be close to their friends and family, the way they love hugs and snuggles and tickling and the thrill of riding the swing at the park. An extension of the simple rules of human behavior that we try to instill now: Respect yourself and others; love the wonderful treasure that you are.

Miranda and the City (5.30.08)

On Memorial Day, some friends and I were talking about the Sex and The City movie and the original series. "I like the stories," I confessed.

Orrin laughed, "Yeah, and I just read the articles."

In anticipation of tonight's Sex and the City opening, I've been poring over the Entertainment Weekly issue that reviews every episode of the HBO show. I wouldn't have called myself a huge fan, but I guess I am; as I read the show synopses, I recognized nearly every one.

In my memory the individual episodes all kind of all blend together like the bleary recollection of a night of bar-hopping - there were new guys, old guys, amazing clothes (remember Carrie's purse with the four foot fringe?), embarrassing situations, hashing it out over cocktails or coffee with the girls...and repeat.

But one story arc kept my full attention - Miranda's transformation into a mother.

For me, that was the heart of the series. Deciding to keep an unplanned child; confessing her love for Steve, her child's father; having a low key but lovely wedding -- Miranda quietly became an adult while the other women still seemed, well, girlish.

Yes, Charlotte was also starting a family as the series ended, but her starry-eyed character never had to battle a personal demon like Miranda's - a tendency to look at the world with cynicism.

At the opening of season five, when Charlotte called out to New York from the Staten Island ferry that she was getting married that year (before she even found a suitable partner), I couldn't relate. But now I consider that the actress Cynthia Nixon who plays Miranda is prevented by federal law and the laws of nearly every state from making the claim Charlotte yelled so freely. This inequity of rights, rights that I had always taken for granted, adds another level of poignancy to her character's plans and hopes:

"If you're so anti-romance, why are you having a wedding at all? Why not just go down to city hall and get it over with?" asks Carrie.

Miranda replies, "You know I thought about that. But then I realized I actually do want to say those vows out loud to Steve in front of the people I care about."

If Miranda came across as occasionally brusque and jaded and if she suffered some grotesque sexcapades, (episodes 70 and 75, yikes!), her dignity and humanity were kept intact by the two mother episodes that act like bookends in her relationship with Steve.

In season four, the death of Miranda's mother (a character we had never seen nor even heard discussed) might have been little more than a plot device, but there was genuine grief depicted in the writing and the acting.

Miranda: "My sister and her husband want me to third-wheel with them down the aisle--God forbid I should walk it alone. Because that would be the real tragedy, right? Ignore the coffin! There's a single 35-year-old woman walking behind it."

When Miranda spots Steve, her ex-boyfriend, at the funeral and when Carrie joins her in the processional, you sense her protective shell cracking.

By the series finale, Miranda and Steve, their one year old son Brady and the dog have all moved to Brooklyn. In a final act of opening her heart, Miranda agrees to allow Steve's alcoholic and Alzheimer's afflicted mother move in with them.

I never had a six figure law job, Cosmos give me a headache, I wear a hand-freeing backpack instead of a fab bag and I prefer shoes with a wider toe to Jimmy Choos and Manolo Blahniks. But I feel an affinity with Miranda, despite all the superficial differences. The fashion and the serial dating catches all the attention but I would argue that at the center of the series and at the center of its appeal is not the trappings of the New York lifestyle, whatever that is, but the themes of finding genuine emotion in a culture of artifice and connecting with those we find ourselves surprised to love.

Tadpoles (6.8.08)

The scene was about as quintessentially Summer as a lemonade stand, a tire swing or a drippy ice cream cone: My daughters chasing real live tadpoles.

There's acres and acres of nature to explore in the beautiful Morton Arboretum but my girls were content to spend the whole morning in a tiny pond catching baby frogs.

I don't think I'd ever seen one up close before. We had to laugh at the sight of them - inky fat drops, propelled by nothing but tail-dashes that wiggled in the funniest way. They looked like a child's drawing come to life, or something a little more suggestive, if you know what I mean.

I heard a mom ask her two sons, "Now isn't this better than video games?" and they nodded, eyes on the water. My imagination reeled out a vision of that morning in their house - the boys cemented to the couch, Mom prying them off with a crowbar. It took us forty minutes to get here; it will take twice that to get home. Worth it.

Warm wind, puffy clouds, my girls squealing in delight. Hello, summer. Where you been?

Summer Escapes (6.20.08)

"This is hard for me," I tried to explain to my husband during the middle of my hissy fit last weekend. "I can't just run off to Montana to go backpacking. I want to go backpacking! But I can't."

That Montana trip, the actual one I took a million years ago, B.C. (Before Children), has taken on epic proportions in my mind. It stands as the borderland between my old life and new - we got engaged that week with enthusiastic plans to start our family immediately. And it symbolizes the perfect freedom I enjoyed when I could leisurely flip through the backcountry outfitters brochures, spend hours shopping at Uncle Dan's, wander a spectacular part of the world with everything I need on my back and have interesting conversations with my plane seatmate on the way home about grizzly bears and life philosophies.

The last time I flew, I was too busy shushing, wincing, amusing and managing my monkeys and their cargo to strike up any grownup conversation.

It's not that I don't enjoy the company of my children. When well-fed and rested, they are funny and fun. And when they are not, they are my responsibility - one I take seriously.

I just get tired sometimes of our routine – the same routine I know gives my children stability and a comforting context to make new discoveries and find fun. This year Nora can slide down the slide at the pool! The snackbar has new popsicles!

Every time I entertain a few moments of ridiculous fantasy – say, when reading how the protagonist of A Thousand Acres runs away from the farm to become a waitress -- I hear that bouncy '80's dance song in my head: If You Leave Me Can I Come Too? The only way I could escape my current life would be with everyone I love and we'd make a silly caravan, a crowd at the side of the road, all of us with our bandanas on sticks over our shoulders and our thumbs in the air.

So this summer in addition to the old favorites - the zoo, the beach, Kraft Kids concerts at Ravinia, the pool - I'm looking forward to some new summer attractions - still familiar enough not to spook my girls, but fresh enough to quell my fantasies of running off to Glacier...

Cookie and Gourmet magazines are sponsoring the first Kids' Restaurant Week June 21-28! For this event, some of Chicago's best restaurants are welcoming children with special menus at fixed prices and early seatings. Osteria di Tramonte, in the new Westin in Wheeling, has mom/pastry superchef Gale Gand in the house!

Ralph Covert and Dan Zanes, along with lots of rockin' friends are coming to the Toyota Park in Bridgeview for the Disney Music Block Party Tour August 8 -10!

Although excessive rain has delayed much of the crop, we still have hopes to go up north to Wisconsin to pick organic strawberries in Wisconsin at the JenEhr Family Farm. Perhaps we'll swing by Madison and check out the giant farmer's market and walk the lakefront. I can't wait. The mountains will always be there. This summer I've got some tiny adventures to have with my girls.

My Trip Through Laborland (7.1.08)

When an intense contraction jerked me awake at 2:00 am, I gasped without thinking, “God is Great!” And this from a confirmed atheist. Not so much a prayer, but instead, the last and only thing I could say when brought all at once and unstoppably to the brink of one life and the mysterious opening of another.

There was no let up in the contractions – it was immediately clear the baby was coming.

I walked around the couch, swept up some pebbles from our rough basement floor (after all, she might crawl here someday) and drew a bath.

Time moved in irregular waves, not discrete units, just like the contractions. I could say when I was inside the vise grip of a contraction, but I was not as sure when they actually stopped or started so I couldn’t tell Randy, “wake up, honey, they’re two minutes apart.” It felt like they were only moments apart.

I found an information sheet from the “Birthing from Within” book that I had been too shy to give Randy before this and went to the bedroom where he was sleeping. When I turned on the closet light and he mumbled something, I walked over to the bed, silently held up the birthing coaches tip sheet and pointed to the item that said, “Don’t ask too many questions. Maintain a respectful silence.” Understandably, Randy did not understand.

“What’s wrong?! Are you in labor? Did your water break?”

Once I was in the warm tub with a cold compress on my head and a plastic wastebasket for nausea nearby, he sat next to me quietly and let me rub the chubby part of his thumb -- far more comforting than any worry stone I had searched shop after shop for. I think my seriousness shocked him into silence. My head lay to the side, my eyes were closed. When the pain came, I blew out loud breaths through my mouth, nothing I’d learned, just a natural reaction to help sink into the pain, relax into it.

We tried to time a contraction as Randy read the paper about what to do when. Even with all my planning, we had no clock with a second hand and I couldn’t tell when a contraction started or ended. We tried to wing it with Randy counting “one Mississippi, two . . . .” He left and got a digital alarm clock and we tried to calculate by when the minutes clicked over.

“It says here, ‘go to the hospital when they are less than ten minutes apart,’” he said and I tried to point out the range can go as low as three to five. I didn’t want to leave the comfort of this bath. I had to do some persuading. Panting, I said slowly, “Labor progresses fastest when you are most comfortable. I need to stay in the tub for a while. I promise you I won’t be giving birth at home,” but he felt better by calling Natasha the doula.

I was glad he went for the doula first, before the doctor. Natasha was tremendously reassuring and calm and Randy had seemed to approve once he met her at our home – before that point he’d been reluctant. “Once she gives me an order, she’s out” he had said, jerking his thumb to the door, when I first broached the idea of a labor helper. Later, he burst out, “I’m incredibly hurt. The most important day of my life and I have to share it with a stranger.” But this was before he met her and it turned out the delivery room was full of people anyway. And when the night finally arrived, there was no time nor desire for her to come to our house for labor.

It was getting hard for me to talk, hard to listen. I had a dry heaves and vomit episode that Randy sweetly cleaned up

When Randy next called Dr. S.. the ob-gyn, he said carefully, in the language of the coaches’ handout, “We think my wife is going into active labor.” When I got on the phone, leaning against the side of the tub, compress on my forehead, I whispered "I want to stay in the tub longer." Dr. S., always argumentative, replied, “I thought he said you wanted to go to the hospital.” A well-timed contraction and irritation with her lack of tact made me answer “hold on” and just give the phone back to Randy. She gave him the OK to stay at home a while. I was happy to find out one of her parters would deliver the baby.

So I lay back in a stupor, rubbing his comforting thumb until Randy said, “I’ve got to get the car ready.” “Okay,” I said, “but you need to come back in one minute.” I don’t think he realized I was serious about the one minute part. When he was gone, I could hear all sorts of horrible sounds, probably just him moving suitcases and pillows, but it sounded more like crashes and furniture moving.

Managing contractions was better when I pictured my cervix and chanted “Stretch” to open it up. I was expecting back pain, all over pain, moving pain, but it was isolated in a curving smile in my lower abdomen. It was enough.

Once when Randy came in to sit on the toilet and hold my hand, I pulled his face close and said, “I’m getting the epidural as soon as we get to the hospital.” During the pregnancy I had read Henci Goer’s book The Thinking Woman’s Guide to a Better Birth. It analyzes the current research on obstetric methods such as epidurals, C-sections and pitocin so I felt well informed about the risks of medical pain relief, and the benefits of a natural birth. But this wasn’t an intellectual decision to get pain relief. This was lizard instinct talking – take the pain away NOW.

There were two bad contractions that I couldn’t cope with – I had to squirm and say “Ow” which doesn’t help, so I thought getting out and lying on my side on the couch would help. Oh no. After the buoyancy of the tub, the weight of my belly on my side was awful. The couch felt like stone.

As Randy tells it, “I thought I had her out of the tub and on the way but I come back upstairs and she’s in the tub again.”

At what point did I want to go to the hospital? I had been afraid of chaos and people asking too many questions. In the tub I was in control – I could add more warm water with my toe – and there was minimum input. It was quiet while I worked. But when Randy finally brought up a shirt, underpants and stretchy pants and slippers, I relinquished control. Dried off and dressed with his help and walked out of the house with nothing. No checking for keys, alarm, lights, luggage, wallet, nothing. Just walked away from my old life.

The early October night was cool. There was little traffic at four a.m. Randy told me later it was only really hit him at Division Street on the way to the hospital. He said he realized then that it was really happening and started to grin.

I, on the other hand, was enjoying the ride a little less.

Every bump was agony and I had to gasp, “Stop the car. Stop the f***ing car!” one block from the house, then again, yards from the door of the hospital when contractions hit. But most of the trip was spent slipping into my stupor – head resting on my fist, plastic wastebasket gripped in my lap for vomit.

My fears of the hospital were left unrealized as we got to the entrance and the valet parking guy sprinted to our car door. This sweet man got me a wheelchair, took my hand to help me in and put a sweetly cologned and comforting hand on my shoulder as we went straight and quickly to the express elevator. Two nurses make no extraneous noise as they quickly checked us in on the silent triage floor. No hard questions. They asked for our birth-plan and already had our registration papers and my medical file.

In a back room I was given a robe and I tore off my clothes even with no curtains on the window and a lighted window across the street. No modesty left and no sense of humor are the markers for late stages of labor – someone said a piece of clothing flies off for every centimeter dilated. Peed in a cup, lied down and vomited again. “Oh,” murmured the nurses sympathetically. Got monitors strapped on and the nurse exams me and says, “Eight centimeters.” They start moving really fast at that. “Let’s get you upstairs.”

One of the swim class women had told a war story of deciding to get the epidural, then having to wait an hour for it. I didn’t get her story until now. Each minute was hard - an hour would have been agony. We did not wait that long. Dr. Diaz, the anesthesiologist, was not as hushed and gentle as the nurses (I forgave him a thousand times over when the medicine kicked in) so it was satisfying to let Randy answer many questions – unspoken teamwork.

I didn’t mind in the least Randy leaving during the epidural, a hospital policy and bone of contention during labor planning. Nothing mattered to me at this point. I was in my own world, eyes closed most of the time, dealing with contractions by thinking, “STREEEEEECH” with each one. It helped.

I sat up for the needle and I felt a cool spray on my back, then a pinch like a dentist shot. Dr. D. said, “you should feel better in about three minutes.”

“What if I get the headache?” I asked.

“You won’t get the headache.” His confidence that felt so loud and harsh when I was in quiet Labor-land was now bracing as the meds kicked in.

Sure enough, the epidural went to work right away and I felt like I was waking slowly from a pleasant sleep as the pain passed away.

Now I could notice that the room was large. We could see the morning light from the wide bank of north facing windows.

I struggled to sit up and I could. I could move my legs – what a relief of my fears. The gown had snaps at the shoulder so I could breastfeed. The IV went into my wrist, not the vulnerable back of my hand. Two straps around my belly were hooked to the monitor behind my left shoulder. But none of this mattered because the pain was gone. I cried a little with the sweet relief.

We spent a couple of blissful hours waiting for full dilation – Natasha the doula arrived to my delighted hug. Sally was our nurse and Angela was an intern.

I chortled and chattered, amazed that I felt so little, a little disappointed that the feeling of work was behind me. It was not behind me.

At nine a.m., a few hours after we arrived, tiny Dr. L. said "It’s time to push." I pushed for three hours.

Once after a contraction when I didn’t get the big cheer that I had come to expect and like and need, I opened my eyes and everyone - Randy, nurse, doula, intern - was looking at the monitor.

The doctor suggested Pitocin. I said a reluctant okay, and regretted it quickly. Pitocin took the contractions beyond my control – they were harder and faster than I was ready for. I am convinced the Pitocin would not have been necessary without the epidural. I would never use it again.

In retrospect, I was a little disappointed by the hospital staff’s attitude of contempt for pain. I obviously did not enjoy the pain, but I respected the necessity of my body’s work. I also understand that the medical community’s focus is to relieve suffering, not to wait and do nothing, which is often all a woman in labor needs.

When she came out, all ten pounds and one ounce of her, I was amazed at the child that had just arrived into the room. Not an infant, not a newborn, this was a CHILD with fat thigh, rounded haunch.

We named her Amelia Jones. As I was wheeled to our room, holding her in a bundle in my arms, I felt so proud.

Spawn of the Devil (7.15.08)

Here in northern Illinois, we've had a wet summer. Great for my garden, bad for mosquito-haters - and who doesn't hate mosquitoes?

I'm no defender of these horrid bugs, like alien Agent Pleakley in the Disney movie Lilo and Stitch, who believes Earth is a nature preserve for the endangered insect. I always crack up at the scene where Pleakly (voiced by the great Kevin McDonald from The Kids in the Hall) squeaks, "Oh they're nuzzling my skin with their noses!" Right before they devour him.

I can't help thinking these hideous spiny creature must be Satan's minions - their evil instincts drive them to sneak attack, dive-bombing from behind, at the back of our knees and shoulders. When I see one landing on the soft cheek of one of my girls, I'm actually incensed at this brainless bit of flying whine. One night recently at Fox Lake, where flooding has turned yards into stagnant swamps, we watched a cloud of squeeters throw themselves at the glass door, trying to break in for our blood like a mindless zombie horde.

I know mosquitoes bring more than annoyance. I understand the dangers of the horrors they carry: Encephalitis, West Nile, meningitis.

But I can't stand Mosquito Abatement nights. Last night I heard the weird alien whining-shushing sound before I saw the yellow flashing lights that wiped over our house like crazy searchlights. It was like a scene out of War of the Worlds (actually, our battle against insect life is a kind of war of worlds, isn't it?) as I ran through the house to close all the windows, trying to beat the truck that left a deadly mist in its wake.

Now I've got the creepiest feeling knowing that our entire yard and house have been sprayed with pesticide. Hey! I'm trying to be organic here! No more grabbing a couple of ripe cherries off my tree to savor as I pick up the morning paper.

And what to do with my plans for a rain barrel? Mosquitoes lay their eggs in standing water. It's so not easy being green.

If you live in Lincolnwood, Niles, Glenview, Northbrook or any town east of these, you can call the North Shore abatement district to be notified when the trucks will spray in your neighborhood. There is also a no-spray list, but only homes with medical reasons will be added. In our neighborhood, the homes are so close together and the truck moves so fast, I'm not sure how the fog will obey the order to stay off my yard.

Here is the Northwest district's website. The Desplaines Valley has a site here, South Cook County's is here and the rest of Illinois can get info here.

When I take my girls to a shady playground in the late afternoon, we carry along a bottle of some all-natural citronella-peppermint-cedar-lemongrass-geranium-eucalyptus spray that smells fabulous but probably works about as well as any perfume. We spray it towards the bugs to push them away. Maybe we could drown them if we squirt enough. This concoction is too wimpy to even dare to use the words "insect" or "repellent." Instead, I'm spraying my kids with "herbal armor" for "outdoor protection."

But I also realize that we are in the bugs' territory, at their party hour. I've camped next to swamps and lakes; I've worn a lovely mosquito net hat and gloves in July just to eat a quick buggy dinner before retiring to the tent at seven pm. I know that we need to endure a little Satan if we want the heaven of the summer out of doors.

Dispatches from a Tantrum (7.29.08)

The screams are deafening. They pierce my brain, obliterating all thought but the memory of my five-year-old's wide open mouth and furious eyes.

I know there are three tenets of optimistic thinking, but all I can remember is one, this pain is temporary.

Dinner was a battleground. Patience rallied valiantly, then gave up the ghost and let Humor lead a charge. But then Self-Doubt and Worry attacked the left flank with "You're being walked all over," "She needs to take responsibility for her actions," and "She's too old for tantrums," like the whine of sniper fire by my ear. Compassion is still here, but sits quietly, waiting for the storm to abate.

"I DON'T! LIKE! PIZZAAAAAA!" she yells. She knocks down a chair, ("Please pick that up") ignores me, spits raspberries in my direction, ("Don’t spit!") spits again, is ordered to her room, "I WONT!" and thrashes in my arms while I carry her there.

The three-year old sister starts in. "Can I play on the computer?" she asks in her sweetest voice. "Not right now," I reply and she tilts her head back and let loose a yowl, then another, than a breath and another. "No screaming!" She replies with yet another. Inspiration. "If you want to play, here, I'll give you something else to play with." I leave my plate to get her a puzzle. She thanks me with blows from her tiny fists. "No hitting! Here, I'll play with it, if you don't want to." Still furious, she throws the pieces. "Okay, let's try this one." Another puzzle does the trick - she is distracted. Piece of cake. But there's no time to savor it as the big girl still wails upstairs.

The screams continue from behind her bedroom door. Husband closes the windows - Lord knows the poor neighbors have suffered through nights like this before.

She starts opening and slamming her door closed, over and over. The baby portraits are shaking on the walls. "Stop!" I enter her room, it's hot and airless and she lies flat on her back on the bed. The bedding has all been kicked to the floor. A scene from a movie about a possessed child comes to mind, which would ordinarily lighten my mood with the outrageousness of the comparison. Not tonight. A book flies toward me. The heat sucks out all creativity out of my head, leaving desperation in its wake.

"If you scream or throw one more thing, I am going to spank you." She responds with a wordless scream. I turn her over and slap her bottom with my hand. "Ow ow ow ow!" my child cries, adding anguish to her outrage.

When she first came home with us, a soft and fragrant bundle in my arms, I was loath to allow anyone else to hold her. My sister-in-law called me Momma Tiger because I was so protective. You never think you will end up here, in a hot room, acting against all good reason and knowledge, doing harm to your own beloved.

I rub her skin to soften the sting. I'm sorry. I'm so so sorry. She is furious, her face red and wet. She rolls away from me, off the bed and flings pillows in my direction.

I step out of the room, but hover close to the door, try to fold some laundry in the room across the hall. The howls now take on heart-piercing form: "Daddy!! Daddy!!"

Husband is on the back porch, getting some awful news about a former colleague. He comes in and sees my face, enters the bedroom. Exits the bedroom with "You need to calm down so we can talk with you!"

I fold the girls' shorts (so small!) to the calls of "Poopy-Head! Stinky-Pants!" I'm actually grateful for this - her rage may seem beyond what a five year old needs to experience, but the innocence of her words is reassuring. And she is staying in her room - for this bit of order I can also be relieved. I remember the advice to stay close to an upset child instead of deserting her to an isolating time out. I crack open the door and stick my head in. She's lying on the floor by the door; she slams it shut with her feet, knocking my ear and temple. Now it's my turn to scream "OW!" I let fly a few more choice words in the direction of the floor, the impassive ceiling. "That hurt!" Guilt whispers, "Serves you right." Oompa Loompas are dancing around, chanting, "The Mother and the Fa-ahther! The MOTHER AND THE FA-AHTHER!"

I'm consulting health books, looking up "Tantrum" and "Anger" as Dad reappears to go into her room. I return to the kitchen, to the contented three year old, humming over her puzzle.

This is not a story about Mommy reaching deep to find wisdom, pulling out just the right words to comfort her child in a moment of crisis. The Waltons are far far away; so are the Ingalls. The Connors reside in another state. The Bradys don't live in this neighborhood. There are no Huxtables here.

Now I can remember what Carol Grannick said about optimistic thinking. Reframe the situation. Think: this moment is specific, transient and controllable. In other words, it's not all about me, it's not going to last forever and some of what happens is in my control. Instead of letting the trolls whisper, "She's been to the beach and a movie today. She's over-indulged," or "She's been to the beach and a movie today. She's ungrateful," I try to think, "She's been to the beach and a movie today. She's exhausted."

Upstairs is quiet. I hear the bedroom door open, then Daddy comes down, holding her hand. Her face is red and sad, but no longer contorted with rage. "I'm sorry," she says. "Oh Honey, I'm sorry too. Do you want me to heat up some of these noodles with butter and salt?" "Yes."

She eats. We watch a show together, both girls sitting in my lap. The little one gets up to jump around the room and we laugh at her kangaroo hops.

In bed, she leans against me and tells me the story of Alexander's Horrible, Terrible, No Good, Very Bad Day as I turn the pages. I say, "Tomorrow will be a fabulous, wonderful, very good, not bad day." We hug and kiss.

Leggo-palooza? Lollapa-Lego! (8.7.08)

I'm officially old. My friend Christina said to get a gauge of your age in culture years, take a look at the Lollapalooza line-up and count how many bands you have heard of. Just heard the name, not own records from or can identify songs. I got about seven. According the inverse property, that makes me...uh, carry the nine...Old.

But on a outing with my two daughters to the new Lego Discovery Center, I found that we had a kind of a rock festival experience of our own.

For the rock show of the moment, I'm working purely on imagination and the Tribune coverage, but I think Lollapalooza and Lego Discovery had a surprising lot in common.

Transportation woes? Getting down to the lakefront and schlepping out to Schaumberg both have their own distinct challenges. For us, it was miles of traffic and acres of parking lots. But we will grin and bear it and make our own joy, right? Gratitude for the good and compassion for everything else is my new motto. And eat something every two hours.

Long lines to get in and get food? Lego's got it! After our long drive, I saw the crowd extending down the block and my heart sank. I somehow pictured a weekday being a slow day. Maybe in a few months, Cindy, but this particular weekday happened to be the first Monday after the place opened, the first day after the Tribune article with big color pictures. So after a few minutes of waiting ("Girls, stop hugging. Gentle! Separate. Okay, one of you on one side of me, one on the other. I will leave this line. Okay, that's it. We're done.") we bail and I take them down the block to some kind of game center called GameWorks - how bad can it be? Well... The atmosphere is murky and loud, a teenager's or tweener's dream. I'm agog at an actual Titanic arcade game. Oh, the humanity. What's next? Twin towers pinball? After playing enough games to earn four little tickets which the girls excitedly redeem for two plastic backscratchers, ("Girls, that's not a fork! What goes in your mouth? That’s right. Food only.") we find the Lego line is down to only twenty minutes!

Rage at the Machine? For us, that would be Mia inside GameWorks trying fruitlessly to grab a stuffed toy out of the bin with a floppy metal claw.

Sticker shock? Check. $19 for adults, $15 for each kid over two.

Crowd phobia? We witnessed lots of cooperation and patience, babies and toddlers sleeping through the din (including my three year old, in my arms, while my big girl scooted and clamored in the open play area), and few melt-downs. I did have a shiver when witnessing a mom in the line for lunch who took a Lego out of her daughter's mouth, then said, "go back and play while I wait here." See motto above. Breathe and repeat.

Amazing views of nature and city? Does the forest preserve across Route 53 count?

Mosh Pit? Make that the open bins of tiny Lego pieces where the kids could invent and build and create and play to their hearts' content for as long as they wanted. I think I'm still pulling tiny bits of plastic out of my ears and shoes.

Trippy alternate reality episode?
That would be the short 3-D movie that has the gentlest battle scene you can imagine.

The thrill of the new, the joy of discovery? We had it too. Witness the crinkly grins and trilling giggles of kids when they realize the chubby uniformed Lego man with the handlebar moustache makes a gassy sound when you step on his foot. Be astounded at the huge tigers, cunning monkeys and other amazing pixillated-looking animals created out of itty-bitty Danish blocks.

Non-scary dragon ride, like something out of Disneyland, complete with, yes, believe it, a G-rated torture dungeon? Sorry, Kanye. This one is pure Lego.

Great memories? In spades.

Coffee Lovers Anonymous (8.21.08)

At our house the summer of 2008 will be memorable for lots of reasons. Nora had her first stint at day camp. Mia learned to tread water for a few seconds at a time. Our family triumphantly returned to Gilbert's in Lake Geneva for the entire meal! Mia recovered from her first sty! (Warm compresses and washed hands and ta-dah! Gone! in three days.) A first family camping trip. Mia's first sleepover!

And Mommy gave up coffee.

I suspect I would find this post much easier to write with a warm mug of a certain powerfully caffeinated beverage by my side. Or perhaps, since today is warm, a tall glass with cold milk over ice. I can just see the shiny drops of condensation dripping down the side, hear the tinkle of the ice as I upend it to get the last bitter drop.

Lot of things became easier with Mother's Little Helper - shuffling the mail and school paperwork and bank statements into smaller and neater piles; collecting and bagging outgrown books and clothes, then depositing them into the basement to be forgotten once again; feeling full of fizzy energy while I clicked faster and faster through web pages...

I gave up coffee in July after a spring flirtation with the hard stuff turned into a full-blown affair. I had always been a decaf girl, occasionally joining my husband in a weekend cappuccino just to be companionable. Then Starbucks had that promotional month of free Pike's Peak. It didn't take long before I was fully immersed. Addicted. By June I was jonesing for a real strong cup every single day. And feeling the pain when I didn't. Denial is a river that flows to the sound of "I'm okay because I can stop at one."

Oh that warm toasty smell. The deliciously burnt bitter taste that makes sweet companion foods so much sweeter. The virtuous feeling of ordering "skim." The congeniality over a mutual addiction - sharing an appreciative laugh with parents who also bear paper cups at the playground, offering exaggerated gratitude for a fresh pot at playgroup.

It made me smart. And ready to dance. But irritable and overly sensitive. And feeling resourceless before I had my daily dose. How much it giveth, but oh how much it taketh away. When I caught a clip from a movie about a man with rage issues that sounded a eensy-teensy-scary bit too familiar, I knew it was time to let go.

Aimee Lee Ball in this month's O (that's for Oprah) magazine writes about the brain chemistry that may hard-wire women for greater emotional sensitivity. Ball's article, "Women and the Negativity Receptor," identifies the physiological culprits for the judgmental thinking that women often fall prey to: our larger anterior cingulate cortex, a part of the brain that responds to social cues; cyclical hormonal surges that affect our reactivity to emotional nuance and a more sophisticated brain circuitry system that helps us read the emotions of others. Our uniquely female brains can make us skillfully empathetic, able to decipher the particular cries of our infants, but for me, an added stimulant on top of my feminine cerebral superpowers just made my skin too thin for comfort.

Right now, my work is with my children. My A-game needs to be about patience rather than spark. I need the bone deep calm that comes from a workout, a shower, deep breaths and a belief in the importance of what I am doing, not a skittering dance on the surface of my thoughts provided by high-octane rocket fuel.

Now I've become a green tea kind of person. Prairie Grass in Northbrook even serves their iced tea with a tiny pitcher of simple syrup. Mmmm.

A Bath (9.6.08)

We were so tired when we got home from the county fair last night I let the girls go to bed after merely washing their hands and faces. But today is Nora’s First Day of School – actually just a transitional hour in the preschool classroom, but we’ll treat it like the real deal, photos and all – so we must get clean and shiny. After breakfast, I draw her a bath.

“Yay!” She is happy to slip around in the water, rinsing off the dust of Wisconsin’s livestock barns.

“No drinking!” I warn her. She gives me a guilty glance, her cheeks already puffed out.

The flotilla of plastic bath toys fill the entire surface of the tub along with a few Polly Pockets never designed to withstand a dousing. Nora squeaks high and growls low in conversation with tiny plastic Diego and his swim friend Grover.

“Do the mermaid,” I tell her, the cue to lean her head back under the faucet to get her hair wet for the shampoo. “Look up at the stars.” Her face is utterly serious with concentration, her tiny shoulders held up high as she negotiates the safest way to lean back on her elbows and tilt her trusting head. I sluice the water over the blond-white curls on the sides of her head. Her fluffy thin hair changes to long, dark and slippery strands, revealing the heart-breaking curve of her round forehead.

I ignore the dark spots in the tile grout but I have to put my knees on the cracked floor tiles as I wash Nora's hair. It’s an awful bathroom that we've endured for four years, but with a hopeful act that requires all my courage, I've agreed to let strangers enter our home for three weeks, break apart the tile, the walls, the floor and replace the old with new. If the tile we use is fashioned from recycled glass, the vanity from bamboo and the toilet is low-flow, have we balanced our green karma against the guilt of adding this room's discarded skin to landfill?

After Nora's hair is clean, after checking the back of her ears, I let her splash and play. The water is slowly draining and Nora lays down in what is left, like a merbaby reluctant to lose her native element.

"Today is your first day of school! You'll be in a classroom down the hall from sister!" I tell her.

She pauses. "That's strange!" she replies in her squeaky mouse voice. These words are her standard answer these days when I talk about something outside her experience, something beyond what she can imagine yet.

Time for the towel. Bundled from head to two, she pauses her busy dancing for a moment to sit in my lap and be held.

I remember a few lines from a poem I read in high school – a poem I liked so much that I inscribed the words on my imaginary tombstone for another class assignment. “Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting…/Trailing clouds of glory do we come/From God, who is our home.”

William Wordsworth's idea that our souls and consciousness begin in Heaven, then enter our bodies at birth, holding on to just the faintest memories of that timeless time offers so much comfort and so many answers. I look at Nora and her not much bigger sister and it's easy to see how Wordsworth held this beautiful belief. Their otherworldly trust, their amazing regenerative powers – a boo boo gone in a day! a fracture healed in short weeks! -- their sweet smells, skin that nearly glows, the joy they find in nature, like this everyday tub water, suddenly made amazing by Nora's play. In her hands, it makes noise, it flies, it flows, it beads, it propels, it drips, it chills, it warms. A miraculous substance – like Nora herself.

This week, my husband’s parents will visit from Florida. My father-in-law, a reluctantly retired Presbyterian minister, will perform a baptism on Sunday for my husband’s friend's wife and their two children. I’m delighted that my girls will witness this ceremony, as casual as a few words and some sprinkling on the back porch may be.

I'm thrilled the girls will see their grandfather’s important work, will take part in a timeless tradition, will join a growing web of community of family and friends. Perhaps they may even sense the solemnity of Something Else, more than themselves.

We are not raising our children to obey and worship a god, although I hope and plan that their values will mirror many of those who choose the religious life – respect, loyalty and compassion, the virtues of temperance, honesty, forbearance, hope. And gratitude, with which I am nearly overwhelmed at this moment, holding this child. If I omit faith in the supernatural from their daily life, I'll try to replace the suspension of disbelief with inquiry, curiosity, logic and judgment. But who knows what this child will believe? I will defend her right to her own spiritual choice, even if I do not share it.

There's a discarded magazine on the bathroom floor, flipped open to a picture of a father holding his toddler boy.

I show Nora the picture and ask her, "Are you little, like this baby?"

“No, I'm a big girl. I’m free!” she says, describing her age. Yes, honey, you are.

My heart is at your festival,
My head hath its coronal,
The fullness of your bliss, I feel--I feel it all.

-- William Wordsworth, Ode on Intimations of Immortality

Clutter, An Appreciation (See Footnote 1) (9.21.08)

We're planning to redo our upstairs bathroom so I've been leafing through the pages (Footnote 2) of fancy fantasy bath books and every single one of the photos, from the luxury marble palaces to the modest Zen retreats done up in teak, have something in common. No twisted tubes of old Princess toothpaste, no discarded copies of Entertainment Weekly and National Geographic. No legion of bath toys. Each room as beautiful and anonymous as a hotel bath.

I want to blame the chaotic energy of my kids for my cluttered house. I really do. But I really can't. I've been a packrat since forever. But motherhood has made me look at my clutter as something other than simply a bad habit.

There are lots of enthusiastic web sites out there dedicated to busting clutter. I should know - their links are cluttering up my bookmarks bar. I love their cheerleader attitude - Pick up twenty-seven useless things and fling them out! Sing as you work! Pretend you are moving and pack up the stuff not worth taking! The best strategies treat clean-up as a game, rather than a chore - much like the way we get our own kids to pick up after themselves. "Race ya!" (3)

The bright tone of professional mess busters is necessary - clutter can become oppressive and overwhelming. (4) But I've come to accept myself as a saver. I have to. There's a junk-drawer worth of psychological twisty ties in my past that explains why I can get more emotional about an ancient stuffed animal than my wedding shoes. (5)

I have a tendency to attach sentimental value to the strangest things. I kept a rolodex card through moves to three different states with the phone number of a woman I met once and never called. But my mother's credenza? When my uncle handed this dark and clunky 1950's era piece of furniture off to me, I had no qualms about putting it out in the alley. (6)

My graphic designer cousin (7) once told me (8) that my tolerance for clutter might have something to do with the way I see the world.

Where my husband sees a pile on my desk, I can see a project. You spot stray stuffed animals in our hall; I see characters in an elaborate story my children are in the process of creating. Some find a silver lining in "messy desk=creative mind"; I say savers are those who see the world as open-ended rather than a closed system. "Hey! I'm still working on that! I've got plans! Big plans!" (9)

But I'm also thinking my ability to walk around the occasional mess also arises from the way I feel the world - as a mom. Part of a mother's job description, after all, is tenderness and when children grow passionate attachments for stinky shredded scraps of blankies, for microscopic Polly Pocket shoes, for every big-eyed beribboned plastic kitty that enters the house, our empathy and understanding is required.

I do have equal parts pride and disgust that I actually can tell you the origin of hundreds of stray pieces of scrap plastic, wood and fluff that populate our toy boxes and baskets. I recognize this doll's dress, that stuffed cat's leash, the block that belongs to the set I gave away months ago.

A very funny woman at New Jersey Moms Blog chalks up inevitable toy accumulation to female biology and its powerful gathering instinct.

So what to do with all my children's artwork? Both my girls are bringing home crayon drawings and seasonal crafts from school and I hate to toss them. I've framed some, recycled some as birthday invitations, sent many to the grandmas, labeled lots with narration, considered starting a new blog and packed away pounds in paper portfolio cases.

The alternative? I've seen one minimalist system that was a little too scary: A good friend told me she would praise her daughter's drawing, then rip it up in front of her. "Wasn't that fun to make, honey? And now we recycle the paper. It's all about the process, not the product." This woman's home? Straight out of a shabby chic design magazine.

The picture above is my daughter Mia's latest masterpiece, "Rainbow Pegasus Jumping Over Pink Unicorn." Recycle bin? Never.

1. The brilliant writer David Foster Wallace died last week at his home in Los Angeles. One of his trademark writing devices was an extended use of footnotes, used, for one example, to hilarious effect in his famous essay, "A Supposedly Fun Thing I Will Never Do Again." Here is a slowly-loading PDF file of a version of that piece. I'm no D.F. Wallace, far from it, but today I'm borrowing his tangent numbering system for my word clutter.

2. The assistant of the contractor who is redoing our upstairs bath dropped off the style books this week - several pounds of thick tomes that I would ordinarily call coffee table books, but who would want a picture of a bidet on her coffee table?

In my typically difficult fashion, I told the assistant on the phone, "Well, we want to go totally green with the new bath, so I'm really thinking we would first find the most local, recycled products, and the aesthetics would follow." "Um...okay," the poor woman said, confused. "Um, so do you want me to drop these by anyway?"

3. Today Flylady even inspired me to call up FreeCycle to find a home for two rusty tricycles my kids have outgrown and nineteen glass vases that were gathering dust in the basement. The vase taker even left something in return - a bouquet of dried money plant! How sweet was that?

4. If these were real footnotes and not just a Container Store temporary solution for my asides, I would place here statistical evidence of the social and personal dangers of the clutter-obscured life. Like, say, (I'm making this up, mind you) 47% of all sad people own an excessive amount of Hummel figurines. Or, (this one's my favorite from The Onion), 100% of Americans lead secret lives.

5. But I'll save all that for the therapist.

6. This was when we lived in the Avondale neighborhood of Chicago and you could always count on someone coming by to pick up your stuff. "It's okay?" asked the young woman and her husband who stopped to look at the piece while Randy and I were hauling it out. "It's okay!" I replied. They examined the credenza carefully, then carried it away, to my great satisfaction. Sometimes stuff would disappear by the time you returned to the alley with your second armful. I called it the Chicago Super Secret Pick-Up Service.

7. whose Saugatuck home is immaculate

8. kindly

9. Jonathan Franzen, whose work has been called heavily influenced by David Foster Wallace, ended his novel The Corrections with these words about Enid Lambert, a chronic pack-rat: "...she felt that nothing could kill her hope now, nothing. She was seventy-five and she was going to make some changes in her life."