Monday, January 26, 2009

Haggis and hard conversations

Last night, I went to a good friend's haggis party, which raises the question, "Do friends make friends go to haggis parties?" (I guess it was technically called a "Robert Burns party" but when the star of the evening is a sheep's stomach stuffed with sheep's heart and liver as well as non-organ things like oatmeal, you kind of forget about the Scottish poet part.) It was a very fun evening with lots of interesting people, most of whom I didn't know, reading poetry and eating shepherd's pie together. SB saw her first kilt: she sidled up to me in that very unsubtle way of four year olds and said, in what she thought was a whisper, "Mama, that guy's wearing a skirt." The haggis, though I'd worked myself up over it, was no big deal: kind of like a mushy meatloaf. Watching it boil in the pot beforehand was much more traumatizing.

But in the week before the party, I'd also worked myself up over Portland's Mayor Sam Adams scandal, which broke, sadly, on inauguration day. On what should have been the most uncomplicatedly blissful day of the year for Portland Dems, we were instead faced with news reports that our new mayor, while a city commissioner, had a sexual relationship with a young man who was probably 18 but may have been 17 (age of legal consent in Oregon is 18), and then lied about it (and encouraged and abetted further lying) when confronted with the allegations during his mayoral run last year (which wasn't really a close race at all). So instead of basking together in the Obama afterglow, Portlanders found themselves arguing in the shadow of Sam-gate: Should he resign? Should he stay and fight and possibly face a recall? Should he pay penance through public pantsing (my favorite solution)?

This is a hard one, y'all. I talked with lots of people and read lots of articles, but by Thursday, showed up at a rally at City Hall supporting the mayor, mostly because I don't think the sex or the lying were a big deal (cynic that I am, I compare this to Goldschmidt's 14-year-old babysitter scandal and Illinois Governor Blagojevich's attempt to sell a senate seat, and it doesn't seem so bad). Plus, I have a fondness for the mayor, warts and all, and his 20 years of loyalty and dedication to the city. I want Portland to keep being a great city, and I think he can help us do that. But I've lost lots of sleep over this because it's not like Obama-love at all. It's much messier and harder to figure out.

At the haggis party, a nice man--a friend of a friend who I only casually know--stopped to tell me how much he liked the last issue of the magazine I edit, especially the article about how civil conversations, the kind that involve truly listening to someone who doesn't agree with you, are important to a democracy. Though I thanked him for his compliment, I admitted that the whole Mayor Sam controversy had really been a test of my resolve and that I was incredibly tired of having "civil conversations" with everyone. I just wanted to talk to people who completely agreed with me (those of you familiar with my blog will no doubt be laughing at this point because of my earlier post complaining about Portland being filled with "people like me").

Sure, many of my friends ultimately felt that Mayor Sam shouldn't resign, but we came to that conclusion in different ways. Many people felt that it was wrong for him to lie but that the sexual relationship seemed to be no big deal. Other people expressed rage over his inability to make the right decision and not start the relationship to begin with. Sigh. I get what everyone is saying, I really do. But I'm exhausted from processing it all. I just want conversations with my friends to be simple again, at least for a while, stuff like "Groundwork Organics strawberries are totally better than Thompsons" or "Robert Downey Jr. should definitely get a nomination for Tropic Thunder." Simple yuppie dreams. I suddenly see why people move to the suburbs.

Maybe the idea that it's good to have conversations about hard things with people who don't agree with us is BS, good in theory, icky in practice. Maybe I should just drink the Kool Aid and start compartmentalizing a bit so that life is easier to understand and sleep is easier to come by. Or maybe I should just wait this out and get some of my gumption back--with any luck, I'll be ready to spar again this time next week.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The awkward transition from cynicism to optimism

One of the best things about being done with my thesis is that on a holiday like today, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I'm not stuck at home flipping through architecture books and trying to churn out pages. I actually got to go out into the world and do something that pertains to the holiday--in this case, go door to door and collect food for Oregon Food Bank. I kept SB out of school (her preschool is one of the few that stays open on most holidays except the big ones) and met a friend and her daughter--and 150 other people--at Abernethy School in SE Portland, where we were given a pep talk about Obama's National Day of Service and offered pretzels and bagels before we ventured out into the neighborhoods.

It was a fabulously clear, albeit cold and windy, day to be wandering through one of Portland's prettiest neighborhoods and pulling wagons full of canned foods while two four-year-olds scampered ahead, pretending to be banana-eating dinosaurs or baby hawks. Most of the people we talked to were glad to see us, ducking back into their warm homes to rummage through their cupboards and returning with armloads of cans and boxes. When we thanked them, some said, "No, thank you." Maybe it's the good weather, maybe it's the spirit of the day, but I think mostly, at least in this inner-eastside neighborhood, it was the anticipation of tomorrow's inauguration that has us all in fine spirits.

Those of you who know me know that I've never been a political person. Sure, I always voted (except one year in the 1990s when I forgot to go to the polls, but I was in college and also sometimes forgot to go to class--hence that F in geology), signed petitions, read the occasional op-ed piece, etc. But like a lot of women, since having a kid in 2004, I've changed.

Sure, if you're left-leaning, the past four years would be a pretty good time to become interested in politics, new parent or not. After all, 2004 was the year Barack Obama electrified the Democratic National Convention and George Bush was reelected for his second miserable term. I was in my last trimester the day I first heard Obama on the radio, giving his now famous speech talking about one America. I was swollen and grouchy and craving a huge plate of teriyaki chicken and rice. On our way to pick up some takeout, the rising crescendo of his voice cut through the NPR white noise and I turned up the volume. We pulled up in front of the restaurant and I gestured for Alex to go inside alone to the get food; by the time he returned, I was choking back tears. I couldn't remember the last time I'd been moved to tears by a politician's rhetoric.

That year, election day fell on my birthday; SB had been born only weeks earlier. As results started coming in that evening and analysts tried to make sense of the numbers, there I was, bouncing on one of those big yoga balls with a six-week-old clutched to my chest, sleep-deprived and bewildered--both by hormones and the dawning realization that it would be four more years of buffoonery in the White House. Needless to say, one of the crappiest birthdays ever.

I'd like to say that was a turning point for me, but it wasn't really. After all, the first year of parenting is more like an improv act, full of bits that work and bits that don't. I didn't become a rabid political junkie: I still can't identify more than a handful of U.S. senators in a matching game of names and photos. But that was definitely when I began to understand turning inward, as comforting as it may be, wasn't making anything better. Besides being a crappy conversationalist, I was most obviously a crappy citizen, which meant there was a good chance my daughter would grow up to be a crappy citizen, too. So I began doing volunteer work here and there, giving more money to causes I believed in, and figuring out ways to be a more active, public person. I even made phone calls during the heated days before the 2008 election, asking sometimes hostile people if they'd turned their ballots in. The pre-mom me would never have done anything so political.

But with this new openness and sense of obligation to the world comes something else that's been harder to adjust to: optimism. As a young adult in the 1980s and 90s, optimism was akin to naivete. Sure, we got married and had kids--optimistic acts, for sure, but ones somehow tainted by practicality and resignation that these were things that middle-class adults did. But my cynicism of and disdain for the American government and, at times, for the very notion of being an American were elemental--birthrights, even, given that I am the descendant people who's autonomous island nation was seized by greedy American businessmen and made into the fiftieth state in the union.

So it's hard for me to grasp but what started with me crying outside a takeout restaurant while in my third trimester, and wend its way through a thesis project called "At Home in the World: the Middle-Class American Home as a Twenty-first Century Public Space," and led to my daughter and I knocking on strangers' doors and asking them to donate canned food--this is what optimism looks like. Of course, when, at Abernethy School, an earnest young woman and man led us through a round of "We Shall Overcome," I couldn't help but roll my eyes and wander off on the pretense of finding my daughter: I can't unlearn old habits overnight, after all.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Not giving up on Santa

Alex took today off to stay home with SB because I was at a conference. Later, as we debriefed about each other's day while shopping for a gift for yet another kid's birthday party, Alex mentioned that SB told him she didn't believe in Santa Claus.

"What?" I said, shocked. "She's only four." Somehow, I thought this day would come much later, maybe when she was in grade school (a.k.a. that place where all childhood fancies die).

She'd told Alex that because she couldn't see Santa, he didn't exist. Although I admired her reasoning skills, this really bugged me. I mean, I'm agnostic and a firm believer in science and provable things, but I'm also a grown up; I lost my ability to believe in things I couldn't see slowly and unwillingly.

I was nine years old when I last "tested" the theory of God by praying for a bag full of money. I went to sleep feeling more optimistic than skeptical, half planning on how to spend my cash at the county fair later that week. I woke up and searched my room, wondering where God would put a bag of cash, and only then did disappointment set in. I've never been able to fully shake this feeling of sadness, this sense that life is maybe just what you see in front of you, but part of being a grown up is learning to live with the limitations of reality.

Later, when we were having dinner at our fave conveyor-belt sushi place, I nonchalantly brought up the Santa thing with SB: "So, what did you tell Dada about Santa today?"

"Well," she began, speaking fairly clearly, considering she had a mouthful of inari, "I never see him except on movies and stuff, so I don't think he's real."

"But there are lots of things we can't see that are still real." I hemmed and hawed for a moment, trying to think of a good example, then I blurted out, "Like Saturn. We can't see it, but it's real."

"Yeah," she said, "we can't see it because it's really, really, really, really far away. And because it's dark. It's in the Earth, right?"

Okay. Bad example. I thought of the look on her face when I'd tried to explain the line in the Flaming Lips song, "Do you realize that we're floating in space?" She can't yet handle the idea of space, but really, neither can I.

"Well, I think it's good to believe in things you can't see." I retreated to the admittedly weak parental strategy of issuing an edict: "I say it is so, so it is."

"You mean like the Easter bunny?" she said. I suspected she was testing me because last Easter, she asked why the Easter bunny had hidden the eggs we'd colored the night before rather than his/her own eggs, and, in desperation, I'd made up some complicated story about how the Easter bunny brought candy and asked us to hide the eggs because he had lots of houses to visit.

I decided my only move was to stick to that original story: "Remember, the Easter bunny brings candy."

"But I saw the candy we had and it was the same as the Easter bunny brought," she said, looking me straight in the eye. I flinched. My kid, the investigative reporter.

Instead of helping me, Alex smirked and ate another piece of sushi, then looked expectantly at me.

"Okay," I began, flailing but refusing to give in. "But remember how at Halloween, we went trick or treating and some people gave you Snickers bars but we already had Snickers bars at home? Well, the Easter bunny just happened to have the same candy that we had."

That ended the conversation, but only because we'd digressed from Christmas to Easter to Halloween, and couldn't remember what we were originally discussing.

Maybe I'm being a hypocrite, but I really want my kid to believe in magical things, like the unconditional love of a bearded man in a red suit or a large bunny carrying baskets of candy, for a little while longer. Part of this urge, I'm sure, is about suspending time, of keeping her wide-eyed and open-hearted for as long as possible. But really, some part of me is desperate to again feel--if only through my child--that suspension of disbelief, that light and fleeting feeling that anything, anything, is possible.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Memento Week

Scene 1: Green tomato chutney making on Saturday with the fabulous Harriet Fasenfest and my reliable life domestic pals Kristen and Mel (of What Not fame). In this photo, Kristen and Harriet stir up two large vats of what will ultimately be very yummy chutney--some 40 or so jars of the stuff. It's true: the labors of chopping onions, apples, prunes, and tomatoes are so much more pleasurable with good (albeit at times heated and politcal) conversation. But notice that this picture is taken from behind our range, where once a wall had been. . . .

Scene 2: Look at this spacious combined dining room and kitchen space. Though some would call it a travesty to open up a kitchen in a traditional house to the adjoining dining room, thinking it too modern and disrespectful. But you know what I find more disrespectful? Leaving someone stranded in the kitchen slaving over a meal while family members and guests laugh and drink wine in another room. Plus, the opened space makes it easier for kids to run circles through the house in that crazy way that I mostly don't mind, as long as no one is carrying a stick or pair of scissors (Parenting 101). And though it's not clear yet, the beam will be enclosed and sheetrocked and fitted with molding that matches that of the rest of the house. So there: history respected and modern family life accommodated.

Scene 3: Beam-raising day! After a fair bit of persuasion on my part, Alex made an eleventh-hour call to good buddy (and hubby of What Knot) Brian to ask for help with installing that aforementioned humungous beam where a wall once was. After some let's call it "discussion" between two accomplished and know-it-all handy men, the beam was up and set to do its job of keeping the second floor above the first floor. Not magic or aliens after all: just strong, smart men and math!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A quick pitch for a site that doesn't need my help

I hope you're all reading Tina Brown's latest baby The Daily Beast, because even though I'm supposed to be prepping my manuscript to give to my committee on Thursday, I am! Here's a quick list of why:

1. A picture of Laura from Project Runway breastfeeding one of her thirty kids and offering advice to Sarah Palin. (I repeat: A picture of Laura from Project Runway breastfeeding one of her thirty kids and offering advice to Sarah Palin, ISYN.)

2. A list of how to avoid giving your kid a hipster name, like Mathilda or Daisy (both that, ahem, have been on the short list for my imaginary future second child, who, I guess, better be a girl).

3. On October 10, Christopher Buckley says on DB that he's going to vote for Obama, then today, he quits The National Review because so many conservatives are pissed at him? Maybe The Nation needs a columnist?

While you're digesting this info, please do yourselves a favor and read Christopher Hitchens's not-quite-endorsement-of-Obama-but-definitely-bitch-slapping-of-McPalin in Slate. Scathing. My friend Sarah wonders if this is the last stand of centrist conservatives, the thought of which, in all seriousness, bums me out. At least, I can sometimes understand where Buckley and Hitchens are coming from, unlike the crazies that have been showing up at McCain rallies. Yikes. As Alex says, the bigger problem with homogeneity, which I snarked about in a recent post, is that at extremes, it encourages intractability and fanaticism. We need those centrists and moderates for ballast.

But back to The Daily Beast: it's like Fred Meyer--slightly gaudy and tacky, but you can buy groceries, underwear, and a hammer at one checkstand. Check it out and thank me later.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The unexplainable in home improvement (as explained by the clueless)

Sometimes, I hate living in the city. For example, I came home the other day and found out that someone dropped this 300-pound beam in the middle of our kitchen:

Alex claims he was napping when it happened, but that must have been some REM sleep he was in. Near as I can tell, some high school kids must have hijacked some sort of heavy equipment machinery to get the thing in here and when they backed up to leave, that beep-beep-beeping sound would have normally woken Alex. But he's been going to lots of concerts lately, and using nail guns, so maybe his hearing is going a bit.

This is the kind of thing that can really only happen in the city. Kids in the country do harmless things like tip cows and play mailbox baseball.

On the bright side, this beam will apparently come in handy for our ongoing home remodeling project. At some point, in fact, it will soon hold up the second floor of our house, either through some feat of engineering or magic or both. I wonder if space aliens will use their advanced powers to levitate the thing and hold it place while Alex pounds/glues/staples it into place?

Friday, October 3, 2008

How to make your four-year-old daughter cry

Wake up on a stay-home day and rush your daughter through a breakfast of apples and peanut butter because there are things to do. You've been on an anti-grocery store kick since spring, so, instead of spending time wandering aisles, you spend perhaps more time gathering food from farmers markets, a CSA, and food buying group. This morning, you're supposed to meet the Azure Standard truck at Rebecca's, to pick up, among other things, a gallon of olive oil, gluten-free flours, and assorted frozen goods. Hardly a good time for a kid, but she hangs out on the porch while you and the other moms schlep boxes of food from Jeff's enormous delivery truck through the first serious rain of fall.

Rush her home to unload, and when she kicks off her rainboots, say, "Sorry, we've got to do another errand." She sighs and puts them back on. You drive downtown and circle a block about twenty times before finally parking illegally in a bank lot. Then, drag her up to the graduate studies office on the sixth floor, where a nice woman tells you they have the GO-12 and the GO-16M, but not the GO-19, which makes you laugh but not because it's funny. Your daughter, wearing a green frog raincoat that's one size too big and clutching a Mother Goose book, collapses on the floor and waits.

You try to make up for the morning with a quick lunch at Burgerville, purple balloon and all, but then, it's off to Kuts 4 Kids, where Suzanne cleans up your daughter's curls and ties them up in red and purple ribbons. When asked what she wants to be for Halloween, your daughter glowers. You think about withholding the usual post-haircut lollipop, but instead, smile tightly and lecture her about respecting her elders as you drive home. It's still raining.

After quiet time for her and work time for you, break it to her that, though the day is all but done, you still have to pick up your CSA vegetable share. Her pretty little mouth moves toward a pout, so you desperately offer to let her watch Curious George and eat a popsicle when she gets home, which elicits a cheer from her but makes your stomach twist up in failure because you realize how much you suck--not always, but definitely today.

You keep your end of the bargain when you get home. Your husband is in the kitchen putting soup together and you finish work you didn't finish earlier in the day. When you turn off the TV after her show is over, she gives you a look that reminds you that you suck, so you offer to play hospital with her, using her new birthday ambulance that came complete with a kid, bicycle, and bandages. You remind her to thank her dad for ordering the toy for her, but she blows you off, walks past him, and grabs a handful of trail mix. This enrages you, so you take the raisins away from her, sit her on the "time out" step, and give her another "respecting your elders" lecture. You leave her there but hear her hiccuping and sniffling from the other room.

After she thanks her dad, still hiccuping and sniffling and chewing on the soft fleshy part of her palm (a remnant tic from when she was a baby), you play hospital for a while, but then it's dinnertime. She tries to avoid the meal entirely, knowing it's soup--not her favorite--by asking to watch "the TV show of me"--videos from when she was a baby. You agree, convincing yourself that home movies don't really count as TV.

She chokes down kale and squash, digging around for the bacon and beans, but then you all sit down and watch snippets from 2006. You laugh at her chubby legs and sweet baby voice. You talk about the old house, the trip to Mt. Hood, how young Ella and Zoe and Isaiah look. Then it's bedtime and you turn the TV off and she starts to cry, saying, "Mama, I don't like what I'm doing." When you ask what she means, she says, stammering with the effort of speaking through tears, "I don't like how I haven't had fun this whole day." For a moment, you can't reconcile the images of the toddler on the video and this long-legged girl who speaks in complete sentences. You think of what else you can offer her, but it's almost 8:00, so you promise her a few more minutes of SBTV tomorrow and give her a piggy back ride upstairs.

Later that night, snuggled in bed, you cry while reading the last chapter of Charlotte's Web. Your daughter's head is resting on your chest, so you struggle to control your voice, but the words get gobbed up in your throat, and now, it's you who's hiccuping. She sits up, sees your face, and asks why you're sad. When you say it's because Charlotte died and she was such a good friend to Wilbur, she begins to cry, too.

You wipe your tears on the purple handkerchief that sits on her nightstand, then pass it to her. You pull yourself together and continue reading, but she's listening closely now, not to the words on the page but to the inflections of your voice. You finish the book, tears streaming down your face, but your voice perfectly normal. Your daughter dabs at your cheeks with the handkerchief. Tears stream down her face, too, and when you say, "Why are you sad? Because of the book? Because we had a rough day?" She shakes her head, reaches for you, and says, "No. I'm sad because you're sad."

You turn off the light, settle her in under the covers, and pull her close. Her small body is angular, knobby at the joints, but her face is full and smooth. You kiss her check and forehead over and over again, and sing "Our House" in a hoarse rasp against her sweet-smelling hair.