24 July 2015

There Is No Horse But Polo

The girl is off in the woods with a bunch of other girls, and I am amusing myself by mailing things to her. It might be my favorite part of having her gone; as we all know, I love mailing oddments and notes.

So far, this is what's been sent. I wrote her a card, on Tuesday, the day before we dropped her off. I rambled on about the weirdness of writing to her during the day on Tuesday, when I was going to see her that night, and knowing that she wouldn't get the note until Thursday or Friday. Yesterday, I mailed a little game from the crazy Danish store near my office. Next week, I'll get Amazon to ship out a book called Nimona that got a wonderful review in the New York Times.

My favorite, though? We confiscated her cellphone before we left her in that other state, and I stole a photo off of it - she'd taken a picture of a horse, looking completely demented, and has had it as her screen background.

I transferred the picture to my phone, signed up for a postcard app, and for $1.99, mailed her the picture with a with a note from the horse.

I can’t believe you left me for another horse. Is his name Sheldon? Feh. There is no horse but Polo; there is no darkness but ignorance.  You’ll come back to me so grateful for my strength and elegance; so delighted by my feisty demeanor. See you soonest. Love, Polo

If she didn't think her mother was nuts before, this will seal the deal. Unless, of course, she thinks Polo is cleverer than he really is.

22 July 2015

What The Parents Do When The Kid Is Away

We dropped the child off at camp today. It took an hour and half to get there, because she was not interested in dawdling. It took us three and a half hours to get home because it was a beautiful day and we stopped for lunch in one little town and stopped for ice cream in another little town and detoured to Goshen, NY to bear witness to the impending dismantling and "renovation" of the Orange County Government Center.

I'd never seen it before. Yes, it's stark. But it's set back off the road, behind a scrim of carefully placed trees, in a lush lawn. It's got movement about it, in the articulation of volumes, varyingly stacked and shaped.

Curiously enough, one of the first places I lived - though I don't remember it - was a Paul Rudolph building: the Married Student Housing at Yale, also known as the Mansfield Apartments. I was a toddler there, it's where my little brother was born, and my mother used to talk about the fact that there was no place to leave a stroller when you came back with groceries and had to climb two flights of stairs to your third floor apartment. But that didn't stop her from appreciating the building and its big windows, and every time she visited New Haven, she liked to detour past it and marvel that she'd lived in a building by Paul Rudolph.

History is important. Public history is even more important. Telling stories, remember buildings, these are the things that make us human. I'm glad for the detour - I don't know what is really going to happen with that building, but I know that I've seen it and that kernel of witnessing is important to me.

16 July 2015

Nostalgia in the Target Shampoo Department, and a Digression about Toothpaste

I think I have turned into my mother. I took my daughter to Target the other day to buy some things that she needs for camp. Included on the list that she made (Uggs = NO, iPod = NO) were shampoo and conditioner (can't argue against cleanliness) but what she picked out off the shelf is called Not Your Mother's Shampoo.

[Truth be told, I think she'd seen an ad for it, because she was looking for it.]

I had to laugh. When I was a tween/teen, all I wanted was the toothpaste, shampoo, conditioner that my mother wouldn't buy. She was deep into Pathmark's No Frills brand. Price was definitely a factor, but so too was the relentlessly sterile, black and white packaging, so severe as to be - dare I say - stylish.

Okay, maybe stylish is going too far.

But oh how I longed for toothpaste that wasn't chalky indifferent mint. I wanted Close Up - not because I thought it would make me more attractive, but because that ruby red clear gel was so beautiful.

And it's cinnamon! I love cinnamon toothpaste.

I dreamed of brand name shampoo. Like Lemon Up - with its molded plastic lemon for a cap.

I made do with bottled lemon juice as a rinse.

Then again, maybe I haven't turned into my mother. After all, I acceded to the petty indulgence of Not Your Mother's Shampoo. But my daughter may be turning into me, in her rejection of my workaday, ordinary shower accouterments in favor of those she chooses. Ah, growing up.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

In the meantime, I'm still looking for the perfect toothpaste. I was squarely in the Arm & Hammer baking soda toothpaste camp for a long time, until I got bored. I moved on to Tom's Cinnamon Clove, until they changed the formula and made it blander and more boring. I buy the Fennel, Propolis & Myrrh toothpaste at Trader Joe's sometimes, but I don't shop there terribly often. It is a weird flavor, which I like in a perverse kind of way - and I know that my husband will never ever borrow it. I've tried Toothy Tabs from Lush, which are okay but not perfect and I am confounded by the instructions, which tell you to "Crunch one tablet up between your front teeth". Why must it be crunched up front? Molars are better for crunching. Strangest of all is the Anise & Clove Tooth Soap that comes in a lovely little glass bottle, with an eyedropper. It - literally - is like washing your mouth out with soap and I have to say that it put me straight over the edge and back to Arm & Hammer. It is still in the medicine cabinet and once in a while I use it just to remind myself that it really is bizarre. Now that I know that Close Up is available on Amazon, where all of the reviews are nostalgia-tinged, I may have to give it a try. I'll be so sad if it isn't transformatively wonderful though.

13 July 2015

Horrified Fascination

On the one hand, this wasps' nest is about a yard away from the railing of our back deck.

On the other hand, it's endlessly enthralling. The nest gets incrementally larger and larger, day by day. If you fling a cherry pit towards it and rattle the branch, the wasps fly about, agitatedly. [No one, yet, has hit the nest itself - I don't want to be around when that happens.] The wasps have figured out that the hummingbird feeder - about 15 feet away - seeps just enough sugar water for them to use it as a food source. Sadly, they've been playing chicken with the resident hummingbird. She is bigger than they are, but there are more of them.

This is why we live in the woods.

10 July 2015

In Which We Publish Other People's Poetry

In March, my 11yo entered a townwide Young Writers Contest, sponsored by the library. She entered pieces in each of the three categories: Fiction, Non-Fiction and Poetry.

She didn't win, but she told me it was okay for me to publish her poem.


A child is afraid of the dark.
There are monsters and shadows lurking around every corner.
The child has no parents, only a limp bear to protect her.
The monsters under the bed make noises to make the child jump.
The monsters in the closet make noises to make the child run and hide.
The child has the parents’ comfort in the day,
Only their snores by night.
Was that just a shadow, or is someone there?
No child thinks this by day, most by night.
A child is afraid of the dark.

An adult is afraid of the light.
The cruelties and pains of life wait for them behind a metal desk.
They have only the night for solitude.
The monthly rent makes them jump.
The water bill is designed to make them scared.
What they do during the day makes them want to stay in the dark for longer.
Making them regret the decision to face the light.
The stack of papers not yet checked, makes them regret the choice to seize the job.
Wishing they were younger, with so much promise and choice.
An adult is afraid of the light.

07 July 2015

A Unified Theory on Reading, or maybe just a late night ramble

Last week, I finished reading a big, chewy, absorbing trilogy - the Magicians trilogy, by Lev Grossman.

[The trilogy is so good. I liked the first book, I thought the beginning of the second book was a bit tedious, but by the end of the second book, I HAD to get the ebook of the 3rd out of the library right that very minute and I simply couldn't put it down until I was done. It's rich and complicated, and it ends beautifully - so while I'm sad to be done, I also feel like it's all tied up pretty well.]

And then we went away for the weekend, and I packed four books - all of which I was in the middle of - into my bag. And I bought a fifth book at a terrific independent bookstore that I'd never been in - the kind of bookstore that's worth a detour through Saugerties if you happen to be in that general area.

The thing is, none of them were novels. I needed a palate cleanser after the Magicians. So I spent the weekend flitting between a graphic novel, a short story collection, and a gardening book of the short literary pieces ilk.

I found myself reading aloud to my forbearing husband from The Well-Tempered Garden; Lloyd writes with unwavering conviction and a delightful snarkiness. About some azaleas: "Their heavy, sweet, slightly putrid scent is a great attraction to those with a weak sense of smell, but overbearing to my way of thinking." On why you shouldn't edge your lawn: "But there is something profoundly depressing about a long, unbroken cliff of lawn edge." And reminding me that I need a cotinus coggygria: "Dew seen on this pink froth is such an experience that you'll wonder why you do not spend more time in the garden in the early morning."

Later, he talks of a combination of an orange lily and a pink alstroemeria: "They clashed well as a one-time gardener of ours used to say." I particularly liked that, given that the garden outside my bedroom was a riot of wild orange daylilies and screaming fuchsia roses.

Lydia Davis is something else. I'd never heard of her before I found her quoted in a piece in the New Yorker, by James Wood, called "Becoming Them" which is about becoming one's parents. It's a lovely essay, actually, but the reason I've been carrying around a grubby paper copy of it was because of the few lines of Davis, some of which follow:

Shall I keep a tidy house, like L.?
Shall I live alone in a large house, like B.?
Shall I give piano lessons, like M.?
Shall I leave the butter out all day to soften, like C.?

[I did a google search for that story, which is called How Shall I Mourn Them? and turned up a delightful reorganization of all of the lines of the story, by person - tidied up, if you will, like those Ursus Wehrli books where masterpieces of art get deconstructed back to their component lines and dots.]

Finally, I got around to buying the book - a thick and delicious brick of paper, oddly light for its many hundred pages. Her stories? I don't know where to begin. Many are short - a title and a sentence, or a paragraph. Most are peculiar in a particularly heartstabbing way. Every single one is savory, just so. As I read it, slowly over the past year, I thought time and again, I want to send this book to T. I want to send this story to C. I rather wish that Chronicle would take a mess of the shortest stories and publish them as a boxed set on postcards - so I could easily send a story to someone. Like this:


We are sitting here together, my digestion and I. I am reading a book and it is working away at the lunch I ate a little while ago.

Is that not odd and perfect?

Bechdel's Fun Home is a tour de force. I had, I confess, shied away from it because it's a graphic novel - it didn't seem like something I wanted to read. But I was incredibly lucky to be invited to see the musical at the Circle in the Square, and afterwards I rather wanted to experience the book. The book's broader, bigger, more detailed than the show - just like most books are more detailed than the movies they become. In retrospect, the book enhanced my experience of the show, and vice versa - both are singular experiences.

If you were keeping track, two books went away for the weekend and remained untouched. There's only so much reading one can do in three days. Margaret of the Imperfections (short stories) and Woodbrook (memoir) are waiting patiently for their turns at bat.

But what I'm thinking is that I need to start another big, chewy, absorbing novel.

24 June 2015

The Registry Conundrum, or, Should I Really Buy Them A Place Setting of Sterling Silver?

A couple of months ago, in a sidebar chat in Words With Friends, a friend I’ve known since graduate school mentioned that she’d just put a bunch of flowers in the vase I’d given her as a wedding gift. I remember her wedding well – it was lovely and it happened in New York during the 1986 National League playoffs, and because the Mets were playing there were people hunkered in the corners with little radios, checking on the game. And although I remember what I wore – a soft grey wool damask dress – I couldn’t have told you what I’d given them as a gift. But that she remembers? That’s the point.

A photo posted by @magpiemusing on

When I got married, 20 years ago today, we’d been living together for a long time. We didn’t really need anything, but we did do a wedding registry for dress-up table settings, the kind that you’d never buy yourself (or, I wouldn’t, anyway). It’s not fancy china – it’s Crate & Barrel, not Tiffany – and I love having it, all 12 place settings and extra dessert plates of it. But, for the life of me, I don’t know who gave me that plate, or that one, or any of the coffee cups. It’s all a big mush, it’s just the wedding china.

A photo posted by @magpiemusing on

The wedding gifts I remember are the unique ones, the ones that weren’t from the registry. There’s a handblown glass plate, cobalt blue, from a board member of an organization I once worked for. I put cheese on it and think of Bob. Marcia & Harvey gave us a vase from Simon Pearce; it lives on our mantelpiece with a string of tiny twinkle lights in it. Patti and Doug – she’d been my flute teacher in high school – gave us a pair of candlesticks and an oval Shaker box; the candlesticks are in regular rotation. Friends presented us with a gift certificate to a dear now-defunct restaurant, and on our 8th anniversary, we returned there for a meal, at which my husband opened a tiny sealed envelope and learned that I was pregnant with a girl. Sitting on the window sash in our bedroom is a glass teardrop that came from one of my husband’s relatives – it picks up the morning light so beautifully that it turns up in my Instagram feed on a regular basis.

A photo posted by @magpiemusing on

For a long time, when faced with a wedding and a need to find a gift, I thought a registry was a great idea – give the people what they want. In retrospect though, and with 20 years of wedded bliss under my belt, it’s the unique gifts that I’ve remembered well, and next time, I’ll carefully weigh a registry gift against something different, something inimitable, something forever.