Monday, March 23, 2015

Meow meow meow meow meow meow

Song was a large part of early childhood education when I worked at a private school several years back. "Follow, follow..." The teachers would chirp to children my son's age and older. I liked that idea, and it seemed to work.

I sang lullabies to Beren, and Jared would often play music when trying to lull our resistant child into the day's final transition, from waking to sleeping. It seemed more the duration of our efforts than our efforts themselves that finally brought sleep. 

Once, and only once, were we able to gently send Beren back to sleep with song alone. I remember it well: Jared and I slept in our bed, and Beren slept in his crib (the crib part is mysterious as he rarely slept in his crib, but more so in our bed). He woke and whimpered. 

We were finely tuned to his nighttime waking so through his infancy. "Hum Allah, hum Allah, hum Allah, hum Allah. Prince of peace, won't you hear our plea? Prince of peace... Hum Allah, hum Allah..." He fell back asleep, and likely woke again two hours later but the deep lyrics of Pharoah Sanders and our imitation of his soulful jazz allowed a couple hours sleep for all.

But overall, it has seemed Beren's not one for song. Sing-a-longs at libraries were busts, with Beren headed for the door or my armpit. Jared had the same experience. When he was eight or more months old, I sang my best country blues solo for him in the kitchen one afternoon while I tried to wash dishes. He smiled from the high chair, but not much more.

Whenever Jared played music, Beren would demand that Jared stop. "Too noisy," he seemed to say. Twice, I sang Maybelle Carter's version of Cannonball Blues, slightly edited, and Beren burst into tears at the sadness of a "baby" going away on a train. 

This past year, Beren has taken up recorder, harmonica, and banging on our marching drum. The latter is sometimes for disruptive effect, but he and Jared duet frequently. He's also working on whistling. It's been fun for my very musically inclined husband.

I've also picked up a couple more shifts on the bedtime routine. As Beren's gotten older, it's gotten easier to be out at night, for all of us. And so, Jared and I have picked up a night class each, plus a little time with friends in the evening. 

Making the final departure from Beren's room can be tough. "Momma, cuddle me." "Momma, don't go." "Momma, stay a little longer." Well, sure. I'd be happy to, and I do. Prying his clinging hand from mine doesn't feel quite like saying "sweet dreams." There's a limit, though, especially since he falls asleep most quickly when he's alone. Otherwise, he'd chat until delirious. 

Jared has a funny routine that works sometimes. He kisses the pillows and blankets goodnight. Beren laughs and Jared makes an exit. It worked for me a couple times, but then I had to get creative. One night Beren asked me to sing The Mountain Kitten Song. It goes like this:

Meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meowntin, meow meow meow meow meowntin...

We harmonize. Beren's grip loosens and I descend the steps of his bunk bed, fumble in the dark for my slippers, and sing all the way down the steps. Our song drifts to a close, and sometimes Beren's eyes close for the night, too.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Books in the trash

 It's not a tortoise, it's a box turtle.
 Monarch caterpillar and butterfly milkweed. Hurry and the Monarch features an adult monarch and a tortoise, so I'm 0 for 2.

I opened the book return door and slipped a few unreadable books inside the bin. Clank, the big metal maw swallowed poorly (or scarily) illustrated and stupidly (or scarily) written children's books, a couple adult ones, too.

I dropped a copy of Hurry and the Monarch in, too. We'd all enjoyed the book featuring a monarch butterfly and a tortoise. I was sorry to return it. It was just about due. I paused before putting a batch of crappy CDs (do any libraries have really great music CDs?) into the bin. It was marked BOOK RETURN, not audio visual.

"Pathological adherence to the law," an acquaintance once said of his wife. The phrase stuck with me, perhaps because it describes me, or at least part of me.

I'd already violated several small New Jersey town library taboos. I parked my big honkin' truck facing the door and in manner that blocked parking spots, including a handicapped one. I dropped books in the bin while the library was open. Then, I lied (big taboo) and also made the ultimate transgression.

I knew the returns counter was just inside the door - this is the library I went to as a kid. So, I opened the library door, said, "Here's CDs. I didn't realize you were open." Lie. The library staff glared at me.

My kid was in the car. What could I do? Leaving a child in a car is The Ultimate Taboo. Yet, my pathological adherence to the law lead me to lie and leave my kid in the car for about 5 seconds. My pathological adherence to the law was driven me to think about this event at least 4 times today and relive it in written form.

When I returned to the car, Beren face was covered in tears. Was he terrified to see me go into the library briefly? What happened?

"You put my favorite butterfly book in the trash!" he gulped. The librarian came outside in her sweater and opened the bin, retrieving our books. I considered asking if we could have Hurry and the Monarch back.

Instead, I rolled our honkin' truck to the other end of the parking lot where the librarian could shoot daggers at my back instead of my forehead.

I explained that that was a Book Return and not the garbage. I described the difference between bookstores and libraries, using a couple Hopewell hot spots as examples. "So, when we go to Bobby's bookstore, we buy a book. It's ours and we take it home forever. When we get a book from Anne at the library, we borrow it and bring it back."

"It shouldn't be!" Beren exclaimed. It took awhile to talk him down. It's ok. When I worked at Barnes & Noble in Manhattan, I was frequently asked, "Where's the photocopier?", "Which books are circulating?" and simply, "Is this the library?" If adults who can survive in the Big Apple don't get it, then I don't expect a four year old to understand.

I suggested that we write down Hurry and the Monarch and any other library book we really liked. "No!" Beren said.

We finally drove away, dissatisfied that injustice had occurred but no longer crying.

Later while Jared read bedtime stories, Beren said, "Let's keep this one forever and not bring it back." 

Post Script
Hopewell, count your blessings because the local circuit with the library (Does any other library have such incredibly friendly staff?), Boro Bean, the Bear and the Books, Sticks and Stones, and two public playgrounds (one includes a stream), is not repeated elsewhere in the universe.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Snow Happy

I like this photo - he looks snowy weary, but we're really snow-happy. He told me he's making his own tracks and "crabbing" the snow - our term for grabbing in a crab-like manner, so I'm not sure exactly what he meant. We went out tracking Monday, and Beren made his own tracks. For anyone who's read Ezra Jack Keats' The Snowy Day, he also made tracks "pointing out like this."

It's been a long winter, but what winter in NJ is short? The cold has been difficult,  long days inside. But, the snow. The snow's pretty, refreshing itself like a wildflower's fresh rank of leaves.

With a wood stove and a farm, we've got nowhere we need to go. It's good.

The deer fence is holding strong, though it seems shorter with every snowfall. The fence causes drifting. I'm thankful we don't have elk. With the help of the drifts, they'd jump the fence.

The gate is ok, too. I worried that the snow would be trouble. Some erosion is keeping the gate from fully opening, but we can still squeeze through, even the truck. The sloping nature of our driveway allows the gate to swing without too much shoveling. I worried about snow and the incline of the driveway. Turns out, it's a benefit. All's just fine. Another reminder to calm the f*ck down. It's good.

So is four wheel drive, and without that we'd need a snow blower. Four wheel drive is good, too.

Fire and four wheel drive. The two F's that make snow ok.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Remember Billy from Family Circus? This evening's writing is a little like his tracks.

Beren helps me clean the refrigerator.

If only he could also drive a truckload of garbage to the dump, too.

The rest of these photos are us trackin'.

It seems so long since I consistently wrote anything.

Once Jared takes Beren up to bed, I have about thirty minutes before I might get called to Beren's bedroom for one last visit.  My signal is "The Momma Whistle", which Beren asks Jared to sound.

In that thirty minutes I can write (if I'm inspired, and I usually get about halfway done and am then called up by The Momma Whistle. I delay and sometimes utter a curse, but one day The Momma Whistle will no longer sound, so...). I can wash dishes (though that's only during the 'lights on' part of Jared and Beren's bedtime routine. Lights out 'Cheetah Story' time requires quiet, though the two of them yuk it up with giggles and goofing. Tonight's kitchen task is putting away the groceries, anyway.).

Ok, so back to my list of options for the thirty minute slot. I could read (I've mostly forgotten how to do that, and I lack the discipline and calm mind to actually sit and concentrate, unless it's reading emails which I often do at this hour.). I might practice kung fu (and move all toys and the 'big blue chair' to create narrow alleyway between the couch and woodstove. The corridor allows for about two moves of a long fist sequence I'm learning. My teacher said once, "Look up, your enemy is in front of you, not down on the ground. Your worst enemy is yourself." Looking down is a common fault of a martial arts student. Here in the farmhouse, however, my worst enemy is down on the ground - a sharp-clawed kitten who attacks the Achilles heel.)

On any night, I might get a few runs through long fist, a couple paragraphs typed, or a quick stab at the top strata of dishes in the sink, and then, The Momma Whistle. Beren is endlessly chatty. His pre-slumber monologues are fascinating. I hardly want to leave his bed, fearing I might miss some gem.

"Momma, what is my long name?" he asked last night. He repeats his full name again and again in a dozen different sentences. His pronunciation is perfect. Typically, he can't pronounce "l" or "r". Besides, until the past few days, he's uttered his first name less than five times, and his last name, never, not that I can recall. "Momma, why is your name easier to say than Beren?" More inquiries about this and that. He's satisfied that Beren and Momma have the same number of letters.

OK, it's 9:10pm, and Beren is asking Jared to sound The Momma Whistle.

I didn't even get to tell you that Beren spelled "MOTOROLA" for Jared. Actually, he spelled "MOTOROLP", mistaking the "A" for a "P" as he read out the letters on the modem box earlier this week. A modern life here at the farmhouse.

I just squeezed out six minutes. It took six minutes to write that last paragraph? No wonder I don't get much done some days. But hey, one more paragraph. Maybe I've got a sleeping kid, but that means I've missed a chance for another pre-slumber monologue... Unless I hear the call, "Momma? Momma? I need you?" We'll see. Eight minutes - it's 9:18.

Silence. I'll keep writing.

This morning I washed dishes, and Beren asked, "How can I dry?" He broke only one small cup. He was upset. I look at it as downsizing. No problem.

Then, we scrubbed the bathroom floor, vacuumed the upstairs, and dusted. I should say, Beren dusted. Beren scrubbed everything. He got into a bag of square cotton applicators, and used them to swab furniture, toys, the floor, window sills. We actually accomplished more as a pair than I could have done alone.

Jared who was working from home commented, "All this time spent attachment parenting is really working out." Indeed, I agreed. I had planned to take Beren out and get the truck's tires rotated, but two clean bedrooms and a bathroom bumped that task.

After lunch, our NRCS agent and a wildlife biologist came to our farm to see what practices we could implement. Beren didn't like that his parents' attention was directed elsewhere. The agent and biologist were also parents of young children. We agreed that conversations with children present were rife with interruptions.

When they left at about 4pm, I thought, "Let's go out to eat." I didn't want to cook the lump of venison that Jared had defrosted. The bloody plastic bag of meat sat inside an empty egg carton, in case the meat juices leaked. Blah. Hardly any vegetables. Just a plastic sack of impossibly bright organic green beans.

The house was quiet. Jared was focused on the computer at the dining room table. Beren peacefully played blocks nearby. Considering dinner out is a nice mental escape hatch, but the options in southern Warren county are slim, especially in the direction of Shop Rite, which was our evening's destination. The Mexican-style restaurant is a possibility, but since we're avoiding citrus...

At this point, I'm just writing so I can remember all these things that are going on right now. This is snapshot city. It's unlikely that anyone else is celebrating the fact that eliminating citrus and reducing reliance on the forced air heat has our family's sinus passages, immune systems, and digestive tracts performing superbly.

Back to the story. The fascinating story of me preparing dinner which is somehow related to The Momma Whistle. I sawed open the sack of meat, breaded it with ancient frozen bread crumbs (the mason jar actually popped when I opened it), burned some jasmine rice, and steamed green beans. I was finishing when Beren exclaimed, "But I want to help. What can I cook? I have to cook something!" Sauce, we can make sauce. I had plunked ketchup and tamari sauce on the table between Jared's laptop and his notes. Sauce sounds like better lubrication than ketchup on rice (or green beans or meat. What was I thinking?).

Green bean water was repurposed into a sauce. Beren stirred. I added tamari, maple syrup, and tomato sauce. He added nettles. He showed me how Papa used a hammer to pound the lemon grass for the sauce. I added hazelnut oil. He stirred. We agreed we were done. Everyone enjoyed dinner because of the sauce.

It's 9:40. No more Momma Whistle. The train left for sleep station. I got one blog entry done, put away the groceries, some kitten cuddling, lots of kitten discipline (attacked/chewed - ankles, electrical cords, inside of lamp shade/moth, couch). No kung fu, no reading not even email, no dishes, no pre-slumber monologue.

Good night, computer. It's 10:12. Sixty-two minutes since The Momma Whistle was sounded.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Building things

"Momma, what are porcupines for?"

"How are porcupines built?"

"How are seeds built?"

These are the questions a four year old asks his mother before saying, "Momma, hold me close," and falling asleep.


We're regularly astounded by our child. I suppose most families delight in the strides their little ones take. We're onto letters now. Like, "Oma, your name has three letters."

Wednesday, February 25, 2015


When will our culture affirm that raising children is
that is as valuable as paid work
maybe more valuable
as the lyrics go,
You can't buy me love.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Chinese Lunar New Year 2015

For a resident of the northeastern region of the United States of America, Chinese Lunar New Year comes at a particularly dire time of year. Exactly the time that I need some fire and movement. It's exactly the time winter begins to loosen its grip, the sun rises higher in the sky, and there is the potential for something new to happen. It's quite unlike January 1. 

Every January 1 New Years, I consider going to Philadelphia to see the Mummers. Every year, even the January 1 Jared and I lived in Philadelphia, I have skipped the mummers. Lots of color and movement, but I wonder about the fire. Firemen in costume, maybe. Maybe one or two, but not the fiery good luck red of Chinese New Year.

Before we left the house, the three of us sat in the living room around the wood stove. Jared said he would begin to pack our bags for the day. Knowing Beren best responds to ideas introduced over time, I asked Jared to stay a moment because I had questions for him. I asked Jared, possibly I a somewhat forced voice,  "What are some things that you like about Chinese New Year? The firecrackers? The lion dance? The music?" After each of my inquiries, Beren announced, "No." 

Jared laughed, "I don't think this is working so well." "No, I think my play is closing the same day it opened," I said. "A total flop." Somehow we made it not only to the car with no complaint, but also the entire hour and a half drive.

As it was last February, this New Year was magical. The distress of our house search had been blasted away on a firecracker in 2014. And so when we returned to Philadelphia this year, we were quite a changed family. We have our own house and farm. We're healthy and thankful.

We watched a dozen or more lion dances in front of a string of Chinatown businesses - bakeries, hair salons, restaurants, a wholesale cigarette shop. Though Beren said, "I like the noise," we put a pair of hearing protectors over his ears, and jammed ear plugs in our own. This is my child who usually dislikes noise. 

Drums and cymbals crashed. Lions danced and Lions ate and tossed lettuce and cabbages in exchange for good luck largesse sealed in red and gold envelopes. 

In Philadelphia, the feeling is controlled chaos. No metal barricades like in New York. Instead police sit in patrol cars blocking the streets. Likely there are plain clothes officers, but their presence is not felt. 

Lion dancers and musicians seem to rule the moment, guided by older fellows who shout occasionally and wave their hands. "This way, this way! Other side, other side!" One man smokes, he raises a hand that holds his cigarette and waves the dancers on. The entire crowd, participants and spectators lurches forward.

Last year, we missed most of the martial arts demonstration. We saw just a half of a master's form. This time, we saw a man walking through the crowd carrying a guandao. "Let's follow him," Jared said.  We eventually lost him in the crowd, but later saw him and his students posing for photos under the arch at the entrance to Chinatown. 

We ducked into a bakery to get a quick lunch of pork buns and watched them from the window. They wore their uniforms and snow boots. The pavement was wet, and we wondered if they'd perform at all. Lion dancers came closer to the bakery, and an employee moved a ladder holder a stick with firecrackers and lettuce out onto the sidewalk.

We stepped back out onto the street and watched more. Just as we were about to leave the area and get lunch, and circle formed around the martial artists. Hung ga, mantis, tiger, monkey. Open hand, weapons forms - bo, double broad sword, and the final form of the day - guandao. 

I'd never seen a guandao form in person. It's a heavy weapon - a large, wide blade sits atop a six foot staff. Created for unmounted combatants fighting cavalry, it is a brutal and slow.

The master began his form. Upon his open palm, the guandao spun slowly. The remarkable, but sometimes not so showy things that Kung fu master can achieve is inspiring. The technique, control, and practice. The cultivation of chi.

The crowd clapped and I somewhat reluctantly agreed that we should leave the crowds for lunch. It was already mid afternoon.

We order the barbecue platter at Vietnam restaurant. A few rice wraps in, a waiter came to our table, and said, "The lions are coming." He pointed out the window, and we saw the ladder draped with firecrackers. "Ah yes, thank you so much," I said in the manner I heard my first Kung fu teacher utter hundreds of times. 

Beren and I went to the window to watch. The ladder held more firecrackers than I'd seen yet. We waited. In front of the restaurant was a shiny black BMW. I wondered how dusty it would get. The dancers arrived, followed by drums and crashing cymbals. 

I heard Jared whistle. He pointed to the door. Two lion dancers filled the room. Really, I should say four because each lion requires two people - one who holds the head and opens the mouth and makes the eyes blink and another person who bends over at the waist to hold up the rump. Beren's smile covered his face. The musicians jostled into the entry way. The dancers worked their way through the room, until they retreated back outside.

Men lit the firecrackers with fat incense sticks. White then dark grey smoke filled the air, obscuring our view outside. Acrid fumes seeped in. Beren was stoic. I, too, though enjoying this treat immensely, thought that this might be a little like what living in a war zone might be like. The smoke quickly cleared, lions ate the lettuce, and collected their red envelope.

We finished our lunch and explored Chinatown until the sun waned. Our souvenir for the date were three sets of chopsticks from a Chinese department store that seemed to be going out of business. I wondered if that might be bad luck, but decided probably not. 

Back on the street, we swung Beren over cast bronze signs of the zodiac embedded into the sidewalk and headed back to our car. The drove home and quietly talked over the day. 

At home, I made our quick meal of choice - miso soup with seaweed, rice noodles, and whatever vegetables we might have. Jared and Beren built Chinatown out of blocks. After dinner, we pulled out our drums and pot lids. We made a lot of noise, tossed ribbons like firecrackers, gobbled and threw green towels like lettuce, and stomped. 

Happy new year!

All photos by Jared.