Tuesday, July 29, 2008

"I feel that I may be on my way to gracious living."*

It’s coming up on the dog days of August – and you don’t even need beach reads anymore, it’s so hot. You need “Lie on the porch swing with a sweating glass of iced tea” reads. And here I am, useful as always… Thank you, thank you, I live to serve.

I first encountered Jennifer Niesslein as the co-editor of the wonderful magazine Brain, Child. The only parenting magazine I have ever read that was smarter than me. This magazine addressed the real issues of parenting…for example, not “What is the best brand of diapers?” but “Should you potty train your child at age six months, or not? And why?” OK, yes, that’s extreme, but BC’s take on all kinds of parents and children, living all kinds of lifestyles in all sorts of ways, is refreshing and funny and smart and thoughtful and a terrific read that I awaited eagerly every three months.

So, when one of its brilliant editors produced a book, I snapped it up and read it right away. And while I picked up Practically Perfect in Every Way, with its charmingly retro cover, in hardcover, it has recently been released in paperback – perfect for the beach, or the porch swing, or the bus - wherever. Jennifer graciously agreed to answer some burning questions I had after finishing the book.

BB: What was your favorite chapter (to write, research, whatever)? Why?

Jennifer: Writing the marriage chapter was definitely my favorite because the advice is just so over the top. I mean, really, Dr. Laura—my fella wants to be a knight and slay my dragons? And Dr. Phil: Seriously? We’re supposed to sit down and earnestly discuss what animal the other one is most like? I think the old-schoolness of most of the self-help advice out there really comes into focus when you look at relationship advice. Meaning, the ladies are responsible for it all.

BB: What was your least favorite? Why?

Jennifer: My least favorite to write was the financial advice chapter, just because the learning curve was so steep. When I started, I had no idea how one would go about buying a stock, and so I had the task of both explaining the factual stuff and analyzing the advice itself. But I think my least favorite advice to take was any of the advice that dealt with flesh-and-blood interactions. You can kind of go crazy being hyper-aware of every move you make.

BB: You've said elsewhere you sort of wished you'd left your son out of it. Is he old enough now to know he's in it and what has his reaction been, if any?

Jennifer: I really wish I’d left the part about my son’s social interactions out of it. I think it’s a great read, but writing about it sort of screwed up some real-life relationships. Caleb knows that he’s in the book but doesn’t know what I said. He’s a big supporter of my career though—he really likes the idea that I’m making him famous. (ha ha!) He’s nine now, and we’ll see about his feelings when he gets older.

BB: Is there a book/topic you wish you'd included/left out?

Jennifer: Actually, I’m pretty happy with what I included. I did a whole lot of thinking to include the most popular and ubiquitous experts. I wasn’t going to try anything that seemed super-crazy because I really was being earnest in hoping that some special nugget of advice was would transformative. That said, The Secret wasn’t out yet when I was researching. Maybe I could have wished myself onto the bestseller list.

BB: Your husband is a massively good sport. Did he have any suggestions for topics/books, or did he just kind of go along for the ride?

Jennifer: Holy hell, he is. He’d already read David Bach’s Smart Couples Finish Rich, so he sort of had a leg up on that. But I think Brandon has a quiet way of just not participating when he doesn’t want to. (See: house, decluttering of.) He did suggest, though, for the spirituality chapter, that we attend a sermon at an African-American Baptist church, but it was clear that he just wanted to hear the music. I nixed that idea because I’m superstitious enough to think that one could be smote for entering God’s house just for the tunes.

BB: The important question: are you working on anything new?

Jennifer: I am, but I’m not sure what’s going to come of it get. It’s an historical nonfiction mystery about my great-great grandmother. It’s totally different from PPIEW, and the research is going much slower.

BB: And apropos of a recent post of mine, what are you reading now/what are your 'beach picks'?

Jennifer: I’ve been all up in the historical nonfiction lately. I just finished The Devil in the White City and I’m in the middle of Sin in the Second City. (I don’t know why I’m drawn to the Chicago books.) A few people recommended Carter Beats the Devil to me (it’s fiction), so I’m going to read that next. Plus, I have my small mountain of magazines because I’m a periodical-lover: The New Yorker, Bitch, The Believer.

Two novels I read recently and LOVED are Never Let Me Go and Then We Came to the End. Everyone else has probably read them by now.

Thank you, Jennifer!

And for further reading, dudes, go check out Jennifer’s Internet Presence, and hound her to hurry up with her second book. Next summer is only eleven months away, and you’ll need something else to read.


*Jennifer Niesslein, in Practically Perfect in Every Way

Friday, July 25, 2008

"Have something to bring to the table, because that will make you more welcome."*

I have to believe that if ever someone had things to bring to the table, it was Randy Pausch.

As a CMU grad and a friend of his business colleague at the ETC, I have followed Professor Pausch's brave (and for pancreatic cancer, protracted) battle with interest, hope, and not a little horror.

My heart breaks for him, his wife, and his three small children.

Randy Pausch
October 23, 1960 - July 25, 2008


*Randy Pausch

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

“Despair is most often the offspring of ill-preparedness.”*

Leave it to me to allow my life to descend into the realm of country music bathos...

Dudes -

My babysitter sprained her wrist and racked up her arm ligaments in a fall while on vacation.

Total suckitude, as Joke would say.
On so many levels that it's not even worth thinking about.

In book news:

Loved Sandra Gulland's latest, Mistress of the Sun (easily as wonderful as her Josephine books...as Gina said, though, the only bad thing is it's not part of a trilogy...)

Still enjoying the Tess Monaghan mysteries, and finished Love Walked In's sequel, Belong to Me, which was good but not as good as Love Walked In. A tad overwrought, especially towards the end, and parts were simply unbelievable, as in 'Never in a million, gazillion years would a person react that way to that particular piece of news.'

I read a short story in the New Yorker which The Lovely Becky linked in a recent post, "Miracle." The story is creepy and haunting and wonderful, and now I have to read more of Judy Budnitz's work. (Someone, anyone, please read that story and EXPLAIN IT TO ME.)

And I am reading Jennifer Haigh's newest book, The Condition, and LOVE it.
Love, love, love it.


*Don Williams

Sunday, July 20, 2008

"I wouldn't know a space-time continuum or warp core breach if they got into bed with me."*

But you can damn well bet they'd wake me the hell up when they did. AND steal all the pillows.

I know my blogging has been - shall we say sporadic - lately.
I apologize.

Here's what I have been soooooo busy coping with all week, keeping me from my laptop and the witty, erudite posts you all have come to expect:

1. A baby who seems to think 4 am is the perfect time to wake up and par-tay!

2. A husband who doesn't seem to know what I need, even when (especially when?) I say to him, "I need you to take the baby and give him a bottle because if I don't get three consecutive hours of sleep, I may die and then who would do everything around here? Hmmm?"

3. An almost-three-year-old who is apparently having horrific nightmares about ice cream cones.

4. A book that never seems to end.

5. A babysitter who - selfish woman! - takes vacation the week that my clothes begin to feel tight and I could really stand (at least mentally) to step up the running, AND the same week in which my husband pulls his "I'm very busy at work so am very distant at home" schtick, so I have NO ONE to talk to after a twelve-hour day with four exasperating children. Humph. How dare she. (I'll forgive her if she brings me salt water taffy...)

5. A seven-year-old who hears, "Gimme a minute" as "Please keep talking, only louder, because your mother LOVES when you do that." (Apparently listening skills are genetic, on the father's side.)

6. The lack of some sort of blip in the time-space continuum that allows me to take the boys to the pool for a couple hours at 5 pm but still makes it possible for me to get them fed before 8 pm.

Sometime around 2026, things should get back on track and regular posting will resume.


*Patrick Stewart

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

"A utility pole was smashed up pretty good..." [and we clearly harbor stellar journalists in the Steel City...]

Ah, the excitement and glamour of city living.

Last night a cavalcade of police cars, ambulances, firetrucks, and tow trucks raced up my street at 2 am, sirens blaring and lights flashing.

I ignored it as long as I could (although I did have to go pat Terzo who was crying and muttering in his sleep, "Peece cars, peece cars...") until I heard several neighbors outside in the street, speculating about the noise. Ever the nosey parker, I went outside. (Lemme tell you, you haven't lived until you've seen your neighbors in their sleepwear. Oy.)

It seemed the entire city police department was parked at the crest of the hill up my street. Four of us sauntered up the street to the action, because you KNOW police like nothing more than nebby neighbors getting in their way and standing around watching them work.

The car involved was unrecognizable, beyond totaled, yet people who live on the corner said they saw TWO people crawl out of the wreckage and be taken away in ambulances. A utility pole was snapped in three, the bottom part uprooted from the ground and the top piece tilted crazily against the brick duplex in which my friend O lives (she was apparently not at home).

"Witnesses said" (read: people who live on that corner) that they heard first the car, the sirens, gunshots, and then the crash. Terrific. I wonder if this will spur another episode of "We need to move to the 'burbs" in H? I hope not. I love my neighborhood, having written odes and love sonnets (no, not really, at least the sonnet part) to it in the past...and I love it more every day. And even this - well, it was oddly - fun - to hang out with my neighbors in the middle of the night and then go back to sleep with the police car lights still flashing in the distance and reflecting off the stop sign on the corner. I had an exciting email to write this morning to H, who slept through it all. And I'll be the first to admit that we city dwellers hold a strange pride (might I say hubris? I might...) in the idiocies and dangers we put up with to reap the benefits and cosmopolitanism of living amidst crime, poverty, and an iffy public school system. Hmmm, when I put it like THAT....

Saturday, July 12, 2008

“The hard part about being a bartender is figuring out who is drunk and who is just stupid”*

I was going to post with pretty pictures of colorful things but I can't be arsed (in Australia-speak) to find the camera, snap the photos, download them, crop them, and upload them. So you'll all just have to use your vivid (and in some cases, over-active) imaginations. Thank you for your cooperation.

Things I am digging right now:

- Bar towels. [A shot of fluffy, pristinely white stack of bar towels, just awaiting my boys' spilled juice, dribbled chocolate milk, and smeared baby food.] Over the years I have bought and tried every kind of kitchen/dishtowel I could find. I like the flour sack ones, but they aren’t that absorbent. Cheapie ones I get at the grocery store end up stinking – must be the icky fabric? I bought a six-pack of bar towels at TJ Maxx a few months ago and will NEVER buy any other type. They are absorbent, easy to clean, don’t smell, and cheap. LOVE ‘em.

- Sour cherries. [Close-up of big bowl of lovely, deep red, glossy cherries, stems, pits, etc.] The ONLY thing I miss about the old house is the yard. And in that yard, a sour cherry tree. But turns out there are two sour cherry trees up by the public park I take my kids to all the time. I have four pints in the fridge, awaiting pitting and baking into a sour cherry custard tart with sliced almonds.

- My goldfish. [Eh, he looks like every other goldfish in the world.] He’s FIVE years old. I KNOW. And just lately he’s been making the baby very happy, as Quarto watches him cruise around his little bowl...

- The ice cream truck. Four ice cream treats (a Fudgesicle, a Creamsicle, and two Sno-Cones), for four dollars. Can’t beat that with a stick!

- Small diapers. [Shot of Quarto's cute, eensy little size 1 diapers with baby Sesame Street characters gamboling about, juxtaposed with Terzo's size 6 monsters.] Quarto's come 120 to a box. As opposed to Terzo’s ginormous ones that come 48 to a box. Must...potty train...

- Heineken. [Food porn shot of sweating beer bottle, full of the elixir of life.] A summery change from my usual go-to, Bacardi rum and coke. Nice especially with barbecue.

-Trader Joe’s Pound Plus chocolate bars. [Another food porn shot of big fat chunky chocolate.] At 3-something a bar, a total steal. I started buying the bittersweet ones to bake with, then one day after making homemade pudding with bittersweet that H and I loved but the boys found too intense, I brought home a bar of the milk chocolate to try in the pudding. And then I bought a milk chocolate with almond. Nice big fat whole almonds in good Belgian milk chocolate. For THREE DOLLARS. I wish we had Two Buck Chuck but since we can’t, I am happy to have Three Buck Choc.

- My working vacuum! (Not!) [Um, maybe before and after photo of my disgusting-and-then-not carpets...] My vacuum was rated tops for pet hair. Yet I considered myself lucky if it picked up normal dirt. On a whim, when H went to price washing machine parts (flood in basement from broken filler-timer mechanism, oops), he took the vacuum to our guy to fix. It needed a new belt. No wonder the damn thing had been doing nothing. The rug I vacuumed this morning (before the damn belt snapped AGAIN) looks like new, with nary a cat hair to be seen.

- New Crocs [Jumble of colorful shiny new crocs in rainbow colors.] It was time for new Crocs for the boys. Primo picked royal blue, Seg wanted turquoise, Terzo requested orange. So cute. And I don't have to tie shoelaces.

- The pool. [Perhaps a shot of the expanse of cool blue water and frolicking children. Maybe. Or maybe a shot of the overweight, harried mothers (myself included)with swimsuits stretched to their breaking point and toddlers with water-swollen diapers about to explode...take your pick.] For the first half hour we were at the pool yesterday afternoon, Primo and Seg raced each other from end to end, over and over and over again. I couldn't have worn them out more if I'd tried...God bless the exhausting effects of sun, chlorine, and yelling.

What are you guys loving these days?


*Richard Braunstein

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

“The cure for anything is salt water - sweat, tears, or the sea.”

I received an email from a friend who is about to leave on a beach vacation. (She referred to me as the "Book Goddess," and you may also. Ahem. Or not.)
She is stocking up on reading material for the trip.
Her requirements:
- Not annoyingly stupid
- Entertaining
- Not heavy/depressing
- Something you can't bear to put down...

So, this is easy.
Here are my 2008 beach read recommendations.
(And I usually prefer to take paperbacks to the beach (but not a hard and fast rule) and definitely prefer to own whatever I take, as there are few things more annoying than a library book full of sand.)

- If you have not read Sandra Gulland's Josephine books (Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Josephine B., etc.), try those. I am currently reading her newest, Mistress of the Sun, about Louis XIV's mistress, and it's also terrific.
- Love Walked In by Marisa de los Santos. What a pleasant surprise. Well-written, engaging characters, and a little bit of something for everyone. I have the sequel, Belong To Me, awaiting me...
- Sarah Addison Allen's Garden Spells. A modern Practical Magic. I just read her second, The Sugar Queen, and I liked it but not as much as her first.
- Michael Lee West's stuff is fun, nice long cozy novels about crazy Southern women; start with Crazy Ladies and its sequel Mad Girls in Love.
- I have been telling EVERYONE to read Lauren Groff's Monsters of Templeton. She is going to be an author to be reckoned with. (Monsters is her first novel.)
- Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is fabulous – maybe a bit heavy for some for a beach read, but no one can go wrong with his Sally Lockhart books. Do yourself a favour and get the fourth, too; it’s not focused on Sally but on minor characters from the first three books, but is easily the best of the lot. Pure Victorian melodrama. Think Dickens meets Maisie Dobbs...

Classic/oldies but always goodies, in case nothing more recent appeals:
- Anything by Josephine Tey.
- Rosamunde Pilcher’s “big” books (Shell Seekers, September, etc.).
- Laurie King’s Beekeeper’s Apprentice.
- Richard Russo’s Nobody’s Fool (I read this on a flight to London and was actually sorry when the plane landed...)
- Pride and Prejudice.

If you are more interested in nonfiction, I can heartily recommend these riveting but true books:
- In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex – Nathaniel Philbrick
- Into Thin Air – Jon Krakauer
- The Devil in the White City – Erik Larsen
- The Sex Life of Cannibals & Getting Stoned with Savages – J. Maarten Troost
- Shark: Unpredictable Killer of the Sea – Thomas Helm. This is my all-time favourite shark book, which is saying something, but maybe, after all, not too smart for the beach. Although I read both The Perfect Storm and Close to Shore at the beach, and never blinked an eye.

My number one recc though?
Anna Quindlen has a terrific list of “Top Ten Books That Will Take You All Summer to Read (but are not beach reads)” (meaning that for me they are PERFECT beach reads).
(I would produce the entire list here for those of you who are as obsessed as I am but alas, I cannot find my copy of her book because we are currently rearranging bookshelves and books are piled everywhere. As my pediatrician says while probing the screaming baby's ears, I apologize.)

Anyhoo, it was from this list that I picked Gone with the Wind the first week of my first semester of graduate school. I took her at her word when she said it would take all summer. I gobbled it down in two days, stopping only to finish some annoying assignment for some stupid class, and longed for more. So my quintessential beach read is now Gone with the Wind. Even a guy (Rogue Lib?) might like it (but probably not you, Joke.)

And so off to the beach goes B, and I hope she found something useful here.

When we go down the shore (as we Jerseyites say) in September, I wonder what I will take. Have to start thinking about it now...there’s the new Mary Doria Russell I have been saving, as well as The Terror, Emotionally Weird, and Under the Banner of Heaven.

I can in good faith tell you that last time we went down the shore, I was reading Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and it most decidedly is NOT a beach read.
Consider yourself warned.

And please tell me what YOU are reading on vacation this summer.

*Isak Dinesen

Monday, July 07, 2008

"I have an existential map; it has 'You are here' written all over it."

Great parenting moment #167,356:

The boys and I are on our way to a Spiderman birthday party.

Primo asks me, out of the blue, from the backseat, "Mom? Why are we here? I mean, what's the point of living if you're just going to die anyway?"

"Welllll..." I begin slowly, "I believe that we are here to enjoy life. To love the people you're with. To make your little bit of the earth a better place, and maybe have some fun while you're doing that."

Primo looks dubious.

"I'm not sure..." he says.

And I snap, "Well, then, ask your father!"


*Stephen Wright

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

I tell you, in that night there shall be two men in one bed; the one shall be taken, and the other shall be left.

Speaking of addictions - cigarettes, caffeine, marinated raw broccoli – I was convinced to join Facebook a few months ago. Since I drank the Kool-aid (to mix my metaphors), I update my status often, trying to be clever and smart in less than 140 characters (thank God Blogger doesn’t limit me like that – whew!), play endless games of Scrabulous, Pathwords, and Scramble, eye nervously my climb up the WordTwist ladder, and have reconnected with many old friends, most notably camp pals and high school buddies.

Some of you may know or recall that I was raised as a fundamentalist Baptist. That’s right – YOU ALL are going to hell while *I*? Am not. In the interests of full disclosure, I might be, as I have backslidden and since been baptized Episcopalian. Not only do I take Communion with a bunch of lax Anglicans, but I am friends with several Jews and many homosexuals (some of my best friends! I swear!), and guess what? All I want for them are happy and fulfilling lives, much as I want for all my other friends. (Sigh. YES. Even the Roman Catholics). I support gay marriage, am vehemently pro-choice, and think our government needs to be more concerned with poor, starving people HERE and less concerned with terrorists, dictators, and tyrannies (oh my!) THERE.

All of which puts me firmly in the minority of my high school pals.

In a timely coincidence, a friend (who was raised an Orthodox Jew but no longer practices) recently recommended Daniel Radosh’s Rapture Ready: Adventures in the Parallel Universe of Christian Pop Culture. The focus of this book is targeted directly at my high school buddies’ demographic, so accurately it’s eerie. The debate about "Christian contemporary" music, the God-themed parks and scare tactics and zealous conversion efforts, they're all there, and more. Radosh is an honest and introspective writer. I am alternately wistful with nostalgia and irate verging on enraged as I read.

And I would love to step outside the box, as it were, and ask my friends what they think of it, but since they all scatter Bible verses liberally throughout their pages, and speak reverently of the lunatic itinerant preacher who scared the bejesus out of the entire school my seventh-grade year by invoking, with shouting and much spittle, the demons of Satan and took us all for an allegorical ride on the Hell-evator, I am fairly certain that they all still firmly believe in the Kool-aid, so to speak.

And so, for the first time in twenty-five years, I awake at night in a dark house and check that other people are still there, sleeping peacefully in their beds, making sure my sweet boys haven’t been Raptured away, leaving me to handle the Antichrist and Armageddon on my own.


*Luke 17:34 (KJV)