Category Archives: Under the Whale


I wish I could say that I came into this year, this decade, with rosy optimism and a warm blanket. I tried. I did yoga. I took a hot shower and sang along with Irma Thomas to expand my cold-ravaged lungs. I took a cinematic ride through the universe with my boy and remembered our teeny-tininess, but when midnight came I was just agitated, unsettled, unreasonably angry.

But it’s the first Monday of the year, and even though my son and I argued on the way to school in the car today, even though my chest is still sore, I don’t feel rested and the cold outside is far too bitter, I feel strangely unburdened and optimistic. I want to clean up and put things in order. I want to make appointments and to-do lists. I want to roast vegetables and cut fruit and find a place to run inside. I want to listen to depressing music until I feel light again.

I hope your first Monday is pleasantly complicated, that your sinuses are clear and that ushering in this new decade feels like watching the sun rise.

Happy new year.
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Wild things

There’s this strange, displaced, unsettled feeling that can creep around you when you grow up with divorced parents. Places that you are supposed to call home don’t always feel like they are yours. You’re more likely to have people closely entangled in your life that haven’t been invested in you all along… people who didn’t know you when you were tiny and squishy and so clearly emanating the glow of endless possibilities. Even if they love you, they’re as likely to fear as understand you when you act crazy or angry or pained or restless. They are less likely to know how to muster compassion for the complicated business of acting like a child.

I’m not nostalgic for this childhood feeling, but I was nonetheless grateful to see it reflected on the screen of a movie theater on a Friday afternoon. I don’t remember seeing it there before. The dissonant parts of my childhood were probably pretty different from those of Maurice Sendak, Dave Eggers and Spike Jonze, but the tone they were able to evoke was strikingly familiar to me, in a lovely yet menacing way.

We took Declan, and frankly, the stark joy, disappointment, warmth and anger in Max’s home life at the beginning of the film was far more agitating to him than the land of the clomping, reckless, emotionally conflicted wild things. He laughed the most hysterically and showed the most fear in the first 15 minutes. He was worried that Max wouldn’t return to his mother, so, to him, the ending was especially happy. I imagine that his response, and who he relates to the most in the film, is likely to change as he gets older.

There’s been a ton of discussion in every form of media about whether or not this movie is really for kids. I get tired of hearing people make that judgment, because honestly, I think it depends on the kid, what he or she likes and is able to process. (Not to mention the fact that many things that are made “for kids” by adults prove to be unwatchable, so I’m not sure why critics feel so obligated to bother with that flawed measuring stick. A lot of the greatest kids’ films I’ve seen appealed to adults as well.)

I can tell you, though, that Declan and I have had several great conversations about the movie and the intense emotions presented in it all weekend. We’ve talked about what’s scary to him and what’s scary to me. We’ve even talked about how and why a book can be so different from a movie, which opens a new and fabulous vista for our discussions about stories and art.

I’ll leave the nitpicky criticism about the filmmaking and its relative artfulness up to better-equipped people.

I simply loved this movie because of what it moved me to remember and the rich moments on new emotional terrain that it has given me to explore with my kid.


If you want a clinical blow-by-blow description of the potentially upsetting parts of almost any current movie including this one, Kids-In-Mind movie ratings are extremely helpful.

For more to chew on, visit Scott Mendelson of Huffington Post’s review, which I feel is quite on-point, and Stephanie Zacherek of Salon’s review, which isn’t.

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This is me in all of my three-weeks-from-17, just-graduated glory, standing next to my brother on a commuter ferry that took us from central New Jersey to South Street Seaport, right in the shadow of the World Trade Center.

In the 1980s, we made most of our treks into New York with our dad. But on the occasion of my early departure from high school, we went back to visit a few childhood friends with mom.

Mom and I unearthed these pictures this summer. Andy and I look so damn serious, which probably has something to do with the fact that it’s early in the morning on an overcast day and neither of us has discovered coffee yet.

I know we’re anxious to get there because we were always anxious to get to Manhattan. At least I know that I was. I was always anxious to be in the thick of crowds and inconceivable buildings and art and celebrities walking around like ordinary people and giant fiberglass whales and taxi cabs and attitude and Fifth Avenue store windows and Broadway musicals.

It seems so much more mortal to me now. But my childhood and teenage memories of this city are the ones that I carry. I remember it this way. I remember this skyline. It was everything in the universe that I could imagine on one little island.

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“When did you get to be so old?” was my mother-in-law’s question when I reminded her what my age would be this year. I am, after all, the child bride of her second-to-youngest son, replete with fresh young preschool-aged child. I’m not supposed to be pushing this kind of zero. But I am.

Today begins my staring contest with 40. I’m in the company of a number of my favorite bloggers, which I find oddly comforting in a 21st-century way.

A friend of mine, who just turned 40, told me she had the most trouble with the fact she was leaving her 30s. I’ve loved my 30s too. There’s been some hard personal stuff and way too much bad government, but they beat my 20s with an ugly stick. I plan to soak up this last year as much as I can, while keeping a close eye on the women I know in their 40s, 50s, 60s (and 80s!) who make those places look like such fabulous destinations.

And as my mom reminded me this morning, 39 is the age that Jack Benny liked so much, he stayed there for 41 years.

Jack Benny Vs. Groucho 1955Click here for more amazing videos

Marilyn Monroe on Jack Benny Show 1953Click here for the funniest movie of the week

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Aspiration: Shredding, shedding

Most of my eating habits are pretty good. I never ate much fried food, and I gave it up completely (along with most sweetened beverages) in the last year or so, hoping that through modest diet and lifestyle changes I would shed some of my post-baby weight, which is about to become four years post-baby weight. I eat oatmeal for breakfast. I snack on carrots, cauliflower and cucumber slices. I’m usually good about drinking water. I don’t make a major effort to get the closest parking space, and I don’t eat much refined sugar (admittedly, I can get a bit weak in the face of ice cream and cinnamon rolls, though). Still, I’m the heaviest I’ve been in my life, frustrated by my body’s refusal to budge and I’ve managed to get sick three times over the winter.

I decided to have aspirations instead of resolutions this year, because I want my life changes to be slow and enduring, not rash and readily discarded. Besides reading more (which I’m doing), I’ve been trying to be more consistently physically active. Like finding space to read and write, that can be harder than it looks. I’ve been quasi-faithful to yoga practice for several years, but since I don’t do it in hot rooms or jump from posture to posture, it hasn’t been much help with weight loss.

There’s been a lot of talk on Twitter for months about Jillian Michaels‘ 30-day shred video, I think because it promises results if you let her slay your body for a highly manageable 20 minutes a day. This month, Kristen Chase of Motherhood Uncensored formed an online sisterhood of shredders to support each other. Up until this point, I’ve just been reading, not sharing, because I didn’t want to announce to the world that I was going to do this until I found out that I really could do it. And so far I am.

Today was day four for me. I was miserably sore on day two. I’ve felt better one place or another, but I’m kind of startled by how much nicer exercise pain is than the aches I get when my life gets too sedentary. That extra energy everyone promises that exercise will yield is kicking in and while I doubt the scale has budged, I feel heaps better. I don’t expect that this is going to take me exactly where I want to go, but like the decision to join NaBloPoMo for March, this feels motivating – like it’s the groundwork for a revitalized approach .

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Karma bombing

I believed in karma long before I knew the word. I imagined it as though it was a cosmic superhero, capable of righting all injustices. It’s also known by the grandma wisdom that spills forth when you’ve been hurt by someone else: “don’t worry about it, he/she will get what’s coming to them eventually” or “what comes around goes around.”

Maybe because the golden rule was the rule of law in my childhood home, heaven and hell made less sense to me than the idea that at our life’s end, our soul would be momentarily shattered by a karma bomb. It would be one thing to be presented a list by St. Peter, another to realize fully who we’ve been and how our actions hold up. Every piece of a karma bomb’s brilliant shrapnel would fill us with an empathic experience that would help us vividly understand the joy and pain we inflicted on others during our lifetime.

This belief has been a salve I’ve used on my ego in painful situations, particularly when I’ve needed to accept defeat or, really, reality. It was there when I needed a way to cope with feelings of powerlessness in the face of infinity, or, more often, in the face of one of the world’s big mean jerks. I sometimes went so far as to let it keep me from promoting or defending myself, instead thinking that this cosmic force was going to somehow let the real me, my real intentions, be seen, appreciated, and especially understood by whoever was that I needed to have understand it.

I’ve spent too many wee hours searching for the components to construct my own small karma bombs – usually words. I’ve searched for some kind of truth in language that I hoped would suddenly bring another person to a full-bodied understanding of how their mistreatment of me, or worse, of someone I care about, truly felt. It would let them know all about the parts of the story they don’t know, or fail to look at, powerfully and instantly. And for all of that time I’ve spent laboring, these letters are largely unwritten and unsent.

Some of my journalistic peers say things like “our readers aren’t interested in reading about X,” because they have marketing data that they’ve come to trust beyond their own, far less limiting, human instincts. And X is almost always something that illuminates a social concern, something that asks the reader to consider life outside of themselves. I’ve seethed over our lack of faith in people.

I have heard morally questionable actions repeatedly excused with “it’s only business.” I’ve also seethed over this regularly in my karma bomb-making quarters, because in my mind, business doesn’t get to exist without people. Business is people. Period.

But I’m guilty of trapping ideas about other people under glass myself. Once we grouse about a friend or family member or colleague as thoughtless or incapable or difficult or uncaring, it’s hard to back off of that precipice and learn to see them any other way. The late Randy Pausch has a simple-sounding remedy for this in his Last Lecture — he basically says that every person has a good side, we just have to wait for them to show it to us. And that good side is always, always worth seeing. I believe that, whether or not I can find the patience or the time or the desire to do the searching that uncovering that thing may require.

The more I’ve learned about karma, the more it’s come to mean something else to me… something that’s not about righteousness or judgment or berating myself for being passive or mentally bombing people with my version of reality. My karma is what I do with it. It’s about being loving, taking responsibility for my own actions, sowing what good I can in the world and seeing people if not for what they are, for the way that they ask me to see them, if only just to know what that might be. My karma bombs are useless on everybody but me. Or maybe everybody, including me.

What about you? Do you make them?


By now, you’ve probably guessed that this is little more than a pointed pep talk meant to help me convince myself to stop mentally swearing at bullies, editors, politicians, queen bees, unpaid bills, the life I thought I deserved and mosquitoes so often.

Now back to deep-fried garlic mashed potatoes on a stick.

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Blog, uninterrupted

Today is my birthday and I’ve just dropped my son off at play camp. That means I have two whole uninterrupted hours to do something or other. I could make a more responsible choice, but it’s my personal holiday, so I’m going to blog about a bunch of random crap. Hooptydoo!

Topic # 1: If I could just accept these things, I might be happier
1. I’m 38. It’s 2008. Really, it is.

2. My birthday will always fall between Comfest and the Fourth of July (hence Doo Dah Parade), therefore my husband will always look gobsmacked that the day has arrived, and run out at some inconvenient last-minute time to buy me a gift, or offer to buy me something practical that I was already going to get for myself and then not wrap it. However, I get flowers year-round for no reason.

3. If I need to get somewhere on time and Declan is with me, I should aim to get there 10 minutes before whatever it is starts.

4. My father’s birthday gift to me will arrive on Christmas. I already have cards from cousins-in-law on the piano. My mom got me a cake and something else that there is a 99 percent chance I will like. My dog will probably not poop in the dining room today because it’s sunny. Family is what it is and hooray for what it is.

5. This will be the year I learn to like fireworks. Declan will teach me.

Topic #2: Brief rants
1. Who thought it would be a good idea to call a food event A Taste of Boom? And is this only funny to me because I have a toddler? Does the fact that I think this is funny mean that I’m suddenly going to start laughing at the poopy jokes in the Shrek movies? Because I don’t, usually.

2. I was so very sad that I’m not going to BlogHer this year – Skybus folded and ruined my plans. But now I’m not sad anymore. I’ve been watching some stupidity unfold in the mom-o-blog-o-sphere and Twitter, and it’s giving me agita. It seems someone semi-famous said something critical of someone non-very famous (in blogging terms) and then a bunch of blind criticism of said semi-famous person ensued. I had to contort my brain into a Complete Intersection CalabiYau Manifold to try and figure out what the hell was going on and why, and in the end, it felt like the clarion calls for women to be decent to each other have become at least as punitive and damning as the original critcism, only launched by, like 50 people instead of one.

If, for some masochistic reason, you want to follow this, go here and here, and if you’re feeling particularly nosy, here. The original offending comments are here and here and here. I think I wouldn’t have bothered if I’d only known what all the hubbub was about to begin with, but it was introduced as though there was a crisis of decency among mommybloggers that needed to be addressed, with no actual details presented, which, being a mom blogger, tantalized me to dig into what was happening so I could have an informed opinion. (And it’s what journalists do.)

Seems like there was an interesting opportunity there to discuss blog community, blog culture, idea ownership or maybe even appropriate avenues for criticism that has instead drawn people into different camps of self-righteous back-slaps and high-fives. Yuck. I feel totally outside of the mommy blogging “community” now. Have a nice time y’all!

3. Dan and I clarified some of the details of the often asked-about ending of Little Brother’s here.

4. Okay, I’m still sad about not going to BlogHer, because there are a few people I would really have liked to meet who live and write and play well outside of all of that crap that I shouldn’t have bothered writing about.

5. Holy crap, they are playing “Xanadu” by Olivia Newton John in this coffee shop. This is not helping my “I’m 38. It’s 2008” mantra to sink in.

Have a great Wednesday. Eat cake.

P.S. Now they’re playing “Words” by Missing Persons. Perhaps I should come back to this coffee shop daily, because there’s apparently a time warp here that makes this my 12th birthday.

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He was the father of five children, husband to my grandmother for 61 years, a highly regarded surgeon, a farm boy, an inventor, a World War II veteran and the man with a well-developed sense of humor who taught me to rhyme as soon as I began to speak. Our earliest conversations went something like this:


And so I called him Powdaddy. He would have been 96 today.

We lost him in 1999. My grandmother followed in 2004, almost exactly a year before I had Declan. It’s hard for me to fathom that my grandparents will not know my son, and that he will only know them through story. My grandfather would have loved my boy, loved his ravenous curiosity – a characteristic they definitely share.

On New Year’s Day, my mother and I (and a sleeping Declan) went out to the small town where Powdaddy was born, and chose to be buried. Mom wanted to put lay down a grave blanket, something her mother used to do at her mother’s grave every winter. While most people consider this simply as decorative, my mom and her mom took the meaning of “grave blanket” at its symbolic face, as a way to warm their place of rest.

Afterwards, we went to see if the house where my grandfather and his brother grew up — the house built by my great grandfather, who died in the 1940s — was still standing.

It was, although it may not be much longer.

The farmhouse is a few hundred feet from Buckeye Lake. From the shore down the road you can see a place that I learned used to be called “Zollinger Island.”

My great-grandfather sold it for $500 in order to pay for Powdaddy to go to Harvard medical school. His older brother insisted that it was the place to study medicine. Both men left their mark on the world of medicine, in different ways.

If you happen to have surgery just west of Downtown, it’s possible that you may have it in the room named for my grandfather by his colleagues. The family collected there at dawn one morning in 2000 so the hospital could dedicate it, then sanitize it again before the day’s first operation.

I miss you, Powdaddy.

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The relationship funhouse effect

This quote came up on the e-discussion group for my local Buddhist temple today:

“In every relationship, between you and the other person there are actually six people involved:

1. The person who you think you are
2. The person who you think they are
3. The person who you really are
4. The person who they think they are
5. The person who they really are
6. The person who they think you are.”

It’s accurate, I think. And when I started to think about it in terms of the ways that families interact during the holidays, I suddenly felt like I was on the Faberge Organics shampoo with wheat germ oil and honey commercial from 1977, with faces multiplying into the infinite.

It’s not a wonder that this time of year can be so stressful. We have to navigate meal-making, travel plans, gift-giving, work schedules, football games and emotions, old and new, from inside of a maze of mirrors that may pinch, ripple and bend our images, depending on where we’re standing.

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Mrs. Ombach would be proud

When we were kids living in New Jersey, my brother and I had a babysitter named Mrs. Ombach, who came over to watch us frequently on summer afternoons. She would look over her half-spectacles at us as she knit long afghans with zig-zags or stripes. At the exact same time each visit, she would instruct us to read or lie down on blankets on the floor nearby while she took a half-hour nap on our rust-colored couch. Because of her insistence that we be raised with an appreciation for classical music, our dad went out and bought a bunch of Tchaikovsky music on eight-track tapes. I knew The Nutcracker and Swan Lake by ear long before I ever saw a ballet.

Her efforts to keep us “civilized” didn’t end with music. Whenever she was over, there would be tea, cookies and conversation at 3 o’clock. On the few occasions we went to her house , it was full of tea sets and needlepoint pillows and dark curtains and cuckoo clocks. No matter where we were with her, she would always police our language for “yeahs” and “uh-huhs.”

“You mean yes,” she would correct us.

Ombach’s notions didn’t entirely disappear or stick. I like classical music, but am by no means an expert. I’ll have some nice herbal tea in the evening now and then, but I’m mainly a coffee drinker, and I don’t drink it ritually much these days – just in large quantities in the morning. I’m particular about language in writing, but often too lazy about my speech, especially around the house. Lazy enough that my mom will still sometimes correct with me with an “Ombach would be very upset with you.”

But Declan almost always says “yes,” with a clear and precise sss sound. He’s even taken to saying “thank you” and “please” quite often, unless you’re telling him to do it, in which case, he stares straight through you as if to say “do I look like I need your pedestrian coaching?”

The other afternoon, he woke up from a nap in the car. I had the classical station playing. He rubbed his eyes and looked around sweetly for few minutes. Then he cupped his ear and said, “do you hear that Mozart? It’s on the radio.”

This blew my mind because it was, in fact, a Mozart piano sonata playing.

He will be two and a half in 11 days. What’s next? Daily requests for a cup of Earl Grey? It’s not out of the question, since he thinks Jean-Luc Picard is a family member. But if he starts asking for tea-time, I’ll be scanning the room for signs of Mrs. Ombach’s spirit.

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