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Booker-winner BARDO, odd and brilliant

I just finished the strange and un-put-downable LINCOLN IN THE BARDO, which won the Man Booker prize while I was reading it. Entirely deserving. It’s historical, biblical, Dantesque, supernatural, and just plain bizarrely unique.

It’s about the death of Lincoln’s son, a true kernel that spirals into a fable. Written like the script of a play, it’s told through a series of ghosts lamenting the lives they can’t let go, which keeps them rooted in a sort of purgatory. Lincoln suffers, and the boy is tethered to the father he loves. But it’s really about what matters most to us in life, how to live knowing it’ll end, and how to let it go. Not for the faint of heart.

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When doing good doesn’t feel so great

 

In the latest litter we fostered there was a clear runt, tiny and watchful, all head and twitchy ears. We should have named her Yoda but the kids dug in on Peanut. She was all quiet confidence in a six-ounce package, walking unfazed between the legs of our Bernese Mountain Dog. She could run and jump and wrestle with the others, she just got tired more easily. After awhile she’d come back to sit on my lap while I typed, crouching on delicate paws and curling herself into a space the size of a child’s handprint.

Our job was to fatten her up like her three siblings. They were four weeks old and would be adoptable in a month as long as they reached two pounds. All four were eating canned food watered down to a gruel, and I’d been supplementing Peanut’s diet with syringes of feline milk.

I thought they were all on track, but it wasn’t enough for her. Early yesterday morning I found her laying still and barely breathing in the kitten bed after her siblings had scattered to play. I sped her to the animal clinic wrapped in a blanket, but brought her home an hour later in a small box. The vet seemed surprised I wanted to take her home to bury her, a foster that didn’t work out, not really mine. It underscored the fact that she was on no one’s radar, existed for no one but me.

When the kids came back from school I walked them to the tiny grave under a tree circled with stones. I explained “fading kitten syndrome,” the catch-all term used for the ones not robust enough to digest food, fight germs, beat whatever glitch Darwinism had thrown their way.

The folks at the shelter where I foster say there’s one in every group; for each litter of, say, five kittens, an average of 3.5 make it to eight weeks old. But the statistics were lost on my younger boys. They had helped raise more than 10 litters, and though I’d told them about the risks and the rescue losses I’d had when I was younger, we as a family had never lost one. Standing under the tree looking at the mound of dirt and stones, that achievement seemed to wilt. The kids were sad, and I’d let myself get too attached.

Why do it? I wondered, after we went back into the house. Really, why do it to ourselves? It’s nice to have a hand in turning strays born in the bushes or pulled from horder homes become healthy and well-socialized pets. It’s no boast, it’s just plain fact: The kittens that do time at our house, with all the kids and pets and noise, leave knowing how to roll with it. And it’s certainly no hardship playing with these furry ping-pong balls for a few weeks. The playroom at night, with all of them popping in and out of hiding places, is like kitten whack-a-mole minus the whacking. Laying on the floor in the dark with two purring on your chest is the best therapy money can’t buy. I’ve often felt like we had a secret; sshh, don’t tell anyone where they came from, or everyone will foster and there won’t be enough for us. 

Then there are the times it isn’t going so well — when they aren’t eating enough or can’t keep it down, have a respiratory infection, pinkeye. And the inevitable math, if you stop to think about it. For every one that’s rescued there are plenty that aren’t, which can make fostering feel like a zero-sum game. I tend not to see it that way. But yesterday hit me harder than I would have thought, and made me wonder whether I’d tried hard enough, often enough, with supplemental feedings. Whether it’s worth the ups and downs, and if I’m still as resilient as I need to be. The Humane Society estimates that tens of thousands of families foster pets every year; if I decided it was too raw for us, for me, the shelter surely had other foster families who’d fill the gap.

That same morning, as Peanut took her last breaths in my lap, the news broke that a shooter in Las Vegas had killed 58 people overnight and wounded 500. Mourning a kitten felt a little obscene against that backdrop of loss. Not to mention the suffering in Puerto Rico, where 84 percent of the people still didn’t have power following Hurricane Maria, and 37 percent didn’t have clean water. Mexico was memorializing 370 just killed in an earthquake. It is easy to feel ineffectual when a wave of bad news pummels one day, and then again the next. It’s hard not to let the scope of need erode your faith that small things are worth doing. Even if small things are the only measure of difference in a zero-sum game.

In the afternoon an email came from the new owner of Clyde and Flynn, two kittens from a litter born at our house in May. We love getting photos and updates on the kittens when we’re able to know where they’ve been placed. Crazy Clyde and his sidekick Flynn were six months old and behaved like drunken teens at a house party, and their new owner loved it.

One day I heard a strange creaking sound coming from the hallway, wrote the woman who’d adopted them. There was a wooden clothes-drying rack and he’d climbed up and was and swinging from his front paws like a kid on a jungle gym. I’ve attached the video or you wouldn’t believe me. They are thriving, Nichole, and they just love people. I’m so fortunate that they had you and yours as their foster family.

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Locker room talk when you’re 7, 9, and 11

Overheard from the hall outside the younger boys’ bedroom after lights-out:

“Did you know that every 20 minutes a new batch of boogers grows in your nose? True story.”

Topics: Beautiful Little Nonsense, On Parenting | Leave a comment

There be monsters and other wishlist travel

Over summer vacation my kids were addicted to RIVER MONSTERS, the extreme fishing adventure series on Animal Planet. Jeremy Wade’s silky British accent was the soundtrack of our rental house. Mysterious fish were killing kayakers on the Amazon, spearfishermen disappearing in Malaysia. Wade spoke of the murderous creatures with awe, almost affection. When he got excited about a near-catch, he’d whisper yes-yes-yes-yes. Early mornings before the beach and evenings while we fired up the grill, there was Wade, with his white hair and weather-beaten face, like a distant uncle who’d dropped in on our family vacation.

Early one morning before the rest of the family was up, I sat on the couch with my 8- and 9-year-olds. “I’m in Argentina…. A 12-year-old girl was playing close to her village on one of the remote islands set in this huge river. She had entered the water countless times before, but this time it would be different. This time there was something waiting in the shallows.”

It’s easy to see why my boys were transfixed. The patterns of the rollout was irresistible. The thrill of the predatory unknown. The cliffhanger commercial breaks with a thrash and swoosh of bloodied water. And then finally the creatures themselves, all jaws and teeth, menacing and otherworldly as bulky-headed aliens.

It was especially potent for my 9yo, old enough not to be terrified, and young enough to see the expedition life as something entirely possible. Earlier in the summer he’d built himself a boat out of empty Poland Springs bottles and hockey tape. No matter that the Malaysian spearfish would slash it into BPA confetti. For propulsion, he would use a leaf blower. If he needed a turbo surge, he’d attach shaken-up cans of seltzer.

It was potent for me, too, but for different reasons — the cinematography, the exotic locales, the wide expanses of ocean and ice. The freedom to pursue curiosity across the planet. In the morning he’d take me to Greenland in a dogsled, and by dinnertime, a volcano in Iceland. Episode after episode was a parade of places I’d never been, but might have gone in a parallel life.

When I was in my mid-20s I worked at a glossy travel magazine. I had more journalistic assignments than I did exotic features, but there were some travel opportunities, and a few dicey adventures. After I left New York (married, baby), I stayed on as a contributing editor and would occasionally give television sound bites about travel issues in the news. Which is how I found myself as a mother of a toddler with the unlikeliest opportunity: The magazine was going to partner with a travel documentary series, and the editor asked if I would go on location regularly to narrate the story behind the stories. 

Looking back now it seems like a fever dream. The details weren’t fully fleshed out, but it would entail being on location somewhere for about a week each month. I don’t remember figuring out how this would make sense with a one-year-old, though my husband says we did. Shortly after I said I’d do it, I found out I was pregnant with our second child, and the fever broke.

Travel is simpler these days. Weddings and family reunions, college tours and summers around New England. Airbnb.com is my late-night Netflix, where I curate wish lists of travel experiences in the future: A lighthouse with my husband. A converted silo with the kids. A treehouse, an airstream for a writing getaway. There’s a through-the-looking-glass quality to my life on AirBnB. Also, of a kid with her nose to the candy store window.

During a RIVER MONSTERS commercial break my son said, “I’m going to do this. This is going to be my job. ” And why not? He likes nature documentaries, loves fishing. I Googled Jeremy Wade’s background. He studied zoology. He’d been a teacher. “You could totally do this,” I agreed. Clicking around a bit more, I found out the episode we were watching was actually the final one of the entire series. After nine seasons, it had just gone off the air. Goodbye Wade, goodbye zodiacs flitting among the ice floes.

My son was disappointed, and I was, too. The plot unfurled with intelligent suspense, a puzzle wrapped in an expedition. Wade spoke to his viewers like colleagues, partners in his discovery. He met the local people and experienced their cultures, and invited the viewer in along the way. In the end, it was more about the journey than the big reveal.

My son wanted to know if Wade was going to do another series. Most of the interviews I found were vague, but in one, he expressed curiosity about distant cultures and the more psychological aspect of travel — the passage of time, nature, and aging. I envisioned something like Ann Patchett’s novel State of Wonder as reimagined by the Discovery Channel. Yes, this guy had his compass set to my kind of shores. Oh, yes yes yes.

But my son, he was lost at psychological. All he heard was blah blah blah, no monsters. “Oh well,” he said, and set his compass for the kitchen.

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Interviewing Fredrik Backman

I love when the local bookstore asks me to interview a visiting author, making it a Q&A-style event instead of a reading. I like that better in my own events too, more of a  conversation than a monologue. That unscripted quality is probably why the back-and-forth of questions at the end are often the best part of a reading.

Yesterday bestselling Swedish author Fredrik Backman came to town, his only stop in the Boston area. I had three months’ notice to read his latest book, BEARTOWN, plus his backlist: A MAN CALLED OVE (once and for all settling any debate that existed over the pronunciation — it’s Ooo-veh), MY GRANDMOTHER ASKED ME TO TELL YOU SHE’S SORRY, BRITT MARIE WAS HERE, and others).

I especially enjoyed BEARTOWN, about the effect of youth hockey enthusiasm on a small town. It was darker than his earlier books, and examines the pack mentality of a team, and the way loyalties can divide a community when one player is accused of a crime. A member of the audience asked Backman how the book was being received by male athletes. He said he was a bit surprised that it hadn’t been an issue, but wondered what the reception would have been if it had been written by a woman. “It might have been challenged more, which is a shame but true.”

The main character is the town itself, and it works well. The narrative lens is like a camera suspended above, dipping in and out of each house, observing how the residents respond to the crisis. There is much hand-wringing over what’s happening to the community and laments of how can the community let this happen, which sounds eerily familiar in 2017 America. But groups are just a large number of individuals, and Backman doesn’t let personal responsibility off the hook: “Community is the sum of moral decisions made by the people who live there.”

Backman is charming and self-effacing, very at ease in front of a crowd, making it hard to believe his assertion that Ove was based on his own inner curmudgegon. “I’m not very socially competent,” he says. “There’s a lot of me in him.”

Considering the number of people in this sold-out crowd lined up for selfies with the author, it looks like socially incompetent is the new black.

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My study companion

Born at our house, going to their new families in a month. Already sad to let her go. I hope they appreciate what a literary soul she is.

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Birds and bees

This morning I was carpooling my 8yo and his friend, whose mom is expecting a baby.

Me, to the friend: “So, do you think you’re getting a brother or a sister?”

My 8yo: “You should ask your parents for a sister.”

Friend: “It doesn’t work that way.”

My 8yo: ?

Friend: “I know how it works. Don’t ask anything else. You don’t want to get your head in that place.” 

*        *         *

The 5th grader is having THAT health unit in school.

Him: “Mom, we had that class again. The one with the jungle book.”

Me: “What jungle book? You mean the puberty and development class?”

Him: “Me and my friends call it the jungle class.”

Me, afraid to ask but taking the bait: “Ok, why do you call it the jungle class?”

Him: “Because it leads to dark places and never know what horrible thing is around the bend.”

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On the first morning of 2017

obamaLast night (New Year’s eve) I dreamed I was working back at the travel magazine of my 20s, and Barack Obama was the editor in chief.

The office was in a skyscraper the size of an entire city block, and I’d walk the large square perimeter of hallways with an exotic young owl-hawk on my shoulder.

We all had one—an editor had rescued a nest of them on some remote assignment. Mine was a badly behaved alpha that didn’t play well with the others. But he was mine, perched on my shoulder in his cumbersome endearing way, and it weighed on me that I was responsible for finding him a home. Once during lunch I’d tried taking him on a walk in the jungle-like forest adjacent to the building. There were similar owl-hawks in the distance and I tried setting him free, but he wouldn’t go.

That afternoon I was called into Barack’s office. He was packing his belongings, loading boxes onto the helicopter pad that extended from one wall. owlhawkGoodbye, he said. He was leaving the magazine, going to the small village in Africa where his father had lived. In his memoir Dreams From My Father, he wrote that he’d lied to his elementary school class, told them his father was a Kenyan tribal chief. Turns out it was true, after all, and he was going to Africa to assume the position of his successor. He handed me a photograph of someone who looked exactly like him in a navy blue cylinder-shaped beret.

Even though we’d only had Barack at the magazine a short while, there was disappointment and a small sense of abandonment. I handed him back the picture, and asked the only thing I thought of to put into words: if he’d enjoyed being with us.

He stared at me a long time, beyond what was comfortable. I focused on a glass cabinet of medals to avoid meeting his eye. His silence meant he thought it was sort of a silly question, and that he also knew what I was really asking: Whether he was going to be as sad to leave as I was to have him go.

He put out his arm to my owl-hawk. “I’ll take him,” he said, and it stepped from my shoulder to his forearm.

*     *     *

When I woke up it was 6 a.m. on New Year’s day, still dark. I went downstairs to write by the glow of our wobbly imperfect Christmas tree. There was a low, reverberating call from out back. Hoo-hoo, hoo. Behind our house there are 12 acres of undeveloped woodland, unusual for the suburbs, with two abandoned houses that were once a farm. We’ve seen deer and coyote, heard the fisher cats scream in the night. Later this year developers will be razing the woods to build homes, knocking down almost all the native pine and shrubs (“junk trees”) to create a more manicured cul de sac. The uncultivated woods will be reduced to about 50 feet. Sometimes my children talk about where they imagine the animals will go. Will the deer and coyote have to share a den?

Somewhere behind the house another owl answered the first and then another, a volley of airy staccatos in the dark. At this time next year there will be houses where the junk trees were, and someone else in the White House. Some things will change, some won’t. Most of us will walk our office hallways and city blocks and suburban jungles just as before, things will grow and other things will be cut back or cut down, and deer might have to bed down with coyote. I don’t know where the owls will go.

 

 

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Leaving the Martha’s Vineyard fair at sunset

sunsetmv

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My car is a glider on farm roads, up into the pinking clouds

and away

 

 

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Dirty hands

L13A month ago I started doing a CSA workshare at a local farm one morning a week in exchange for a full share of weekly produce. I wanted to get my hands on the fresh vegetables and learn a few things about growing, plus I tend to find when I put myself in new settings learning new things, I can just feel my brain expanding. The first day I harvested hundreds of bok choi, beets, turnip, radishes, lettuce heads and chard fronds, but after two hours on my knees weeding I couldn’t stop thinking of all the other things I could have been doing with my time not to mention work deadlines looming and said to myself, I CAN’T DO THIS IT ISN’T WORTH IT.

Each Thursday since then I’ve given myself over to the rhythm of the morning and brought home funky vegetables like kohlrabi and garlic scapes, and introduced my kids to hand-shelled peas and dried-on-the-cob popcorn and the world’s largest zucchini. I come home filthy and exhausted working side-by-side with the college-kid crew, feeling badass with a mini-machete until my back and knees remind me I’m old enough to be their mom and possibly their grandma.

This morning while we were cutting cilantro, a guy who’s a  history major at Dickinson asked me what L20bands I like and a Tufts OT confided her misgivings about grad school and I love being wrong, especially about new experiences.

 

Topics: On Learning, On the World | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment