Wednesday, December 3, 2008

an animated solution

[In 2007-2008, my family lived in Vincennes, France, just outside the 12th arrondissement of Paris. The kids, aged 5 and 8, went to the regular French school, and I did some poetry writing & teaching and ran a little English-language preschool program once a month in our apartment. When we returned, the kids picked up in K and 4th at Wyngate ES, and I returned to teaching, in MCPS for the first time.]

Duncan went to his first after-school basketball session yesterday and Daisy will have hers on Friday. Watching the coach at work, I remembered that I returned from France with a mission and that I must contact Michelle Rhee and Barack Obama at once about the following: In France there exists a legitimate job entitled “Animateur” or “Animatrice.” These are the people, usually young, very often male, who hold diplomas (either nonvocational or professional) in sports, leisure activities and animations and who staff the before- and aftercare centers housed at every school. 

They design and provide the ateliers (workshops) in sports, pottery, drama or cooking that are offered by every school system, who play with the kids at countless “vacation villages” while their parents pursue adult recreations, and who—because this is also standard in France—staff the Centres de Loisirs that take the place of school during the numerous and lengthy school breaks. In Vincennes there was a cadre of young people—GUYS—of many cultural backgrounds employed by the Ville de Vincennes during the summer to work the trampolines set up for free in the town square, and to work the ice rink set up in the winter. They ran the Festival du Sport in the spring and were, with very few exceptions, cool, kind, skilled and attentive to even the youngest kids. I’m researching the official process for licensing animateurs and animatrices, but in the meantime, this is my big idea. 

 We—I mean Americans—should start thinking laterally about the benefits of a national service requirement for young people, about the need for quality childcare and the need, particularly in low-income communities, for more opportunities and more positive role models for boys. I bet every one of us knows a teenager whose big talents are in the area of PLAYING, and while very few will get to do that in a major league sport (and I think I'm right in saying there IS no major league Playstation, Warcraft or Wii), what if there was a 1-year diploma to be earned in the subject of, let’s call it, Playcare? What if there were a legitimate professional path in this country for people, male and female, who enjoy kids and like to play but don’t want the demands of full-time teaching? This might be because they’re taking a year out before college, or because they’re deciding whether to go to law school, or because they are artists or performers with other work to do, or it might just be because they don’t have grandiose mainstream professional plans and because PLAYING is their true best thing. 

I don’t have all the facts and figures, of course, but I do have this gut feeling that many of the social challenges we face, both downtown and in the ‘burbs, could be at least partly addressed by making creative, active childcare a real career. I'm sure there are teachers who will tell me that first on our agenda ought to be achieving true professional status for teachers and the salaries that go along with that. But when I think of all the kids aged 16-24 who don’t necessarily excel academically, who may be hanging around waiting to be trained and employed, who could be recognized as contributing members of society and earn a living organizing after-school games for their own younger siblings, those concerns fade.

I’ll be getting back to you on how I’m doing with my mission. In the meantime, I’m grateful for Brian the babysitter, who can always be relied upon to goof off responsibly with my kids when I don’t have time, and for Monsieur Iba, the senior animateur at Duncan’s school in Vincennes, who played clowning and drumming and all kinds of fun, and for this guy, Cyrrr63, who takes his animations very seriously and is blogging about them in France.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

the beauty of the blog

This morning on NPR (and let's face it, if I don't hear it on Morning Edition between 5 and 7am, it's not news) I heard how Maxine Hong Kingston, winner of a special award at the National Book Awards ceremonies last night, had tried to get her essay on the election of Barack Obama, a fellow Hawaiian, published in a number of newspapers and magazines and failed. Her response, of course, was to turn to the Internet, and with the click of a "Publish" button, her essay went live.

Also this morning I heard from a friend, the one who moved to the gigantic mansion in Texas; we always knew she was the Erma Bombeck of this decade, and now her blog, Marge Ponders, proves that she has been a blogger-in-waiting since before we knew what a blog was. She writes today that her daughter will turn 10 on Friday and become a "zero-teen." Now here is a concept I had not encountered, nor did I realize that the only gifts for a girl of this age are pricey electronics or pricey American Girl dolls.

This is ever so pertinent, since I informed Daisy just a week ago that there will be no tweenage in our household--you are a child until you are a teen, I said, (just like I said in 2000 that we would never eat in the car, in 2002 that no one would play computer games until they learned to read, and as recently as 2007 that our family would simply never have a video game system, and guess who now has a Wii?)--and then I let her buy the American Girl body book. (Thank the stars she has no interests in the sissy I mean historical dolls or their clothes, and in my defense, I made her buy the book with her own extensive stash of tweenage allowance money.) Anyway, now that Marge is blogging, I can keep up with her family, have a laugh, and get some advice on the state of the economic bailout at the same time--a beautiful efficiency.

Another friend is using her blog to make sure that people like me, whose only news source is early morning NPR, have easy access to the alternative media. At A Nice Gal's Guide to Online News and Politics, she makes it simple for me to keep up not only with her battles against chronic sinus infection, but with the new discourse of the Internet. She and I probably don't agree on everything, but we agree on enough about the world that I can trust her to point me in the right direction--an invaluable public service from my least public friend.

And then there's Sylvia Vardell, more of an acquaintance than a friend, who keeps me up to date on events in the world of shadowy world of children's poetry. I read, I write, I publish (very intermittently), but I do all this in a kind of vacuum, not having time to read all the children's book journals etc etc, so I'm grateful that there's somewhere to go for digestible tidbits of news and more than occasionally a poem to enjoy.

Finally, as a recent convert to Facebook, I appreciate the blog-spirited Status Updates from people I see regularly and those I haven't seen since high school, and let's face it, some of those updates are more worthy of the literature label. It all contributes to the possibility of contracting TMI disease, but this is more of the beauty of the blog--I go get it when I want it and not otherwise.

But le plus beau here is this: I'm sure I don't have anything as meaningful to say as Maxine, and I don't have the financial nouse of Marge or the political savvy of A Nice Gal, nor the connections that Sylvia profits from--and yet I too can set myself a purpose, set up a blog, and click "Publish." If nothing else (and if no one reads but me), it's a way to think, to write, to craft, and to have my say. Without bending too many live ears.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

birth pangs

Morning Song

Love set you going like a fat gold watch.
The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry
Took its place among the elements.

Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival. New statue.
In a drafty museum, your nakedness
Shadows our safety. We stand round blankly as walls.

I’m no more your mother
Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind’s hand.

All night your moth-breath
Flickers among the flat pink roses. I wake to listen:
A far sea moves in my ear.

One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral
In my Victorian nightgown.
Your mouth opens clean as a cat’s. The window square

Whitens and swallows its dull stars. And now you try
Your handful of notes;
The clear vowels rise like balloons.

~Sylvia Plath

I’m aching in couple of unusual places right now--I just raked and dragged 13 loads of leaves from my front yard using a rake with no handle (it had already lost half its handle in an unknown incident, and then I reversed over it in the driveway and completed the amputation). Working away in unaccustomed positions may be what got me thinking about birth pangs, or maybe I was already primed to recall the anguish of childbirth by the arrival on Monday, in PDF form, of my fourth child I mean second book.

Now, I have not experienced any of the shock or grief of parents whose baby arrives premature or sick or disabled. Compared to that, my own surprise at discovering, after all those years of living with my Child-Bearing Hips, that I wasn’t going to be able to push a baby out, and then my distress at finding that, according to the cosultant at the hospital my bosom practically screams “inadequate lactation”—I’m certain that these count as minor traumas.

So I don’t know if the feelings I’m having at the first glimpse of my newborn book fall into the category of major trauma, but it feels that way at the moment. This book had an unsteady start in that I didn’t understand for a couple of agonizing months that the publisher had already informally accepted it for publication—which is the opposite of eagerly peeing on a stick and seeing the thrilling or crushing response within 3 minutes. (I first announced the happy news of Daisy’s existence to a friend in the middle of a crosswalk at 15th and Q Streets—why wait until your actual partner gets home?) The gestation period of this book has been elephantine and then some; it has been 25 months since the process began and the book will not actually appear until Fall 2009.

Along the way there have been long periods of no movement at all, leading me to panic in the same way that every pregnant woman worries now and then that the baby may be—it’s hard even to write it—dead. And recently, even with a relative flurry of correspondence regarding a possible illustrator, a change of title, a possible cover sketch, copyeditor’s queries and a request for flap copy (author bio and front flap blurb, the writing of which is like preparing a birth announce- ment with a personality description instead of the simple facts of date, length and weight)—even with all this afoot, I was not ready for my bundle of joy to arrive in my inbox all at once with a note from the editor informing me that this was my last chance for text changes and that it would ship to printer ON THURSDAY.

Even so, this should be exciting news, right? The poems are as good as I can make them, the illustrations are lovely, things are really happening now—except that the illustrations don't always match my vision for the book. “Oh, woe is me!” I wailed yesterday to a friend who casually asked how I was at the bus stop. “After all this working and waiting, this book is like a fourth child, and I want it to be beautiful!” And then I realized that to an outside eye my book probably IS beautiful, and also that I don’t care exactly that it’s beautiful—but I do want my baby to look like me. That is, I was hoping that the illustrations would match the ideas in my poems and then go on to develop the ideas in my poems, make more of my words, rather in the way that anonymous genes have created unexpected richness in my two actual children—and (with no offense to the artist), I’m afraid that hasn’t happened here.

It's almost always true that love is the best response, but what kind of love works in this delivery room?

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

un beau jour/a beautiful day

Ce matin, Duncan crie ses applaudissements. Daisy danse somnolente-réveillée. Fiona embrasse tous ses proches virtuellement. Et moi, je pleure. Je pleure car aujourd’hui je peux avouer que toute ma vie, j’étais embarrassée, j’avais honte de mon pays, meme en croyant fortement en les idéals de notre démocratie. Nous, du « greatest country on earth , » nous n’étions pas un nation de liberté, pas un nation d’égalité, pas (et peut-etre pas encore) un nation de fraternité.

Mais aujourd’hui nous récupérons le droit de dire que nous sommes quelque chose de spécial dans le monde. Il n’existe pas un « greatest country on earth, » mais hier nous avons choisi d’essayer etre grand dans un sens généreux, et d’etre responsable de faire le travail qui accompagne ce défi la.

Donc je pleure. Les larmes sont de la relève, de la joie et oui, de l’espoir. J’adore les mots de Barack Obama, mais pour l’instant, c’est (avec un touche de bizarre) un voix irlandais, c’est Bono de U2 qui chante mon cœur :

The heart is a bloom, it shoots up through the stony ground
There's no room, no space to rent in this town
You're out of luck and the reason that you had to care:
The traffic is stuck and you're not moving anywhere.
You thought you'd found a friend to take you out of this place
Someone you could lend a hand in return for grace]
It's a beautiful day, the sky falls
And you feel like it's a beautiful day
Don't let it get away
You're on the road but you've got no destination
You're in the mud, in the maze of her imagination
You love this town even if that doesn't ring true
You've been all over and it's been all over you
It's a beautiful day
Don't let it get away
It's a beautiful day
Don't let it get away
Touch me, take me to that other place
Teach me, I know I'm not a hopeless case
See the world in green and blue
See China right in front of you
See the canyons broken by cloud
See the tuna fleets clearing the sea out
See the Bedouin fires at night
See the oil fields at first light
And see the bird with a leaf in her mouth
After the flood all the colors came out
It was a beautiful day
Beautiful day
Don't let it get away
Touch me, take me to that other place
Reach me, I know I'm not a hopeless case
What you don't have you don't need it now
What you don't know you can feel it somehow
What you don't have you don't need it now
You don't need it now, you don't need it now
It’s a beautiful day

Today, Duncan cheers. Daisy dances, sleepy wide-awake. Fiona’s virtually hugging everybody she knows. And me, I’m crying. I’m crying because today I can admit that my whole life I’ve been embarrassed, I’ve been ashamed of my country, even while I believed to my depths in the ideals of our democracy. We, “the greatest country on earth,” have not been a nation of liberty, not a nation of equality, not (and maybe not yet) a nation of brotherhood.

But today we reclaim the right to say that we’re some kind of special in the world. There is no “greatest country on earth,” but yesterday we chose to try to be great in the most generous sense, and to be responsible for doing the work that comes along with the challenge.

So I’m crying. The tears are of relief, of joy, and yes, of hope. I love the way Obama speaks, but for the moment, strangely, it’s an Irish voice, it’s Bono of U2 who’s singing my heart.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008


The year we just spent in France is not the first time I've lived abroad. From 1991-1996 I lived in North London with Fiona. Oh, it was a heady, youthful, liberated period,filled with Grant family weddings, O'Brien roast dinners, Salsa Rosada, traditional patchwork quilting, and Jubilee Line travel accompanied by Ruth Rendell and Oasis. There were also vast numbers of parties, primly organized around themes like Magnetic Poetry, indoor fireworks and “luxury” foodstuffs, all of which tended to degenerate pleasantly into plonkfests.

It would also be fair to say that although I talked to my parents every week, I was officially estranged from my father. Reasonably enough, I now realize, it was tough for him to embrace my divorce and new “lesbian lifestyle,” no matter how essentially traditional my relationship was (and those who know both Fiona and my dad will have noticed a few spooky similarities). And I’m afraid he took it personally that I couldn’t any longer factor his desires and opinions into my life decisions.

So for a few of those five years we didn’t really talk about anything important, and if we did try, our conversations tended to degenerate unpleasantly into sulkfests. And then we both, me and the man who hand-built a wooden case for the used electric typewriter I lugged to college, discovered e-mail.

Here was a whole new way for us to talk—without having to face each other in person, without the painful tugging at heartstrings created by patronizing tones, by furrowed brows, by uncomfortable smirks, by tears. As a pastor in the habit of carefully crafting his sermons week after week, but not so much in the habit of revealing his personal uncertainties in the pulpit, my dad used this e-mail miracle to write about what he didn’t understand, what he didn’t believe in, what he worried I was losing through my choices.

On my side, I gained time. I could read his letters hot off the printer and again on the Tube. I could contemplate his meanings, take time to simmer down, take time to develop at least a little empathy. And I could use all my well-honed writing and teaching skills to educate my father about Heidi the Person (not Heidi the Daughter): my uncertainties, what I couldn’t believe in, what I was gaining through my choices.

Now, I’m not saying that “The Power of E-mail Mended our Broken Hearts, Praise the Lord!” If truth be told it was really the eventual arrival of the grandchildren that brought us all to our senses, and now, ten years later and back together again in Mid-Atlantica, computer-aided communication can’t always be relied on (my dad read the October 15 post with Rebecca McClanahan’s poem and thought I was writing about my nephew. Satchel, have I ever tried to teach you to type, dude?).

But I am saying that there are times when the combination of low-tech written word and high-tech instant messageability are just what the shaman ordered for improving communication. We chat, but we slow it down by typing. We write, but we speed it up with fiber-optics. We leave homes, but we don’t lose friends. The peasant in me is reconsidering her objections to our brave new digital world.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


There was a short-lived website here called which was supposed to recreate, on the Internet, that old-fashioned opportunity to share news, ask advice and exchange opinions over the common back fences of our yards.

As useful as the Internet is, as much as I rely on e-mail in place of knocking on a neighbor's door or even picking up the phone ("Mommy, why are you calling the Superys instead of just walking across the street? That's not good for the earth."), the low-tech peasant in me still needs the face-to-face experience that a thing like can't replace, even with all those clever avatars to customize. So where am I getting it?

My hu-co* hotspots are the Ayrlawn bus stop, morning and afternoon, and in the little copier room at school. This is where I see the same folks every day, where we can pick up where we left off last time, where I can ask how to save a dying plant (sounds like it's already dead), when class photos are (today) and where to find a dozen pairs of scissors (go buy them at Staples). These neighbors will do me a favor if I'm running late, will ask me a favor if they need one, and laugh at my stupid quips about school or national politics (out of politeness if not out of actual amusement).

And these exchanges are as close to concrete as social relations can be. They're here and now, live and unedited, and they remind me (as my conversation last night with the children about
Samantha Smith, the Cold War and nuclear weapons did) that just because we can doesn't mean we should. Just because we can communicate almost solely by IM, Blackberry, email, evite, Facebook,, cell phone, and other highwired tools doesn't mean we should. Sometimes we need to look each other in the eye.

So I'm going to get up, open the front door, walk 50 yards, and say good morning to a neighbor I have not laid eyes on since we got back on August 4. And if she's not there, I'll send her the link to this post.


Sunday, October 19, 2008

the other way around

On the way from the bus stop, just the two of us, I announce the creation of my new blog to Daisy. "Why does everything have to be about Squeeze?" she asks in a tone of weary complaint.

"This blog isn't about Squeeze; it's about me and our family and whatever I think of writing about." I explain that the writing of the Squeeze book and its title poem wasn't just random, or even part of a cunning plan to invade her every classroom with Mommy's Patent Poetry Workshop.

I continue my speech. "The poem called "Squeeze" tells what I really believe about life. My universe is pretty small, but it's also pretty juicy, and I believe it's part of my job on earth to squeeze the juice out day by day."

I demonstrate by grabbing her behind and giving it a juicy goose. That gets a better reaction. Someday maybe she'll actually ask to see my boring blog.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008


I wish I could say that I go around with an image in mind of letters dangling from the tip of each finger—the h, j, m, n, u and y, the 7 and 8 trailing each move of my right index like the starry streak that follows the sweep of a movie magic wand.

But the passage of words from my brain to my screen seems to leap right over the keyboard: that is, I think the sentence I want to say and my fingers type it without noticing that the words are balloon or umbrella or pasteurization. That’s the job of my eyes, and if they’re watching the screen, suddenly my fingers have a lot more work, especially the right middle, because that’s the one that does the backspacing and deleting (though I had to slow way down to even figure out that it’s the right middle who’s in charge of erasing).

I’m thinking about this because Daisy will start a “keyboarding” class soon, and Duncan has learned to hunt down the llll-e-t-t-e-rs-sss of his name, and because of this poem I heard on
The Writer’s Almanac a while ago now and have not forgotten. The distance between h and two ds seems suddenly much greater than two keys.

Teaching a Nephew to Type

Because you lag already
years behind the computer-and-
otherwise-literate boys with fathers,
and your handwriting is a tangle
the teachers have grown weary
of unraveling, and because you are as close
to a son as I can manage, though nothing
about you is manageable anymore,

I am teaching you to type. The trick
is to look anywhere but down.
Your fingers are dumb birds pecking,
just follow the chart I’ve made.
We’ll begin in the thick of things,
the home row to which we’ll always
return. Little finger on a. Then tap
your way next door to s. Now

you’ve made as. Don’t think, I say.
Just watch the chart: dad sad fad
a flash a flask a lad had. Tomorrow
we’ll move on to reach and return
and the period key, but for now
just use the comma, it’s like catching
a breath, or you can type a colon,
double dot, old snake eyes, luck
in your future, meaning watch this space:
something is about to follow.

Rebecca McClanahan
Deeplight: New and Selected Poems 1987-2007. © Iris Press, 2007.