Childhood is a wild bird

The first time I took my kids out to hand feed wild birds, it didn’t go well.

I had hit upon the activity out of desperation at the beginning of spring vacation. The kids were so bored, but I had COVID and was much too tired and contagious for outings. We had long since exhausted the charms of reading books via FaceTime, with and without silly filters, and even the kids were tired of TV.

But maybe we could feed the birds together! We could sit in chairs, safely distanced, enjoying nature, being quiet, doing something wholesome and memorable, and did I mention being quiet?

It didn’t go so well. But that was okay. It was pleasant enough just being outside, and I’m a firm believer in the value of unstructured, unplugged time for kids. We thought we might get a nibble or two, but you really do have to be quiet to attract birds, and my youngest is made out of monkeys. The first few times she squirmed or chattered, I fondly and gently shushed her; but I recalled that our goal was to have a nice time together, so before long, I released her, and we dispersed without having fed or even seen a single bird.

We agreed it was fun, though, or at least potentially fun. Apparently you really can train birds to get to know you. I talked about our attempt on social media, and people shared photos and videos of their kids’ success in making friends with these wild creatures.

The idea began to take hold. I started to see hand feeding wild birds as the ideal summer activity. By the end of vacation, I thought, this is how we would greet every morning: We would step into the backyard with a handful of seed, and our feathered friends, who knew our gentle ways, would flock to us like a gang of modern day St. Francises.

A eager twittering grew in my heart. It was everything I wanted for my kids: A break from screen time, a memorable bonding experience, and a naturally contemplative pastime that would sweetly, easily open the gates for all kinds of other goods of the spirit.

The idea took flight. This could be about so much more than birds, I thought…

Read the rest of my essay for Catholic San Francisco here

Quick and easy summer craft: Flower pounding

Here’s a little craft I’ve always wanted to try: Flower pounding. It combines two of our favorite things: Flowers, and hitting stuff. The results were not exactly spectacular, but it was so easy and fast, we want to keep experimenting. Corrie is away at theater camp, so Benny and I did this together. 

The materials:
-Light-colored cloth with a rough weave
-fresh flowers, leaves, and ferns
-parchment paper or wax paper
-a hammer

The procedure:
-Lay the cloth on a surface that can withstand hammering. 
-Arrange the flowers face down on the cloth. 
-Put a sheet of parchment paper or wax paper over them.
-Hammer the heck out of them. 
-Peel up the parchment paper and shake off whatever loose flower material didn’t get pounded into the cloth. You want just the color to be in the cloth.
-If you like, add decoration with markers, paint, embroidery thread, etc.. 

Here is Benny arranging some flowers. We chose ferns, rose petals, pansies, some wild yellow flowers with wide, flat petals (some kind of cinquefoil?), and cow vetch for our first round. We were looking for flowers with deep color and relatively flat blossoms.

And . . . bonk bonk bonk!

It was hard to know when to stop. We didn’t want the flowers to lose definition, but we wanted to make sure we were really driving the material into the weave of the cloth.

It did smell lovely as we pulverized those poor blossoms and ferns. 

Then we peeled the parchment paper up to see what we had . . .

And once we shook and brushed off the excess, the results were not too spectacular.

The ferns were nice, better in some spots than others

and the pansies came through well.

You can see the two different colors on the petals.

You could do a really pretty design, a wreath shape or something, with just ferns and pansies. But you can see the rose petals were faint and blurry.

The cow vetch gave a great, deep color (though much more blue than purple, interestingly!) but lost its shape completely, not surprisingly (the petals are small and fringe-like).

We decided the whole thing needed more color, so we added a day lily and a handful of geranium petals. This is the great thing about this project: You can just keep adding stuff.

and that brightened up the whole thing! The day lily released a surprising amount of dark red and purple when hammered, as well as orange and yellow. 

I did scrape off a bit more petal material after I took this picture, but the color that soaked into the fabric stayed very deep. The geranium petals were hard to separate from the cloth, but they certainly kept their shape and color. 

And there it is! Benny added a birthday message and we sent it off with some cookies. 

If we had more time, this would be a lovely project to combine with embroidery. I would love to experiment with making some symmetrical patterns and designs.

I will admit, I have no idea how well it keeps, but I’m pretty sure it will fade like any dried flower, although putting it behind glass would probably protect it somewhat. It would be smart to spray it with a fixative spray to preserve the colors. 

You could also do this on watercolor paper or canvas. We also wanted to try pounding daisies, white violets, and other light-colored flowers into dark fabric.  

Have you done this craft? Any tips? How long did it last? 

 

In real life, they are so big

Here is a little child sitting in the gondola of a Ferris wheel, nervously crushing fistfuls of cotton candy into nuggets as they wait for the ride to start. She and her mother are in number 16.

Her mother says that she may need to hold hands so she doesn’t get too scared. It’s not a trick, like something Grandfather Bear would say to give courage to Little Bear. The mother is some form of scared all the time. Most of the time, the mother’s fear gets crushed down into manageable handfuls. But not always.

She has found herself in charge of her youngest child on the final fun trip of the final week of vacation. The oldest kids are too busy to go on a day trip; the tweens band up and run off together, being cool; the dad is bonding with big sister who desperately needs to be treated like a little kid for once. So it’s the mother and her youngest, navigating the world of the amusement park alone together. It was a long ride to get there, and now there are long lines for everything.

There are rides that are out of the question. Some of them drag you up to ludicrous heights, turn you upside down, shake you very hard, drop you, shove you backwards, put you in the dark. Why would you pay someone to do this to you, when it happens to you anyway on some random Tuesday, just in the course of ordinary living?

But the rides with no lines are all the same: Around and around and around. It’s hard to know what to do. So the mother and kid alternate: Rides that are too boring, and rides that are too scary.

Here are all the moms, draped along the fence, watching their baffled little toddlers swoop up and down, up and down inside metal dragons that beep and flash and whine. “WHEE! WHEE! WHEE!” shout the moms, grinning.

Here’s a little cluster of blonde cousins rushing and tumbling into the serpentine line barrier at the double decker carousel. One child wants desperately to ride the only giraffe, but there are many other people in line. “Whyn’t we just duck under the fence?” a woman rasps.

“We all have to wait our turn,” her sister answers mildly.

“Aunty will make sure you git that giraffe,” the first woman insists. “You’ve ben such a pretty girl all day. Aunty will make sure you git that giraffe. Pretty girl.”

The mother, shriveling a bit inside as she imagines meeting these pretty girls in fifteen years, is relieved to hear that her own daughter wants to ride the panda, instead.

She finds a horse next to the panda, and surprises herself by heavily climbing up on it. Her legs are the right length for the stirrups, so maybe it’s a normal thing to do. The horse’s tail looks like a real tail, and someone has taken so many pains painting scenes from Venice on the ceiling and brushing in little yellow and pink bouquets in between the mirrors.

A chubby hispanic man gives his shell-shaped bench a spin, and it twirls, and he beams like a baby. It is a beautiful carousel. There has never been such a beautiful carousel. It’s two stories high, and everyone on it is smiling. But the ride is very short.

Here are a set of tiny twins, dressed to the nines in identical new sneakers, athletic shorts, and patriotic tank tops, strapped carefully into a blinking helicopter. All the other kids are yanking on the bar, jerking and swooping and clanking up and down, but the boys are staring solemnly ahead and moving smoothly on their appointed rounds, around and around.

“Pull on the bar! Pull it toward your belly! Make it go up! Don’t you wanna fly?” the operator screams. They do not. Their father comes to collect them when the ride is over. God willing, he will understand that they did what seemed right to them. They are extremely small and the world is very big…Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

 

In which I convert a used swing set to a not-quite-deck for our pool

Anybody want to hear a rambling story about a pool improvement project of dubious value? I got you covered. 

Early last spring, we saw the pandemic writing on the wall and splurged on an above-ground pool to get us through the summer. It was a great! No regrets! (Well, the kids have regrets, because I forced them to dig rocks in the hot hot son for many weeks, but they did eventually get a pool out of it, plus plenty of invaluable “my parents are so cruel”stories.)

The only drawback was that the only way to get in and out of the pool was via a wobbly A-frame ladder, so you could either be completely in the water, or completely out of the water, but there wasn’t really any in between, i.e. lounging by the water while you keep your kids from drowning.

And I couldn’t do this:

Sitting in the sun and dangling your feet in the water is the main reason for owning a pool!  And no, I can’t sit on the top of the ladder and do it, because my hips don’t fit, okay? You go have ten kids and then squeeze yourself into the top of a ladder. 

So this year, I decided to build a deck. Yay, easy, fun! Then I got a look at lumber prices, and decided, well! Wow! My goodness! Maybe a used deck, then. I obsessively refreshed Facebook Marketplace pool deck listings all day long and had my heart broken over and over again. Lots of other people apparently had the same idea this summer, and so I finally gave up.

I cycled through progressively stupider ideas for some kind, any kind of platform to go next to the pool (maybe builder’s scaffolding! Maybe rotten and splintery wooden pallets that I collect a few at a time over the course of several years and ignore the fact that they’re soaked with industrial chemicals! Maybe those metal cage things they use to secure maple sap collection tubs! MAYBE AN OLD TRAIN CAR!!) Even I could tell these were dumb ideas.

However, I noticed that there were plenty of used play structures made of pressurized wood for sale, and they were quite cheap, even if you factor in rental of a pickup truck. I got a great deal on one in good condition. My first plan was to replace our old play structure with this slightly less old one, and convert the old one into a pool thing, but that was a bridge too far, dumbness-wise. So I lugged the platform part of the new-old play structure into the yard and set aside the slide and swings and appendages, and here is what I did to the platform:

First I reinforced the uprights. The platform part of a play structure is not designed to stand on its own; it’s supposed to have a slide and a whole other section with swings attached to it, so it was wobbly. I used some scrap pressurized wood, cut the ends into angles, and screwed a piece diagonally across each of the four sides. This made it much more stable. 

Now I needed a way to get up there. After many false tries with various kinds of ladders and steps, I ended up re-attaching the original climbing wall to one side. This is not ideal for adults, but it’s strong and it works well enough.

To one side, I attached ten large bicycle hooks for towels, swimsuits, etc. 

Actually I did this part first, because I wanted instant gratification. This part alone was worth the effort of the whole project, as the kids had been just dropping their wet towels in the dirt, and then not picking them up because ew, they’re wet and dirty. And then the dog was eating them.

I used duct tape to attach an umbrella to one upright, and Flex Tape to attach two solar-powered spotlights to the two uprights that face the pool, for night swimming. NIGHT SWIMMING.  Actually there is something wrong with them, even though I didn’t buy the cheapest kind, but eventually, NIGHT SWIMMING.

Then I used zip ties to attach a basket to a spot that already had holes drilled in it. This is a place for sun block and bug spray or books, and it’s a secure place for a phone and/or speaker for music. 

To the other side, I attached two shelves, for books, drinks, etc. I used the kind of shelf bracket with a hook at the end, designed to hold a closet rod, so we can keep the pool skimmer and brush there. 

You can reach the shelves when you’re inside on the platform. Corrie is quite taken with the idea of poolside a bowl of fruit.

Notice there is a stray sock. There is always a stray sock. 

And that’s it! Here’s the whole thing:

It’s kind of stupid, and far from luxurious, but it works, and I didn’t spend a lot of money on it, and I didn’t cry at all when I was working on it. Now I can sit down and have a clear view of the whole pool, get some shade if I want, and have a place to put drinks or sunglasses or whatever. It’s sort of a deluxe lifeguard chair, I guess. And I can do this:

I told the kids I would never turn down a foot massage, but Corrie was being really creepy about it, so I guess I have my limits after all. 

Haven’t decided what to put in the space underneath the platform yet (there’s a reason we didn’t put the pump and filter underneath, but I forget what it was). Maybe a tub or deck box to keep toys in, or possibly a trash can.  I’m trying to convince Damien we can attach a pool slide to the pool side, but he believes that would end in a collapsed pool and a rush of 9,000 gallons of water that carries your children away, and he’s usually right about these things. 

How about you? Got any dumb projects this summer? Got any pressurized wood? Got any pallets? Got any dirty towels? Got any duck food? 

In praise of trampolines

You’re thinking of buying a trampoline, aren’t you? You should.

Here are some thoughts:

Cons:

  • Every once in a while, someone’s tooth gets embedded in someone else’s skull and the sound of your child’s femur snapping in half will haunt you for the rest of your days. 
  • Passing truckers will honk at you.

Pros:

  • It’s really, truly fun for all ages. As long as your neck is strong enough to support your head, you can have some kind of good time on a trampoline, whether it’s gently bopping a little baby up and down, or turning ridiculous back flips designed to freak your mother out, or just gingerly springing up and down like a big gooney gooneybird. Also popular: running as fast as you can in a circle while chasing a shrieking toddler. Optional: pretending you’re on the moon.
  • It’s a great aid to those “Play with us, Mama!” “games” where you get to lie down. They climb on you and roll around and, because of the motion of the trampoline, they think you’re participating. You can call it the tiger game or the mummy game or the digging up dinosaur game, whatever, as long as you get to lie down in the sun and call it “parenting.”
  • It is damn near impossible to bounce for five minutes and still be mad when you get off.
  • There is no better sound than the sound that can float in through the window than the sound of previously surly, gloomy, crabby, sullen kids suddenly shouting and laughing together.
  • People look hilarious trying to get off a trampoline.
  • If you are pregnant and want to go into labor, it won’t actually unless the baby is ready; but, again, you look hilarious.
  • You always know the answer to the question, “What will we do with all these party guests?”
  • If you’re completely the most amazing parents ever, you will also add a sprinkler and a boatload of water balloons to said party activity.
  • No little kid can say “trampoline.” “Troppineen,” yes. “Chapoline,” probably. “Boing,” definitely. It’s cute. Cute is good. 
  • Add a trampoline to any formal photo shoot and get instant drama (poofy skirts and long hair are a bonus).
  • It’s the best possible viewing spot for a meteor shower. You can also rest a little cocktail on your collarbone and pretend you’re watching a meteor shower, as long as it’s not actually pouring rain.
  • Passing truckers will honk at you.

In conclusion:

  • You should get a trampoline.

What’s for supper? Vol. 177: Don’t call it a barbecue!

What a week! Summer is officially underway, emitting showers of sparks as it comes. If I finally figured things out, this post contains two videos.

Here’s what we had this week:

SATURDAY
Grilled ham and cheese on sourdough

Saturday was twelve years ago. Let’s see if I took a picture of my sandwich. 

Oh yeah!

Sometimes you takes the trouble to plates your dinner, sometimes you don’ts.

SUNDAY
Chicken shawarma with vegetables, pita, and yogurt sauce; frozen grapes

It’s been too long since we shawarma’d. I marinated the meat in the morning and cooked it under the broiler, since it was too rainy to grill outside. We had the meat and onions with black and kalamata olives, feta, parsley, pita and yogurt sauce, tomatoes and cucumbers.

Frozen grapes are a splendid way to clear your head when you’re feeling hot and grumpy. Just remember to dry them off before you freeze them, or they will get a little jacket of ice. 

MONDAY
Hamburgers

I also feel like there was some vegetable involved, but I can’t prove it. What I did do was add my little portion to the worldwide onslaught of senseless food videos.

The occasion was that we have new knives like rich people, but I suffered a relapse and bought a meat chub like a poor. See, Damien and I discussed how we are now so wealthy, we no longer have to buy ground beef in opaque plastic printed with a photo of the meat allegedly inside, but can now treat ourselves to meat you can see! But on the other hand, this meat chub was so cheap.  So I tried to make the best of it.

Watch the video if only to hear Damien yelp as I severed the chub.

TUESDAY
Chicken nuggets, cheezy weezies, snap peas

We were supposed to have this meal on Wednesday, so we could do party shopping and cleaning, then have a quickie meal, and then run off to see the city fireworks. But I spent so long prepping Tuesday’s meal, I ran out of time to cook it. So we had the nuggets. I amused myself by plating it nicely. 

I AM AMUSING.

WEDNESDAY
Sesame lime chicken, cucumber salad, cherries

This chicken was a NYT recipe I simplified and messed up a little. It was tasty. Not quite as razzle dazzle as I expected, what with the lime zest, fresh ginger, and fish sauce

but a pleasant, robust flavor. I’ll put a recipe card of my version at the end. 

What made the meal was a lovely cucumber salad (recipe at the end), which I’ll be making more often throughout the summer. I really enjoyed the cool, vinegary cucumbers together with the warming honey and hot pepper. A great match for the lime and fish sauce in the chicken. 

And the cherries, first of the season, were rewardingly luscious. 

If you look closely, you can see that Corrie had put a bowl of blue Jell-o on top of her head, and then, upon hearing that I would be needing to wash her hair, she crushed a bunch of soap into her scalp to wash up. That girl tries. 

THURSDAY
July 4th cookout!

Honestly, this is the best day of the year. As many cousins as possible come, and we have three times as much food as we need.

Here’s the leftover meat, after we all ate until we went insane:

I daringly ate my burger with pepper jack cheese, and jalapeños instead of pickles. 

It’s not a barbecue, though. I have finally learned that you can’t call it a barbecue unless you spend 172 hours smoking a brisket made of an entire herd of long-horned steer. If you call anything else a BBQ, the ghost of Sam Houston will appear and strangle you with a bolo tie. Me so sorry, me just dumb New Englander who not understand what meat is! All we had was hamburgers, hot dogs, beer brats, sugar rub chicken thighs, and mahogany clams, and it was just a cookout. We also had potato salad (recipe card at the end), an avalanche of chips, watermelon, all sorts of beverages and all sorts of desserts, and Clara made so many chocolate chip cookies that, if you stacked them all up on top of each other, they’d be enough for all the cousins. All the cousins, I say!

The potato salad turned out well. People who don’t usually eat it ate it (recipe card at the end).

As many people reassured me, the kids absolutely did not care that my patriotic layered Jell-o cups didn’t turn out like the picture on the internet. I also made frozen pudding and cream cups, and we had about a bushel of corn on the cob we completely forgot to roast, and ice cream we forgot to eat, and marshmallows we forgot to toast and another watermelon that I don’t even know what happened to it.

And the table top I classily made out of cardboard didn’t even collapse. 

I ate a ludicrous number of steamed clams drenched in butter, onions, white wine, and lemon juice, and then wallowed around in Dark and Stormies for a while (dark rum, ginger beer, ice, and fresh lime).

And it was perfect. A wading stream and a trampoline, sparklers and glow sticks, American flags and twinkling lights, guitars, hammocks, salamanders and bug spray, fireflies, tiki torches, cheap beer, and fireworks, and my beloved family. Everyone should be so lucky.

Here’s the whole gang:

FRIDAY
Leftovers, I do believe. 

Okay, gotta go drive people around for a bit, and I will come back with the recipe cards this afternoon! 

 

Chicken shawarma

Ingredients

  • 8 lbs boned, skinned chicken thighs
  • 4-5 red onions
  • 1.5 cups lemon juice
  • 2 cups olive oil
  • 4 tsp kosher salt
  • 2 Tbs, 2 tsp pepper
  • 2 Tbs, 2 tsp cumin
  • 1 Tbsp red pepper flakes
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 entire head garlic, crushed

Instructions

  1. Mix marinade ingredients together, then add chicken. Put in ziplock bag and let marinate several hours or overnight.

  2. Preheat the oven to 425.

  3. Grease a shallow pan. Take the chicken out of the marinade and spread it in a single layer on the pan, and top with the onions (sliced or quartered). Cook for 45 minutes or more. 

  4. Chop up the chicken a bit, if you like, and finish cooking it so it crisps up a bit more.

  5. Serve chicken and onions with pita bread triangles, cucumbers, tomatoes, assorted olives, feta cheese, fresh parsley, pomegranates or grapes, fried eggplant, and yogurt sauce.

Yogurt sauce

Ingredients

  • 32 oz full fat Greek yogurt
  • 5 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice
  • 3 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp pepper
  • fresh parsley or dill, chopped (optional)

Instructions

  1. Mix all ingredients together. Use for spreading on grilled meats, dipping pita or vegetables, etc. 

 

sesame lime chicken

Adapted from a NYT recipe. Serve with cucumber salad for a wonderful summer meal, with rice. 

Ingredients

  • 16 boneless, skinless chicken thighs (or 8 breasts pounded thin)
  • 1/4 cup soy sauce
  • 1/4 cup fish sauce
  • 6 inches fresh ginger peeled and grated
  • 12 garlic cloves crushed
  • 8 limes zested and juiced (you need both)
  • 1/4 cup peanut or sesame oil
  • 1 bunch cilantro, chopped
  • diced chiles (optional)

Instructions

  1. Mix all sauce ingredients together and pour over chicken. Let marinate at least four hours. 

  2. Remove from marinade. Grill over coals or broil in oven, turning once. 

  3. Serve with cilantro garnish and chiles, if desired. 

 

spicy cucumber salad

A spicy, zippy side dish that you can make very quickly. 

Ingredients

  • 3-4 cucumbers, sliced thin (peeling not necessary)
  • 1/4 cup rice vinegar or white vinegar
  • 1+ tsp honey
  • 1 tsp sesame seeds
  • 1 tsp sesame oil
  • 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
  • 1/4 tsp kosher salt

Optional:

red pepper, diced

  • 1/2 red onion diced

Instructions

  1. Mix all ingredients together. Serve immediately, or chill to serve later (but the longer you leave it, the softer the cukes will get)

potato salad

Ingredients

  • 3-4 lbs potatoes, scrubbed (peeled if you like)
  • 3 ribs celery, stringed and chopped
  • 1 med red onion, diced
  • 1 bunch parsley, chopped
  • 1/8 cup olive oil

for dressing:

  • 1 cup mayo
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice
  • 1/8 cup vinegar
  • salt and pepper

Instructions

  1. Put potatoes and the three eggs in pot and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil, turn the heat down, cover loosely, and simmer until potatoes are easily pierced with a fork (15 minutes or so) 

  2. Drain the potatoes. Fish out the eggs, peel, and chop them.

  3. When they are cool enough to handle, cut them into bite-sized pieces and mix them up with the olive oil. 

  4. Add the chopped eggs, celery, onion, and parsley. 

  5. Mix together the dressing ingredients and add to potatoes. Salt and pepper to taste. Refrigerate and serve cold.  

Smoked chicken thighs with sugar rub

Ingredients

  • 1.5 cups brown sugar
  • .5 cups white sugar
  • 2 Tbsp chili powder
  • 2 Tbsp garlic powder
  • 2 tsp chili pepper flakes
  • salt and pepper
  • 20 chicken thighs

Instructions

  1. Mix dry ingredients together. Rub all over chicken and let marinate until the sugar melts a bit. 

  2. Light the fire, and let it burn down to coals. Shove the coals over to one side and lay the chicken on the grill. Lower the lid and let the chicken smoke for an hour or two until they are fully cooked. 

 

Grilled clams or mussels in wine sauce

Ingredients

  • 1 white or red onion
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
  • live clams or mussels
  • salt and pepper
  • 3 cups white wine
  • 2 sticks butter
  • 1/2 cup lemon juice

Instructions

  1. Prepare sauce: Coarsely chop the onion and sautee it in the olive oil with the red pepper flakes. Add salt and pepper. 


  2. Add two sticks of butter and let them melt. Add the wine and lemon juice. 

  3. Light the fire and let it burn to coals. While it's burning down, sort and clean the shellfish, discarding any damaged or dead ones. (If they're open, tap them. If they don't close, they're dead. If they're closed, they're fine.)

  4. Lay shellfish on grill until they pop open. The hotter the fire, the shorter the time it will take - five minutes or more. 

  5. Add shellfish to sauce and stir to mix. 

Summer book swap redux!

Last year, I had a pretty good idea that we followed through on in an okayish manner. The idea was to swap book recommendations with my kids over the summer: I’d give them a good book I think they’d enjoy, and they give me a book they like and that they think I’d enjoy. I said:

I like this approach for several reasons. They will read at least some good books, of course; but also, I’ll know more about what captivates them, and we’ll have more to talk about together. They’ll know I care about what interests them. And we’ll be doing something as part of a relationship, rather than just because I’m in power and I can make them do what I want.

As you will see, it was a less-than-howling success; but some of the kids still want to do it this summer, so I’m assembling a list. Here’s what I have so far, starting with the oldest kids:

Love in the Ruins by Walker Percy
The Egg and I by Betty MacDonald
Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot
Beowulf: A New Telling by Robert Nye
The Secret Garden by Francis Hodgson Burnett
The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling
Black Ships Before Troy by Rosemary Sutcliffe
Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren

How did it go last summer? Here’s what I optimistically called the “first” summer book swap list:

I was supposed to read:

The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
The Luck Uglies by Paul Durham
The Unwanteds by Lisa McMann
The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

And my kids were supposed to read:

The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh
The Space Merchants by C.M. Kornbluth and Frederick Pohl
The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis
A Canticle for Leibowitz by Arthur M. Miller
Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Patterson
The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald
The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White

Here are my thoughts on the books I was supposed to read:

 The Wee Free Men: I either read part of it and then lost it, or else read it all and forgot most of it. I do love Terry Pratchett, but vastly prefer the Discworld books. He’s a great writer for people who love alternate universes which are disturbingly like our own; bizarre, strangely compelling characters; and very witty, sardonic turns of phrase, but who have started to notice the Douglas Adams’ world is awfully dreary after a while. I wrote a bit about Pratchett here.

The Joy Luck Club I did a quick review of this book and the next one here:

Here’s a book I avoided my whole life, because something something Oprah something, bestseller ptui ptui. You know: Lit major reasons. Well, my older girls assigned it to me, and it’s great. It’s great! It’s miraculously light on agenda and heavy on well-conceived characters, searingly memorable scenes, and a beautiful melancholy that stays with you (because you needed that). Each chapter could stand alone as a well-crafted short story. It’s not Dostoevsky, but it’s worth your time.

I recently re-read this, and it was as good as I remembered.

The House of the Scorpion 
It’s a dystopian YA novel (I know. WHERE DID I EVER FIND SUCH A THING?). The author’s vocabulary has an oddly stunted, juvenile quality to it, but the way the story unfolds is pretty skillful, and the plot is a pretty good adventure. The action takes place in Opium, a country that runs between the US and the former Mexico, where super-wealthy drug lords control the lives of everyone else, even putting brain implants on some, to make them pliant, witless slaves, and making clones of themselves to use as ever-ready organ donors. But . . . dun dun dun . . . one clone is different. Not bad at all, and unexpectedly Catholic in its ideas and also explicitly in the plot, in places.

The scene in the whale graveyard is pretty pretty good. 

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. I . . . never even checked this one out of the library. Sorry, Elijah.

The Luck Uglies: 
It’s written by someone who enjoys reading quirky, fascinating, fantastical story about scrappy kids solving mysteries and not even realizing that you can have anachronisms, but you have to earn them. There were pieces of good stories and good characters in there, like bits of good salami in a mushy, underseasoned pasta salad to which someone has added, for some reason, marshmallows. Still, the salami was there.

The Unwanteds: Also never got around to reading it. Sorry, Sophia.

The One and Only Ivan: It was okay. It’s a first person narrative by a captive gorilla in a very crummy zoo. It’s done skillfully, and I don’t have any actual problems with it, but it left me with a bad taste in my mouth. You wants a sad animal story, you reads Charlotte’s Web. The characters had enough depth to save it from being truly emotionally manipulative, but it sure waltzed right up close to that line.

Here’s the scoop on the books I gave to the kids to read last year. The number is the age of the kid when he or she read the book.

The Loved One. She (19) said it was “pretty good, kinda grim.” Can’t argue with that. Hoping she will read more Waugh.

The Space Merchants. She (18) claims I never told her to read it, and anyway, I made her read it several years ago when it was above her reading level, and she didn’t like it. She didn’t like the chicken. So there you are.

The Great Divorce. She (17) liked it! She said it was weird. She didn’t quite finish it, since we didn’t order it until near the end of summer, but she would like to get back to it. This is an accessible and entertaining but Very Important Book, and I’d really like all the kids to have it in their imaginations.

A Canticle for Leibowitz (15). He read the first part but got bogged down in the second part, which is definitely the boggiest part. I encouraged him to try again, because the third part will knock his socks off; and he says he will.

Tom Sawyer (13). He got up to the part where he got the other kid to paint the fence for him, and then he got bored and dropped it. Bum.

The Great Gilly Hopkins (11). She says she couldn’t find it. Another kid said, “I know where there’s a copy!” and the first kid said “Shut up.”

The Princess and Curdie (9). She says I actually told her to read Nightbirds on Nantucket by Joan Aikin, instead, but she didn’t actually read that, either.

The Trumpet of the Swan (8). She didn’t like it. It wasn’t exciting enough. Humph! I thought it was a very exciting book, what with all the flying around, but I guess it missed the mark. At least she read it.

So it looks like either I did a better job of choosing suitable books for the older kids, or else the older kids are just better people, and the younger ones are jerks. You have to admit, I did a fantastic job of finding an image to illustrate this post, though.

Happy summer! And wish me luck as the kids assemble their list.

 

Something to report of love

It’s the end of vacation, when all the things we meant to do over the summer cascade into guilt and regret. “Tree house” and “ocean” and “art museum” come off the list; “haircut” and “school shopping” go on. We should have done more! When I was little, I remember doing more.

On the radio, I heard the end of an essay by a man trying to connect with his elderly father, a father who had been harsh and distant for decades. I gathered that the one happy childhood memory the narrator had was of their annual, extravagant beach house vacation. The kids would run and play and whoop it up, while the dad would glower and retreat to the couch to watch TV. Still, he made it happen year after year.

Now, forty years later, the man finally asked his father if he had fun on those vacations — and if not, if he hated them as much as he seemed to, why did he make such a point of taking them every year?

It turns out that the old man, now almost eighty years old, was still smarting from the sting of his childhood, from the first day of school, when the teacher would assign that dreaded essay, “What I Did On My Summer Vacation.” The only true answer would have been: “We gathered peaches to pay the landlord” or “We shot rats in the turnip field so we wouldn’t starve come winter.”

So he and his brothers would make up something to write about, something that would prove that they had been having fun like the rest of the world. He resolved that his own kids wouldn’t have to resort to fantasy. They’d do something real on summer vacation, something wonderful. Something to report.

When my kids were all little, I used to accuse myself of not so much striving to make a happy childhood for them, as striving to create evidence that they had had a happy childhood. A baby book full of carefully edited anecdotes and cute dialogue; a photo album of high points and rare good days. Maybe, day to day, they had to cower away from me and my mood swings, and maybe they longed for me to just sit down, relax, and play with them, rather than frantically crafting towers of glorious expectations, and then collapsing in tears when it all caved in under the weight of real life. Maybe so. In the words of an old guide to confession: I am unable to judge the severity of my actions.

Either way, I had some hard evidence. I could point to the salt clay figurines, the stretchy loop potholders, the quirky animal sewing cards I had made just for them, using the back of a Crispix box and my own lifeblood, and I could say, “The proof is here. Only a loving mother would have done this. Remember how I let you make muffins with me, even though you drive me crazy? Let’s laminate this photo of you petting a goat at age 2, and let’s not laminate the memory of me crying over how much money we spent to get in. You liked that goat, you liked it very much. But you won’t remember, so I need to nail it down now, to present to the judge, I mean put in your baby book. And look, you were wearing a dress that I sewed myself.

Behold, the gulf between love and intentions. Oh, the longing to love, the longing to be loved, the longing to have been loved. Oh, the clumsy swipes we take at that shining, shifting goal of happiness.

We are all, maybe, hoping to pacify the demands of the past, striving to bridge the gulf, to reach back over all those summers and tell our own selves as children, “Yes, you were happy. Here’s the proof.” We’re telling that long-dead teacher, now moldering in the grave, “You wanted an essay? You wanted to know what I did? Here’s my child, and he had fun on his summer vacation. Here’s the evidence you demanded; it’s all there.”

Here are the things I remember about my childhood, along with the vacations and the treats, the parades and the birthday parties — and also along with the mood swings and strife, the tensions and shouting, tipped-over tables slammed doors. Here are the things I remember, from summer and from winter, from the long, empty, formless days of vacation and the long, empty, formless days inside the lonely, needy heart of a child looking for some definitive proof of love:

I remember my mother putting down her book (more precious than rubies) and looking me straight in the eye when I called her name. My father pausing for a minute before he answered me, staying silent a little too long, muscling past his first impulse to criticize or refute. My big sisters praising me for so skillfully walking down the stairs with only one foot on each step, instead of two, like babies do. I remember being on rented skates and being swooped up from behind, a rescue just as the floor loomed up to pound in my face. I remember someone holding a pajama zipper away from my belly, protecting my skin as they zipped it up. I remember being protected.

There’s the evidence, and I’m writing it down now. It is the end of summer. We have something to report.

***
A version of this essay originally ran under a different title at Aleteia in 2016.
Image: David Prasad via Flickr (Licensed)

 

 

Summer Book Swap: The First List!

Last week, I wrote about my idea to get everyone reading more and better books by doing a reading swap with my kids. It’s a simple plan: They read a book I think they’ll like, and I’ll read a book they think I’ll like.

Here’s what we have so far. (Note: All links are Amazon Associate links, meaning I earn a small percentage of every sale. If you click through and end up buying something else, I still earn! Thank you!)

My 19-year-old daughter has me reading The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett,

and I gave her The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh.

My 18-year-old daughter is still mulling over my assignment, but I’m probably giving her The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth.

My 16-year-old daughter got me started on The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan,

and I’m giving her The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis.

My 15-year-old son gave me The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer

and I’m giving him A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

My 13-year-old son assigned me Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

and I’m giving him Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

(if you order this book, beware of abridged editions!).

My 11-year-old daughter got me started on The Luck Uglies by Paul Durham,

and I gave her The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson (terrible, off-putting cover):

My 10-year-old daughter gave me The Unwanteds by Lisa McMann (here’s hoping the cover is misleading)

and I’m giving her The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald (the sequel to The Princess and the Goblin.)

My 8-year-old daughter gave me The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

and I’m giving her The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White.

My five-year-old is just learning how to read, so she’s not playing, but I did order a copy of The Complete Tales of Winnie-The-Pooh by A.A. Milne for us to read together.

If your family is only familiar with the Disney version of Winnie the Pooh, do yourself a tremendous favor and get ahold of the original. The stories are so weird and hilarious, highly entertaining for parents without being condescending for kids.

And we’re off! I’ll probably follow up with a bunch of quick reviews by me and the kids, and then we’ll get a second list going. So far, so good.

Are you interested in doing a book swap with your kids this summer? What books will you give them, and which books are they giving you? Please include their ages and maybe a little bit about why the books are on the list.

Dear Teacher

How I spent my summer vacation

How I spent my summer vacation

Alas. We spent our summer swimming, watching X Files, sucking down gallons and gallons of ramen, eviscerating countless watermelons, making a meticulous survey of the entire lifework of the master cinematographer Chow Yun Fat, and creating various kinds of heartache for your long-suffering soul sister, the public librarian.

Read the rest at the Register.

***