Friday, April 29, 2011

Video: Gardening with Kids

We started a little vegetable garden about a month ago.  I hadn't really done anything with the back yard since it was decimated by the addition I built (not that the back yard was ever anything to get excited about in the first place).

I tore out some of the remnants of the old "landscaping," and built a couple raised beds out of redwood, based on a design I poached off of the Fine Homebuilding website or somewhere, and removed the terraced beds where we used to grow tomatoes alongside the fence we share with our neighbor.  I've planted a few trees near the fence, and plan to plant a bunch more to create some privacy, which is a nice way of saying "I don't want to have to look at his post-apocalyptic feral yard any more."

The kids are really into watering the plants, and I hope to get them involved in some more skilled tasks as needed, like weeding and later harvesting.  Right now, they like to dig up mulch and throw it on top of the plants.  They also try to eat the tiny green tomatoes that have started appearing.  And they've eaten all of the parsley we have in planter boxes full of herbs up on the deck.  They find the rosemary, basil, and oregano disagreeable.

By next year, I'm hoping to have foisted all of the yardwork off onto the twins.

Here's a little movie showing the progress of the garden so far:

Also, I've got a post over at Aiming Low today, but it doesn't go live until 12:00 EST.  I make fun of mommybloggers, with lots of love, of course.  You should probably read it.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Me on MamaPop: waxing nostalgic about the Beastie Boys

Okay, I'm not going to pretend this is anything but a bit of linkbait.

I wrote a review-ish thing about the Beastie Boys' new album (it kicks ass) on MamaPop, and ended pop-locking my way down Memory Lane.  I don't usually pimp my MamaPop stuff here--I'm not sure why not--but I kind of liked this one, and I hope you'll check it out and maybe share some of your Beastie memories.

Read it!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Easter Special: Secrets of the Catholic Church Revealed! Plus the Story of my Religious Conversion

Here are a few things that I, as an insider, know about the Catholic church that you infidels may not be hip to: 

1) Not only does the One True Church offer you exclusive access to everlasting life up in heaven with Little Baby Jesus as long as you repent and get baptized like one millisecond before you buy the farm; it also allows you to park for free in any lot owned by The Pope as long as you have a rosary hanging from your rear view mirror.  It's true!  It's not just church parking lots either--you can also park with impunity in Catholic schools, hospitals, homeless shelters, thrift shops, and some Subway franchises.  Generally you're safe anywhere there's a sign that says "St.____of____ ", or "Our Lady of_____".

2) Regardless of your feelings about transubstantiation, if you have ever taken Communion, you have to admit that  the Jesus biscuits are magical insofar as they seem to be made of styrofoam, and yet they dissolve right in your mouth.  Also, they have less flavor than styrofoam, which is quite miraculous in itself.    

So there you have it.  Pretty much blows the doors off of The DaVinci Code, right?


The reason I know all this is that today, Easter Sunday 2011, is the tenth anniversary of my baptism and confirmation as a member of the Catholic church.

Not coincidentally, my tenth wedding anniversary is just a couple months away.

When my wife--at the time just a platonic friend I had known for nine years and who, at age 27, had never been on a date with a boy before and who would certainly never have considered living with a man out of wedlock--and I approached her parents with the idea of the two of us getting married, we assumed we would encounter some resistance.  My wife is the oldest of six kids in a fiercely traditional (at the time anyway) Catholic Vietnamese family.

I place "Catholic" ahead of "Vietnamese" because, as it turned out, the cultural differences were less important to her family than the religious ones.  In fact, after a four-hour summit during which I smiled and nodded as all the other players spoke passionately in a language in which I only knew the words for "egg roll" and "soup," the verdict was that we would be allowed to get married, on the condition that I convert to Catholicism.

That summit happened right before we moved from Virginia to Northern California, the way platonic friends often do: simultaneously, but not together, if you know what I mean (Hi, Father-in-law!).

One of our first orders of business therefore, after getting our California drivers' licenses and medicinal marijuana permits (kidding!), was to shop around for a house of worship.

So we went on a little tasting tour of the churches of Sonoma County.   

There was the picturesque pink stucco cathedral in Petaluma, where the Spanish service was just incomprehensible enough to be palatable.  There was the stately concrete church in Santa Rosa where the priest admonished and joked with a brogue that lent him both clerical credibility and charm that softened the dogmatic edges of his homily.  There were others that ranged from unbearably boring to surprisingly brimstone-y.   

But it was finally the modest cinder block building between the strip mall and the best taqueria in town where we found our church home.

The priest was funny, engaging, and a bit fey; and his homilies were--dare I say it?--inspiring, and never offensive to our liberal sensibilities.  Aside from the priest, the church seemed to be run by a handful of kindly, no-nonsense lesbians in their fifties and sixties.  I felt immediately comfortable.

I was almost disappointed that I would be doing my year of adult catechism in a place where I didn't have instant disdain for the authority figures.  I had agreed to convert to Catholicism assuming that I would be the Bart Simpson of the class, challenging the instructor with questions about inconsistencies in the Bible and theological stumpers like "What age are you when you go to heaven?" and "If you lose a limb, will you be reunited with it in the heareafter?"

Alas, our guide on the spiritual journey avoided the politically incorrect sections of the Good Book, even going so far as to tell us that the apocalyptic bummer Book of Revelation wasn't really part of the Gospel as far as our church was concerned.  In fact, it was nigh-impossible to catch our new-agey Sunday school teacher in any act of hypocrisy whatsoever.

As I should have been able to predict by then, Adult Catechism turned out to be yet another thing that, like going to wine tastings, I would quickly learn to enjoy despite my initial disinterest and even dread.

Up to that point, I had never been remotely "spiritual," whatever that means.  I had studied the Bible in college as a cultural artifact and piece of literature, and I felt like I understood at least the scope of its complex influence on civilization.  But I never believed that any of it was true.  I mean, not the good parts, anyway--people rising from the dead, angels chatting with humans, immaculate conception, epic battles between good and evil.  I'm sure some of the boring parts about who begat whom were historically accurate, but, really, who cares?  My faith was in science, which I knew as little about as the average evangelical Christian knows about literary criticism.*  To me, science was mysterious and magical, and mythology was pretty transparent.

Catechism classes were about as different from my day-to-day grind as they could be.  I was working as a framer in those days, building massive custom homes and sometimes wine production facilities in Sonoma and Napa Counties.  The business end of the work I was doing (with which I was not involved, except to the extent that I was always pushed to do everything faster so that my boss and his clients could make more money) was all about trophy houses and shiny status symbols and accruing huge piles of cash.  The atmosphere among my co-workers was one of nihilistic machismo--a lot of "friendly" insulting of the you're-a-pussy variety, yarn-spinning about sexual prowess and ingestion of toxins, plus plenty of misogynistic and homophobic banter.

Sunday school, on the other hand, involved discussing passages from the New Testament at great length, which reminded me of nothing so much as being an undergrad in a poetry seminar.  And the passages we focused on were the ones that to me always represented the gist of Christianity: Jesus as a socialist hippie who wants us to abandon our worldly wealth, minister to the poor, and love one another unconditionally. Then we would "pray" a lot, which was really more like an exercise in guided meditation.

The troubling aspects of Catholic dogma and institutional abuse were brushed off as unimportant (for our purposes, anyway) and transitory, while the larger ideas were discussed in terms of humanity's interconnectedness, with Jesus as a teacher and archetype for how to treat one another.

I could dig that.  I was living in a brave new world where I could molt the cynical exoskeleton I had been building since adolescence, and I found it suitably ironic that I would have my California spirit vision courtesy of one of the squarest religious traditions in the Western world. 

It was also during this time that my wife and I got pretty seriously involved with the cult of Bikram Yoga.  If you're not familiar with Bikram, it's 90 minute sessions of aggro yoga performed in a studio heated to 106 degrees.  It's not at all unusual for practitioners to pass out or vomit in class.  But, if you make it through the session, you are rewarded with a level of bliss that almost allows you to levitate.

So every Sunday, I would go to my catechism class, my wife would go to the regular Mass, and then we would dart over to the Bikram studio to purge ourselves of impurities by wringing gallons of sweat from our pores.  I was turning into one of those insufferable California guys who thinks everything is beautiful, man; and Jesus is totally rad.

The culmination of my spiritual journey was my baptism on Easter Day.  Well, to be truthful, it was actually a few hours before my baptism.

A couple weeks prior to B-day, our instructor had given us an assignment.  We were to make "baptismal stoles" that we would drape over our shoulders on the day of our official conversion.  Some suggestions for adornment included favorite biblical quotes, names and birthdays of children (if we had any), or pictures of family: essentially any words or images that had significance in our lives.

In addition to never having had any interest in spirituality, I had never cared much for craftsy stuff (building houses notwithstanding).  But my spiritual awakening had apparently also stirred my inner fourth grader.

I made a trip to Michael's Crafts and collected glitter glue, felt, markers, beads, and spangles, and set to creating a baptismal stole that would make Jesus proud.

I started at the bottom of the stole, creating a landscape of the mountain range that surrounded the Bavarian town I lived in as a little kid, because my fondest childhood memories occurred in that setting.  I put felt pine trees in the foreground, and then threw in a little iron-on rainbow patch as a shout-out to my disenfranchised gay brothers and sisters, and also because I thought it looked nice peeking over the ridge of the Alpspitze.

Above the landscape I drew stylized hot-rod flames and glued felt branches with spangly leaves to create a burning bush.  On the other side of the stole, I copied a print of a Celtic crucifix that a friend had made from a woodcut in a college art class.

We all brought our stoles into Sunday school the week before baptism, and I suddenly felt a twinge of regret when I saw what the others had produced.  My co-converters had not taken the task as seriously as I had, and had stoles that were, quite frankly, lame.  But my classmates didn't resent my inspired work; they only offered compliments and encouragement.         

I have that whole wide-eyed zealot thing going on in this photo.  Also, a patriotic t-shirt they were giving away at the lumberyard after 9/11

As awesome as my stole was, however; on the morning of the Easter Day I was to be baptized, I felt there was something missing.  There was a bare spot above the burning bush that called out for something to create aesthetic balance.  I thought about why the story of the burning bush appealed to me, and I remembered a particular passage where God tells Moses to take off his sandals because he's standing on holy ground.

"Sandals!" I thought.  "That's what this pastiche needs!"

But what could I make sandals out of on such short notice, with no time to make a run for Michael's?

Like a bolt out of the blue, it appeared before me.  A tiny burlap bag sitting on the window sill that had once held a couple ounces of coffee that some friend had given to us as a souvenir from a trip to  Guatemala.

And for the sandal straps?  Lo!  There did appear before me a small gift basket with jams and crackers cradled in a bed of Excelsior brand shredded packaging material that, when separated strand from strand, formed perfect tiny laces for the favored footwear of biblical characters.

"Take your sandals off your feet, for the place you are standing is hallowed ground." Exodus 3:5

That evening, in a candlelight service, I approached the baptismal font.  As I joined my brothers and sisters in front of the altar, Father Will whispered, "Wow.  That stole is fabulous!"  I was proud, perhaps overweeningly so.

The service proceeded.  I renounced the Devil and all his works, which was, naturally, bittersweet.  I got dunked, I lit a candle, and I took my first communion.


After our huge Catholic wedding back in Virginia, I became progressively less enthusiastic about my new religion.  I no longer had the fire of the newly converted.  A lot of that had to do with the sad fact that insightful homilies at our church had been truncated to make way for "special collections" for legal funds to fight all the lawsuits our diocese was embroiled in.  And some of it had to do with the realization that my spiritual journey was mostly another instance of me making the best of a situation I would never have chosen to be in, given my druthers.

But overall, I'm glad I did it.  Sure it was thrust upon me; but my brief dabbling in spirituality finally gave me empathy for people for whom it's a way of life.  And even now, as an almost simultaneously confirmed and lapsed Catholic, I feel a bit of a connection to a religious tradition that, despite its grave historical blunders, has had a profound role in shaping Western Civilization.   


*I'm not bashing evangelicals for not knowing about literary criticism (although I would bash them for other reasons).  I just always found it ironic that most Christian fundamentalists I have met (with exceptions, for sure) are not big readers.  Or not critical readers, at least, especially when it comes to the Bible.  This strikes me as paradoxical for a group so identified with words written down in a book.       




Tuesday, April 19, 2011


I've got a post on Aiming Low Today.  It's about irrational fears.  You know, Phobias.  It starts a little something like this...

The absolute worst moment, and the one that often kicks off a 48 hour screamfest, is on Wednesday morning, when the great stinking scow makes its way down our alley, a mere forty feet from the playroom in the back of the house.  The playroom that features big glass sliding doors and floor-to-ceiling windows so we can enjoy the view of our weedpatch, frumpy detached garage, and the dusty alley beyond.

When I hear the squeal and hiss of the beast slowing to turn down the alley, the fight-or-flight mechanism in my nervous system cranks into high gear.  There is a tingling of spine, a sharpening of vision, a retraction of vulnerable bits.   At first, this reaction was just preparation for the onslaught of frantic children that would come at me from any and all directions, screaming "JURBAGE CHUCK JURBAGE CHUCK!"

But now it has become something more.

Although I know that the likelihood of a garbage truck crushing our garage, plowing through the deck, smashing into the back of the house, and then pummeling us with its giant green forks is much less likely than us being killed by lightning, or even by lightning bugs, I have developed a primal fear of that machine.  My grownup, logical brain is, of course, able to overcome the reptilian lower functions within a few seconds; but at that terrible instant when the truck releases a psshht of extra pneumatic brake pressure, I'm as jumpy as a feral cat.



You know what?  I had another post on Aiming Low Last week, but I didn't do the thing I always do--like I just did above--where I link it from here.  I was too distracted by being in New Orleans.  In case you're interested, here's a link to last week's Aiming Low post.

DadCentric Post: What I Learned at the Mommyblogging Conference

All right, so check this out:

I just got back from this conference in New Orleans called Mom 2.0.  It was mostly about connecting bloggers and businesses and advertisers and stuff like that that makes me start getting dizzy and then sleepy when I hear about.  But I was on a panel about, more or less, gender issues in the parenting blogosphere.  The talk went really well, and was moderated by a brilliant woman named Catherine Connors who has a blog called Her Bad Mother. Plus, I met a bunch of my blogging heroes, and scores of people I had never heard of who I am going to start stalking online.

One of these days maybe I'll write about the serious stuff that came out of that panel discussion, but right now, I'm hella-tired from traveling first to Washington, DC with the kids, from there to New Orleans, partying like a mommyblogger all weekend, and then flying back to DC on Sunday, and finally home yesterday.

Anyway, please check out my piece on DadCentric about the conference.  And make sure you read the post that Whit Honea wrote about it too.  They're kind of companion pieces.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Goodnight Moon: The Nauseating Landscape of Childhood Anxiety

Hey.  I'm doing a thing.  I think this is one of those memes that everybody on the internets is talking about all the time, but I'm not quite sure what a meme is.  But I think this is one.  Anyway, my friend Nicole from Ninja Mom asked me to play this monthly meme that she invented called "Character Assassination Carousel," in which you have fun bashing, snarking, or otherwise mocking a beloved children's classic of your choice.  Nicole just started this thing a few months ago, and already three super-cool people have participated: Nicole herself, Kristine from Wait in the Van, and most recently Allison of Motherhood, WTF? Stay tuned in May, when dbs of Think.Stew will be the next assassin.  And for god's sake, go check out Nicole's excellent blog, Ninja Mom!


Goodnight Moon: The Nauseating Landscape of Childhood Anxiety

Goodnight Moon, by Margaret Wise Brown, with pictures by Clement Hurd, is probably the best known book in the entire night-night genre.  Recent studies have shown that seventy-three percent of households worldwide own a copy: more families share this book at bedtime than have access to clean drinking water.  Its cultural significance cannot be overstated.  For instance, in virtually every movie made since 1947 in which parents read bedtime stories to their children, either Goodnight Moon is shown onscreen, or alluded to in the dialogue.  Another testament to its influence is historians' unanimous agreement that the pioneers of space exploration were motivated primarily by their exposure to this book directly before dreaming of hurtling beyond the Earth's atmosphere.  

The book's popularity endures today, even amid competition from such sexy titles as Goodnight, Gorilla; Goodnight Sh'ma; Goodnight, Thumper; The Goodnight Train; and Goodnight Warrior: God's Mighty Warrior Bedtime Bible Stories, Devotions, & Prayers.  

So, what is it that fascinates us about this book to such an extent that it remains the bestselling of its type more than sixty years after publication?  Is it even fascination that we feel for it?  Could it be that, as with Humpty Dumpty, we have no idea what the fuck it means or why anyone would enjoy it, but we fear that to withhold it from our children is to deny them a possibly crucial element of our cultural literacy?

I contend that in addition to the cultural pressure to make Goodnight Moon a part of our tucking-in routine, there is a discomfiting allure to this simple poem and its alternating luridly colored and starkly monochromatic illustrations that resonates with children and compels their parents to return to it night after night, child after child, and generation after generation.  Goodnight Moon is to parents what Blue Velvet is to cinema buffs.

And as in the films of David Lynch, Goodnight Moon has a patina of realism that makes it more disturbing and in some ways more compelling than the completely surreal, fantastic, or absurd representations in the works of Dali, Spielberg, and Seuss.  There are no flights of fancy, outrageous gestures, plot twists, or grotesque creatures to be found in this subdued bit of subversion.  The text simply describes the elements of a sleepy-time setting, and then bids goodnight to most of the items described.  Meanwhile the illustrations pan with Jarmuschian languor from one side to the other of the room in which all the nearly imperceptible action takes place, shifting to black-and-white closeups every third and fourth page.

In terms of the text, most of the non-sequiturs can be interpreted as a function of a child's perspective as she says (or perhaps just thinks) "goodnight" to everything she sees or conjures in her mind's eye--something most parents have witnessed with their own youngsters.  And even though the tantalizingly succinct line "Goodnight mush" lends itself to much speculation as to its deeper meaning, would-be literary codebreakers are mistaking a simple dietary relic for the key to this sometimes puzzling work.

The truly disquieting line in the text is the one in which the reader is introduced to one of the only two anthropomorphic animal characters: "And a quiet old lady who was whispering "hush"."  This elderly lady-rabbit is not a mother, a grandmother, an aunt, or a nanny.  She's simply a watchful crone who stares the rabbit-child down from across the room while her knitting sits untouched in her lap.  It's unclear whether the old lady is friendly toward the young rabbit, but her narrowed eyes and constant whispering suggest that there are potentially unpleasant consequences if the child perseverates about the kittens, mittens, brush, and mush.

"Who am I?  Oh, don't you worry about that, little bunny.  Just know that I watch you every night while you sleep."

The artwork, however, is what makes opening "Goodnight Moon" an agreement to step into a universe related to ours only to the extent that it is populated by the trappings of our daily lives.  The arrangement of these mundane objects, however, is skewed enough to make us feel off-kilter, and the blocks of vivid primary colors almost vibrate despite the quiet setting.  The visual and psychic incongruity is more than a little nauseating.

Although the question of why rabbits would share a human (or quasi-human) home with cats, mice, and a tiger-skin rug is beyond the scope of my argument, it is worthwhile to consider an interpretation in which the  "great green room" is an actual rabbit's imagining of what a human dwelling might entail.

However, if we continue to entertain the notion that the narrative is from the rabbit-child's perspective, the setting certainly suggests that the child's world is fraught with anxiety and confusion.  The great green room is anything but cozy.  In fact, it is vast: an agoraphobic's nightmare in which the two human-ish characters are isolated by an oceanic area rug.

The room's ambiguous purpose and organization are jarring to the reader and, indeed, seem to intimidate the bunny to the point that it is confined to the safety of its bed.  As readers, our question is "Where are we?"  Is this a nursery, as the toys and nursery rhyme-based wall hangings would indicate?  Or, with its fireplace and two grand windows, some sort of parlor or drawing room?  It's unlikely that a child's room in the 1940s would have a telephone in it (not to mention a tiger-skin rug);  so is this the parents' room?  A studio apartment, perhaps?  With forest green walls and tomato red carpet?  It's no wonder at one point the bunny tucks its knees under its chin and seems to rock in a modified bunny-fetal position.

It's tempting to read Goodnight Moon as a comment upon the disorientation inherent in the new postwar prosperity in the United States.  But a broad interpretation, disentangled from its historical bonds, better explains the universal appeal of Brown and Hurd's greatest collaboration.  The juxtaposition of a chromatically jarring setting, childish ramblings, and incongruous visual details creates a vertiginous psychological landscape with sinister undertones.  As such, it resembles nothing so much as childhood itself.


But wait!  There's more.  Check out these other posts I've written about The Wheels on the Bus, Goodnight Gorilla, Animal Hide and Seek (With Flaps!), and The Very Busy Spider.   



Thursday, April 7, 2011

How my Kids are Using Language to Torment Me

 I'm posting on DadCentric today.  Here's how it starts...

My twin girls are fast approaching age two.  Language is coming at them from everywhere, and sticking like crazy.

There are people who believe that you can't really think without the facility of language.  I'm pretty sure I'm one of those people.  I heard a guy on the NPR science-y show, Radio Lab, theorize that language acquisition actually creates neural pathways in the learner that would otherwise not be blazed.  I don't know about all that--I guess it seems feasible--but regardless, I can't see how you could really ponder over any matter without words, or some kinds of symbols, to identify all the players, relationships, actions, and contexts in whatever drama you were contemplating.  It seems like you could know things from having experienced them; but you couldn't really work out any problems in your head.  Memory would also be tricky without language.

So as the kids are learning to talk, their thoughts are becoming more organized.  They're applying the knowledge gained from past experiences to their current situations.  They're using some primative logic and argumentation.

Also, they're revealing what's on their minds.  And let me tell you, almost-two-year-olds think about some deep shit.


Monday, April 4, 2011

Stuff Is Too Cheap

I'm posting on Aiming Low today.  Here's the first part...

When our twins were infants, I read somewhere that the average American toddler has around 150 toys, only a fraction of which she actually plays with.  I scoffed self-righteously, sure that our children would never be so pointlessly over-indulged.  After all, when I was a kid, all my toys fit in one little trunk. There were probably dozens of them, at most.  Certainly not hundreds.  My wife claims to have had even fewer toys than me.  And most of them were sticks and rocks.

But as our girls approach their second birthday, this is what their playroom looks like:

Then there’s the nursery, which I won’t post a picture of out of fear that someone will call in a hoarder intervention on our household.  There’s a dresser and a wardrobe that are chock-full of baby clothes in there, as well as several plastic tubs of clothes that are either too big or to small for the girls.

And shoes!  Good Lord, these kids are twenty months old and they already have more pairs of shoes than most grown women.  Shoes are a big part of their lives.  In fact, the younger twin’s first word was “shoe,” and now both of them can say “shoes” in three languages.

It would be easy to blame this acquisition of stuff on our consumerist society and the ubiquity of advertisements that cajole us into running out to buy the latest gadget or outfit for our little darlings. But it’s more complicated than that, and maybe less nefarious.


Friday, April 1, 2011

New! All Vlogs, All The Time: Episode One

So here's the deal.  I'm getting totally burnt from writing for eighteen different group-blogs.  My writing muscles are shot.

This is my solution for the Beta Dad blog.  All vlogs, all the time.

Too many words already.  Word brainpart hurt now.

Pictures moving pretty with musics watching for enjoy!

(Oh, and don't forget to read my thing about Richard Simmons on MamaPop)


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