That’s what summer looks like around here.
Jack and Charlie, my fourteen year old twins, started high school earlier this week. William, who is 10, started rehearsals for Oliver!, the musical that comes with an exclamation mark at the end, no matter where in a sentence you put it, which is weird, except for the fact that we’re pretty damned excited about the whole thing, so we’ll go with the exclamation mark for now.
Those things — High School! Musical! — have only in common that they’re the beginning of something B-I-G for the boys involved. Lockers! Taking the bus! Open campus! Girls! (for the boy who went to a boys’ school for all those many years before high school.) Orphans! Dancing! Gruel! (But not dancing gruel. Those things are separated by the mighty exclamation mark. Dancing with bowls of gruel in your hands, though, I understand that’s on the menu.)
It just occurred to me that I could write an entire blog post punctuated only with exclamation points, except I also plan to write about my own life, which tonight anyway requires the opposite of the exclamation point, a punctuation mark I just invented called the “downer point.” It looks like a downward facing arrow. I’d add it right here, but I’m no good at that kind of thing. You’ll have to imagine it.
Here’s the downer: the boys are beginning new things. But I am not. I think I said a month or two ago that I found a really great agent to work with. Really good guy. Sells a lot of books. Writes books about how to write books and they make sense and are inspiring. This is so not a downer. This is wonderful and I am thrilled. The downer is that he won’t be selling my book until I revise it. The whole thing. That’s a lot of chapters, blogfriends. All chapters that could be better and all chapters I have to think really hard about in order to make the better. Have I mentioned how this is HARD? Waaah. Plus I’m scared. AND I’m BUSY. I have to drive people places and work at my job and cook and clean and …. you know. I’m whining. I’ll stop.
Also. Finding your locker and not getting egged by seniors and learning how to talk to girls and having to eat a steady diet of gruel and then getting sent out in the snow to be sold to the highest bidder is actually, when you think about it, way way worse than tightening up each and every scene of your book for a guy who’s waiting patiently for you to get on with it so he can maybe sell it for you. Just look at my kids. They get on with it. In fact, they’re getting on with it with so much verve and excitement and mad confidence that a new punctuation mark needs to be invented for their acts of crazy, getting-out-there-in-the-world behavior. Something wild-eyed. That’s how I should revise my book, don’t you think? Like them: full tilt, knowing it’ll all work out one way or another and whatever happens, it’ll be interesting and fun and, if you keep your head down, the chances are pretty good that you won’t get egged by a senior.
We all know it’s a joy forever. (And if you didn’t, you do now.) But have you actually READ those lines recently? You should. They’re here, at the end of this post.
Every week, I teach a creative writing class at William’s school. The class consists of me, ten boys, and their teacher Brenna. I love this class. They sit there, their pencils clutched in their hands, squirming around in their chairs, writing wild, wild stuff. When you’re nine or ten, you still have a fully intact imagination — most likely no one’s told you yet that your story violates the laws of physics (what would I know about that?) or that your inability to spell “rocket launcher” means you won’t make it as a writer. I will not be the person saying those things, that’s for sure.
It’s cherry season, and the class is today at 11:30 — right before lunch. I’m bringing them cherry cake. Really, it could be blackberry cake, or peach cake, or apple cake. Basically, it’s a very thick batter with fruit on top and powdered sugar on top of all that. I love this cake, make it all the time, and have even written about it before on the blog. For those who don’t know about it, you really should. Here’s the recipe. Easiest thing in the world.
Happy Almost Friday!
I am aware that it appears as though I’ve been loading up my u-haul for the last three weeks in preparation for my move to the East Coast, where I will be pitching a tent in the Guilford Green and taking showers in the Guilford Free Library, because I will have no home and no job there when I arrive.
But, in fact, that’s not what happened after my recent trip to the east coast. I got home to Berkeley. Spring’s arrival is unambiguous. Poppies everywhere. Jasmine blooming in huge bunches. Meyer lemons bursting on our bush outside. How could I live anywhere but where I live? And so I became distracted from blogging and everything else, and for three weeks I’ve been picking bunches of blooming things and coloring easter eggs and cooking stuff. Lovely.
While doing all that, I’ve been thinking about this particular time in my life. Spring is universal and timeless. It comes. It goes. Things burst into life and then they are dormant. Against that backdrop though, my children are becoming teenagers — a season I won’t ever see again, but one I love watching from a distance.
What I’ve noticed is that this bursting-into-life, their spring, is actually pretty wonderful. Adolescence is a time of big, gusty emotion, which can be a pain to deal with and can really unbalance a woman who isn’t used to that kind of drama (except when she’s doing it). It’s also, though, a hugely fun time. My kids are mischievous — they tease each other and me, and although I know that doesn’t sound like a big thing, I love it that they feel enough freedom to give me a hard time about listening to Lady GaGa. I also love it that Lady GaGa, with her many weird outfits exists this spring. And my kids are excited about being freer, about going to a big urban high school in the fall, about finding their own way — on the bus and at that school and then into the bigger world.
This weekend, Jack’s performing in Rigoletto — he has three lines on that huge stage, but he belts them out beautifully. And Charlie? He’s jumping off things on his skateboard that are very big — and spinning around when he does it and then landing and looking like it was all no big deal. (While he wears the helmet I force him to wear). It’s scary and exciting and fun to watch them. I love being the mother of these kids, love the way they’re stepping onto the stage and launching themselves into life.
There was a big thing in the New York Times Magazine yesterday about “equal parenting,” which apparently is a kind of stealth movement out there in parent-land, where both parents juggle it all instead of just one parent juggling it all.
I was sort of busy revising my novel while W (my husband) was outside finishing the skateboard thing he’s building for the boys and running around town to buy Jack some last minute items for his choir tour, but I did register the thought that we’re those kind of parents. I mean, I think we are, because I didn’t have time to read the whole article and most of what I know about it comes from the captions on the pictures of people who looked awfully young to me.
The thing is, though, that the last time we were able to talk about our shared parenting (in some way other than a two second conversation about who’s going to pick up William from his drum lessons) was in 1990. Okay. Since it’s been 18 years since I last really articulated the thinking that goes into the parenting I do with W , I’m due for a little talking about it. Oh, and also, it was Father’s Day yesterday, so it seems appropriate to talk about fathering.
Here’s the setting for that conversation. Fall 1990. We were probably having a drought here in California, because it was hot, hot, hot and we had all the windows open. We were driving to Yosemite, on one of those very windy roads where to keep yourself from getting sick and to make sure the driver (in this case W) is not falling asleep at the wheel, you must absolutely bring up a controversial topic in a loud voice so you can be distracted from getting sick and he can be distracted from falling asleep.
We were about to get married, so there was a ton of stuff to talk about. (Don’t get me started on why it was that I had to wear the complicated dress, complicated both from a fashion and political point of view and he got to rent the same penguin suit thing all men wear.) The discussion I chose to start had to do with whether we were going to have children. Of course, the reason we were getting married was because we were pretty sure we’d have some children, but we’d never really discussed it, so it seemed like a good thing to bring up.
At that time, I could still remember some of the feminist theory I’d read in college. There hadn’t been a lot of stuff about parenting. In fact, the only thing I knew about feminist parenting came from Dorothy Dinnerstein (remember her? Mermaid? Minotaur?). From her, for some reason, I had drawn the conclusion that the Reason There is So Much Fighting in the World is because men aren ‘t properly parented. Which is to say they don’t have fathers who mother them and so they end up killing each other. Or something like that.
So I said, honey, I’m not going to have children unless you’re going to raise them as much as I am. Half and half, okay? At that time, W was busy thinking about whether he was going to take one of those jobs where you go to far away places and make a bunch of money as a consultant, and see your wife and family not that often. So he took this statement seriously. We drove and drove and drove on that twisty road talking about mermaids and minotaurs and consulting jobs and stuff, and by the end of it, we’d agreed — we would be equal parents. I am not surprised that he agreed to this because he is a person of integrity and fairness and he likes to work hard at things, which, it turned out, is what parenting is all about.
He bought a small company of his own, in the end, and never did become a consultant, in part because when you are the boss you get to decide how you’re going to run things. Which is to say that the single best way to institute family friendly work policies is to own the company at which those policies are in force. What are those policies, you ask? The ability to work at home is one. The flexibility to do things with your children when those things must be done, and then stay up until midnight doing the other things that could wait just a bit so you could take your child to the orthodontist is another.
It turns out, though, that our equal parenting also had a lot to do with having twins. I can see how we might not have ended up the way we did. That’s because my impulse when I became pregnant was to just take over. Look, I can carry two at once! Next, I’ll give birth to them in beautiful pain! And then, hey, how about all that nursing I will do! I had no idea what he’d do, before he started doing it.
That happened when they arrived — both of them. Fortunately for me, the babies and W, you can’t monopolize parenting if you have two babies at once and you discover all that nursing is making you really, really tired. And so, because we started off having to share, it just never ended. It’s not exact — but for both of us it feels pretty even. (Lately, W would say it is not even, and that I spend so much time writing that our children don’t know what a mother looks like, unless it’s the OTHER mothers they see way more than they see me. He might be right, you know. I wonder what Dorothy Dinnerstein would make of that. Still, equal parenting can sustain a little unequal stint every once in a while — it rights itself, I think, if you pay attention to it.)
This is what it looked like today, for example. It is summer vacation. We both work. Jack had to be taken to the airport. I took him and came into work. Charlie and William have no plans today. W arranged for them to meet a good friend at his work, and go to the park with her. (Please note that I did not make this plan. Shared parenting means being totally responsible for the planning of the days you are on duty as the parent.) I am writing this afternoon and tonight. W is taking the boys out to dinner. Tomorrow he is working at home, while they are at home hanging out. I am working, and writing. I’m in charge of Wednesday and am working on childcare arrangements for the time I will be at work. Thursday he is in charge. Next week, after I get back from a weekend away, he and I are on vacation and we will all be in charge. That is usually a very exciting free-for-all of strong willed people that sometimes ends in tears or a lot of yelling and sometimes is a lot of fun. After that, the camps I organized, and the two nice young women I’ve hired to hang out with the boys take over the childcare.
Which brings me to another important point. We share parenting between more than just the two of us. Important people in our lives and the lives of our children have helped us raise our children. I have always worked part time (except for a year or so of full time work) and W has always worked a schedule where he either does the morning shift at home or the afternoon school pick up shift. When the boys were little, one woman — Aurelia Madrid — cared for them during the days both of us had to be at work. It is hard to think of a name for her — she’s neither an aunt nor a nanny. She’s a third parent, really. She brings things into our lives that we wouldn’t otherwise have: she has a better sense of humor than I do, she’s more easy-going, she keeps them busy really beautifully, and she loves them, as they do her. So, you see, shared parenting isn’t a two people endeavor, not at least in our life.
And so it goes. A lot of stuff around here gets done at the last minute. Sometimes it is more W doing the child care, sometimes it is more me. We are both sometimes up very late doing the things we love to do that we did not get to do during the day because we are also parents. Shared parenting may not change the world and stop wars, but it does make people happy — both of us. My husband loves his fathering work as much as he loves being an engineer and designing amazing things, and being a windsurfer who’s very fast out there on the San Francisco Bay and a great skier and rock climber to boot. He does all these things, and feels, as I do about my own passions, that he doesn’t do any of them as well as he’d like, but at least he gets to give it a shot. So, yes, I can honestly say, 12 years into the shared parenting endeavor, that it’s a good, worthwhile thing to do. Not everyone can do it, or wants to do it and that’s fine too. I know plenty of families where one parent specializes in the on-site parenting work and, honestly, I no longer believe those children are going to go out and start a bunch of wars. The funny thing is that if people choose that sort of parenting arrangement (women mostly, I think), rather than have it thrust on them, that works pretty well too.
I can’t think of how to end this post except to say that my husband is a remarkable man, and I am lucky to have met him and married him and had those three children with him. He’s a gem. Tired, but a gem.
It’s been a terribly busy week, which is why, if you’ve checked in here this week, you kept seeing that post telling you it’s Friday when it’s actually NOT Friday.
There have been performances (William was the bus driver who denied Rosa Parks her seat — he played this key role in a choral performance dedicated to the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King), and projects due (Charlie knows a lot about Venus Fly Traps), and two of the boys are going on tour with their choirs in a week or two, which means you have to buy black pants that fit and also you have to find their passports, tasks that sound pretty simple but, in reality, turn out to be odysseys of epic proportions. Somewhere in the middle of the week someone managed to break two bones in his hand playing football, which necessitated three trips to the doctor for diagnosis, x-rays, and a very handsome black cast.
That is why, during the week, I have read a couple of short stories, and written the beginnings of two stories, and revised another one, and have not worked on revising my novel. The best novel writing requires that you stay in the world of your novel while you are writing and revising it so you remember what the weather is like, and the shifts in your characters’ emotional states, not to mention the color of their hair you mentioned 100 pages earlier. That is simply impossible, I’ve concluded, when people go out of town and children break bones and I have to drive kids to school, and pick them up and work and do the dishes.
I know that writers don’t choose literary forms entirely because of time constraints, nor do readers chose poems and short stories because they don’t have the concentration necessary to stay with a novel, but I do think the reason I am writing this post this morning, and not working on my novel, or even on a short story, is because it is 6:45 a.m. and William is sitting on my bed writing, in very competent cursive handwriting, a report about Jimi Hendrix’s life and the only thing I can do while he’s asking me how to spell England and counting out the number of paragraphs left to write and losing his pen, is this blog post, about how you fit what you write and read into the life you live.
I will be so happy when school is over and summer arrives and there is time to stretch out and read novels, not to mention edit them.