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Tuesday, June 26, 2007

mother words: a reading

Hey, for all of you local writers and moms and dads, please join me tomorrow night at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis for Mother Words: A Reading by Mothers Who Write. I will be reading from Ready for Air, and I will be joined by Nanci Olesen, public radio commentator and host of MOMbo, the wonderful radio resource for moms, and Bonnie J. Rough, award-winning essayist and Loft instructor, who will read from her memoir about genetic heredity.

Where: The Loft Literary Center, 1011 Washington Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN

When: Wednesday, June 27th, 7 p.m. Free and open to the public.

The reading is co-sponsored by the Loft's Local Motion Reading Series, MotherTalk, and MOMbo.

Come and bring friends!

Saturday, June 23, 2007

8 things

Okay, I was tagged by Kyra at this mom to reveal eight things about myself. Here it goes:

1) When I was in college and working at 3M one summer, I electrocuted myself.
2) When I was in college and working at 3M one summer, I electrocuted myself AGAIN. Seriously, same summer, same day. With one hand on the metal experimenty-thing, I plugged the machine into the wall. Bzzz. Bzzz. Ow. Pain shot up my arm. Did I call for help? Na. Did I get up off the floor? Na. Stunned and totally stupid, I plugged the machine into the wall again. Bzzz. Bzzz. Ow. (It was after this that I decided it would be safer to be an Anthro major.)
3) At age six, I asked my grandma, who was visiting, whether she thought she had good manners. “Well, yes, I think I do,” she said, a little flustered. And I proceeded to point out to her, in a very patronizing 6-year-old way, that people with good manners always put the toilet seat cover down. Seriously? Really? I’m afraid so. Poor D.
4) When I was ten, my goal, in life, was to wear red, sparkly, five-inch heels and be the winner of Deney Terrio’s Dance Fever. (For a little Frank Zappa action on Dance Fever, check this out.)
5) For a year and a half (while I was living in a small village in Costa Rica), I spent every Saturday night riding in the back of a truck—think livestock, people—to a dance in a nearby town where I spent long, sweaty hours trying to perfect the salsa (and cumbia and piratiado and merengue). Take that, Deney Terrio. (Note: dancing does not always count as “research,” but I was an Anthro major, after all. Everything is research.)
6) I secretly wish I had a wrestling singlet like Drama Mama.
7) I eat chocolate *every* night. (And sometimes I wonder why running doesn't "have an effect?")
8) I almost killed myself in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness when my friend and I decided to “navigate” some rapids. The backpack containing our food and water purifier and other equipment her parents loaned us sank to the bottom of the river. We punctured her aluminum canoe and, from clinging to a moss-covered rock, I became covered in small slug-like creatures. Proud times, indeed.

And now I get to tag three people:

Mardougrrl at One Hand Typing
Sheri at The Little Zygote That Could
Moonlight Ambulette

Friday, June 22, 2007

where voice resides: the allergy diaries

There are a few essays so well-written that I could use them to teach each element of craft. Jill Christman’s “The Allergy Diaries” is one of these essays.

“The Allergy Diaries” describes Christman’s infant daughter’s anaphylactic reaction to cow's milk and the aftermath of this discovery. That is the situation in the essay. The real story is much bigger, of course. It’s about worry and vigilance and chronic fear. It’s about the ways in which we justify our worrying. (Those of you who know me know I’m a first-class worrier, so of course, I can relate.)

The essay has everything: drama, foreshadowing, humor. It’s no wonder that it was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

In my class (because I’m generally a more effective teacher when I stay focused), I used the essay to talk about voice. Ah, elusive voice.

I used to obsess about voice. What is it? When am I going to find mine? I imagined, and hoped, that I would be sitting at my computer one day, muddling through some essay when the voice fairy would fly in, wave her glittering magic wand at me, and voilà, I would have my writer’s voice. Alas, this never happened. And of course I realized that I actually had to write my way into my voice. You do not find your voice and then write.

I love what the wonderful writer and teacher Charles Baxter says about voice: “Voice is the way our entire being, not just the self, formulates its thoughts and feelings through syntax, word choice, and stance. Voice, like music, has both tones and overtones…” Baxter says that voice exists at the level of the sentence.

It resides in syntax and sentence structure.

I like to think about voice in two ways: there is the writer’s voice, the thing that makes you open a piece of writing and know who wrote it without looking. In Christman’s writing, her voice resides in her dry humor (which she maintains always, even in the face of disaster). It resides in her off-hand comments—“Go ahead and chuckle.”—and in her honesty.

But voice is also situation specific. Our voices change to reflect the emotional context of a scene. And for me, this is where the real crafting of voice occurs. It exists at the level of the sentence.

In the essay, after Christman and her husband, Mark, attempt to feed their daughter, Ella, a bottle of formula, and she begins to have an anaphylactic reaction, Christman (the writer) does two things: she shifts into the present tense, and her sentences alternate between very short, repetitive ones and long, run-on ones. The present tense heightens the immediacy of a scene, of course. I wrote about this in relation to Penny Wolfson’s “Moonrise.”

The repetition and long, run-on sentences increase speed and re-create panic:

“The next minutes are a blur. Mark picks her up and runs, I turn circles around the house for seconds that seem like hours—time is all fucked up when your baby is gurgling. I scream that we need to call someone. We need to call the doctor. We need someone to tell use what to do. But Mark has Ella in her car seat and somehow the dogs are locked safely in the house and I am beside Ella in the backseat, leaning over her, listening to the gurgle, watching her face, come on baby come on baby come on baby, and Mark is backing up fast.”

The whole hospital scene, until Ella gets a shot of Benadryl, is in the present and then it shifts back to the past tense. So perfect, so crafted.

So, if you are struggling with voice, or are simply interested in a great essay, please check out “The Allergy Diaries.” You will find the same skill in Christman’s memoir, Darkroom: A Family Exposure, which won the Associated Writing Programs Award for Creative Nonfiction in 2002. In this book, Christman explores the intersection of image and memory and, with brutal honesty and humor, navigates tragedy and emerges as a true survivor. The opening chapter of this book has replayed in my mind so many times (a huge compliment), and is—honestly—the reason that our water heater is set low enough for my showers to occasionally turn tepid. Read this book.

And thanks, Jill, for an essay that makes teaching writing easy.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

a choice, a responsibility

Last night I was watching the evening news—something I try never to do—and there was a story about the sextuplets just born in Minneapolis, at the same hospital where Stella was born. They are now on warming tables in the same children’s hospital where I sat for weeks, staring at my daughter.

The coverage of the story went like this: the couple decided on fertility treatment when they hadn’t become pregnant in a year. They were surprised to find they were carrying six fetuses, but they refused to reduce. Now they have six babies, born at less than 23 weeks. The smallest weighs less than 11 ounces. The reporter said, “The babies came a little early.” Call me crazy, but 4 months premature is not “a little early.”

Why, please tell me why, the media continues to cover high order multiple births this way. The pregnancy and births were referred to as a “miracle.” This is not a miracle. It’s a tragedy. This couple is living through hell, certainly, but there was no mention of the dangers of prematurity. No mention of the reality.

A preemie is not just a small baby. A preemie is not “cute.” Micro-preemies (born at less than 26-weeks) often do not “catch up.” That all preemies “catch up” by age 2 is a myth.

A 23-weeker’s eyes are still fused shut. A 23-weeker is still covered in lanugo. A 23-weeker’s lungs are underdeveloped. S/he will potentially spend months on a ventilator. Being on a ventilator that long puts a him/her at high risk for an intraventricular brain hemorrhage and for chronic lung disease.

The rate of premature birth increased 31% between 1981 and 2003. According to the March of Dimes, 25% of the youngest and smallest babies who graduate from the NICU live with long-term health problems, including cerebral palsy, blindness and other chronic conditions. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2002 found that children born prematurely were at greater risk for lower cognitive test scores and for behavioral problems when compared to full-term children.

For babies born at less than 500 grams (1 lb, 1 ounce), the mortality rate is 863 deaths per 1000 live births.

Between 1980 and 1998 the triplet/+ birth rate (the number of triplets, quadruplets, and quintuplets and other higher order multiples per 100,000 live births) increased by more than 500 percent, rising from 37.0 to 193.5. The number of triplet/+ born in 2003 was the highest ever reported: 7,663. (CDC’s National Vital Statistics Report Vol. 54, No. 2)

Write that. Cover that.

In my frustration over the coverage of stories like this one, I turn, as I always do, to literature. Suzanne Kamata has written one of the most honest, moving essays about IVF and selective reduction that I’ve read. Originally appearing in Brain, Child, her essay “Multiple Choices” was reprinted in the Utne Reader in 2000.

After a D&C at age 20 and an infection in her late 20s, Kamata and her husband used IVF to get pregnant. Three embryos took root.

“When I visit the doctor at eight weeks,” she writes, “all three are still there, growing and squirming in my womb. I love them all equally. I cannot bear the thought of giving one up. Of having one killed.”

But the thing is, she weighs the risks. She and her husband make the decision, the difficult decision, to reduce. And it’s a decision that may have saved her other babies. At 26-weeks, Jio and Lilia were born. How early would they have been without selective reduction? Would any of them have survived?

Technology helps many couples conceive. Technology can keep the smallest babies alive. But there are dangers associated with this technology, and I want to know why these dangers are not being discussed honestly (or at all). It’s not a black and white issue. Selective reduction would not be an easy choice. But isn’t it necessary to weighs the risks?

Kamata’s essay ends like this: “Yoshi and I heap adoration on our surviving twins, while the spirit of the third hovers, a reminder. And so I carry my guilt. In quiet moments, I pray for forgiveness, while out of love for my newborn children, I find it impossible to repent.”

Thank you, Suzanne, for this essay. Thank you for your honesty and grace. Thank you for talking openly about hard choices. I wish everyone were so brave.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

creative cross training

On Friday night, D. and I went to see Figaro at Teatre de la Jeune Lune. We don’t do this sort of thing very often, and that afternoon I almost wished we weren’t going. I had a gazillion things to do, I was exhausted, and we were babysitting Stella’s cousin. Our house was strewn with toys and bits of half-chewed food (one of my nephew’s special talents).

When my dad came over, I rushed to shower and make myself presentable, and D. and I dashed out the door, leaving my dad with the two kids. (My sister picked up her little guy shortly thereafter. Dad was fine.)

I was actually feeling so tired and anxious that I didn’t think I would enjoy the evening, but as we drove downtown, I could feel myself starting to let go of the week, of all the little (and big) stresses that build up and convince me, usually, that we are too busy to go out.

D. and I picked up our tickets at the theater and walked across the street to Origami for sushi. Years ago, D. and I fell in love eating out, leaning over small tables in darkened restaurants, and I always forget how much this means to us—sitting across from each other eating food that someone else has prepared.

When we walked back to the theater an hour later, I was giddy with excitement. I had never seen a performance at the Jeune Lune (pathetic, I know), and I was excited to see the daughters of one of my Loft students perform (both her daughters are opera singers/actresses).

The show was amazing. They were amazing. Mozart is, of course, amazing. I had goose bumps, my whole body tingling. Their voices. How is it even possible to sound like that? The wonderful surprise—oh you can do that?! Oh, you can go there?! I sat there, in the darkened theater, holding D.’s hand, and thought, if there is a God, he is here, in these voices, in this place. (It sounds so clichéd to have thought that, but I really did.)

A friend recently told me that she hasn’t been writing much lately, but instead has been quilting. I said that sometimes it’s good to step away for a bit, gain perspective, do something different. She nodded, and said it was an interesting break from words, and that it felt like creative cross training.

That’s how I felt at the Jeune Lune, like I was cross training. That tingle, that amazement.

I felt the same way when I read Deborah Garrison’s new book, The Second Child. I didn’t know Garrison’s work until a couple of weeks ago when I received one of those poetry e-mails from Knopf. This kind of marketing doesn’t always work on me, but because my summer class was about to begin and I was still looking for material, I ran out and bought Garrison’s book.

Garrison’s poems are so carefully crafted, so lovely, and she has this wonderful ability to capture a moment, stopping time and suspending a gesture. I could go on and on about almost every poem in this collection, but instead I’ll share this one with you:

Dad, You Returned to Me Again

The transparent clarity
of childhood happiness,
like water.

That colorless sparkling,
tasteless but so fresh.
To drink, or ribboning over
a large stone along the brambled
bank of a river I remember.
Said to be a large wily brown
trout under there.

Two children astride me
in rumpled bed this A.M.,
and when she petted
his baby head, crooning a word
almost his name,
his eyes hooked her face,
his hands discovered applause
in halting pace:

clap (pause) clap clap!
Their mingled laughter,
the nickname,
the merry clap-clap,
the jerking bright giggles

so free I dropped through time
and saw again the iridescence
across the belly of a trout
slipping whole in my hand
in sunlight for just long enough
to see not the usual liverish
speckling of brown but the spray
of pink, pale blue, gold-yellow
you said meant
and I grasped him, wet and muscular,
smuggled in our air
for a wild moment before your
expert hand unhooked
and slipped him back.

Poetry and opera do the same thing for me, a prose writer: I can sit back and let the words, the music rush over me, and I am reminded of what is possible.

Friday, June 1, 2007

my new best friend

We went up to my mom’s cabin in Northern Minnesota last weekend, and I took fifteen books with me because my summer Mother Words class starts next week, and I was trying to finalize my reading list. Of course, it’s not humanly possible (if you read as slowly as I do) to get through fifteen books in three days at a cabin full of people (Stella and her 19-month-old cousin included), but whatever. I skimmed a number of anthologies and re-read some pieces with which I was already familiar. The hard part, always, is deciding how my favorites fit into the class. Some essays are so good (and I’ll be discussing these as the summer progresses) that I could use them to talk about any number of craft issues and motherhood themes. How to stop my excitement? How to narrow the list? Very hard for me to do.

One of the books I read in its entirety this week was Catherine Newman’s Waiting for Birdy, a memoir about Newman's second pregnancy. I used her essay “Pretty Baby” (from Andi’s Buchanan’s anthology It’s A Boy: Women Writers on Raising Sons), in my last class, and I loved it. It’s a short essay about judgment and gender stereotypes and how reductive (and impossible) it is to fit kids into neat little gendered boxes. I love the essay’s subject matter and how it’s been structured, but I also love the fact that it’s freaking hilarious.

So anyway, I picked up Waiting for Birdy, and guess what? Catherine Newman is my new BFF. I’ve never met her (not even over e-mail), but if I’m ever in her neck of the woods, I’m tracking her down. (Does that sound scary?)

Her voice is conversational and intimate (a hallmark, of course, of the personal essay), and she uses humor deftly, employing irreverence, sarcasm, and enough cultural and life references to make her words come alive on the page. (She is similar, in this way, to Anne Lamott, I think.)

There is so much she says in this book that resonates with me. I could try to dissect all the reasons I like her as a narrator, but because she’s my new best friend, I’ll just say that I really like her, and I feel connected to the persona she’s created on the page.

My dad was over the other night, and after Stella was in bed, he stayed to watch a baseball game (we have cable and he doesn’t) while I read. I was lying on an opposite couch, and every time I laughed out loud he would ask me what was so funny. One of the passages I read to him (my 79-year-old ordained minister father) is from just before Birdy is born:

“Probably due to a combination of nerves and exhaustion on my part, along with Pat’s (the nurse’s) slight strangeness, I kept not understanding what she was saying. After I’d gotten undressed and peed, for instance, Pat held up a metal bowl. ‘Hoist up your Johnny,’ she said. ‘I’m just going to have you crap a little.’ She left the room, and I looked at the bowl. ‘So I’m just supposed to poop in there?’ I whispered to Michael. ‘What?’ he said. ‘I’m supposed to ‘crap a little’?’ I asked him, and he laughed. ‘No, hon. She’s going to prep you a little. Look.’ He tipped the bowl to show me the razors and antiseptic inside. ‘Lucky for you that I’m here. Lucky for Pat.’”

I know that not everyone is going to think that’s that funny, but I almost peed myself. Tears streamed down my face as I read it to my dad, and he laughed, as well. He’s used to lots of conversations about bodily functions because potty talk and foul language are about the only ways that my sisters and I rebelled (other than refusing to go to church as adults). He’s resigned himself to it, and maybe he even enjoys it a little?

Waiting for Birdy is not all humor, though. Throughout the book, Newman lays bare her neurosis (I don’t know anything about that, of course) and deals honestly and thoughtfully with so many issues of childbirth and parenthood. I love this:

“I confess that I’m so happy this time not to be consumed with the minutiae of the birth, like whether or not to get drugs. With your first baby, you think this is actually an important decision. Only later do you realize that a) You understand nothing about labor until it is happening to you, and b) The birth is just the first tiny town—barely a black dot—on the enormous, complicated road map that is the rest of your life as a parent.”