I’m writing this from a chain coffee shop in a strip mall a few blocks from D’s elementary school. Today has been fragmented in the way so many of my days seem to be lately: a few hours making small talk with parents who are showing us the ropes of popcorn volunteering, a few hours on campus answering student emails and reading reviews of Halberstam’s new book about Lady Gaga and wondering whether I should assign it for my Mass Culture class next semester, back to the elementary school for the book fair, then the coffee shop, then back to the elementary school, then back across town to go home.
I wrote the other day about how I have this more is more is more problem, but maybe the problem isn’t the more, it’s the driving to get to the more. The girls go to school in a nearby district and we can’t afford the extended day care at the preschool, so on days when I’m working I drive D to kindergarten, then drive Lucy and Margeaux to my mom’s house or T’s mom’s house, then drive to campus, then drive to my downtown class, then drive back to campus. By noon I’ve spent around 90 minutes in the car. Now add the driving to gymnastics and dance, the drive to school and back on days when I’m not working, and let us not forget the 45 minute commute to the night class, and I’m starting to feel like I live in my car. If you need further evidence, just look at the mountains of jackets, shoes, empty travel mugs, granola bar wrappers, and mismatched gloves accumulating in the minivan.
One possibility is to try and move to the district where the girls are enrolled, home of the strip mall chain coffee shop. Housing prices are affordable here (if we could sell our house, a nightmare which I will address in another post). We love the elementary school and have every reason to believe we would continue to be satisfied with the academic experience. There’s a Spanish immersion program and a championship marching band. There’s also a Romney/Ryan/Take Back Our Country yard sign in every other front yard.
The parents we’ve met have been lovely: friendly, funny, welcoming. I’ve asked lots of questions about the district, and everyone has been eager to be helpful, offering insight and perspective on teachers and schools. What I don’t know how to ask is, are we going to be welcome here once you find out we don’t go to church and my kids are ardent fans of President Obama? It seems crass, somehow, to bring it up, like I’m accusing them of intolerance when they’ve been nothing but genuine and kind. But I can’t help but wonder if it just hasn’t occurred to them that I’m an interloper of sorts, if they’re simply assuming that if we moved here we would join the neighborhood Bible study group and our kids would go to Sunday school with their kids.
I want to be clear that I’m not hesitant about living in a community where faith is an important part of many people’s lives. I just don’t know how to gauge the centrality of faith and politics in establishing relationships here, and one of the things I really am longing for is a neighborhood where I can have coffee with other moms and carpool to preschool and feel connected to my neighbors and my kids’ schools and my community.But if those activities all include Bible study, this is just not going to work.
I want less time driving and more time doing, and in order to get that, something’s gotta give. My schedule next semester is shaping up to be slightly less time intensive behind the wheel, but there’s still the crazy morning commute: so much time and money wasted. This might be the only area of my life where I can say with absolutely certainty that I want less. I just wish I knew how to figure out whether or not we might want to call this place home.
One of the best things about living in Iowa was getting to caucus. In Michigan, like in most states, we have primaries. But in Iowa, folks still caucus, cramming into high school gyms and then dividing out into smaller rooms by candidate. Then each room sends a representative around to try and convince the people in other rooms to switch candidates, then there’s a period of time when you can switch, then the final results are counted and phoned in. It’s sweaty and ridiculous and glorious.
I moved out to Iowa in 1999, with no idea what I was in store for politically in the 2000 election. Not only did it seem like there was a presidential candidate perpetually in town, standing on street corners, shopping at Prairie Lights, eating at the Hamburg Inn, but it was the year of the Nader-traders, when Ralph Nader had those great black and white ads with kids talking about what they wanted to be when they grew up and voters in swing states were organizing to trade their Nader votes with voters in safe states.
And in Iowa City, there was Nader guy. He was a fixture on the ped mall, handing out literature, getting signatures on petitions. He seemed to be everywhere downtown, Nader guy, always trying to get me to sign something, reminding me to vote, talking up the Nader-trader websites. When I went to caucus, Nader guy was there, standing shoulder to shoulder with me in the crowd. When we had to nominate delegates for the convention, Nader guy volunteered. And perhaps weirdest of all, when I crashed my car attempting to turn left onto Highway 6 from the ShopKo parking lot, the guy in the other car turned out to be Nader guy.
I didn’t vote for Nader, but I admit that tonight I’m feeling nostalgic for Nader guy, and for Iowa politics, for the intensity, the crowded rooms, the necessity of coming face to face with your neighbors and talking about where you stand. I may have been unnerved by Nader guy’s near-constant presence in my life, but I had and have a tremendous amount of respect for his commitment, his willingness to make his politics transparent, to stand on a street corner and try and make the world a better place. I think for so many of us, what’s missing from this election is a sense of investment, a clear articulation of why this election matters to us, in our own voices. We circulate facebook memes and youtube videos, but we rarely speak from the heart about the issues closest to us.
For me, tomorrow’s election is about my family’s right to affordable medical care. It’s about the right of my friends and family members to marry the person they love, to seek employment and housing without discrimination and to serve openly in the military if they choose. It’s about my right and my daughters’ right to reproductive health care, including contraception and abortion, and our right to equal pay. It’s about Pell grants. It’s about the $200 per month we are saving because we were able to refinance our home under a federal program for homeowners who owe more than their home is worth. It’s about the world I want to live in and the world I want to raise my daughters in.
We will be at the polls early tomorrow, with all our girls, casting our ballots. And I trust that somewhere out there, Nader guy is voting too.
“This is my ArtPrize,” D says. “I made it with paper and markers and it is about how rainbows are made of water and sky and light. Would you like to touch it? Here is a card if you want to vote for me!”
I’m not an artist. My primary artistic accomplishments include Play Doh birds and drawings of kitty cat faces with long whiskers. Based on D’s recent drawings, I’d say she is well on her way to surpassing me in the visual arts department. I also don’t know very much about art history, or contemporary art, or how to interpret or critique art. My art education borders on nonexistent: I remember going on a field trip to the Grand Rapids art museum in third grade; we each got a poster of a painting of fried eggs to take home. Was it a famous painting? Did we see it at the museum? I have no idea. After the art museum we went to the fish ladder, which I mistakenly believed to be art until well into adulthood, when I learned it actually serves a really important purpose for salmon who swim up the Grand River and would otherwise be halted in their progress by the dam. I took one art history class in college, while on study abroad, and it was taught in French, which I barely spoke. The midsize Midwest city where I live has never been known as a hub for art or artists. I admit, I probably would not have taken my kids to the Art Museum on my own.
ArtPrize is a ginormous public art competition, and when I say public, I mean anyone can enter, anyone can vote, almost anything goes, and huge sums of prize money are awarded based on the public votes.
Almost every aspect of this is controversial. Read the comments section of any article about ArtPrize and you will hear the same arguments over and over: That’s not art, it’s just skillful welding! That’s not art, it’s just really big! It’s just shocking and offensive! It’s just loud! It’s not original! If ArtPrize keeps awarding prize money to grizzly bears carved with chainsaws/enormous metal animals/really big images composed of really tiny things like push pins or post it notes or polka dots then real artists will stop coming back!
And it’s true that some aspects of the experience are predictable. ArtPrize BINGO capitalizes on the repetitive memes; even Lucy is on to it:
ArtPrize is different every year, but some things are the same, like the giant stuff. There’s always giant stuff at ArtPrize.
And she’s right. There’s always giant stuff. Trout that tower over parking lots. A life size T-Rex skeleton. Enormous dragons made of buttons and wire and reclaimed metal and duct tape (each of those is a separate entry).
In addition to giant, there’s also weird. Thousands of paper bags filled with the artist’s breath and arranged into a tunnel not unlike the enormous balloon structures you might have built for your high school prom. A wood floor that oozes bubbles. An abandoned museum exhibit festooned with antique lightning rods.
And some of the entries are experiential. One year, an artist launched thousands of paper planes from the roofs of downtown buildings. We spent the better part of an hour inside a hippie temple with neon lights. We took the girls to be part of the lighting and release of 20,000 biodegradable Chinese sky lanterns.
I think we established in the first paragraph that I am probably not qualified to judge whether any of those are art. But here’s why I love ArtPrize: the radically open approach means I don’t feel pressed to explain anything. I feel like it’s okay if I am not an expert, if I don’t have all the answers. Often, I just listen to what the girls say, how they respond, what they think it all means. I vote for the entries that excite and interest them and the entries that excite and interest me, and yes, some of their choices are predictable (ceramic penguins frolicking in the fountains outside the Gerald R. Ford museum, for example) but they are also learning to pause and think about the entries that don’t have immediate kid appeal. My interpretative strategy is to tell them what a piece is called, read them snippets from the artist’s statement, and then help them figure out how they feel about an entry by asking a couple basic questions:
What do you see?
How does this make you feel?
What does this make you think about?
Can you make your body into that shape?
If the artist is there (and many of the artists hang out near their work, trying to garner more votes by engaging the crowd), I help the girls ask questions. I have been amazed by how many of the artists are willing and able to talk with kids and meet them at their level, explaining how a piece is put together and sometimes letting kids cross the lines to touch a piece that’s officially marked hands-off. Artists have lifted the girls up to touch T Rex teeth, pointed out small details in paintings I hadn’t noticed, patiently showed D how to find the word TULIP hidden in a garden of tulips made of wooden dowels.
Sometimes an entry still fails to engage. That’s okay. There are literally thousands of pieces of art and hundreds of venues to explore. We can always move on to the next one. I don’t push if it seems like they’re not into it or not ready for it. I let them linger when they are interested and move on when they are bored. If they ask to go back to a favorite piece we go back, look again, see if we can find a new angle to view it from or a new question to consider. I love to return to their favorites with friends and family members who haven’t been there yet so I can hear the girls explain what they’re seeing and why they like it. And I love it when they come home and play ArtPrize: they draw pictures, then stand in the kitchen holding them up and I walk through pretending to be a visitor, asking them questions about their entry.
I’m not an artist or an art critic. Maybe the critics are right when they argue that some artists will refuse to return because average people are too enthusiastic about Jesus mosaics and reclaimed metal polar bears. But it’s hard for me to imagine that the attrition of the few artists who would prefer more exclusive exhibitions and awards could compromise the incredible outpouring of energy and goodwill and yes, enthusiasm for art in many forms, that I’ve witnessed and experienced.
I love ArtPrize because it has changed our family’s relationship to art and to our city. My girls have seen countless amazing, beautiful, powerful, surprising, thought-provoking pieces of art over the past few years. They know artists are real people and they know art takes many forms and they are confident about their ability to talk and think and ask questions about art in whatever form they encounter it. They feel connected to their city, to the downtown landscape, in a way I never felt when I was growing up here. They know how their city can be transformed by the presence of steampunk pigs and horses running down the river and impromptu puppet theatre and tens of thousands of lanterns rising above the skyline past the full moon, and they have been part of that transformation with their own eyes and ears and hearts and hands. This is my ArtPrize: water and sky and light.
August is a make it or break it, go big or go home kind of month in my garden. The tomato harvest comes on strong, the phlox and blackeyed susans are blooming, the ironweed are inevitably reaching the roof and tipping over because I forgot to stake them, and T and I ask once again, WHY DIDN’T WE PRUNE THE TOMATO VINES WHEN WE HAD THE CHANCE?
It was a hot July, lots of 100 degree days, and some of my annuals have perished. But what has survived has bloomed with gusto:
More photos after the jump: Continue reading
I know, I know: it’s been a gazillion days since I’ve posted, and in that time, Lauren got a job, her kids got sick and better and sick again, the Olympics began, and what have I been doing?
Dear reader, I have been at the beach.
Every day for the past 9 days, I have packed up towels and snacks and bottles of fruity water, slathered my girls with sunscreen, attached the life jackets and the folding chair to the stroller, and walked to the beach.We swim, splash, pretend to be guppies, paddle board, build sand castles. My parents rent a cottage on the lakeshore for 2 weeks, and my siblings and I pile in, stack the kids 5 to a bedroom, take turns packing coolers of sandwiches and grilling burgers and watching babies and teaching kids to boogie board. This year we’re all learning to stand up paddle board. The kids stay up late playing epic games of Monopoly, the babies nap in strollers, there are trolley rides and bottomless ice cream cones.
We don’t travel lightly: we send someone to the beach early to stake out a spot and set up the shade awning, then we sleep late, eat pancakes and cottage eggs, and eventually make our way to the beach with armloads of sand toys, towels, beach chairs, coolers. Sometimes we bring an inflatable kiddie pool for the babies. If the waves are big there are boogie boards; on green flag days there are skim boards.
The water this year has been particularly warm; the kids don’t come out of the water shivering, and the adults have been falling off the paddleboard without complaint all week. The warmth is lovely, if unnerving. Most of my beach memories involve the shock of cold water first on my toes, then creeping slowly up my body. Not so this year. You can run in full speed, like a Baywatch lifeguard, and immerse yourself.
I have essays to grade, and laundry to fold, and books to order, and projects to finish, and a blog to write. But I’ve got 3 more days of sand and water first. Don’t wake me– I plan on sleeping in.
You know those weeks when the transmission breaks on your car so you’re stuck at home and it seems like every time you turn around the baby is eating dog food or rocks or rocks shaped like dog food and the older kids are pummeling each other because they’re playing some pretend game about cats and horses that don’t get along so the rules of the game basically require them to wrestle until they cry and then you make them apologize but immediately after they say they’re sorry they start meowing and neighing at each other which is how cats and horses say they’re sorry, of course, and so immediately they’re rolling on the floor again and you start to yell at them but then you realize the baby has disappeared so you keep yelling as you’re sprinting down the hallway to make sure she isn’t choking on a Polly Pocket head because for some reason all the Polly Pockets are amputees and most of them are headless and even then, their tiny rubber clothing is practically impossible to pry on and off, and so you scoop up the baby and announce that you are GOING FOR A WALK and lo and behold, it is block sale week in your neighborhood so you find a couple bargains and then you see it, a fabulous vintage table with a white porcelain top, no price tag but you can totally imagine it in your kitchen, it’s got one drawer and a cute crystal knob, and yes, it actually is for sale but you don’t have enough cash, of course, and you can’t go back for it with the car because broken transmission so you tell the lady you’ll think about it and walk home and then there you are, at home, eating popsicles, thinking about that cute vintage table, wondering if you are crazy to be imagining putting the kids back in the wagon and going back to write a check for a table you absolutely don’t need but really, really adore, and meanwhile the cats horses choking pummeling cycle is starting over again.
Maybe I am having that week. Maybe you are too. If so, I recommend that you buy new comfortable chairs to put in your garden, scan the room for choking hazards, tell your kids you are taking the recycling out, and then just sit outside for 3 minutes of quiet by yourself in your new comfortable chair.
I used to journal avidly, and always brought a notebook or journal on backpacking trips, packed into a couple Ziplock bags for protection against the elements. This year, we brought a sketchbook and, due to a general lack of planning, a handful of Sharpies (Lucy calls them Sharpeners), so the girls could draw pictures in a camping journal.
The results were hilarious and awesome, and offered a glimpse into what mattered most to them. Continue reading
It had been a long day. T and I stayed up late Thursday night packing the gear, got the girls up early Friday morning, loaded them into the car in jammies with cups of Fruit Loops for the road, drove about 3 hours north to the campground, set up the tent, played on the beach and the playground, built a fire, ate smores, put them to bed in their pink sleeping bags. A blissful first day, really, but also an exhausting one. So when the fire was burning out, and we looked around the campsite to make sure everything was put away, and we saw the coffee and sugar and cocoa on the picnic table, we thought, no need to unlock the car and figure out where to stash these when really, we will want them first thing in the morning anyway. T might have even said, “I don’t think the squirrels want our dark roast coffee.”
Wrong. We thought wrong.
We woke up to piles of sugar and coffee under the table, shredded packets of Swiss Miss everywhere, and a squadron of cracked out squirrels and chipmunks chasing each other through the campsite and surrounding trees. When Tyler tried to clean up the mess, one tiny fierce squirrel clung to a tree just inches away from him, shrieking and chattering angrily. Apparently caffeinated rodents know no fear.
In the land before children, T and I camped, hiked and backpacked. But our gear has been sitting unused on the basement shelves for a couple of years, camp stove and lanterns gathering dust. I was determined to make a camping trip happen this summer, and to that end, I helped my mom pick out a ginormous 8 person tent for Tyler’s birthday last fall. Our 3 person, 3 season backpacking tent will remain a dusty relic. These days, we are camping with a pack and play, 2 pink sleeping bags, and a ridiculously large supporting cast of stuffed animals. We strapped the jogging stroller to the roof of the van, stuffed the cooler full of GoGurt and string cheese, and drove north.
We camped in a county park on Grand Traverse Bay: we wanted wooded camp sites, beach access, a playground, clean bathrooms, and inland lakes within 10 minutes in case the bay was too cold or too rough for the girls to swim.
I admit, I expected camping with kids to feel weighty: so much gear! So many trips to the bathroom! So many opportunities to fall into fire or drown or break an arm or leg! But without the competing demands of dishes and laundry and facebook and emails from my students and errands to run, it felt ridiculously easy to be present and relaxed as a parent while camping. Nothing has to be done RIGHT NOW when you’re camping. You can spend an hour staring at a snail on the cooler or rolling a roly poly bug around on a plate.
Play till we’re hungry. Eat what sounds good. Toss the paper plates in the fire. Lounge in the sunshine. Draw our favorite parts of the day in the camping journal. Stay up and eat s’mores till the stars come out. Sleep, wake up, do it all again.