It's that time of year again to think about those wonderful women in our lives who have sacrificed so much for us: Time. Sanity. The last slice of pizza.
 
Our mothers.
 
It's time to think about and honor those mother figures in our lives. If we are mothers, it's also time to adorn ourselves with hand-painted necklaces made of macaroni, admire handmade cards and clean the kitchen after our offspring have endeavored to make us a "surprise" cake. It will look like a reenactment of a theater of war substituting kitchen utensils and food for soldiers and weaponry, but the real surprise is when you discover an entire thriving colony of ants a month later. They will be busily subsisting on a dripped mound of faintly familiar pink frosting. Try not to scream when you find this.
 
The Bad See dvd coverThis year I told my husband I wanted to celebrate with pizza and a movie. (And possibly a Dairy Queen run. I attribute part of my survival as a parent to Peanut Buster Parfaits.) The pizza, just this once, will not be ordered with my children in mind and, thus, will not involve pineapple. The movie will be The Bad Seed starring the inimitable Patty McCormack as everyone's favorite psychopathic child murderess, Rhoda Penmark. You can watch this movie instantly using the library's streaming service, Hoopla. If you have never seen this gem of a movie, you are in for a treat. (If you can define a treat as the escapades of a cold-blooded serial-killing eight-year-old in pigtails like I can.)
 
Another unconventional look at motherhood on film I recently enjoyed was Fill The Void, which provides a sensitive and riveting look Fill the Void dvd coverinside a Hasidic community and the dilemma of one young orthodox Israeli woman. Shira's older sister dies in childbirth, leaving a husband and brand-new baby boy. Does Shira continue on the traditional matchmaking path or step into the life and family her sister left behind? The last shot of the film made me want to watch the whole thing all over again. 
 
Mom's Who Drink and Swear book jacketWhatever Shira does or does not decide to do, we can be reasonably sure her choices will not involve alcohol consumption or inappropriate language. Or Dairy Queen. Which is the polar opposite of the parental musings of Nicole Knepper in Moms Who Drink and Swear: True Tales of Loving My Kids While Losing My Mind. This book is hilarious if you do not mind a potty-mouth or someone comparing the chore of preparing dinner to a sexually-transmitted disease (see the chapter "Dinner Is Like Herpes"). As she so eloquently puts it:
 
Like a turd hitting the fan, motherhood touches everything. Nothing in your life is the same after you become a mother. Not your marriage, your friendships, your career, your ass, your breasts, your mind or your heart.
 
And there's really only one thing left to say to that.
 
Thanks, Mom.
It is perennially fascinating to me to observe what children see and don't see. Taking Child the Younger shopping provided a teachable moment and lovely conversation about gender identity and sensitivity when he noticed a happy boy his age dressed in a long pink ball gown Cinderella would envy. Child the Elder recently failed to notice that he had spray-painted the cement walk in front of our house while priming some models or that he had permanently super-glued two of these same said models to my dining room table. (No one failed to notice my screaming when I discovered these tiny unwelcome dinner guests.)
 
The things and people closest to us are often the last things we see. I was in middle school before it dawned on me, only with the comment of a friend, that there was something immediately noticeable to everyone else about my father's appearance. Later in life I met someone who had a similar experience with her father. He got up and put on two prostheses each and every morning. This was the norm at her house. It never occurred to her that her dad was missing both his natural legs until a friend happened to mention it.
 
Wool book jacketWhat if normal means growing up in a vast underground silo? Wool by Hugh Howey was just the dark dystopian page-turner I needed while Portland was buried in snow. Juliette is a smart and scrappy mechanic from the "down deep" lowest floors. Her brief and tragic love affair and her loyalty to those she lives and works with counters the shadowy IT department that maintains control of the silo. The many generations and over one-hundred floors of the silo come complete with a unique history, class system, and form of justice. The story begins with Sheriff Holston investigating and processing the death of his wife. The secrets he uncovers about the silo go with him when he, too, commits the ultimate taboo and asks to go outside. Will Juliette survive becoming the silo's new sheriff? Will her human connections be enough to sustain her in a dangerous quest to save the only society she knows?
 
Our children, too, are growing up with a new normal. Our day-to-day behavior as parents seems largely invisible and unimportant--unnoticed--until something The Big Disconnect book jackethappens and we realize our children are constantly watching and learning from our actions, large and small. One child, a seven-year-old in a play therapy session, had this to say in Catherine Steiner-Adair's book The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age: "My parents are always on their computers and on their cell phones. It's very, very frustrating and I get lonely inside." Clearly, we need to take a hard look at how our use of technology is impacting the fabric of family life. This is an important book. As the author says, "We can't afford to wait and we don't need to wait to see this much of the picture clearly: Technology, social media, and the digital age have converged on the American family, first transforming it and now threatening to replace the deepest and most vital human connections that children need to grow and thrive." The good news is that we can, as parents, mindfully use technology as an ally to strengthen family bonds instead of allowing it to erode them. This is the best parenting book I have seen in a long time--timely, interesting, easy to read and full of practical advice with a positive and hopeful outlook on our connected age.
 
Corvus book jacketSometimes the birds that don't stand out for their songs or plumage are the ones we should be noticing. Corvus: A Life with Birds by Esther Woolfson combines anecdotes of raising and living with corvids with beautiful prose. Set in her town near Aberdeen, Scotland, Woolfson describes her life with Chicken the rook, Spike the magpie, Ziki the crow and a whole cast of supporting doves and other more conventional pet birds (including a crabby cockatiel named Bardie.) The total brain-to-body mass ratio of ravens, crows, magpies and other members of the Corvidae family is equal to that of great apes and whales and only slightly smaller than that of humans. These birds recognize faces, mimic speech and sounds, and use tools. Their impressive capacity for long-term memory and complex problem-solving has been proven. Woolfson's close proximity and careful study of the birds in her life provides a rare glimpse into their fascinating minds. Read this and I promise that the ordinary crow you curse for picking open the garbage bag on trash day will never look the same.
 
Because now you see it.

So I'm pretty sure when a six-year-old asks if the babies just "explode out of their moms' stomachs" when they're born, the officially sanctioned and appropriately parental answer is not, "Well, yeah.  It's kind of a mess." To follow that terrible answer with an intentional subject change like, "Check out this kick!  Do I look like a ninja?" is probably enough to get me placed into some sort of mommy lock-down until I can be re-educated by guards named Spock, Leach, and Brazelton.

Luckily it's back-to-school time and I can again place my children's formal education in the capable hands of skilled professionals. Child the Elder's wailing and gnashing of teeth over school starting again was probably heard from space. After the children went to sleep on that dreaded and fateful eve, I joined the rest of the school-age parental demographic in the ritual night-before-school celebratory margarita. This night should probably be a recognized and formal holiday, like Mardi Gras. As Mardi Gras marks the sober beginning of Lent, we have a long school year ahead of us to attempt to make our children lunches they will actually eat or rip our hair out over projects requiring posters, costumes, and sonnets written in perfect iambic pentameter. In the face of all this, one night to party is not too much to ask.

As summer faJiro Dreams of Sushi jacketdes in the rear view mirror, it is good to be reminded that we are never too old to learn. One of the best movies I watched in between SpongeBob SquarePants and Brady Bunch marathons was Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a documentary about an amazing 85 year old sushi chef and his tiny three-star Michelin rated restaurant (the first of its kind) in a Tokyo subway station. This quiet movie is simultaneously a feast for the eyes and a meditation on work and family that should not be missed. Jiro's story had both me and my 11 year old riveted from beginning to end (which is saying something for a subtitled documentary with an 85 year old subject containing no chase sequences, explosions, time travel or animated sea sponges.) Jiro's wildly successful restaurant career is countered by his and his sons' musings on what price that success exacted from his parenting.

If you aBarbarian Nurseries jacketre a parent, you have entertained a fantasy about running away from it all. What happens when you decide to take a break from parenting and family life without properly informing all the parties involved? The Barbarian Nurseries by Hector Tobar examines this question through a lens of class and culture in southern California when the mistakes of one family become front-page tabloid news. Inexplicably left alone with Scott and Maureen's two boys, live-in maid Araceli takes them on a journey to Los Angeles which changes all their lives forever.

As all parents learn, the miseries of parenting are relative. We welcome new parents into the club without bothering to haze them, because we know the children will haze all the new members for us. (You know you are on the relative-misery scale when you are happy you only had to get up with a baby two times last night instead of three or four.) As a parent reading Jim Gaffigan's book Dad Is Fat , the first thing I thougDad is Fat bookjacketht was at least I don't have five kids under the age of eight. In a two-bedroom apartment in New York. That guy is up a certain creek without a certain piece of necessary boating equipment.

But of course, he is not. He is another parenting voice in the wilderness, proclaiming how our kids are our frustrating and adorable crucibles, slowly and painfully refining us into better, if more exhausted, people. We know there are good answers out there and maybe we can come up with them if only someone will let us take a nap. Because this is due tomorrow. And I need a costume.

"Mom! I had a scary dream and now there's a scary noise!" (This from the child who sleeps with a giant plush albino python named Night Demon, aka Deathy.)
 
The clock reads 3:33 a.m. as I blearily think of horror movies and hope the walls aren't oozing. In Child the Younger's room, I sit next to his bed and prepare to activate my supermom extrasensory bat hearing to detect the noise. It turns out I can hear it just fine, no bats necessary. It is high-pitched and repeats steadily, something between a squeak and a wheeze. Sort of what I imagine a bat might sound like, drunk and asleep in front of a tiny bat television.
 
The noise is originating from the large cage in the hallway which houses our three pet rats. The Girls (as we refer to them collectively) are piled together inside their fleecy hammock, asleep.
 
They are snoring.
 
Blerg! I have all manner of Liz Lemon expletives for them as I reach in and gently jostle their bed to interrupt the noise. They poke their little faces out in my direction and blink their sleepy eyes at me, showily yawning in a ratty version of "What the what?"
 
By the hammer of Thor, after all this middle-of-the-night waking and yawning and walls that are decidedly not oozing (thank Thor), we all deserve some good movies that will not inspire another sleepless night. Something to wake us up, pick us up, make us believe in a future with much stronger coffee but not so strong as to induce nasty heart palpitations. Here are the movies of dreams gone right and wrong that have earned my attention lately:
 
First Position: Six serious young ballet dancers from five continents participate in the Youth America Grand Prix, a prestigious competition that could transform their lives overnight. Follow the progress of some amazing and talented children and teens as they compete with eyes wide open for places in the high-stakes international world of professional ballet. Even if you don't care one bit about ballet, the stories of these dedicated kids and their families will mesmerize you.
 
Mariachi High: This program documents a year in the life of Mariachi Halcon, a top-ranked competitive high school mariachi band in the rural ranching town of Zapata, Texas. These passionate teens and their devoted teacher will make you want to cheer as they pursue excellence and find strength in themselves and each other.
 
The Queen of Versailles: The riches to rags story of a billionaire and his wife seeking to build the largest house in the United States until the economic downturn flips the family fortune. Show up for the schadenfreude, stay tuned for the unexpected bits of compassion and insight that lend a surprising balance to what should be (and, yes, mostly is) an unmitigated train wreck of greed.
 
Dream away.

I finished reading my first novel of 2013 and I'm pretty proud of myself. (I won't bother confessing how much of the reading took place in 2012. Just be happy for me.) It's quite of feat for someone who lately gets to read a maximum two pages before being called to referee a fight over the last of the Nutella, or to star in the latest episode of Mom Cleans Up Cat Barf--Again!, or to read to someone before they go to bed. Child the Younger is learning to read, so bedtime stories have lately strayed from a variety of fun picture books to Green Eggs and Ham for the twenty-ninth time. I heartily endorse reading this loudly and with a British accent (think overwrought Shakespearean monologue) if you don't mind a small child pummeling you with his Ninja Fists of Annoyance as you do this. I promise, you too, will marvel at the wonder of green eggs and ham. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. And you can eat them here or there.

The novel I managed to finish is State of Wonder  by Ann Patchett.  It was that gift that every fiction reader hopes for - characters made real in an unforgettable story with luminous writing.  Marina Singh is a pharmaceutical researcher sent from Minnesota to Brazil and into the depths of the Amazon rain forest. Her mission is to uncover the fate of her research partner, Anders Eckman, and a team of drug-developing scientists led by Marina's former mentor, Annick Swenson, who has been largely uncommunicative with the drug company for two years. It is a story filled with poison arrows, devouring snakes, lost luggage and scientific miracles. Marina's journey into the jungle is one of finding herself and facing our collective human dilemma: how to co-exist with both unimaginable beauty and unfathomable loss. The plot is a seductive and wildly entertaining fever dream and the ending may haunt you for days. I have just checked out the audio CD to listen to while I do dishes at night because I cannot bear to leave the story behind just yet.
 
In that same amazing realm of biology, I would recommend the NOVA program Kings of Camouflage. This exploration of cuttlefish was absolutely fascinating, especially if you are already appreciative of cephalopods with the intelligence and dexterity to, say, unscrew the lid of that almost empty jar of Nutella you recently confiscated from your children and plan to scrape clean with your own tentacles while watching the premier of Downton Abbey after said children are asleep. Cuttlefish have enormous brains the shape of a donut, green blood, and the highest intelligence of any invertebrate. They flawlessly mimic their surroundings with the color and texture of their skin in seconds. Watch them hypnotize their prey, think their way through laboratory mazes, and attempt to match the artificial background of a checkerboard. 
 
Wonderful.

Pages