Friday, September 19, 2008


Every September I have this incredible ANTI squirrel urge—instead of wanting to pack away everything for the long winter, I have this insane need to clean out my life, unload baggage and organize. It could be that it’s a corollary to needing to get the winter clothes down from the attic, and I have to sort of finish the project. It could be the sheer terror of being trapped in the house for the next 6 months with all my accumulated STUFF. Whatever the seed of this urge, I go with it.

I was going through drawers and found the old VH-C’s of family vacations when my teen and preteen were very small. In sorting through them to determine which ones to have digitally copied, I found myself in a kind of joyous memory lane. Oh my god, my preteen son as a Prince at two. The video of the chicken pox. These things are priceless.

And there in a forgotten drawer I found my big rocks.

You know the lecture that says your life is like a cleaned out peanut butter jar. Figure out what the big rocks are so you put them in first because if you fill up your life jar with all the minute annoying pebbles of grocery buying and laundry doing you will never be able to fit the big rocks—two small children discovering tidal pools—into the space that’s left.

The big rock in our family is TRAVEL. Getting away from our daily lives and exploring. Being with one another. It is in these times that we find each other. And these last few years it was the first thing we cut when trying to balance the household budget. But whats the point of a house if we don’t know and love who we are living with. We wanted the bigger house to accommodate the bigger family, but I would WAY rather have a shack and vacations than a nice house and stay put.

And I suddenly realize how guilty I am of not making those big rocks a major priority. It is too easy to get caught up in the sand of life as it buries you—the permission slips and where are the ballet slippers and who forgot to pick up milk.

I suppose this is why I am such a dreadful housekeeper. There is just not enough time in my life to read a chapter of Charlotte’s Web to the kids—we are at the part where Charlotte dies and that is going to devastate all of us, and bring us up close and personal to the tenuousness of living---and get the kitchen floor swept and mopped up. I hope my epitaph reads: She lived a wonderful life. She kept a very messy house……

Friday, September 12, 2008


Last week, all the kiddies were at last back at school I could return to my weekly exercise –an art form certain to rapidly grind out my prearthritic hips and shorten the lifespan of my Achilles tendon. This addiction to this exercise form is crazy, and delicious. You see, after three months, I am back in

ballet class.

Two mornings a week, I walk out on my husband.

Yup, I leave him, and the children and our veritable zoo. I pack everybody’s lunch, find my son a weather appropriate outfit and spend 20 minutes finding his glasses, then grab my coffee and walk out the door.

I ABANDON them all.

I am going to ballet class.

At 8 bloody am.

Real ballerinas do NOT go to 8 am class. They go to class every day they can, but at a civilized hour like 10am. Of course, I am not a ballerina.

Now I am a former professional dancer. MODERN dancer. Avant garde modern dancer, the kind that rolls around on the floor clad only in corn starch for an art installation. I never took ballet twice a week during the dozen years I had my own company. I studied with Hanya Holm, one of the founders of American modern dance. I took class five days a week at the Nikolais studio in New York. Ballet was not my cup of tea—the only Nutcracker I was ever involved had me backstage calling cues, and I still don’t know or really care about the difference between Ecartee and Effacee.

But now that I am way over 40, with a desk job, I no longer see the hard lines dividing movement forms. I don’t see the difference between schlepping loads of laundry up and down three flights of stairs in my ramshackle Victorian and doing Stairmaster. So when I found out that a real dance teacher gets up to my health club twice a week at the crack of dawn to teach real dance to a bunch of middle aged women, that was good enough for me. In fact, it’s better than good. It’s my religion.

A few of the women doll up in chiffon skirts or artfully cut tee shirts. Me, I wear Yoga Wear, the black cotton knit stuff that goes from Ballet to office by throwing a sweater on top. I need to do ballet class between carpool set up and a 9:15 standing weekly staff meeting, so everything better multi-task.

We are a motley lot, the Ballet Babes of the early am. The middle aged regulars, and the steady crop of young professionals with an ever evolving bevy of students sprinkled in. This is a ballet class at a health club. There is no dress code. There are jazz shoes and sox and my signature bare feet with wildly colored toenails. I always get there late and have to do plies in the corner and jump in. The combinations are long and complicated. They prevent Alzheimers, dammit. Our abs are soft from baby bearing and office gigs, our minds are slow from humdrum ordinary concerns like grocery lists, but for an hour twice a week, we sweat like prima ballerinas and we strive, oh god we strive, for better turn-out. We know, because the teacher tells us, that Ballet is the new Black. That everyone should and will be doing this.

I check my overcomplicated life at the door and go back to a time in my life where I measured success in how high I could kick my leg. I face my aging self in floor to ceiling mirrors, all the places I have fallen short of ideals exposed. I move forward (and sideward and backward) I try to retain my flexibility. I try to fight gravity and get better. And really, isn’t that what we all should do.

So get moving. Find a ballet class and rediscover what you knew at 7—that everything, including you, is beauty-full at the ballet. It is WAY cheaper than HRT or therapy…….

Living and learning

In keeping with our family theme of more to love and more to feed, we recently took the plunge and offered to host a foreign exchange student for the school year. It was a daunting task and we literally turned our house upside down to make it happen. I was so proud of my kids and their willingness to host a complete stranger. We want to do our part for world peace and understanding. My kids really thought through how to make someone new feel comfortable, and for some of us, the task really pushed us out of our comfort zones and required us to give up some entrenched habits and be mindful. Unfortunately, it did not work out. For some reason we were not a good match--our guest was seeking a Typical American Household, and it was clear from the very start she was not thrilled with our brand of Family. I am not sure what Typical American Family is, and I had a sneaking suspicion that we were not such a construct, but now I know unequivocally that we are not. As a way of working through our pain and grief and sense of failure that it did not work out (being rejected by an exchange student hurts as much as being jilted by a lover) we offer what we wish we had said if we knew then what we know now……

A Brief Introduction to our household.

Welcome to Mildred. That’s the name of our house. The car is named Blue. Our other house, in the country is called DOG HAVEN. Names are carefully chosen for their connotation. In the appendix (and elsewhere on this blog) you will find a more thorough explanation of Mildred and her idiosyncrasies, and there will be sections on Blue and Dog Haven, but here is what you need to know to live happily ever after here with our off-beat family of overachieving artists. We are NOT in ANY way mainstream or Typical. We are charmingly unique. In some places that translates as a little nutty.

1. Mildred is a zoo, since a core value in our family is the sanctity of life. All life. While I really don’t LIKE spiders, flies and bugs, I respect their right to exist. I allowed rats, albeit the kind you can dress up in Barbie clothes, to live with us. My tolerance for life forms also goes for weeds, so our garden is a little overgrown. I completely lack the cold-hearted ruthlessness necessary for good gardens. We adopt lost, abandoned animals with amazing regularity. The children also temporarily adopt toads, snakes, and insects that are unusual. All the pets become beloved members of the family, and if you take some time to know them you will find out they are lovely personalities. We never give up on people or animals who are a little “different”.

2. There are a lot of us here. There are not enough bathrooms for the number of teenagers and allied persons living here most of the time, so bathroom usage during peak hours is limited to 5 minutes unless you are using the smaller ones. I know it seems really awkward, but if you are going to take a two hour bubble bath, you need to announce it to the household in a large voice, and you need to do it in off peak hours. This is kind of communal living and we have to be aware of everyone else. Sometimes this is a bummer. Sometimes it is good preparation for life on a crowded planet.

3. We are a tight knit group that actually shares interests and hobbies like performing in operas, speed skating, soccer, film. We have an extended family of folks you can turn to when you want to strangle someone you live with... We have a schedule that looks like a military maneuver spreadsheet to make sure every member of our rambling group gets to do all the things they want and need to do. We support the development of passions. We do not waste time and we do A LOT. (Some people think too much!) We are always interested in what you are up to and you need to alert central scheduling (that’s Angela) as to your whereabouts and estimated times of arrival, keeping in mind she works for the city so you have to observe curfew and applicable laws regulations and policies. She really wants a clock like Mrs. Weasley in Harry Potter so she just knows where all her family is and that they are safe. Safety is an issue in a diverse community, and some pretty bad things have happened to some members of our family so we know that better safe than sorry is a good operations motto.

4. We love books and movies. We have so many of them we use them as furniture. We keep up on current events. We believe in the arts and a life of the mind. No one would call us intellectuals, not here in the Midwest anyway, but we like smart conversations and good debates. Some of us are brainy nerds.

5. We value experiences over stuff, but we are pack rats. (It is actually genetic, which makes it worse, since a lot of the cool stuff we have we inherited from parents who couldn’t get rid of it either) Mildred is what in the education world is known as an enriched environment. What looks like clutter is actually a museum quality collection of art books and many pieces of primitive art, a costume collection rivaling many theater companies, and enough arts supplies to run a small arts school. And in between all that is clutter. But Central Scheduling would rather take you sailing than clean the house, which after all will just get dirty again.

6. Mildred is old which means things are always breaking on her. We try to look at her good points. We are not rich, so keeping time and gravity at bay sometimes takes a little while. The good news is that it makes you behave very very green.

7. We love a bargain. We are famous for dumpster diving (free) thrift shop and tag sale trolling (really cheap), and hitting the off-beat stores that charge low low prices. This allows us to acquire more cool stuff which is not helping with number 5.

8. We all talk at once. Loudly. This is normal. We actually email each other, if we need to get important information to one another. We are not mind readers. Communicate by any means necessary: email, cell phone, smoke signal, sign language. With this many people and their different ideas, it is important to keep the lines of communication OPEN. Never EVER lie. Someone always catches you. Honesty may be painful but it works. We can all handle it.

8. We love electronics, gadgets and the internet, but house rules say NO SCREENS when the weather is good. We still believe in tasting touching hearing seeing and feeling the world unedited by content developers. We live in an area where weather is too often bad….and what’s more, we value experiences which means you have to get out and have them!

9 We have an extensive social network. We get out, we host parties. We bustle. Someone in this house knows someone who—we are connected.

10. We are tolerant of diversity and special needs. After all, some members of our family have what are often called disabilities. We accommodate quirks to the best of our ability.

11. We are Very Dramatic. Really Dramatic. And Drama always finds us!

12. Everyone tries to connect in the morning—we are not morning people and it takes liberal doses of caffeine to pull off these breakfast free for alls, but it is a huge chance to check in. We NEED to check it. And everyone tries to connect before we go to bed. In between its CRAZY! We attempt to gather for a real old fashioned family dinner on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights.

13. We really love each other, and in the end we are really there for each other. Through thick and thin. And if you live in Mildred and become one of us, that goes for you too.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Welcome to fall!

Fall is here.
In our family we know that fall has arrived, not because the shiny new sneakers are in the locker, or because the fresh pencils and reams of filler paper have arrived. No, at our house we know its fall because we are in an Opera! This year we have kicked off the fall season by being in TWO! We dash downtown eating dinner in traffic not because I am a soccer mom, but because I am a Super Mom—mother and chaperone to the supernumeraries. This is our French Fall as both of my elder children are in operas sung in that language. This year my son gets to play a page to a main character in the opera Manon by Massenet. And my daughter has finally transitioned into adult roles and will be a priestess for The Pearl Fishers, a Bizet bit of exotica. Yes we still have homework, but it’s so much more fun to do it backstage listening to sopranos send chills down your spine or having your entire body surrounded by the sounds of the Lyric chorus than sitting at our kitchen table. The local library does not have crazy genius directors running about barefoot screaming FLUTTER PEOPLE, FLUTTER!!!!!! to distract you from a thorny math problem. Just like commitments to sports, being in Opera makes the kids very efficient by necessity. Opera is not really a kid friendly world, so they are also learning to navigate an environment that demands professionalism from everyone involved. My children have learned so much at the Lyric: how everyone from the supers to the wig folks to the makeup people are all an integral part of making the show happen. If anyone is out or fails to do their job well, it ripples through the whole operation. I wish I could teach this lesson to my colleagues at my day job!

Why do I devote such a huge chunk of my life to the opera? How can I face a 7 hour day of chaperoning a rehearsal after a week of overtime? One, it keeps my kids away from mind numbing screens and exposes them to a whole bunch of music in a way that allows them to come to love it. Once you have listen to the overture to Barber of Seville twenty times, you need to have that score in your life—it becomes part of your hard wiring. It’s something we do together as a family—and how cool is that! Also, I could be stuck at an ice rink cheering on hockey. Instead, I get to stand backstage after shepherding my charges to their entrances and watch while some of the most talented artists of my time ply their craft. I am telling you, it does not get any better than this. I am most at home in a theater and now my kids are too. Talk about imprinting!

So check us out onstage at the Lyric opera this season where my regular supernumeraries are entering a fantasy world of drama and music.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Summer vacation

I have been away a while. I am back. I was on summer vacation....
Remember summer vacation?
For our family, it was supposed to be a two week togetherness extravaganza to Quebec or the Grand Canyon or some equally memorable place. But school bureaucracies, exorbitant gas costs, and pressing work commitments shortened it to 5 days, a tent, a minivan and two dogs and a very slim budget—can you say canned food?

Here is what I remember:

Never EVER go camping with dogs. Especially not neurotic shelter dogs on anti-anxiety meds. Especially not escape artists with sensitive stomachs. I for one will never forget the quaint town where we stopped for lunch and the dog got diarrhea all over the front seat. Thank god the only store in town was a hardware general store with sanitizing wipes and old fashioned cleaning supplies. Getting dog crap off of your phone charger probably qualifies as a never to be forgotten experience. My children learned several new swear words which they have been practicing. In public.

Never EVER go camping with a snarling teenager. You can only hear I HATE CAMPING four hundred times in a day. On the four hundred and first rendition, you want to run over your child with a backhoe. I have a diva daughter whose idea of camping is spelled H-I-L-T-O-N or S-P-A. Being trapped in a mini van on a camping trip was, in her world, child abuse. She was completely lost without internet access and wandered adorable seaside towns looking for wifi like a junkie looking for a fix.I will always remember wondering what planet she is currently on.

Never EVER go camping with three children who after 4 hours in a car together absolutely hate each other and scream this sotto voce in front of 40 people while hitting each other at a charming village where you are trying to find a lunch spot that serves gluten free meals and SOMETHING vegetarian that does not include cheese or fish and has nothing fried. By the way, in this universe, in the Midwest, this does not exist. You need Dr. Who in his tardis to find an alternative universe where this is an option. I will remember to pack more food in the future.

Never EVER go camping after putting in two months of 12 hour days. You are too tired to think straight so you forget essentials like MATCHES to light the fires you need. You can’t remember ENGLISH so you stay stupid things. My son says cute things like “Buy me a piece of paralyzed wood for a souvenir” (He meant petrified, but the idea of a paralyzed tree kept me laughing for days) or how about “The allergy pill is stuck in my sarcophagus (esophagus)”. I said things like “if you take the last cup of coffee I will murder you.” And I said this in front of people who then backed away looking at me funny. They are going to remember me!

Never EVER go camping in a region where rain is a remote possibility. The Walmart tent WILL leak and after four hours in wet clothes you can feel your flesh mold. Who cares if the plants and farms need it—when you camp, water from the sky is your enemy.

Pie saved us. Cherry pie from a farm stand that melted in your mouth and was so good you cried. It made you think of all that is good about summer, and sand and rolling hills and sunny skies. We drove 50 miles out of the way with $4 a gallon gas to buy another one because pie really could save us. There was also an apricot that was the epitome of apricot, and then there were Bubble Gum Plums—I am not making this up, they tasted like bubble gum and I bought them at a farm in Berrien County Michigan. There was a loaf of sourdough bread bought on the side of the road that was everything a loaf of bread should be and we ate it in 5 minutes flat groaning with pleasure, except for the gluten free celiac who looked at me with death in his eyes and made me promise to take him to the Gluten free bakery when we got home so he could experience joy in a loaf of bread TOO.

We ate fudge on Mackinac Island, collected Petoskey stones which now litter the bottom of my mini van, swam in a NEW great lake, Lake Huron which was clear with a muddy bottom, saw the Bridge that is featured in the graphic on our license plate and got enough sand in my doors to ruin them, and well, we survived. We brought home stories we will tell, and memories.

On the way home we bought a rabbit. An adorable six week old Dutch Bunny from a 4-H’er at the county fair. Because I always need a little more love and one more mouth to feed.