Saturday, January 01, 2011

Days of Auld Lang Syne

Psst, if you're looking for SAM, I'm now blogging over at Memphisotan. I hope you'll all join me over there. Happy new year!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Reading Time With Pickle

I got back to reading this year. After more than half a decade of caring for very small children, I finally worked out a compromise between maternal duties and literary pleasure. (I was going to remark on no longer having any children in diapers, but frankly, that hasn't been especially helpful in this regard.) The list below is what I got through in 2010, in as thorough detail as Goodreads and I could manage.

Manhood for Amateurs, Michael Chabon
American Wife, Curtis Sittenfeld
Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen
Sh*t My Dad Says, Justin Halpern
Dry, Augusten Burroughs
I Am Charlotte Simmons, Tom Wolfe
Wishful Drinking, Carrie Fisher
Tales of the City, Armistead Maupin
The Giant's House: A Romance, Elizabeth McCracken
Case Histories, Kate Atkinson
The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Muriel Barbery
The Night Listener, Armistead Maupin
The Last American Man, Elizabeth Gilbert
Sorrow Floats, Tim Sandlin
Forever, Pete Hamill
Le Divorce, Diane Johnson
Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger, Lee Smith
This Is Where I Leave You, Jonathan Tropper
Everything Changes, Jonathan Tropper
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Mary Ann Shaffer
Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, Charles J. Shields
The Help, Kathryn Stockett
Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modern Bestiary, David Sedaris
On Writing, Stephen King
Little Bee, Chris Cleave
Juliet, Naked, Nick Hornby
Werewolves in Their Youth, Michael Chabon
Sarah's Key, Tatiana de Rosnay
No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, Alexander McCall Smith (most likely; I'm halfway through)

I'm excited for next year's book list to be even longer ... unless I'm too busy writing my own.

Monday, December 20, 2010

O Night Divine

My perception of Christmas has changed since I had a child. I don’t mean in regard to the stress and bustle and increased costs, but my perception of the Christmas story itself. Since I became a mother, I’ve been unable to consider the historical circumstances of Jesus’ birth without letting my thoughts linger on Mary’s story.

I imagine a heavily pregnant young woman – a child, to our modern eyes – traveling on the back of a donkey for ninety miles. It’s a trip that would take days, perhaps even a week or more. I imagine the pain, the swelling, the heat (most historians agree that it was probably not actually winter), the unpredictable swings of hunger and thirst, all experienced on the back of a lumpy, itchy animal. And when the trip finally ended, and her body surely ached for a soft place to lie down and rest, there was nowhere for her to go. The only shelter available was made for livestock. I can’t help thinking that, as well as being stinky and uncomfortable, this option was especially insulting to a young woman already suffering the social stigma of being unmarried and pregnant.

And then, the worst happens. Away from family and caregivers, and perhaps surrounded by said livestock, she goes into labor. There’s no description of her experience in the famous telling by St. Luke, no actual birth story from the world’s most famous birth (somehow I doubt an account by St. Lucille would skip over this part). Although I would probably guess that teenage girls were more familiar with birth in Caesar’s day than ours, I have to believe she was still scared and feeling very alone. This is just assumption, of course, but as something of a minor expert in first-time mothers, I’ve seen a level of universality in this area. No matter the age or race or economic background, every new mother is terrified of what birth will be like, and I have yet to meet one who had any idea what she was going to do afterward. If those fears persist in our comfortable, sanitized, nurse-assisted world, how much more powerful must they have been in a young woman giving birth alone in a barn?

But that, I guess, is another assumption. Perhaps she did have help – a village midwife called out by the guilt-ridden inn-keeper, maybe. And despite all the pageant-driven ideas about that night, I’ve never read anything that actually says there were animals around, or that the stable was in use for that purpose at the time. I know birth wasn’t the fetishized ritual it is in today’s middle-class society, and I’ve heard plenty of historic anecdotes about farm laborers squatting down to birth in the middle of a field.

But still. An unwed girl in a strange town, laboring in a dark, dirty place. Far from family, criticized for her circumstances, and not even a bed to lie in when it was all over.

“O Holy Night” is my very favorite Christmas song, partly because, intentionally or not, I feel it captures both the joy and the frightening unknown of birth. If you replace the word “world” with “mother,” it could describe any woman, at any time, seeing her child for the first time.

Long lay the world
In sin and error pining,
Till He appeared
And the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope,
The weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks
A new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees,
O hear the angel voices!
O night divine,
O night when Christ was born!

Whoever you believe that baby was – a savior, a teacher, a random Jewish boy – the power of Mary’s story holds true. And for me, this season is about the hope and awe inspired by that young mother bravely bringing her son into the world.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

With Every Christmas Card I Write

Dear Friends, Family, and Various Googlers,

It’s Christmas card time again, which for me means taking the time to sit down, reflect over the last year, and feel guilty that I don’t have the street addresses of anyone besides my parents. I so like the idea of sending out cards, but it’s been years since I mustered the time, energy and mailing supplies to do so. I say this not so much as an apology as a plea: if you are among the few valiant luddites who still put an actual stamp on an actual card and drop it in an actual U.S. postal service mailbox, please, please don’t take me off your list. I love getting Christmas cards. Whether you live across the country or in the next ZIP code over, it makes me happy to see your name on an envelope. I like seeing the card you chose to represent your good wishes. I even enjoy reading your year-end summary letter. I think it’s a lovely tradition, and I hope that the dwindling numbers in my card display rack are due to my semi-recent move and not a major drop in holiday correspondents.

With best wishes to you this season and throughout the new year,

The Secret Agent Mom family

Sunday, October 31, 2010

I Can See For Miles

I did it!

Official time: 36:54, which works out to a pace of 11:54 a mile. Which isn’t the best of my training times, but is still faster than I could run a mile during the Presidential Physical Fitness Test when I was fourteen years old, so I consider that a victory in a number of ways.

The race itself was pretty overwhelming. After finding a spot in the far reaches of our second-choice shuttle parking lot, Team Cha Cha decided on an impromptu warm-up walk to the Start line. As we got closer to the course, we could hear music blaring and (mostly female) voices cheering and whooping as the emcee announced that over 19,000 people had registered for the race. I thought the start line didn’t look that crowded, and then realized we were on the wrong side of it; the sea of people flowed down Farmington Rd, ending somewhere far beyond where the street curved out of sight. Team Cha Cha hurried to wriggle into the mass of people, who were all pretty patient with our last-minute cutting-in. We only had a few minutes to adjust our various techie devices before the starting gun fired. I think it fired, anyway. I just felt the throng move, and I moved along with it.

The first quarter-mile or so was a little chaotic, as the real runners tried to break free from the pack and the rest of us constructed a loose pecking order based on speed. Team Cha Cha clustered together for a few minutes until we all found our own rhythm. I fell in with Elizabeth and Shannon, and although I didn’t have the wind to keep up with their conversation, I managed to stay on their pace. I wasn’t sure what to expect at 8:30 in the morning, but there were dozens of houses decorated in support of the race and yard after yard of cheering spectators. Between the race fans, wacky runner costumes, and my enthusiastic teammates, I didn’t even notice the time or distance until we saw the two-mile marker and then blazed right by it.

The race organizers are a little cruel, putting a long, menacing hill right at the end of the course, but I made it past that last hurdle and, had there been a bit more room, would have sprinted to the finish line. It was the longest run I’d completed and I expected to be winded, but instead I felt like I could turn around and do it all over again. It felt so good to have made it so far, not just in the race, but throughout the six weeks before. When I began my training, I struggled to run for a full minute, and there I was, more than three miles of road behind me. I’d been afraid that the huge crowd and varying paces would result in an isolated finish, but RJA and Coach Kristy were along the sidelines of the last stretch and watched as I crossed the line beside two of my teammates.

Of course, the question everyone asked as we ate our celebratory pancake breakfast was, “Are you going to keep running?” And the answer that seemed to shock everyone was, “No, probably not.” I have a friendlier relationship with running than when I started this process, but I still wouldn’t call myself a runner. I begrudgingly respect that it’s cheap and easy, but it’s not an activity I especially enjoy. And moreover, it’s about to become quite impractical, what with the clocks going backwards, the temperatures dropping, and a gym membership non-existent. I don’t like it enough to have it be something I work that hard for.

Which was really the whole point of this endeavor. I put myself through something that was foreign, challenging, and even a little painful for the sole purpose of drawing attention to an issue that is exponentially more foreign, challenging and painful than anything I’ve experienced. And with all credit to the generous impulses of those who followed along, I seem to have done that. Team Cha Cha has raised over $1100* to support breast cancer research and education. It’s hard to explain why I’d just quit running after six weeks of hard work, but to me, those weeks weren’t about becoming a runner. They were about becoming a fundraiser. I didn’t run for me, I ran for a cure for breast cancer. And I hope we’re a few steps closer.

Team Cha Cha!
Back row: Melissa Wolowicz, Toby Long, Richard Alley
Middle row: Liz Schenck Phillips, SAM, Elizabeth Alley, Stacey Greenberg
Front row: Colleen Couch-Smith, Shannon Dixon, (S. A.,) Ashley Harper

*Fundraising for the Midsouth Race for the Cure continues until November 15, 2010. You can still make a donation to Team Cha Cha by visiting:

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Friends To Know And Ways To Grow

When I graduated college with a degree in English Literature, I told myself that I was done analyzing fiction for the rest of my life. As much as I’d enjoyed my studies, I felt that, ultimately, it was a bunch of theoretical blathering. Who were we, a group of barely-not-children, to decide what an author’s work meant or symbolized? I was drawn to studying literature because it was a field with no wrong answers (and a minimal math requirement), but when I got through with it, I felt that interpretation wasn’t close enough to knowledge. In other words, I knew I was clearly not cut out for grad school.

I kept reading, of course; novels from the trade paperback shelves and various memoirs, mostly. My ban on analysis, however, held tight. (Much like my college-borne ban on completing a work of original fiction.) I discovered amazing new authors like Michael Chabon and Lee Smith, added new titles to my list of all-time favorites, but never did I discuss anything but the most technical details of what I’d read. I couldn’t even bring myself to write reviews on

And yet, when Kristy and I were recently invited into two different book clubs within the span of a week (as RJA writes about today), I readily said yes to both. I’m always happy to have an excuse to read, of course, and the promise of a night out of the house sweetened the deal. But I really had no idea if I would have anything to say, or a desire to say anything, about our required reading.

Imagine my surprise when the first book club night arrived and I in fact had a hard time shutting up. It was like a dormant geyser of deconstructionism burst from my head. Not usually the most talkative in any crowd, I think I stunned the groupers who knew me well, and probably made a blustery impression on those who didn’t. I, of course, blamed the wine.

I assumed I’d be more constrained at the next meeting, which, other than Kristy, consisted of neighborhood women I didn’t know at all. Also, I had a Sprite. And yet, when we got into discussion about the book (Kathryn Stockett’s The Help), I couldn’t stop myself. I was drawing connections, discussing motivations, and occasionally disputing the author’s decision to write the book at all. But I will happily say, it wasn’t all about me. The conversation was lively and smart, and I was struck by the sheer pleasure of being among peers and talking for two hours about something other than our jobs or kids. Even if it meant talking about make-believe people’s jobs and kids.

Thinking critically about novels again has made me reflect on my education and the teachers and professors who taught me how to truly read. Their names still stick with me – Professors Appel, Waid, Payne, Epstein, Eprile, and my dear Ms. Jewell – and I think of them collectively as my original book club. I appreciate them even more now than I did while furiously copying their wisdom into my class notes. I wish I could invite them all over to the house to share what they’re reading these days. And, of course, a nice glass of wine.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

That Silver Necklace

I’m sure that most people fall into their interests and hobbies naturally. They live their lives and are drawn toward the activities they enjoy more than others. But what happens when your life is primarily occupied by work and children? It was with this slightly pathetic realization that I went on an active search for a pastime, a search that became especially focused after I decided that I was on a break from all non-blog writing.

I rejected almost every idea that came to me, for one reason or another – too messy, too expensive, too structured, too far away, too dependent on having the merest semblance of a design aesthetic– before I remembered that I’ve always wanted to take a jewelry-making class. My initial hunt for local classes was unsuccessful, though, so I started doing research to see how much I might be able to pick up on my own. Looking through online instructions, I was only slightly overwhelmed, which is the best I can hope for when facing a totally new concept. After three hours in various stores, staring down pliers and beads and findings with a very patient three-year-old, I decided to buy a very basic starter kit from Amazon and a couple tools that weren’t included in the set. The total investment was about $35, which I justified as the cost of replacing one of the necklaces I’d lost in our burglary.

The first night I took out my supplies, I made three pairs of earrings and two bracelets. They were very basic, and quite unintentionally rustic, but there was a marked improvement from one piece to the next. Unlike when I attempted knitting or crochet, which was just one inconsistent mess after the other. Also distinct from my efforts in the fabric arts, jewelry was much easier to understand. There were patterns and instructions for techniques, but for the most part, I could just look at a picture and figure out how to make it. Which was perfect for someone who always got a little nauseous reading instructions like:

Slip st in first ch-1 space; ch 2, * hdc, hdc in same space; [2 hdc in next space] twice; [2 dc, ch 1 for end space, 2 dc] in end space; [2 hdc in next space] 3 times; [hdc, ch 1 for side space, hdc] in next space; repeat from *; slip st in top of ch-2.

It’s also a hobby perfectly suited to my particular defining traits: cheapness, lazy perfectionism, and curiously small monkey fingers. The only thing that concerns me a little is how quickly I picked it up; it feels more like a party trick than an actual skill. But it’s a party trick that ends with new accessories, so, really, who cares?