Lena in

Are you planning to read Lena Dunham’s memoir? I’ll probably wait for the audiobook; that’s been my preferred method for witty female memoir lately. Notables over the past year include (n.b.: I included links to Audible, but to be honest I’ve been borrowing them from the library via these little loaner MP3 players.):

Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake (Anna Quindlen)
Bossypants (Tina Fey)
Wild (Cheryl Strayed)
Let’s Pretend This Never Happened (Jenny Lawson)
The Glass Castle (Jeannette Walls)
Mom & Me & Mom (Maya Angelou)
Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (Mindy Kaling)
I Don’t Know What You Know Me From (Judy Greer)

I was impressed by Dunham’s film, Tiny Furniture (which you can stream on Netflix). I also like her HBO show Girls despite, or maybe because of, its flaws. But before we get into Girls, let’s talk about its obvious predecessor for comparison, Sex and the City. I devoured S&TC in almost one go in my early twenties. This was me at twenty-two: painting rooms in my mom’s old house and propping up her tiny TV/VCR combo on the nearest counter/toilet/stair so I could watch a five-season Blockbuster-rental marathon of S&TC.

Lena in - heirloom mothering
Me, right before we painted that kitchen, probably talking to my new boyfriend Nate on what is definitely my old Garfield phone. Check out those over-plucked eyebrows. As Lena says, “she is looking for it.” Or as Britney says, “I’m not a girl, not yet a woman.”

Does S&TC lack luster in comparison to Girls? By today’s standards, S&TC is certainly less awkward and controversial than we might once have proclaimed it to be (“It’s glossy,” says every person everywhere). You could even argue it was a show by a man in his forties who mansplained a fantastical version of sex as a single woman. But let’s put aside Big’s deus ex machina in the final episode for a moment to consider the series as a whole. I contend it was controversial once, in an edgy, raw, and important way. I loved this critique in The New Yorker. Let’s just say Carrie probably paved the way for Hannah to exist as a character at all.

Whatever the pros and cons of Girls versus S&TC are, I give my own future twenty-something girls a thumb’s up to screen Girls some day (Screen on what is the question…on their phones? their watches? their contact lenses?). Maybe one reason I’m enthusiastic about Girls is I am just so ready to be over all the shows with a whiny male protagonist (Entourage, How I Met Your Mother, Scrubs, Dawson’s Creek, I could go on but you get it) and move on to a show with an honest—albeit yes, whiny—female protagonist. Lena Dunham has just the right mix of intelligence and self-deprecation I love. I agree with Meghan Daum, who wrote in NY Times magazine that Dunham’s “combination of extreme self-reference and extreme lack of vanity feels almost like a supernatural power.” She’s a mashup of Seinfeld‘s Elaine (“You think I have GRACE?!”) and Nora Ephron.

I know, I talk about Nora Ephron, like, A LOT. But I really loved her. She was an important figure in my life, a feminist bellwether, a sharp critic, and a lady every woman I know would have liked to have as a friend. A little over two years after we lost her, I find myself going back to my favorite stories and even my favorite eulogies (NYT’s Gail Collins, and oh yes, who could forget Dunham’s very own tribute in the New Yorker).

Cup of Jo featured a bunch of advice videos Dunham made in tandem with her book’s release, and I think they’re just as splendiferous as Girls, if not more so because they’re from a real girl to other real girls everywhere. Lena Dunham promotes my kind of feminism: the stumbling, unapologetic, earnest kind. If I had to choose between Dunham’s brand of feminism and Sheryl Sandburg’s, I’d pick Lena any day. I like to think Nora would agree.

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on writing, like a mother…

on writing, like a mother... - heirloom mothering
BEF: Bitch Editing Face

This summer I stopped at my dad’s house on our way to Georgia. We all sat down one evening to re-screen The Valkyrie, that Tom Cruise film about a mission within the German army to assassinate Hitler. My youngest sister picked it; she was probably too young when the movie was originally released so had never seen it. As we got comfy on the couch, I noticed a half-finished puzzle on the table in the corner. Dad informed me it had been in that state since Christmas.

Six months! Well, this simply will not do, I thought. I pulled up a chair and assumed the role of Tom Cruise in the puzzle completion mission, finishing just as the movie wrapped up. I love finishing a puzzle—LOVE IT—especially one I didn’t start. I’m like Harvey Keitel, just bring me in when you can’t figure it out, and I’ll get the job done. The trick is not to stand too close to it; up close, you’ll think a piece is missing or the puzzle is somehow flawed. But those standing on the outside, the Closers, can see how the pieces fit together.

When I’m writing, I need to see myself as the Closer to get any writing done. When I push past the fear of inadequacy and the unknown and stop worrying about the big picture, I arrive at the place where real work can be done. I believe it was Nora Ephron’s mother who once said, “Everything is copy,” but Nora and her mother both sold their art short. Everything is only copy if you’re sharp enough to find the story amidst the anecdotes and mundane details. You gotta sort out the corners and stop focusing on all those stupid spade-shaped pieces.

advice on how to get past impostor syndrome and just write like a motherf**ker - heirloom mothering

I love reading about as much as writing. Lately I’ve combined these two loves with volumes on writing. Writing is an anomaly in the working world in that people who do the work sometimes also document the mechanics of what they do. You’re probably not going to meet many plumbers who turn around and say, “You see, the reason I used that vented trap is…”— unless they’re filming an episode of This Old House. But if you’re a writer, you just might enjoy writing about the process of writing. I’m sharing the articles and books I’ve been looking to for inspiration. Some selections have been out a while, and a few others are new pieces. If you have some favorites, please feel free to share them!

A list of helpful books on writing - heirloom mothering

Books & Articles on Writing

Ann Lamott’s Bird by Bird

No doubt you’ve heard of this one by now, if not in popular writing culture than in conversation with me. I love this book so much that despite finishing it many months ago, I still keep it on my nightstand to flip through from time to time. I’m not one to keep a stack of books by my bed (I hide them in my closet, where they can taunt me less). But this book is my security blanket, and a special friend deserves a special place.

William Zinsser’s Writing About Your Life & On Writing Well

“Writers are the custodian of memory.” These books are like if your favorite professor—the grandfatherly one, not the hip one—wrote a long letter of encouragement to you. Easy to read, easy to love.

Stephen King’s On Writing

“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” Amen, brother. Whether you love the horror genre or not, you will love this book. This book is like if your funny uncle–the witty one, not the one who makes inappropriate jokes at the dinner table–wrote a book letting you in on his secrets. It’s open and funny—so funny I found myself laughing out loud almost once per page—and best yet, it gets the salient points across. This man understands his craft.

Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing

Dani is a writer and teacher whose expertise is in memoir, which if you haven’t noticed yet, is my primary topic of interest. I’ve only just gotten my hold copy from the library a few days ago, but so far I love it. I had already drafted the top portion of this post when I got to the place early in her book when she compares writing to a puzzle. YES! I nearly squealed in the gym.

Cheryl Strayed’s “Write Like a Motherfucker” essay (The Rumpus)

I read her memoir Wild and ended up loving it. I say “ended up” because I didn’t start out feeling that way. Wild is about Strayed’s hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, but it’s also about her divorce, her mother’s death, and her troubles with drug addiction. At first, her life decisions made me so mad I could hardly keep reading. Then it occurred to me how infrequently an author is able to rile me up (Cormac McCarthy still holds the top spot in that regard. I’m speaking about the time I threw The Road across a crowded subway car because I just couldn’t hold it in my hand any longer at that moment). I gave Wild a second chance; I laughed, cried, and got mad all the way through it, and it was a lovely experience to have gone on that journey alongside her.

An interview of Strayed (Guernica)

I keep coming back to re-read parts of this interview. I like a writer who gets to the point. Strayed is insightful about the writing process and is one of the most motivational I’ve come across since Anne Lamott (see above). Here’s a passage I like from the interview; it’s a response to a question about finding the time to write when you have other priorities:

I know, it’s maddening! It’s so hard, because you have to make a living, or most of us have to. I certainly had to, and have to still. So it’s really this balance between doing things you have to do because you need the money so you can pay the electric bill, and then doing that thing you really care about, your passion. I’ve done different things over the years.

One of the things I did is I never made excuses for myself when it came to writing. I prioritized writing time. Even if that meant taking risks financially. I’d apply for residencies—places that give you a free place to live and they feed you and sometimes also provide a stipend—and go off and write for these intensive periods of time. That’s why I was a waitress, because the job never meant anything to me, so I could quit. I’d quit my job if I got a residency or a grant and I’d go off and write.

The other thing I did more recently, once I became a mom and my kids were old enough that I could leave them for a short time, is I would just check into a hotel right near our house, you know, like, the Courtyard Marriott a half a mile from my house in Portland. I’d check in for two nights and I’d write more in those forty-eight hours than I would for weeks at home. So just finding all these different creative ways to say, this thing actually matters and we’re gonna do it, and we’re gonna do it whether we have the money or not, or we have two little kids, or whatever it is. And I know it’s hard. I mean, I truly know it’s just plain hard. But do your best. And really actually do your best. Ask yourself: What is the best I can do? And then do that.

What I like so much about that quote, and what I can’t get out of my head, is that she doesn’t accept excuses from herself for not doing the hard work. She just writes and writes, like a motherfucker. Again and again, she comes back to the second beating heart she feels and how she just wants to get it it out of her chest so she can move on with her life. I admire the courage it takes to stop worrying about whether you will publish it and just start writing, REALLY writing. It sounds easy enough, but I completely understand why it was so hard for her. It’s hard for me! Just do your best and Write like a motherfucker are my new mantras.

You are one of a kind, dear Reader, and I mean that literally (N.B. regarding literally: I must tell you my first grader used the word ‘literally’ today, and I think I literally saw the word jump a shark into The Waters of Amazing and Awesome). Really though, sometimes I feel like I’m shouting into the wind with my new writing venture, with only my supportive parents behind me to grip the wind sock. But that’s fine by me. I enjoyed having an audience once (and if you’re not my parents and are reading, thanks!), but I also like the idea of a place where I can yell into the abyss, Zach Braff-style, and see what bounces back.

"On writing, like a mother...", list of books and articles about writing, via heirloom mothering
view from a favorite writing spot in our town coffee shop

Hey, you guys! I wanna be on your team.

In the spirit of trying new things, our six-year-old daughter asked to try a soccer class at the YMCA. She isn’t the most coordinated (she comes by that naturally), so I wasn’t sure how she’d do at soccer. But I figured if nothing else it was an hour that would guarantee me some laughs.

When we arrived on the field, I bent down, gave her a quick hug, and told her I’m rooting for her. I always try to pump my kids up when sending them off to school or a sport by reminding them I’m on their team. I handed her off to the coach and selected a quiet spot back from the sidelines. It was a lovely, crisp, early autumn day in Boston. The coach spent a few minutes getting to know the kids and warming them up. Within a few minutes she was already dividing them up for a game.

At the start of the game, there were a few loud parents, as I had expected. They were the ones who dressed their kid up for the first day in real soccer gear with cleats and jerseys and those shin things…not that there’s anything wrong with that. I’ll admit it, I was a little excited about the loud parents. It was like, Alright here we go. (rubs hands together) Let’s see some action. I’ve been hearing about these people for years, and I was almost regretting my spot in the back where I couldn’t see what was happening at center stage.

My attention was quickly turned back to the field, where my daughter sped around actually kicking the ball. Say whaaaa? She even went up against a boy larger than her and almost scored a goal! Then she did score a goal! For the wrong side, but still! She was so proud and excited, she did a little gig. The spectators sitting near me on benches in the second row all laughed and clapped. I looked over to see a woman who was bent over in a fit of near-hysterical laughter over my girl’s end zone dance. I heard a few “Atta girls” from the sidelines, and I began to relax and join the laughter. It was a total Steve Martin ala Parenthood moment.

I appreciated the camaraderie. Those parents on the sidelines buoyed me up, and I’ve been riding on their shoulders ever since.It was a soccer game, but sometimes a soccer game is more than just a soccer game, you know? There are so many times I feel like I’m being divided from other parents on the basis of weird categories I don’t even understand, and that day it was like we all united, if only for a brief minute, in the hilarity that is pee-wee soccer.

The truth is that I’m not just on the kids’ team; I wanna be on your team too. We’ll call it team “Laugh at our children’s mistakes.” [NB: I’m also team “What’s that shit on the floor of my car?”] We’ll even laugh at our own mistakes! I’m not going to promise I’ll be the best teammate—this morning I paused to note I was scratching my head with a fork while I waited for the leftovers to heat in the microwave—but I will promise to root for you with enthusiasm. And I make a mean celebratory whiskey sour.

After last week’s lesson was over, when I gave our daughter a high-five for effort and asked her how it went, she said, “I regret my choice. I wish I hadn’t signed up for soccer.” Womp womp. A few thoughts simultaneously occurred to me. First, she said ‘regret.’ She is so totally six going on thirteen. My mom wondered, “If she says regret now, what is she going to say when she’s twelve?” Precisely. I have nothing to add to that question, I’m just putting it out there. Second, not wanting to play soccer is how I have felt my entire life, so it seems bizarre that I would push her into the sport given that she at least gave it an A+ effort on her first try.

This week, I asked her to try again.I’d love to be able to wrap this post up with a bang and tell you that we came back for an encore performance. But by the end of the lesson she was clearly not having any fun still. I’ll fast forward a bit to the end and tell you that we let her choose an alternative. Luckily the Y was nice enough to switch our credit to another class. She chose swimming, and I’m happy to report this is a sport she does really love. I can’t wait to see how she improves her ability this year. And if nothing else, I should be able to get some laughs from all those belly flops dive attempts.

I wanna be on your team - heirloom mothering

notes on the {soup +} salad days

My cousins Kate and Sara, on opposite sides of my family and at opposite ends of the country, got engaged in the same week! In my excitement I decided to write them a letter.

salad days - heirloom mothering
Me (right) with my cousins Jeannie & Kate (one of the two betrothed)

How can I tell you about my marriage without sounding like I expect you to follow my advice? I don’t. So let’s begin there. I am not going to tell you how to run your marriage because the only way to do it is the one you carve out. If we can agree on that, then we’ve just about covered what I wanted to divulge.

I married young. I didn’t know that then, and Nate probably knew less about it than I did. How else can you explain a twenty-two year old man trading in his beloved gold Honda for an engagement ring? He may not be a smart man, but he knows what love is. Is that how it goes?

Thing is, Nate is a smart man. I’d like to tell you his intelligence was why I picked him, but in truth, it was his red sideburns. He was different; my kind of different, whatever that was. He sang bits of boy band tunes out loud in a room filled with testosterone. He wore brightly colored shorts. When he laughed, his face turned the hue of the brightest shorts, as though he were both delighted and embarrassed at his own amusement.

notes on early marriage - heirloom mothering
Feast your eyes on the redness of the sideburns.

We celebrate ten years of marriage next month. A decade in (well, thirteen if you count the pre-marital years), he’s still the same guy. We’ve both grown up a lot. He is more kind and I’m more patient, or maybe I’m more kind and he’s more patient. In any case, it works. I think it works mostly because during the occasional flash flood of contempt, we bridge the gap with compassion, acceptance, conversation…and, if I’m being honest and a little crass (close your ears, Grandma), sex. Finding time for sex was probably our biggest post-baby accomplishment. So there you go. Sorry Grandma.

notes on early marriage - heirloom motheirng

I’m not sure I’d alter much about our early marriage. We experimented, and for the most part our experiments produced heady results. Some of our best risk-taking has been with food. We both love to eat, which could explain why our first dates were so good. Put a plate of food in front of me, and I’m going to eat it; odds are I’ll like it too. Nate is the same, only even more so. Your thing doesn’t have to be food, but find something you can share and get to work tinkering.

At the beginning of our marriage, my dad gave us a gift card to Olive Garden with a large sum on it. I can’t remember the exact amount, but I recall it paid for at least ten trips to the restaurant. Given we were a broke grad student and a broke university administrator at the time, we appreciated this gift and our ability to skip an entry into our little blue accounting book. When we needed a pick-me-up, particularly in the bone-cold Wisconsin winter, we’d head over for soup-salad-breadsticks and stuff our faces full.

Our tastes have matured some since the {Olive Garden} salad days, but I treasure that period of our lives. I try to capture my gratitude and hold onto it, even now that we can splurge more. What is that platitude, If you’re not grateful for what you have, what makes you think you’ll be happy with more? It’s something like that. [Speaking of platitudes, have you seen this website where they turn fake platitudes into posters?]

The late summer farmer’s markets in Boston overflow with fresh shelling beans (cranberry beans) and kale, so I decided to try a new recipe as an homage to early marriage. I settled on pasta fagioli, and I’m glad I did. The dish highlights the texture of the fresh beans, and each bite takes me back to the early days. I am grateful for those memories and this husband. Here’s to many more years!

[Notes on the recipe: I tweaked this recipe and am happy with the results. I might add more spice and more meat next time, maybe hot Italian sausage? But this simple version gets the job done. You can easily remove the bacon and substitute water for chicken stock if you’d prefer a vegetarian version. I can’t vouch for what would happen if you remove the cheese and go vegan, though. I froze a big batch for the dead of winter, when we’ll replicate those old frigid Wisconsin days with plenty of frigid Massachusetts days to come.]

pasta fagioli with shelling beans

makes about 2 quarts

Ingredients:

4 pieces of bacon, diced
1 small onion, roughly chopped
1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes
1 tsp. fresh rosemary, finely chopped
5 garlic cloves, smashed and minced
5 whole tomatoes from a can, crushed by hand
salt and pepper to taste (I like to substitute TJ’s 21 seasoning salute for pepper)
2 c. fresh shelling/cranberry beans (3 lb in shell) or 1 c. dried beans, soaked overnight (cannellini can be substituted)
2 bay leaves
2-3 QT. chicken stock
parmesan rind (you can get this cheap at some cheese counters if you don’t have a frozen one on hand), plus 1/2 c. grated
2 c. small pasta (I used cavatelli shells)
1 bunch kale, stems removed & discarded, chopped (Tuscan is very pretty in soup)
1/4 c. fresh parsley, chopped
olive oil

Directions:

1. Saute bacon in Dutch oven over medium heat until the fat has been rendered. Add onion and cook 2 minutes until softened. Add pepper flakes, rosemary, and garlic, and saute 1 minute. Add tomatoes; cook 2 more minutes. Add beans, salt and pepper, 2 qt. chicken stock, bay leaves, and parmesan rind. Cover and bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and cook for approximately 1.5 to 2 hours until the beans are tender.

2. Uncover and remove bay leaves and what’s left of the rind. Bring soup to a boil and add pasta; add more stock as needed. Cook 3 minutes, then add kale and cook 5-6 minutes longer, until the pasta is al dente. Add the remaining stock and/or water if it’s too thick and season to taste.

3. To each bowl of soup, add fresh chopped parsley, grated parmesan, and a drizzle of olive oil. A squeeze of lemon juice is also nice.

summering {+ popsicles}

We lived in Houston for the first few years of my life. Because it never really got cold in Texas, I am not able to tell you the actual season of my first memories. It was warm, I can tell you that much. It was always at least warm, or maybe I just imprinted memories of climate differently as a child. Could my brain have mollified the sweltering, oppressive heat (or likewise the frigid cold) into softer weather? Maybe. Whatever the reason for the warm climatic backdrop, all my happy memories of early childhood have a summery feel to them. Below are a few snippets of those days.

summering {+pops} - heirloom mothering
Evidence that it wasn’t always as warm as my memories would suggest. But note we are still at the beach.

…#1…

I am two-something, I think, which would make it 1982-ish. Mom and I are at a garden (Ours? I don’t know). As she’s weeding, she plucks a beautiful pink orb from in the ground, dusts it off, and takes a bite.The resounding crunch mystifies me. It is a radish, she tells me. I think she is brave to eat it! Her superhero status is elevated further when she picks up a garter snake to show me. She hands me the tiny green creature, which writhes slowly in my hands. It is smoother and less slimy than I imagined, and its powerful tickly slithering makes me laugh.

…#2…

I am in the kitchen with Mom. A record is playing in the background while we finger-paint the kitchen floor. Even at three, I feel this activity is special. I am a conservative kid, not one to make a huge mess. [A few years later I will attach a shimmery butterfly sticker to the VCR, but I’ll honestly believe it improves the look of the hulking gray box.] The idea of painting on the floor is at once both exhilarating and scary. When we’re done, Mom brings out a mop and cleans up the mess quickly while dancing a little jig to the tunes (like it never happened, as Nate is fond of saying). Whether it’s playing jacks with my dad or helping my mom kneed bread dough, I like being in the kitchen.

…#3…

I am with Dad in the driveway. He is building something. There is music playing again, probably the Dead, and he’s singing along. I can hear his voice even over the loud buzz of the circular saw. The sawdust flies toward me and the air fills with the scent of pressure-treated wood. I am holding some nails for him and trying not to drop them because this task feels important. I am a good helper, he tells me. I feel proud.

…#4…

I am enjoying an orange sherbet Flintstones push pop with my grandmother while we walk back from the convenience store up the street. She is asking me to keep up, but I am only half listening. I am lost in a panicked moment of trying to stop the goo from melting onto my hand. I hand it to her to fix, which she does easily. Then she gives it back to me all tidy and right, and she takes my moist, sticky hand in hers for the walk home. I feel loved.

******

Though we were probably fairly poor by modern standards, I never lacked in toys or adventures. Because of that modest start, I am aware that the very best pleasures can be simple and try to give my kids the gift of simple pleasures when I can. Knowing firsthand that a pot and spoon can make great toys, I see anything from a cardboard box to a pile of sticks as the key to a great adventure.

One such adventure–a kitchen project that’s both easy and delicious–is making popsicles (I refuse to capitalize eponyms, despite my spellcheck’s desire to do so). Thanks to Molly of Orangette for reminding me how fun these treats can be to make (and, oh man, now she’s got fudgesicles on my mind). I hope my kids will someday recall the whir of the blender and the smell of the fruit juice with that particular fondness a summer memory can contain.

The geese and changing leaves tell me it is more fall than summer here (except for the sudden spot of humidity yesterday, gah), but I am not yet resigned to decorative gourd season. I will go on making frozen pops until we need to break out the hoodies. Below are two recipes for pops we like, an adult version and a kid version. These recipes will make two and four pops, respectively, which in my family fits our tastes and six-pop Zoku mold perfectly.

Irish Coffee Pops for Grown-Ups (adapted from this recipe)

makes 2 pops

Ingredients:

1/4 c. TJ’s iced coffee concentrate
1/2 c. whole milk
2 Tbs. Bailey’s Irish Cream
sugar as desired

Directions:

Stir together ingredients in a glass measuring cup. Taste and sweeten with sugar as desired. It is sweet enough for our taste as is. Pour into molds. Freeze as directed (6-8 hours, usually).

Fruit Creamsicles for Any Age (adapted from this recipe)

makes 4 pops

Ingredients:

3/4 c. homemade or store-bought fruit juice (we used Trader Joe’s 100% cherry)
3/4 c. whole milk
2 Tbs. heavy cream
2 tsp. sugar
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

Directions:

Stir together ingredients in a glass measuring cup. Pour into molds. Freeze as directed (6-8 hours, usually).