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“Should Waylon Have Two Mommies?”

Six-thirty comes early when you go to bed at two.

Last night, my wife’s heavy metal band played to a packed house of head-banging lezzies. Of course we had to go out for triumphant post-show pancakes. Now it’s my turn to take our son to school, and I’m feeling decidedly less celebratory.

butchcounty

Photo Credit: John Leach

On the clock radio, an NPR announcer is explaining, for the umpteen billionth time, about credit default swaps. I think I understand: as a mother, I’m always struggling to balance love, work, creativity, and the mundane obligations of domestic life. I know the temptation of a little creative accounting. Right now, I’m trying to leverage the possibility that I might know the location of my son’s shoes for ten more minutes of sleep.

blue_hair_selfieI roll out of bed, start the coffee, and search the living room for my hat. Blue hair seemed like a great idea when I was plotting to be the belle of the freak fest, but this morning I have to walk the gauntlet of parents between the car and the door of my son’s kindergarten class. Four hours of sleep have not prepared me to make small talk with PTA peeps.

After the drop off, I call the dentist’s office and reschedule my son’s appointment. I tell them Waylon has the flu, which is a lie; I don’t want to pay the $25 cancellation fee. I feel a tiny tickle of remorse for not prioritizing dental hygiene, but I have to get some writing done today. If I don’t, maternal martyrdom will inevitably lead to greater crimes and grander regrets.

Earnest Hemingway wrote 500 words a day. Once Papa reached the magic number, he was free to drink, fuck, visit Gertrude Stein, whatever. I was immediately drawn to this measure of creative productivity. It’s a humane yardstick for when to say “enough” and move on. Once Mama hits 500 words, I’m free to do all the other shit I have to do.

At 468 words, I stop to put the dishes in the dishwasher. As I’m bending down to pour detergent in the little trough, my gaze hovers for a moment at the baseboard, where layers of congealed dust are threatening to become fur. I don’t allow myself to intervene, even though I recently read a study that found a positive correlation between an orderly home and childhood literacy. The authors asked mothers to rank their homes on the “Chaos, Hubbub, and Order Scale”–an instrument that I had previously imagined to exist only in the sadistic arsenal of my superego.

Intellectually, I consider this study ludicrous, its biases completely transparent. However, now that the “Chaos, Hubbub, and Order Scale” has been confirmed to exist outside my mind, its Victorian standard keeps coming back to haunt me. “What about the child?” it whispers as I walk past the mountain of unfolded laundry. Waylon’s blue eyes seem to plead from every dust bunny.

I don’t want to succumb to a full-blown domestic project, so I escape upstairs to check on my wife, Katy. She’s still in bed, totally spent from last night’s show. The blinds are drawn, and the floor is littered with cough drop wrappers. I sit on the side of the bed and try to stroke her brow, but she recoils. It’s as if rock-n-roll has flayed her skin and exposed raw nerves. Attempts at conversation elicit pained grimaces and a few faint moans. Then she pulls the covers over her head and goes back to sleep.

CaptureI’m frustrated and self-conscious. When Waylon was born, Katy’s hometown paper ran a front-page story titled “SHOULD WAYLON HAVE TWO MOMMIES?” Although I am generally not in favor of public referendums on my family, on a day like today, when I’m cancelling pediatric dental appointments and Katy is in a musically-induced coma, my mind tends to compose its own headline: “SHOULD SLOVENLY ARTISTIC TYPES HAVE BABIES?”

I have to remind myself that performance consumes energy in violent, catastrophic bursts rather than moderate daily units. Around here, the impact is brief, albeit extreme. In a couple of days, Katy will be taking Waylon to school and loading the dishes while I’m holed up in my room, trying to churn out 500 words.

Since grocery shopping is usually Katy’s chore, tonight’s dinner will be take-out. I grab some tacos on the way home from work. As we unpack the food from greasy paper bags, we discuss the big news from kindergarten: Waylon got his conduct card changed from green to yellow for kissing Tina in the reading loft. In Waylon’s recounting of the story, it’s Joseph who was really at fault, for “telling everybody.”

“Who else have you kissed?” Katy asks.

“Oh…just Joe, and Charlie…and Frank.” A few minutes later, I get a text from Frank’s mom: “Rumor has it that Waylon got in trouble for kissing Tina. LOL.” I contemplate telling her that Tina’s not the only one, but decide to wait until after she babysits for me next weekend.

We eat dessert in the back yard; Waylon takes a bite of ice cream, swallows, runs to the playscape, climbs the latter, jumps to the trapeze, swings around 180°, and then comes back to the picnic table for another bite. His path is cluttered with plastic toys and garden tools. All the junk Katy shoveled out of the car in order to transport equipment to the rock show last night is jumbled in a trash bag on the doorstep. The bag might sit there a week or even a month before its contents are missed and sorted.

Surveying our disorderly domain, I force myself to focus on the bright side of that study about childhood reading and household order: at least one of the questions on the Chaos, Hubbub, and Order Scale asked about a regular bedtime routine. In my optimistic moments, I choose to interpret routine as ritual. I can’t promise Waylon cleanliness, but I can promise him ritual.

7:30 is story time. Waylon snuggles against me in the bed, and we take turns reading to each other. After that, Katy leads the bedtime song, a customized version of “The Farmer in the Dell.” In this version, the wife takes a wife and all kinds of strange pairings ensue: a block with a Lego, a horse with a worm, and (in a nod to E.B. White) a pig with a spider.

The song has to end the same way every night, or else Waylon won’t go to sleep. The spider takes the cheese. And then there’s a Freddie Merucury-style chant:

“Hi-ho the derry-o, the spider takes the cheese and makes a holey-wolly, holey-wolly, hole, hole, hole.”

Holey-wolly, holey-wolly, hole, hole, whole.marfasheetsThis post was originally posted under the title “The Chaos, Hubbub and Order Scale.”

P.S. A lot of people have asked for a link to the original “Should Waylon Have Two Mommies” article.

Butch County photo by John Leach of johnleachphoto.com. Used with permission.


Days of Shirley Jackson

I remember the day I became obsessed with Shirley Jackson.

Photo credit: Laurence Jackson, Shirley’s son

It was summer, I had a deadline, and I was supposed to be watching my six-year-old son and his friend. In an act of desperation, I googled “wifi” and “bounce house” and we embarked for Let’s Go Bananas!—a dark and dusty warehouse filled with listing inflatable landscapes. I propped my laptop on a picnic table that was usually reserved for birthday parties. Every five minutes or so, I unfolded my legs from a pint-size plastic chair and checked to see if the ambient screams were emanating from one of my charges. In this manner, I managed to produce perhaps 200 words (half a page) in two hours.

Around this time, a friend loaned me two collections of Jackson’s domestic memoirs: Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons.* In these tales, which first appeared in magazines like Good Housekeeping and Women’s Day, Jackson creates a glib and distant fantasy of family life. She always seems to be stirring a pudding, sewing costumes for the school play, beating dust from the curtains, and attending little league games—all while observing her four children with a wry yet loving eye.

A casual reader of Life Among the Savages might assume that Jackson’s husband, literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, was the sole writer in the family’s book-lined study. The word “typewriter” appears only once, and it is identified as “father’s typewriter.” Jackson’s stories might as well have appeared on the doorstep like milk bottles, for she certainly never discusses her work habits. You would never guess that she published six novels, two memoirs, a play, and scads of critically acclaimed short stories in the years while her children were still very young.

Because Miss Jackson wrote so frequently about ghosts and witches and magic, it was said that she used a broomstick for a pen. But the fact was that she used a typewriter–and then only after she had completed her household chores.

New York Times, 1965 (obituary)

Jackson has been on my mind again lately. It’s summer, I’m freelancing, my now nine-year-old son is skulking around the house, and I haven’t worked on my personal writing in more than a month. My wife, the therapist, gets to leave the house every day and no one can call her in the middle of a session to complain that they’ve lost the batteries for the wii remote.** I’m here with the kid and the dogs and the dirty dishes, and I have the sensation of needing to do ten things at once and doing a little bit of everything a little bit badly.

To top it all off, we’re really broke right now. We’ve been amassing the paperwork to apply for a home equity loan, and I had to explain my work history to a 25-year-old loan officer in matching Banana Republic career separates.

“I was working part-time because I was, uh…” Oh for heaven’s sake, just say it. “I-was-trying-to-write-a-book.” The loan officer regards me impassively. Her baby doe eyes can neither confirm nor deny the validity of my literary ambitions.

Image

The view from our dirty windows. Yes, that’s a Halloween decoration from last fall.

Later, I notice that she has simply entered “homemaker” as my profession.

This tickles me to no end. I wish that she could see my home—the piles of unfolded laundry, the tumbleweeds of dust and dog hair, the brown sludge at the bottom of the refrigerator drawers. If anything, I’ve become more resistant to household chores since I’ve started working from home. And the irony is even sweeter because I have been supporting myself by writing chatty copy about seasonal veggies, home-canning and other domestic pursuits (this despite the fact that my son only eats toaster waffles, dino-nuggets, Granny Smith apples (regardless of season), pizza, bean tacos, and California rolls.)

“She learned early that the special breed known as the housewife-mother-writer must make important choices and firm decisions. If she looked up from her typewriter and noticed that the windows were dirty, she did not get up and wash them.”

–Lenemaja Friedman, Shirley Jackson (1975)

There isn’t a really great biography of Jackson, but there is a compulsively readable one: Judy Oppenheimer’s Private Demons: The Life of Shirley Jackson. Oppenheimer is overly given to psychologizing—except in the moments when one might crave it the most. (For instance, when Jackson develops a debilitating writer’s block after a critic suggests that her novels feature lesbian themes…)

There’s a particular moment in Private Demons that I cherish: Jackson is invited to speak at a writer’s conference, and her daughters have been farmed out to neighbor women for the weekend. “Without premeditation,” Oppenheimer recounts, “each woman, in response to an irrepressible urge, immediately grabbed the little girl left to her, and dumped her into the bathtub to wash her hair.” It’s almost as if their hair has never been combed before, one of the neighbors recalls. The matted snarls are so intractable that the girls end up with haircuts. Then Shirley comes home, and she’s pissed, because she thinks the other moms are trying to show her up by cleaning her kids.

In citing this story, I’m not indulging in schadenfreude; I’m in awe of Jackson as a writer and as the “housewife-writer-mother” who managed to look away from dirty hair and dirty windows. I am continually reproached by dirt and disorder. I can’t help it; I come from a lineage of repressed artists and impeccable housekeepers. At my grandmother’s memorial, every single testimonial included a reference to her legendary cleanliness. My mother likened her mom’s spotless refrigerator to a still life.

Oppenheimer describes Jackson’s frequent letters to her parents, in which she depicts herself as a “mature, well-organized, serene housewife and mother.” I imagine the letters as rough drafts for the domestic memoirs—fictional feats in which feminine expectations are deftly transformed into a commodity to support her unorthodox life and writing.

“Her letters were her revenge,” says her son, and I’m struck by the warmth and empathy that the Jackson children seem to harbor towards their mom—despite the snarled and dirty hair. It’s a sharp contrast to my paranoid fantasies of my son’s future. I tend to imagine him on a therapist’s couch. “She was always tyyyyping,” he complains. “She made me toast my own Eggo.

***

Earlier this summer, The Atlantic published a much-discussed article by Anne-Marie Slaughter titled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” (Nothing sells magazines like a disillusioned feminist.) Personally, I can’t remember the last time I worried about having it all. I am usually too focused on staying sane for the next fifteen minutes.

My recipe for sanity has many ingredients: writing, exercise, activism, sex, family, friends, dresses. I need to make money and care for my loved ones and keep my personal space clean enough that it doesn’t interfere with any of the aforementioned items. On a given day, I’m lucky if I manage to juggle three of these priorities. Usually it’s writing that falls to the very bottom of the list, until I begin to feel pent up and frustrated and then it pushes back to the top.

In the summertime, it’s even harder to keep all the balls in the air. I’ve been lucky to have lots of paying jobs, but they’ve come right at the moment when I had hoped to spend more quality time with Waylon. We’ve had several visits from family, and I always seem to watch them approach through dirty windows.

Can’t wait for fall.

=====================================

*I suppose that the title “Life Among the Savages” is partly a Romantic reference to childhood and partly an ironic reference to Jackson’s white, Christian neighbors. I imagine that the publishers were eager to capitalize on the fame of “The Lottery” and Jackson’s reputation as an observer of small-town New England mores. My paperback copy of Life has a picture of a white woman posed between a white child in an African mask and a white child in a Native American headdress, which may also be a reference to husband Stanley’s writing about African folk traditions and African American literature. I can’t help wondering what Shirley’s friend Ralph Ellison had to say about the title and the cover (see Ellison’s “Slip the Yolk, Change the Joke,” which is a response to Hyman and a meditation on masks and archetypes.)

**In all fairness, Katy tried to talk me out of working from home with Waylon. I believe her professional prediction was something like “it will drive you crazy.”


The Chaos, Hubbub and Order Scale

6:30 comes early when you go to bed at 2. Last night, my wife’s heavy metal band played to a packed house of head-banging lezzies. Of course we had to go out for triumphant post-show pancakes. Now it’s my turn to take our son to school, and I’m feeling decidedly less celebratory.

On the clock radio, an NPR announcer is explaining, for the umpteen billionth time, about credit default swaps. I think I understand: as a mother, I’m always struggling to balance love, work, creativity, and the mundane obligations of domestic life. I know the temptation of a little creative accounting. Right now, I’m trying to leverage the possibility that I might know the location of my son’s shoes for ten more minutes of sleep.

I roll out of bed, start the coffee, and search the living room for my hat. Blue hair seemed like a great idea when I was plotting to be the belle of the freak fest, but this morning I have to walk the gauntlet of parents between the car and the door of my son’s kindergarten class. Four hours of sleep have not prepared me to make small talk about my hairdo with friendly straight people.

After the drop off, I call the dentist’s office and reschedule my son’s appointment. I tell them Waylon has the flu, which is a lie; I don’t want to pay the $25 cancellation fee. I feel a tiny tickle of remorse for not prioritizing dental hygiene, but I have to get some writing done today. If I don’t, maternal martyrdom will inevitably lead to greater crimes and grander regrets.

Earnest Hemingway wrote 500 words a day. Once Papa reached the magic number, he was free to drink, fuck, visit Gertrude Stein, whatever. I was immediately drawn to this measure of creative productivity. It’s a humane yardstick for when to say “enough” and move on. Once Mama hits 500 words, I’m free to do all the other shit I have to do.

At 468 words, I stop to put the dishes in the dishwasher. As I’m bending down to pour detergent in the little trough, my gaze hovers for a moment at the baseboard, where layers of congealed dust are threatening to become fur. I don’t allow myself to intervene, even though I recently read a study that found a positive correlation between an orderly home and childhood literacy. The authors asked mothers to rank their homes on the “Chaos, Hubbub, and Order Scale”–an instrument that I had previously imagined to exist only in the sadistic arsenal of my superego.

Intellectually, I consider this study ludicrous, its biases completely transparent. However, now that the “Chaos, Hubbub, and Order Scale” has been confirmed to exist outside my mind, its Victorian standard keeps coming back to haunt me. “What about the child?” it whispers as I walk past the mountain of unfolded laundry. Waylon’s blue eyes seem to plead from every dust bunny.

I don’t want to succumb to a full-blown domestic project, so I escape upstairs to check on my wife, Katy. She’s still in bed, totally spent from last night’s show. The blinds are drawn, and the floor is littered with cough drop wrappers. I sit on the side of the bed and try to stroke her brow, but she recoils. It’s as if rock-n-roll has flayed her skin and exposed raw nerves. Attempts at conversation elicit pained grimaces and a few faint moans. Then she pulls the covers over her head and goes back to sleep.

I’m frustrated and self-conscious. When Waylon was born, Katy’s hometown paper ran a front-page story titled “SHOULD WAYLON HAVE TWO MOMMIES?” Although I am generally not in favor of public referendums on my family, on a day like today, when I’m cancelling pediatric dental appointments and Katy is in a musically-induced coma, my mind tends to compose its own headline: “SHOULD SLOVENLY ARTISTIC TYPES HAVE BABIES?”

I have to remind myself that performance consumes energy in violent, catastrophic bursts rather than moderate daily units. Around here, the impact is brief, albeit extreme. In a couple of days, Katy will be taking Waylon to school and loading the dishes while I’m holed up in my room, trying to churn out 500 words.

Since grocery shopping is usually Katy’s chore, tonight’s dinner will be take-out. I grab some tacos on the way home from work. As we unpack the food from greasy paper bags, we discuss the big news from kindergarten: Waylon got his conduct card changed from green to yellow for kissing Tina in the reading loft. In Waylon’s recounting of the story, it’s Joseph who was really at fault, for “telling everybody.”

“Who else have you kissed?” Katy asks.

“Oh…just Joe, and Charlie…and Frank.” A few minutes later, I get a text from Frank’s mom: “Rumor has it that Waylon got in trouble for kissing Tina. LOL.” I contemplate telling her that Tina’s not the only one, but decide to wait until after she babysits for me next weekend.

We eat dessert in the back yard; Waylon takes a bite of ice cream, swallows, runs to the playscape, climbs the latter, jumps to the trapeze, swings around 180°, and then comes back to the picnic table for another bite. His path is cluttered with plastic toys and garden tools. All the junk Katy shoveled out of the car in order to transport equipment to the rock show last night is jumbled in a trash bag on the doorstep. The bag might sit there a week or even a month before its contents are missed and sorted.

Surveying our disorderly domain, I force myself to focus on the bright side of that study about childhood reading and household order: at least one of the questions on the Chaos, Hubbub, and Order Scale asked about a regular bedtime routine. In my optimistic moments, I choose to interpret routine as ritual. I can’t promise Waylon cleanliness, but I can promise him ritual.

7:30 is story time. Waylon snuggles against me in the bed, and we take turns reading to each other. After that, Katy leads the bedtime song, a customized version of “The Farmer in the Dell.” In this version, the wife takes a wife and all kinds of strange pairings ensue: a block with a Lego, a horse with a worm, and (in a nod to E.B. White) a pig with a spider.

The song has to end the same way every night, or else Waylon won’t go to sleep. The spider takes the cheese. And then there’s a Freddie Merucury-style chant:

“Hi-ho the derry-o, the spider takes the cheese and makes a holey-wolly, holey-wolly, hole, hole, hole.”

Holey-wolly, holey-wolly, hole, hole, whole.


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