Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Dataclysm by Christian Rudder

There's a beautiful video circulating the web, one of many, about the dangers of too much technology. Standing in front of a dramatic sunset, a poet warns us that "Technology has made us more selfish and separate than ever" and "connection has gotten no better." He calls Facebook an "anti-social network."

It's another voice in a genre of guilt, a logical backlash to the flood of smart and mobile devices that have taken wealthy and industrialized nations by storm.

The rapper's heart is in the right place, but I get the feeling that his claims arise from truthiness based on anecdote rather than solid evidence. Anecdotes like spotting a mom on her tablet at the park. Or a guy in a restaurant looking at his phone instead of the woman with him.

Who knows if we are actually more selfish and unconnected than we have ever been? How does one measure selfishness? If we look at rates of charitable giving, we are donating more than ever.

Consider the possibility that we all are selfish to different degrees and the new devices are the same as any toys that people have ever used to escape from others. Books, movies, television, video games, the Internet -- they have all been excellent vehicles for escapism and avoidance, as well as for communal pleasure, inspiration and learning.

One of the many things I loved about Christian Rudder's new book Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One Is Looking) (besides the stand-up one-liners and his disarming tone of self-deprecation) is how the mathematician author takes conventional wisdom, like the idea that technology is changing us for the worse, and turns it on its head. And he accomplishes this via a most powerful scientific tool -- the epically enormous flood of digital data. Rudder analyzes a few bits of the countless clicks, Likes, online profiles, Google searches, geographical data, online purchases and other thousands of clues to our inner lives that we leave on the sites we know, love and use.

Not only are his results fascinating, but they shed light on how poor were the prior tools of sociologists - "asking people survey questions or contriving small-scale experiments." Seems no exaggeration to call Dataclysm a sign of a revolution in social science and the way we understand our existence and ourselves.

So back to those conventional ideas that Rudder mythbusts. (Yes, I'm using the verb form of "mythbusters.") One of my favorites is the idea that the Internet is degrading our writing skills. Rudder counters with:

The Internet has many regrettable sides to it, but that's one thing that's always stood it in good stead with me: it's a writer's world. Your life online is mediated through words....No matter what words we use or how we tap out the letters, we're writing to one another more than ever. Even if sometimes dam gerl is all we have to say.

(Pause for a quick laugh.)

Anyboo, I want to write more about how Rudder compares the most common words in the Oxford English Corpus with Twitter and found Twitter concentrates language to be more expressive with less and there's more to write here and more but it's late and I am going to Kansas City tomorrow to see Aunt Ruth who is back in the hospital again with heart pain. So I need to wrap this up and pack and put the kids to bed.

But one more personal note to contradict the negative press about technology, unconnectedness and selfishness. I won't be home for the next few days, but the girls will be safe and sound. Every day after school they are staying with dear neighbors who volunteered to help feed and amuse them, help with homework and soothe their fears. Neighbors who saw one of my posts and volunteered via Facebook. 

You can read more discussions of Dataclysm at From Left to Write on Thursday. I received an advance reader's copy of the book but the opinions here are my own.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014


Because she had a bad day. Because sixth grade can be rough sometimes. Because I sang this song to her when it first came out and she would turn away and roll her eyes but that was more for me while today she needs it like she needed a long hug and a long talk after school. Because the day she was born was the first day of the best part of my life. Because I can't take the hurt away, although I want to, nor can I make eleven year olds make kinder choices.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Easy-Peasy Lemon Squeezy! Meez Meals!


Oy vey, the bane of this Mom's existence.

I do love to cook. And bake! And even grocery shopping doesn't bother me, but under pressure? Every night?

Five o'clock rolls around, the kids are climbing into the cabinets for chips and pretzels. I'm feeling peckish and under the gun and wondering the old Laura Bennet question, "Didn't I feed you yesterday?"


And it's not going out, not takeout, not frozen. It's easy, fast, flexible, healthy DINNER!

Evanston based Meez Meals takes its name from the French cooking term mise en place, or "putting in place," which is the process of organizing, prepping and arranging ingredients before cooking.

The service delivers the fresh ingredients for all the gorgeous and healthy dinners I need every week. Brazilian Farro with Roasted Pineapple. Citrus Risotto with Sweet Potato and Fennel. Baked Shells with Cream Sauce stuffed with Mushrooms and Spinach. Rice Noodles with Thai Barbequed Vegetables. Easily adaptable for picky kid eaters and omnivores.

Meez designs the menu, chops, measures and prepares the fantastic sauces. I saute, broil, bake, steam, mix, put it all together and end up with something delicious in 30 minutes.

AND they do desserts.

AND side salads.

AND the commitment is low. On vacation for a couple of weeks? No problem. Need to change the number of dinners per week or the number of servings? No problem.

Last spring, when I had Variety Show practices every night, Meez seriously saved my life. Seriously.

HERE'S A SPECIAL DEAL! New members get $20 off their first order by using the code TRY20. You're welcome!

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Fifty New Summer Experiences

My friend Julia was wondering via Facebook how to celebrate the last summer of her forties and a friend replied, "Make a list of 49 little things you want to do before summer ends."

What a great idea!

I'm also turning fifty this year (whoot, whoot!) and I've got lots of fun plans for the last few days of summer, but the whole summer has been so lovely so far, I thought I'd try to make my list about all the new experiences I had!

1.  Enjoyed one of the best Summer Nights at Brookfield Zoo! Stilt walkers, magicians, jugglers, bubbles, toddlers dancing to a great live cover band on the green and a guy with handlebar moustache riding a Ye Olde Bicycle with a giant front wheel and tiny back wheel. Oh yeah, animals too! Thanks, Brookfield Zoo!

2.    Camped out overnight in the back yard (thanks for the tent loan, Jennifer!)

3.    Make chocolate chip pancakes (with milk chocolate, not semi-sweet!) on a Thursday morning.

4.    Enjoyed the waffles my nine-year-old made ALL BY HERSELF! (From scratch!)

5.    Biked with the family from Navy Pier to 18th Street Beach.

6.    Suessical the Musical at Navy Pier!

7.    Walked the Wrigley outfield in a Girl Scout parade!

8.    Got caught on TV with Nora at the Sox game shimmying to ACDC's "You Shook Me All Night Long" (for reals!)

9.    Played trampoline dodge ball and loved it.

10.  Kane County Cougars!

11.  Kale salad at hot hot Beatrix. (I passed on their $9 cup of buttered coffee, ha!)

12.  Learned to play the card game Coconut, played countless games with the girls.

13.  Celebrated 14 years of marriage and 18 years of Randy's Optimus partnership.

14.  Celebrated friends Natasha and Kerry's birthdays and...

15.  At Natasha's, made a new friend! Hey, hey, Jeannine! Who partied with me at...

16.  Pitchfork! New appreciation for the rhythmic charms of TuneYards, the stunning stage presence of St. Vincent and the young crowd singing lustily along with every twenty-year old Neutral Milk Hotel song.

TuNeYaRds!! (or a title something like that)

17.  Also at Natasha's fete, discovered Vivian Maier's work and a great film about her discovery.

18.  Rode bikes with the girls to the pool for the first time!

19     Rode bikes with the girls to the beach for the first time! Discovered Artisanal is a great stop to pick up our favorite picnic munchies (fresh baguettes and salted butter, strawberry milk and bananas.)

20.  Moved our lake house party into a closet with family and friends during a thunderstorm warning and tornado watch.

21.  Hongos tacos and horchata milkshake at Antique Taco!

22.  Introduced my visiting 16-year-old niece (or to be technical, my cousin's granddaughter) to the affordable delights of Crossroads Trading Company...

23. Where I found a cute pair of red and white polka dot platform heels!

24. Overcame my initial squeamishness to take the girls and their cousin to Hurricane Harbor, the water park at Six Flags. Surprise! It's clean! With vigilant lifeguards! And no crowds at the end of the day!

25. Shared in the vicarious delights of introducing same 16-year-old to her first trip to Panera, first taxi ride and first attempt at paddle boarding on wavy Lake Michigan! (Thanks for the board loan, Kristen!)

26. Dared to try Taste of Chicago with three girls in tow. Mixed results, but Nora's daddy was able to pick up my overtired little one who didn't quite understand the concept of standing and eating. Tried my first Rainbow Cone!

27. Picked strawberries and raspberries with the girls, sister-in-law Rebecca and niece and nephew Jessica and Dylan.

28. Discovered to my shock and a flush of bittersweet memory that we were driving through Tom Waits' Johnsburg, Illinois on the way to strawberries.

29. Made strawberry ice cream with our Tom Waits berries.

30. Since Mia is at that weird in-between children's and teens sizes (and styles), I tried Plato's Closet consignment and found a couple of XS skirts that fit! #economizing

31. A funny and odd puppet production of Edward Gorey's works at the downtown Loyola art museum. Discovered Gorey lived in Wilmette! And attended middle school on the site of what is now Howard Park, only blocks from out house!

32. Grew my window box flowers from seed instead of dropping hundreds at Chalet for perfect seedlings. #economizing

Nasturtium, Black eyed Susan vine, Marigold

33. A Midsummer Night's Dream in the park! Finally understood the plot, thanks to a crystal clear and very funny production from Chicago Shakespeare Theater.

34. Doughssant at West Town Bakery, yum! The strawberry version of their donut-croissant hybrid is lovely; the s'mores version is an indulgence.

35. Read great books including: All the Light We Cannot See, Eleanor and Park, The One and Only Ivan, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Read a crappy book called California that needed much more work. Joined a book club! (Thanks, Aimee!)

36. Circo Nacional de Puerto Rico and Theater Oobleck in Humboldt Park with Julie on violin and new friends from San Juan. Clowns and orchestra and audience, we were all adrift on an imaginary ocean liner without captain or power, our cruise director growing more disheveled as the tumblers tried to entertain and the growly first mate warned us not to go through THE RED DOOR! A delight at twilight on the soft grass, set to the music of my favorite, Nino Rota. Our favorite moment of the play was when Dave the clarinet player's eight and ten-year-olds were introduced as two of the ship's feral children, complete with fake black eyes and stage blood. They raised their fists and dared anyone to criticize their rough and tumble version of Cinderella, then did some impressive stage fighting until the first mate appeared to separate them. The two little ones turned on him and chased across the grass at which point a kid in the audience  jumped up to join them, followed by the entire front row of kids, screaming. The tiny maniacs ran him off into the bushes, then around back again, the cruise director looked genuinely flummoxed trying to get everyone seated again and the entire play stopped in its tracks as the rest of us roared with laughter.

37. Seven glorious episodes of The Story of Film: An Odyssey.

38. Laughed and giggled at dear old friend Clark clowning in a four-actor production of The 39 Steps.

39. Took Sweetie and Buddy along with Mia and Nora to the Army Navy Surplus on Lincoln for camping equipment. Ooed and ahed over the cardboard helicopter from a production of Miss Saigon.

40. Blaze Pizza! Pizza in 180 seconds!

41. Cheered friend Julie and her rockin' ensemble Girl Group at Wicker Park Fest! Screamed for more after another great set on the dirty streets of Northalsted Market Days. Fell in love with the driving 6/6 time and hypnotic minor key of "Sweet and Tender Romance."

42.  Got big laughs from the crowd when I called for the Fox Lake Girl Scouts to use their Supersoakers on me as their float drove by in the 4th of July parade. They complied, I got soaked and then handed two boxes of Samoas for the trouble. Worth it!

43. Took the girls and Mia's friend camping at Warren Dunes! No electricity except for the charger in my car dashboard. (Thanks for the tent loan, Deweys!) Had a wonderful reunion with dear cousin Sally, who I've missed so much!

44. Cheered Nora drumming and singing! with her two rock bands. "Crazy Train" was the best!

45. Planned a Fey family reunion at the lake for Labor Day weekend!

46. Watched a simulcast of the West End play The Audience in the freaky aluminum explosion that is the Jay Pritzker Pavilion at Millennium Park.

47. Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Ravinia played the music of Lerner and Lowe! Heavenly lawn seats with rented chair and table, soft blanket and snacks, little girls happy to read their comic books while Mommy swooned to the music.

48. Learned to play Mah Jong! Won a couple of rounds! (Thanks, Michele!)

49. Wrote two new and (I hope) funny songs for the 2015 Variety Show.

50. Sneaked in quick visits with dear nieces Maggie, Hilary and Andrea, was completely charmed by Andrea's fiance's little boy Damien.

Whew! I'm exhausted! It's harder work to remember our summer than it was to live it! My takeaway? Deep gratitude for dear friends and family, for our health and good fortune, for the time and energy to be Camp Mommy director for our little girls and more appreciation for the dear teachers who will take over the job next week.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

My Little Women

Let's call this a book review. Let's say we're going to discuss Louisa May Alcott's sweet, old-fashioned novel Little Women, even though I'm going somewhere else, somewhere hard and bad.

The book will be my buffer because the reality still stumps and stuns me, even after all these years. Thirty-eight years this August.

Nancy died.

Nancy, my sister, my constant companion, the girl who was so close to me that the word "friends" could not describe us, my bedroom roommate, the one who read Archie comics next to me among the suitcases and grocery bags and pillows packed in the rear of the station wagon, the child who one summer afternoon disappeared from my view forever with a violent suddenness that still rocks my heart. That little girl? She died.

She was nine and I was eleven and this year my daughters are the same ages.

You would think I'd be lost in reveries this particular summer, wouldn't you? Trying to study Mia and Eleanor, searching for clues about how Nancy and I lived our last summer together, trying to enter a time machine by watching them and imaging that Mia is me and Nora is Nancy.

But I'm not.

There's not much time to reflect in between the busy, happy hours of our staycation summer of 2014, in between the endless card games, the pool and beach afternoons, the street fests and Ravinia and Wrigley and Shakespeare in the park, the day camps and backyard games and bike rides. 

And this summer has been gorgeous, too full of clear sunlight and luminous blue skies for ruminating, the sweet garden scents brought out by the pre-dawn rains distracting me from the past.

Sometimes I'll get a flash of recognition in their passionate arguments, or in their screams of laughter, or inside their quiet and contented parallel work creating a world of Legos on Nora's bedroom rug.  I'll think, I know this.

But they are themselves, not us.

So if I recognize that I can be too tough on Mia when I scold her for fighting with her little sister and if I recognize I can be too coddling of Eleanor because I see a distorted version of my sibling and me in them and if I know I'm acting out of an irrational guilt for not cherishing more the sister that I could never have imagined would leave so soon, well, if I recognize all that, then we'll just have to work on it, won't we? and I've just saved myself a few thousand dollars in psychotherapy charges, haven't I?

The world is too much with me for an extended stay in the backrooms of my mind and Mia and Eleanor are their own people, not replicas, not reincarnations and I am constantly swept back home to NOW, to today because Nora's new braces are KILLLING her mouth and can she have another dose of Children's Motrin and I need to pick up the summer enrichment carpool in eight minutes and isn't the flox blooming in glorious shades this summer?

But anyway, Little Women...

You may call it a coincidence that this is the year that I picked up a copy of Little Women at the toy store and decided to read it again. Or not.

The cover was the thing that caught my eye, a collage of embroidered stitches outlining thematic objects from the story, a cottage, a pile of books, Beth's piano.

The edition is from the new "Penguin Threads" line and on the inside flaps of the cover, you see the underside of the embroidery work, the strange and random lines that underpin the neat sewing patterns on the opposite side. A gorgeous design for a modern day reexamination of the book.

The novel reads so different than when I took it up as a girl. Of course, there are the pleasurable depths added by that awesome Friends episode (intertextuality!) and by Claire Danes' greatest performance EVAH as Beth in the 1994 film (oh, the tears!) but this reader has changed since I first read it and that is what has changed the book.

The arch language, the goo of sentiment, the importance of Scripture for these Civil War gentlewomen, all are so far from our midwestern 1970's childhood. We ran away from squishy emotion, threw limp insults at each other imagining we were as clever as the Bradys, snorted at the lovey-dovey family scenes in Little House on the Prairie and The Waltons.

Now Marmie the mother is my entry point, instead of Jo the headstrong middle daughter. Now the novel's central point, the axis around which all spins, is no longer a romantic love triangle, but the death of the younger sister. Now the overt emotion is a teacher, rather than something from which to run away. The book, its diction and its sentiment is less strange now and I can allow myself to be a vicarious Jo for a while, rather than looking at her from a distance. It is safe in my imagination and ensconced within the act of reading to apply some of Alcott's words to us and to use them as a kind of comfort, in my own secular way:

Seeing (Beth trying to wean herself from the dear old life) did more for Jo than the wisest sermons,  the saintliest hymns, the most fervent prayers that any voice could utter; for, with eyes made clear by many tears, and a heart softened by the tenderest sorrow, she recognized the beauty of her sister's life -- uneventful, unambitious, yet full of the genuine virtues which "smell sweet, and blossom in the dust"; the self-forgetfulness that makes the humblest on earth remembered soonest in heaven...

What a pleasure to read this, dry-eyed and grateful. What hard work to forgive (and forgive again) the child I was who played and teased and helped and walked with and cared for her little sister, but did not say the kind of words of devotion and abiding love that Louisa May Alcott wrote. An irrational thing to hold against myself, I know. But it is all part of the longing that never ends.

Mia and Nora had a fight last week, then made up. I was downstairs and they were upstairs so I missed the whole thing until Nora came down to show me the Lego creation she had fashioned. It was a little platform, supporting a door standing in its frame. The door was elevated on two little blocks so there was a space underneath where the two little Lego girls on either side could slide notes back and forth to each other. The Lego girls were posed bending over toward the door and toward each other, one with brown hair like Mia and like Nancy, the other with blond hair like Nora and like me when I was young.

"Oh, how sweet!" I cried. "Is this what you and Sister were doing upstairs?"

Nora told me how she had locked herself in her room after Mia accidentally kicked her. Mia slid a dry-erase board with an apology under her door and Nora wrote her an acceptance back. I melted  inside and cooed and praised all over the Lego reenactment. I knew by Nora's giggles as she continued to tell the story that the dry-erase board notes eventually degenerated into pictures of bare butts passing clouds of gas and so forth, but such is the love between those two, the immature and perfect love between young sisters.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Children's Film Study 101

It's been a lovely summer so far, full of beaching and bike rides and a backyard campout, but with a few extra rainy days here and there that gave me and the girls empty hours. So in between the enrichment art classes and music lessons, I've started a mini-project to introduce the girls to some classic Hollywood cinema.

By any chance have you ever heard of an actor/director/musician by the name of Charlie Chaplin?

Of course you have. World's most famous silent screen actor, right? But have you SEEN the guy? Not just a Halloween costume imitation, but have you seen this genius move?

Climactic scene of Buster Keaton's The General. This is a real train, on a real trestle by the way.

I always had this snobby preconception that Buster Keaton was the real underrated comic genius of the silent era while Chaplin was the sentimental crowd-pleaser, a sell-out, playing to the crowd. Even after I read his charming autobiography and caught a few scenes of him eating a shoe in film school, I remained immune.

We showed the girls Buster Keaton's The General a while back and of course they were thrilled by the most thrilling of epic chase-adventure-comedies. And since they weren't turned off by the silence and the intertitles, Randy recorded Chaplin's The Kid off Netflix and I watched it with the girls.


Chaplin moves like a dancer on screen, and takes you on a roller coaster ride of emotion. There's plenty of that gooey sentiment that I was so wary of as a irony-worshiping twenty-something, but now as a mother, I've learned to embrace. The little girls next to me yelled with outrage and sympathy as they watched the orphan child being pulled away from his adoptive father, "This is horrible! How can they do that!" and that was good viewer response. These girls don't need a critical eye yet or a lecture about resisting emotional manipulation, right now at nine and eleven years of age, they need to experience the pathos.

There's a jaw-dropping and utterly hilarious moment in The Kid that I find more audacious than anything I've seen from R-rated comedies like This is The End or the Farrelly Brothers or Bridesmaids. Chaplin's Little Tramp finds an abandoned infant and has absurd scene after absurd scene trying to pass the kid on to a nanny, a policeman, anyone who will take the responsibility, without luck. Finally, he sits on the curb with the bundle in his arms and catches sight of a manhole cover in the street beside him. He lifts the cover, looks at the kid in his arms, glances at the audience. It's a riotous moment; you cannot believe what you are seeing. I burst into laughter, gasping to the girls, "That's so terrible! That's so funny!"

We moved on to Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window because my girls had been begging to learn about Hitchcock. My little ghouls LOVED it. Probably the most family-friendly of the Hitchcocks (although I may try The 39 Steps with them soon.) Fun and suspense at a volume that kids can handle. The violence is off-screen and much of the talk about the murder is jokey and light.

John Ford's Stagecoach was a tough sell - there are multiple stories going on and there's lots of talk and much of the language is too archaic. The girls could not understand why hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold Dallas was being thrown out of town by the uptight little old ladies of the "Law and Order League." I had to explain she "had too many boyfriends" but I think the girls could relate to the themes of bullying, hypocrisy and prejudice. This is a film where every glance is loaded with meaning and much of it probably flew over the girls' heads, but who could resist being sucked in by the heart-pounding race across the desert flats as the little stagecoach eludes the Apaches. Breath-taking stunts and emotional investment in the microcosm of society within the coach, especially John Carradine as the mysterious gambler Hatfield.

While Nora was drumming afternoons at rock camp, Mia and I watched the revisionist Western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to contrast with Stagecoach classicism. Mia called the 1969 film "modern" right away during the credit sequence and although she was slow to warm up to the joys of William Goldman's jokey script, she was enthralled by the end. It's Redford and Newman at their most charismatic moment and both of us felt the loss when they dash from their Bolivian hideout to die in the freeze frame of legend.