Sunday, March 27, 2011

China Here we Come

Manuel is in China for seventeen days doing reconnaissance for our summer trip. It probably shouldn’t be a surprise that pulling this off makes a research trip to Rome look like child’s play. Manuel buoyantly explained to me that the house comes with daily cleaning. He knows I fantasize about a daily cleaner. He then announced in a rather soft voice that it also comes with water. (as in water is an add on) There was also a nice morning when he sent an email that basically said, “if you hear about an earth quake don’t worry we are fine.” It took some serious Google chops to ascertain that he was referring an earthquake in Burma with after shocks in southern Yunnan. I finally found it mentioned on an Irish site. He assures me that it’s not especially seismically active where we’re going and that there are no nuclear reactors near by. Those of you who know my husband will know that he was one of the first foreigners in the jungle of Indonesia and that he specializes in remote. His trick is to take complicated lab instruments into the wilderness, tree canopy etc. It’s all very macho and scientifically impressive. And it leaves me unconvinced that he’s going to keep me in the style I’ve become accustomed to.

To start the family prep I first need to write an official letter to the school asking permission to take the kids out of school. When I spoke to the city home/school counselor (truant officer) to get myself out of trouble for Jonathan’s absences I didn’t have the guts to say “by the way we’re about to yank them for the last five weeks of school” The kids have embraced the idea of me home schooling them while we are there and already demanded an hour of recess a day. I also need to talk to a travel nurse at the Pediatricians office about vaccines and meds. We need enough antibiotics, allergy and asthma cocktails to get us through three months. In terms of my own medical needs; I’m assured that there will be plenty of beverages to reproduce my wine/beer/ and cognac habits. I look forward to going through security with a hefty supply of antibiotics, epipens, inhalers, and a few steroids for good measure.

Meanwhile I’m on day eight of seventeen of single parenting and so far so good. Skype and Google phone make this whole business 100 times easier than it would have been even five years ago. We can talk on the phone a couple of times a day for free even during an earthquake. And I purchased a ludicrously expensive soothing ginger bubble bath at Origins which I’ve been using almost every night. There was one rough when the kids got rowdy. I yelled at them and took a way a variety of privileges. (both gestures were completely ineffectual) The result was they disowned me and asked “Does anyone know what’s wrong with that woman.” My parents thankfully came to provide some back up this weekend. I couldn’t quite figure out how to get babysitting to run a ten-mile race at 7:15 in the morning and go to an Orchestra concert at 8 in the evening. Among other activities we made a pilgrimage to the cowboy boot store where I had to inform my boys that they could under no circumstances have a little rebels belt.

The ten-miler was despite my dire predictions fun and not a disaster. It’s a great community event. Though between the earlier start time and cold weather the spectators and bands were less present this year. I woke up with the sense that paying $35 to run 10 miles in the cold and dark at 7:15 in the morning was really dumb. But as it turned out despite cold weather and being a little under trained I ran it faster than I ever had before, with a respectable 1:17 (7:42 miles). Charlottesville as a town is addicted to running. Our first winter here I announced to Manuel that I was pretty sure I’d won my division of the ten miler (women over 35 nursing babies under six months old). He shot that down with a “not in cville you didn’t.” Today I’m pretty sore; walking up and down stairs hurts. And during the singing part of Sunday School it was pretty easy to identify the moms who had run the ten miler—we were all getting up off the floor with a little more drama and a little less grace than usual. But may I also say that it’s pretty impressive look around a room full of school aged kids and note at least six moms in their 30’s and 40s with multiple kids who had run a ten mile race the day before. After all our people have not for the most part stood out for their athletic accomplishments.

Monday, March 21, 2011

the 90th Birthday Soire

I have to admit that when my Mom came up with the idea of a big party for my grandmothers ninetieth birthday I thought it was a wretched idea. I thought about the inconvenience of traipsing up to New York City on a weekday and the impossibility of bringing the children. This feeling was enhanced by sabbatical panic mode with a theme song of “sabbatical bites the dust…” running through my head as I contemplate a summer in a part of China I’d never heard of until last year. I also had cynical visions of a Woody Allen style macabre rehearsal for a funeral. Such grim locutions are not unfamiliar in our family; suffice it to say I’ve been fulfilling dying wishes of my grandfather for at least twenty years now; they’ve included art lessons for Rebecca, getting married, finishing a book, reading some bizarre scientific studies of pediatric endocrine problems and the list goes on….. And I understand others have been at this particular project for even longer.

It’s true that my grandmother has always loved parties, spent many a late night out at various cabaret clubs, and told us that the St Patrick’s day parade was all for her. But still, she and my grandfather are the last man and woman standing from their generation and have no living relatives or friends from their cohort. I call the frequently and most of the time my grandmother asks why I don’t call more often and doesn’t know who I am. Although she got down on the floor and played with my twins when they were babies she usually doesn’t remember I have them these days. And now if we go outside it involves me pushing a wheel chair. My grandfather is very deaf, refuses to wear a hearing aid, demands intellectual conversation, and tells lude jokes. It’s hard to discuss Plato with someone who can’t hear. A year ago I made some sticky papers to flash at him with things like “Behave Yourself,” “not funny,” “Leave her alone,” “Yes Republicans suck” “Yes the medical system has gone down the tubes.” He is also prone to tantrums and unlike Jonathan he cannot simply be picked up and moved to a different room. My grandparents, who were movie star gorgeous in their youth are spared none of the physical indignities of old age; the same goes for those who spend time with them. So the event had the potential to be a grim affair. That my grandmother didn’t know who her sons or granddaughters were the day before, and that my grandfather woke up the morning of the party announcing he was not leaving the apartment was not a ominous beginning.

But I was completely and totally wrong. And my mother was right. My grandmother’s three children six of her eight nephews, four of five granddaughters, a few spawn of cousins, and two of my mothers oldest friends all converged wearing green. (one friend abstained from the green theme reminding us that we are all Jews and we don’t observe that holiday) The cousins clearly had a great time together and spent a good seventeen minutes recreating a picture of them with their grandparents taken in about 1955. As children they all had really big ears but I’m happy to say they’ve all grown into those Beckerman ears. I'm also glad that none of us in the next generation seem inherited them. They all spent an enormous amount of time together and went to camp together growing up—a closeness my sister and I always envied. Our generation is scattered in location and age.

The best thing about it was that my grandmother did come back to the same astral plane as the rest of us for the evening. She’s completely blind so couldn’t recognize anyone but once she knew the name and heard the voice she knew who they were, whose kid they were, and who their siblings were. She chatted everyone up and sat kind of diva like in her chair every so often beckoning for some nephew or other. The next day, I got a full report on all her nephews, the shrimp appetizer and even the presents. And there were no patriarchal eruptions from his majesty the grandfather. In fact despite a long life of antisocial malaise he seemed to enjoy himself. I wore a dress that my grandmother had worn to her birthday we think 60 years or so ago. On cousin remembered her wearing it and it supposedly had something to do with a reward for a third child. It’s painted silk with little green birds on it and is way prissier than anything I’d ever wear. It fits perfectly which suggests that she must have been my size—although a good deal sexier. I’m pretty sure no one ever called her cute. It also reminds me how glad we should all be about that 2% of spandex in everything fitted these days. So my mom was correct the party was a great idea and I’m really glad everyone made the trip from Virginia, Chicago, Vermont, LA, New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts. We should do it more often.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Birth Day

I’m on the train to my grandmothers ninetieth birthday in New York City. The best present I ever gave her was probably her first great grand children. And when they were born she was hip and with it enough to come out to Port Jeff and meet them. My grandfather was still able to explain to the NICU how business ought to be done.

Our immediate family unit has finally recovered from last weekend’s birthday madness, which included cupcakes at school, a birthday dinner for six kids and eight adults at my parents house, a bar mitzvah, and a roller skating birthday party for fourteen Sunday afternoon. After years of making what felt like six cakes I made zippo this time and my mom actually did the honors of the birthday dinner. (thanks mom)

The birthday party has always been an event that required much negotiating, usually some tantrums, and plenty of advil for the parents. After two sessions of free Sunday roller skating the kids decided that was their dream party. On Sat and Sun the city turns the rec center basket-ball court into a roller rink including the skates with four wheels and cheezie music. The whole operation is free including the cheetoes. The original itinerary involved a roller skating play based on a book series called Warriors; Jonathan’s current addiction. They also had planned boys against girl’s derby style races. (Neither of them can really skate) The d├ęcor at home was glittery silver and gold. Jonathan was so wired he literally could not keep his feet on the ground and Rebecca was busy putting together an outfit that involved black and white leggings, a mod sheath dress and lime green cowboy boots. At the rink, the first excitement was getting roller skates on 14 kids while the rec center ladies looked slightly terrified. Thankfully one other Dad and two of my students whom my children ADORE had agreed to help. At least half the kids immediately seemed to loose all muscle and bone which resulted in a gumby splat. One was so kamakazi that we were all sure he would break every bone in his body and I’d have to explain to his parents why he was in traction. We never get through a birthday party without Rebecca having a complete meltdown. This time she had two. The first was because Jonathan “pushed” her roller skating. It’s unclear to me whether he actually did—he’s capable of the impulse but has no control on skates so he could easily have pushed by accident. In any case she collapsed on the court in a fit of tears prompting the girls to go into a sort of teeny supportive huddle and one of the boys to offer to take Jonathan out for her. Manuel was meanwhile generous enough to take Eli away and fetch the ice cream cake, which allowed him to miss the walk home with FOURTEEN 7-9 year olds. I went into bossy mode and explained all of the rules—which they mostly ignored. But they did all make it back safely in time for a lord of the flies afternoon in the backyard. The adults hung out on the deck panopticon style saying things like “no stix, no you can not tie her up, no you can not go in the house, etc…..” Some of the kids had a pretty good racket of tattling going and at one point I threatened to put all fourteen of them in time out. Rebecca at that point had her second melt down explaining that the boys had RUINED it.

Shortly after the party I took to my bed, thinking I had a dose of birthday fatigue. It turned out to be a 24-hour stomach bug. This impeccable timing left Manuel with a horrendous bed time—not only did he have post birthday hysteria but it was the night after daylight savings time. Since Rebecca had already had two giant meltdowns she was relatively under control. Jonathan had about a 75-minutes tantrum, which I’m told involved a sort of break dancing fling out of the bed and other impressive physical feats. Rebecca moved to the guest room, which caused even more screaming. And Eli could not "sweep" because Jonathan was making too much noise. Manuel pointed out that the other reason he could not “sweep” involved the kids running around his room shooting droids and stopping to sit at his desk and do some work.

Saturday, March 12, 2011


On Thursday night while the kids were running around the house like whirling dervishes it dawned on me that the classroom cupcakes had not been attended to. This involves no less than FIVE DOZEN cupcakes and was complicated by the fact that Manuel was already out of town; and thus the household was without a driver. Thankfully Harris Teeter had just that many sitting around and my friend Johanna was kind enough to procure said cupcakes. Despite the fact that I happen to know she had about 80 million other things to do it seemed somehow fitting. The kids call her, Jomama. When they were babies she came over at around 11 each night to help us with feeding and catch some West Wing reruns. Feeding two babies was for a while a three person job involving nursing, pumping, bottles, puking etc…. Jonathan’s routine was suck-suck-sleep and Rebecca’s was suck-suck-scream. Johanna also carried Jonathan, whom she now teaches violin, in a baby bjorn on the beach in Port Jefferson. And for the friendship coup she was a part of a Ecology and Evolution speaker reception from hell (at least for me). The ludicrous pediatrician had prescribed the kids each a different cocktail of steroid nebulizers. Let’s just say that one year old twins, little glass vials that have to be cracked, two nebulizers, and two 30 something viola players in a room is kind of crack house meets romper room…

That evening combined with Manuel’s facebook post made me think a lot this weekend about what a collective project these children have been. Manuel wrote that “8 years ago today. back when Dr. Quirk was the MAN in our life and the CVS was (literally) under our feet. I think of the people who carried the four of us through those first days-weeks: Joyce, Richard, Pam, Chris, Sergio, Isabel, Jomama, and the others whom I can't recall: Thanks.” Rebecca and Jonathan were our miracle babies and they were a collective project for our friends and families. Here’s just a few things I remember from those early weeks. Some of the people who were so important in those times are barely a part of our lives any more but every so often I still think about them. I’m going to leave aside for a moment our families including my immediate family not because they don’t matter but because I could never do it justice. It is impossible to imagine these kids without my parents and my sister—all three of whom did all the hard labor normally reserved just for parents, middle of the night feedings, doctors visits etc…

It is not an exaggeration to say that we owe our babies to Dr. Quirk; while I was pregnant I saw more of him that I saw of most of my friends and I have never had a better doctor. The nurse Laura was equally heroic…

I realized in thinking about 2003 that while I was on bed rest or had newborn twins my friends Kirsten, Katie, Monique and Sarah all came to stay with us and help us out.

The number of friends who came at just the right moment is staggering; Martha M with gourmet sandwiches all the time who named Jonathan bug-eyes, Ann and Gary who came to see the babies almost every day and quickly became our number one stop on any forey out of the house, Sara who treated them like they were her own….. We even had their bris/naming ceremony at her house. Lilly who was a new mom with me….

Tammy Slobodkin appeared somewhat magically with a bassinette that had belonged to her 50 year old twins. It was the night we took one look at those tiny things in the crib and decided it was way too big for them! They shared it for almost three months.

Sister Mary, whoever she is, prayed for Rebecca in the NICU. I usually feel very uncomfortable when people say “I’ll pray for you” But we were pretty happy about the card on Rebecca’s NICU bed.

There were of course plenty who came at the wrong time who will go unmentioned. But note to friends of twin parents or preemies; do not complain about the trials of diaper rash or come to visit on the day of vaccinations and extoll the virtues of exclusively breast-feeding to moms of kids born without suck swallow reflexes. If you are going to scream every time a tiny-reflux-baby pukes do not come and visit. And if you have a junior colleague with a new baby don’t make them go to un-necessary meeting if they are on “medical leave.” The there is a special place in hell for the Neo-Natal resident who made the mistake of explaining to me in a monotone that my 12 hour old baby probably had either cystic fibrosis, a missing intestine, or some other horrible thing I’d never heard of. But I digress….

Manuel’s lab brought us dinner twice a week for almost three months. I’m pretty sure that was Isabel’s initiative. And it was perfect…

The woman who worked in the Port Jefferson Starbucks gave me free skin latte’s about once a week just because my kids were cute!

Courtney gave me almost everything I needed for twins.

And I could go on and on and on……

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Sabbatical Myth

My last leave was an NEH fellowship, supposedly to finish a book. As it turned out, in part because my previous institution would not actually allow me to take the fellowship in a timely manner, things got a little complicated. Between applying for the fellowship and taking it we moved and had a third child. Some time around March I wrote an email to my friends explaining the top ten reasons I hadn’t gotten my book done. It included things like the 18 month old had eaten the head off the five year old’s Batman, figuring out a birthday party for the whole preschool class that merged interests in weapons, yoga, princesses, Pharaoh, and knights, being on a search committee, and locating an apartment in Rome that accommodate our family plus my mom who was happy to take care of the kids but not to walk up and down stairs.

So here we are in the second week of March planning a twin birthday party again and once again it is safe to say at this point that short of a miracle there will not be a second book at the end of this leave either. There will be two articles that should have been done on the last leave and a few chapters. The good news is that the b-day party has become much easier. After many complicated negotiations the kids decided on free roller-skating at the rec department followed by a Ben and Jerry’s ice cream cake. This means that mostly these children will not be in our house... (The above mentioned party was truly from hell—think 18 five year olds, a random assortment of younger siblings and a rainy day during which the electricity went out) Despite the seeming lack of twin b-day stress I could very easily write another list about why I haven’t gotten my book done. My list would not be unique and would likely match up pretty closely with that of many other 40-something professors. It would include things like hanging out in the bathroom potty training a recalcitrant four year old, advising graduate and undergraduate students, guest editing journals, picking up tiny Legos from every possible crevice in our house, reading chapters of books and dissertations from junior scholars outside of my own institution, reminding the piano diva to practice not improvise, explaining to the violin diva that you have to put harry potter down to pick up the violin, strep throat, learning to play rock viola, organizing arts and crafts in the housing projects, etc.

The lesson in all of this is that sabbatical is a myth predicated on the model of the single minded academic supported by a staff and a wife. And the bummer in this is that to write a book, at least for me, that kind of focus really matters. I can write an article or a conference paper while doing 10 other things. A sustained project is another matter. But the notion that any of us can simply lock ourselves in an office for nine months and write a book essentially sets us all up for failure. In Music, at least, departments are too small for anyone with a conscience to truly exit. Academic commitments are often made a year or two ahead and move at a glacial pace—that means that when you are in a pre-tenure panic and say yes to every talk, essay collection, and committee that comes your way it can take you five years to finish it all up. And for women, especially, but yes men you have this problem too, families don’t offer sabbaticals. I know I am not alone in spending a good chunk of my “work” day on family business—doctors appointments, finding babysitters, calling the plumber etc…

On the plus side I am incredibly lucky to have a husband who can hold down the fort in my absence and friends with an empty apartment in New York City. This allowed me a week in NYC with no responsibilities and no one to take care of, and I managed to get more work done in five days that I usually do in three weeks. There is absolutely nothing better to a mother of three than an empty apartment and an empty datebook!