Life at Our House

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©DeluxePhotography2012This year I decided to do something different with our Christmas cards (in addition to actually mailing them).

You see, I just couldn’t send out a blank card with our family picture in good faith. It shows you what we look like, (sort of, it’s actually from Christmas 2012) but it doesn’t give you the faintest idea of what we’re like. See how quiet, still, and fully dressed we are? Yeah. That never happens. We cling to this one photo with the idea that we could be like the clean and quiet, fully-dressed people in the photo and you could put a card like this on your refrigerator and be fooled into thinking that we look like this, but really, this photo is a bold-faced lie. True, we do smile a lot, but we’re also a lot stickier, stinkier, and more naked than any Christmas card could (or should) convey.

So I thought I’d have our family answer the 10 questions that James Lipton asks his guests at the end of each episode of Inside the Actors Studio. If you’re a fan, you know that these questions were adapted from Bernard Pivot questionnaire. If you’re not a fan, you can either take my word for it or look it up on Wikipedia. Or you can decide you don’t care. Doesn’t matter. These 10 questions give you an idea what it’s like to be in the Kovac household in 2013 in a way that a family photo cannot.

Here goes.

1. What is your favorite word?
Michael: Yes!
Chiara: My favorite word is Oompa Loompa.
Wagner: (to Janine) Your favorite word is “Mama.”
Chiara: (to Wagner) Your favorite word is “L-o-o-o-v-e and kis-issssses.”
Michael: Can I have another bowl of cereal?
Janine: Let’s go on to the next question.

2. What is your least favorite word?
Chiara: My least favorite word is…that’s really hard. Hey, wait—what are you writing down? Why do you need our favorite words and our least favorite words?
Matt: Kumquat.

3. What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?
Chiara: What does that even mean?
Janine: It means, “what helps you be imaginative and what helps you think of God.”
Chiara: Um… my brain?
Wagner (pointing to the laptop): Are these letters of the alphabet? Is ‘W’ here? ‘W’ is a letter of the alphabet.

4. What turns you off? (Rephrased to: “What makes it hard to be creative?”)
Chiara: (in the doorway from under a blanket) People who are really loud and make it hard [for me] to think with my brain. (to brothers) Come here and be part of the dragon. Chinese New Year! Chinese New Year!
Boys: (chanting under blankets) Chinese New Year! Chinese New Year!
Chiara: Be careful! Don’t step on the kitty!

5. What is your favorite curse word? (Rephrased to “What do you say when you are mad?”)
Michael: Stinky Face!

6. What sound or noise do you love?
At this point Janine is following her children around with a laptop, yelling questions at them. She walks in on a game of “Let’s Pretend to Cook the Cat” in which Wagner is the cat and the guest bed is the oven. Janine decides that she loves the sound of laughing children.

7. What sound or noise do you hate?
The children are still playing their delightful game, but Janine is afraid it might quickly devolve into sounds she hates: children screaming. Mannheim Steamroller’s “Carol of the Bells” is a close second to screaming Kovac children.

8. What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? (“What do you want to be when you grow up?”)
Michael: A fireman!
Chiara: A teacher who teaches ballet!
Wagner: I want to be a arch-ee-ol-oh-gist.
Michael: Yeah, I want to be that, too.

9. What profession would you not like to do?
Chiara: A sea diver! It seems dangerous.
Michael: A fireman!

10. What would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
Chiara: Welcome, Chiara!
Michael: Welcome, Michael!
Wagner: You mean Jesus?
Janine: Yes, Jesus. What do you think Jesus will say when you go to Heaven?
Michael: Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel! I made it out of clay!
Wagner: I don’t know what Jesus will say but I think it will be something not what I think Jesus will say.

That pretty much sums it up. Merry Christmas, everyone. Happy New Year! See you in 2014.

When Daddy Dances

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I danced my last Nutcracker in 1996, but my husband is still performing, year after year, as the Sugarplum Fairy cavalier. He has known some of the ballet students since they were soldiers in the Battle Scene.

Every Saturday from September to December, my husband rehearses and coaches the girls he will dance with. As an extra bonus for me, he takes our children with him. Our daughter Chiara has been attending Nutcracker rehearsals since she was seven months old. She loves it. For the past three years she’s been right beside him onstage.

Her first Nutcracker as a spectator at just under two years old, however, was a little different. By the time she was a year and ten months, she was sitting through two-hour dress rehearsals without incident. So I thought nothing of taking her to an actual performance to see Daddy dance.

As soon as she saw him jete’ onstage at the beginning of the second act she yelled out, “Dadd-deeeeeeeeeeee!!!!!!!!!” Not in a “bravo” kind of voice, but with the voice you use to warn someone that they’re about to be hit by a bus. All the dancers onstage smiled a little harder. One of the candy canes suppressed a giggle.

When Matt made his first exit into the wings, Chiara burst into tears.

“Dadd-deeeeeeeeeeee!!!!!!!!!”

I think she thought he fell off the face of the earth.

“Where Daddy? Where Daddy?” she kept asking. I’d tell her: first there’s the Spanish variation, then Arabian, Chinese, Russian, Merlitons, Mother Ginger, Waltz of the Flowers, and then Daddy.

After the last flower waltzed away, the lights lowered and the soft music of the Sugarplum Fairy pas de deux began to twinkle.

“Dadd-deeeeeeeeeeee!!!!!!!!!” Chiara yelled when she saw her father escort the Sugarplum onto the stage.

“Shhhhhh. . .” from the row in front of us. They were the ushers.

“Da-dddddddeeeeeee!!!!”

An usher hissed at us again.

I scooped my daughter up in my arms made a hasty exit. With the secret toddler ninja wiggle that makes kids both slippery and brick-like, Chiara broke free and ran to the doors leading back into the theatre.

“Da-dddddddeeeeeee!!!!” She pounded her tiny fists on the door, doing her best Brando from Streetcar.

She was even more hysterical there in the foyer, so we went back in.

Even in the dark I could feel the ushers’ steel glares. Would we be asked to leave? It is a kid’s ballet, after all.

Chiara stopped sobbing, but she continued to call out from time to time. On stage my husband gracefully promenaded his lovely partner. He was beaming. He’s dancing for his little girl. Why should we leave?

Every time Chiara called for him, Matt and the Sugarplum smiled a little broader, sharing this inside joke with everyone else in the theatre who had seen our daughter at the front of the rehearsal studio next to the mirrors eating her morning snack and watching her Daddy dance.

Chiara is a fixture at these Saturday rehearsals in the ballet studio, but the real fixture is my husband. If you are a parent of a kid in this show, you know him. He entertained your daughter backstage when she was an angel in the prologue. He taught her how to do finger turns and supported lifts during pas de deux class. And if your kid is a boy, my husband taught him fart jokes. If you are remotely involved with your child’s pre-professional ballet career, you adore my husband. And you probably know Chiara as well.

So if a little girl crying for her daddy is ruining the show for you, maybe you should lighten up.

Which is more or less what I told those ushers.

The Story Behind Violet and Ruby

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Three weeks ago on a lovely Wednesday afternoon, my daughter Violet_and_Ruby_Cover_for_Kindleand I were sitting in a cafe in our neighborhood, doing what we always do on Wednesday afternoons: sip hot chocolate while we finish the homework that’s due the next day. This Wednesday was different because the cafe was buzzing with a boatload of 10 and 11-year-olds with green books that must have been somehow connected to the green bus parked across the street.

It turned out that the bus was a promotional tour bus for Jeff Kinney’s newest book from the middle-grade series Diary of a Wimpy Kid. According to the buzz in the cafe, Jeff Kinney himself was signing copies at the bookstore next door.

Chiara has never read any of the Wimpy Kid books. As a first-grader, those books are little over her head. But of course it didn’t stop her from wanting one. And because I help organize author events in my daytime life, of course I had to indulge her.

“How come the bookstore doesn’t have books written by kids?” Chiara wanted to know as she emerged from the store with her own signed copy.

In retrospect I could have just told her that only professional writers get to be in bookstores, the same way only professional firefighters get to drive the fire trucks. But instead I gave her a brief history of traditional publishing.

“Well, it’s not so easy to publish a book,” I began. Then I listed all the droves of people involved with publishing a book who aren’t directly involved with the writing of said book.

“Then an agent—that’s a person who helps you get your book printed by the companies who print books—talks to a bunch of people. Some say, ‘No, thank you. We already have books about that.’ But maybe one will say, ‘I love that story!’ That person is an editor. And then maybe they’ll look at the book and say, ‘But we think you need to change that one part at the end.’ And then there’s another person who calls up the bookstores and says, ‘Hey! I’ve got this book that I think is really great! Want to have it in your store?’ It takes a lot of work.”

“But you’re publishing a book,” she said. Which was partly true. I’m editing an anthology of essays from my writing group. We intend to self publish.

“Why can’t little kids self-publish?” Chiara wanted to know. I didn’t have a good answer for that one.

And that’s how we found ourselves at the same cafe two days later. I typed while Chiara dictated one of the stories she tells herself at night when she is trying to go to sleep. From time to time I’d ask a question such as “How can a wheelbarrow fit in a backpack?” and she’d clarify (“It folds up, of course!”) Or I’d say, how old is Violet? How do we know? But for the most part, I just typed what she told me to type. Occasionally she’d ask me to read back to her what she’d written. Sometimes she’d even correct my dictation. (“That’s not a period there. I want it to sound really fast.”)

I kept waiting for her to lose interest. But each day she’d say, “Can we work on my book today?” Sometimes she’d even decide to revise. “I don’t think that chapter title tells you what’s going on anymore. I wrote about something else. Can I change it?”

She drew pictures for each chapter. I scanned them into the computer.

“Can I give a copy to my cousins for Christmas?” she wanted to know.

So I went to the website for Amazon’s Create Space and opened an account. We bought an ISBN number ($10). I found a template cover and uploaded a photo from the Create Space library. We even invented our own imprint (Noelle & Noelle) after our middle names. I clicked through the screens, filling in the blanks. And then, voila! We submitted the book. An actual book. 44 pages. For sale on Amazon and everything.

Doesn’t that sound like a great stocking stuffer? Not convinced? Check it out for yourself.

Empathy for the Mompetitor!

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In the most ideal of worlds, I would be able to completely rise above the mompetitions and still feel sisterly toward their participants without any hint of derision or condescension. 

But let’s be honest. They still irk me. However, this post does help.

The competitor of all competitors, the “Mompetitor” is that mother who engages you through a series of questions about your child. And then she one-ups you with the stories of her child’s precocious development. If your baby said his first word at eleven months, hers spoke at nine months. If your daughter was potty-trained by twenty months, hers trained herself at fifteen. If your kid performed at Lincoln Center at age twelve, her kid played Carnegie Hall at age ten.

I’ve met Mompetitors at the park and at the grocery store, but I didn’t expect to meet one in the Newborn Intensive Care Unit during the twins’ hospital stay. However, rather than brag about how her baby was bigger, better, and stronger than mine, this Mompetitor made it a point to emphasize how her baby was sicker and weaker. How many days were we in the hospital? (Ninety.) Her baby was in the hospital longer. How many surgeries did my babies have? (One each.) Hers had more. How many infections? How many blood transfusions? And so on. As if her situation were more serious than mine and therefore warranted more attention.

I found the Mompetitor to be irritating and annoying. Worst of all, I couldn’t shake the notion that really my babies were sicker and weaker. All of a sudden I was sucked into the “mompetition” and the only way I knew how to handle the situation was to walk the other way when I saw her. I could label and validate my feelings of irritation and annoyance, but it didn’t make them go away. And labeling and validating the Mompetitor’s feelings of superiority just made me more irritated and annoyed.

So here’s what I did about it.

Gratitude

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I’m a huge fan of gratitude. So much so that I edited an online gratitude journal for the Greater Good Science Center for the better part of two years. (The journal has now morphed into this cool research project.)

Here’s the original NICU gratitude post:

The nurses at the Newborn Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley knew who I was before I’d even stepped onto the floor. Not because my boys were born at just 25 weeks’ gestation and were the youngest in the NICU. Not because, at 1 pound 12 ounces and 1 pound 9 ounces, my twins were the smallest in the NICU. The nurses in the NICU knew me because of our Aunt Rita.

“Tell your Aunt Rita ‘thank you’ from us,” nurses said to me, over and over as they stopped me in the hall or came by the twins’ hospital room. “What a wonderful person!”

Aunt Rita remembers birthdays and sends thoughtful gifts for no particular reason. She and her husband host a family reunion every summer at their home in the Midwest. know that she’s wonderful and fabulous but I couldn’t figure out how these Berkeley nurses knew that, too.

For the first month of the twins’ lives, they were in such critical condition, that each boy had a nurse standing at his bed side around the clock. The nurses showed me how to take my sons’ temperature (which had to be done every four hours), change their diapers (which were smaller than an iPhone) and touch them without over-stimulating their tiny underdeveloped nervous systems (with one hand resting firmly on the top of the head and the other hand firmly on the soles of their feet—no pats, no strokes, no light brushes).

These were the kind of details I posted in our private blog for family and friends. The day the boys were born I’d recounted brief details of the birth. When Aunt Rita saw the post, she sent a huge edible bouquet to the staff at the NICU. There were stems made of carrot and celery sticks and flower blossoms carved out of pineapples.

“Thank you to the doctors and nurses who are taking care of my nephews,” the card read.

“That bouquet was eaten in about twenty minutes,” one of nurses told me. “Even the kale.”

The metaphors for gratitude belong to a family of “moral accounting” metaphors. We say

we have debt of gratitude or that we pay our thanks. We say, “I owe him a thank-you.” Appreciation is earned. (Incidentally, many of the same metaphors are used for forgiveness: “Iowe him an apology.”) Moral accounting metaphors are often subconsciously used in bribe and reward reasoning, and ideas about sacrifice, guilt, punishment, and judgment of others. Gratitude researcher Robert Emmons would have said that Rita’s thank-you was freely given (one of the kinds of gratitude that makes us feel the happiest, for both the “thanker” and those who are thanked).

Wait, there’s more! It’s all here.