Three months ago
Every Wednesday afternoon, I sit for an hour in the coffee shop next to my daughter’s pottery class. It’s easier than going home and coming back to pick her up. With headphones on, I tweak stories I’m writing, doodling edits in the margins. Once in a while, I allow a stream of consciousness to flow out of my pen with new ideas. Sometimes I just daydream or listen to conversations at nearby tables, getting a glimpse of others’ lives. It’s an exercise I’ve grown to love, sitting there under the glaring fluorescent lights with the scent of donuts and hazelnut coffee heavy in the air.
I have a favorite seat. It faces the busy street, with cars rushing by like background noise. But on this day it was taken. I found another seat, one that faces the parking lot. I like to be near windows. From here, I could see the patrons coming and going. It was mildly distracting.
And then I noticed her. She couldn’t have been much younger than 75 years old. Her white hair was cut short and looked like it had been set a day or two before. She was slight but had a big presence when she walked in. Wearing a large cardigan sweater printed with life-sized cats all around it, she strode over to her table of friends. It was hard not to notice her with all those cats. There must have been at least a dozen encircling her waist.
I figured she must really love cats in order to buy this sweater. Maybe she was a “crazy cat lady” who owned an assortment of other feline themed threads. Did she have cat socks? Were her shelves lined with cat figurines?
Then I thought about how badass you can be at that age because no one thinks twice about what you’re wearing. Whether you love cats or cows or pugs, you can rock that look in a way that says, “I don’t give a shit. I am wearing this because I want to.” And, in turn, a certain amount of societal grace is automatically granted, it seems, to those lovely people. Maybe it’s because they remind us of our grandparents, or maybe we simply understand, on some subconscious level, that they are doing the last of their living in these years and we must respect that. They should be allowed to be comfortable and get joy out of every aspect of living that they can.
How liberating it must be at that age, I thought.
When my hour was up, I closed my notebook and walked out the door, ready to see what my daughter created in class. I left the cat sweater lady behind, chuckling with her friends.
Two Weeks Ago
After that day, I didn’t really ever think about the cat sweater lady again. She soon settled into some dusty corner of my mind, likely to never be remembered by me again, just like the thousands of other anonymous faces I’ve already passed in my lifetime.
But then I borrowed some poetry books from the library. I was coursing through one of them when I stumbled upon this poem, by Charles Reznikoff, a poet that I’d not yet heard of before.
I Was Wearing A Belt Buckle
I was wearing a belt buckle
with the initial of my family name on it
in a cheap design. A friend noticed it
and I said apologetically:
“This was my father’s. He had no taste.”
“Perhaps,” my friend answered gently,
“he wore it because it was a gift.”
I thought about how I do the very same thing—but not often enough I admit—when my daughter makes me a bracelet out of tacky plastic beads and bits of wood cut into flower shapes and hearts that she’s colored with magic marker. Or when she buys me something for $1 from the school fair, like the brassy colored necklace with an angel made of gaudy rhinestones. I wear them because they are gifts given with love.
Then I immediately thought of that woman with the sweater. I wondered whether she was wearing it because someone, maybe her grandchildren, had given it to her because they knew she liked cats. Maybe she was wearing it because she saw them that day, and she knew they’d like to see her in it. For some reason, I liked that idea more.
Copyright (c) 2015 Kristen M. Ploetz
Perimenopausal hormones and last night’s email from the PTO about the upcoming Kindergarten meet-and-greet playdate have got the better of my emotions today, as does M’s sweet commentary on life after we watched Gnomeo & Juliet for the second time in two days, which boiled down to the wonderful essence of an almost 6 year old, “you should be able to love who you love.” Yes. This moment in time, right now, she fully believes in the possibility and magic of fairies and now, gnomes. The movie and some books we’ve read lately have her asking so many questions and pondering it over and over in her mind. This morning, after her decision to opt out of the pony rides they were doing at camp today (it’s not her day to go, but we were invited nonetheless), she wanted to stick close to me and just talk. I think she was still processing the theme of the movie, among other things. After my shower, she wanted me to put on my makeup in my room rather than the bathroom, so she could sit close by. I obliged. These days are limited, after all. Despite her seemingly adult-like observations, and the fact that the pants she chose today are a good two inches shorter on her than when she last wore them in the spring, I was happy to notice that her feet—those sweet little toes—still have a long way to go before they reach the floor. Soundtrack: the breeze of a cool wind blowing in the sumac behind our house and the two-minute rumble of a garbage truck behind our street on an otherwise remarkably silent July morning.
Copyright (c) 2013 Kristen M. Ploetz
It’s the first Monday of Fall — good morning!
M is officially enrolled (and already three hours in) at her new K-Prep school. New school, new routine and new schedule (for all of us). Given the season we’re now in, change is good. What better time to become re-committed to this site, especially now that I think I’ve found a way to keep a happy medium between blogging and maintaining M’s privacy as she grows older. As I mentioned in this post, I’m nervous about the terrain of writing about raising a now five year old daughter while holding tighter to her right to a private life, but some subjects just seem to lend themselves to group discussion in a public sphere…like books!
I’ve reviewed books on here before, and honestly, I could make that a blog in and of itself given how much we all like to read around our house. But I’ve been slacking off, not on the reading, but on the reviewing. Part of that was because we’re now in this new wonderful (and, at times, weird) territory that includes a pre-reader who likes longer stories, but still wants illustrations too. Not quite picture books, not quite chapter books. We have had several misses this summer amidst an occasional hit or two.
Considering where we are at in the reading spectrum, I asked my trusted and seasoned parent friends on Facebook and got some great recommendations–though after reading some of them, they seemed to be a year too early, if only because of the lack of illustrations for most of the titles rather than the quality of the stories. Except for a very small sampling of the Rainbow Magic series, they really weren’t holding her attention–I think we just need to come back to those in a year or two.
But I seem to have really hit the nail on the head last weekend after visiting The Children’s Book Shop in Brookline Village, Massachusetts. If you live within an hour of this book store and have not been, stop right here and go. I mean it — go there. Right now. I’ll wait. It’s small, but I assure you, it does not disappoint.
It’s accessible by T (Green Line) but parking is no problem either on a Sunday afternoon (we went before a show we were catching at the Puppet Showplace Theatre around the corner). The staff there is completely wonderful, knowledgeable and, if I didn’t know better, in cohoots with my credit card company to get me to spend more because of all the truly amazing and spot on recommendations they had.
The salesperson who helped us that day was a wonderful man who happens to also be a children’s librarian during the week and has two daughters of his own. My basic parameters for him were: books that are closer to chapter books but still with lots of illustration and longer stories than picture books. I also told him I was trying to add more stories to her sphere that did not necessarily include having to deal with younger siblings, as many books for this age group seem to, if only because it was not a dynamic she would be experiencing personally. I mentioned that she liked ballet and cats too, but any subject was fine. I got so many great, great recommendations from him, and had we not had to skedaddle out for the show, I would have been able to sift through so much more. I have many to talk about in the coming posts.
But today I’m starting with Mercy Watson To The Rescue, written by Kate DiCamillo (whom also wrote The Tales of Despereaux) and illustrated by Chris Van Dusen. There is a whole website dedicate to the Mercy Watson series–there are six books so far.
Mercy Watson is a pig–a “porcine wonder”–that lives with a couple. She loves buttered toast. It is her love of buttered toast that leads her on some crazy adventures, including in this first book that we read together with many laughs.
The storyline in Mercy Watson To The Rescue, the first in the series, is zany, implausible and obviously one that lends itself to the five year old set, boy or girl. The level and length of dialogue, that sometimes includes up to four or five speakers, is well beyond that which we’ve read in the picture books that we seem to be growing out of. At several points in the story there is a feeling of “what will happen next?!”–a hallmark of good storytellng–whether it be a bed possibly crashing through the ceiling or dealing with a crotchedy neighbor who clearly does not like pigs in the house. And did I mention the fire department shows up?
The book is 68 pages and broken down into twelve chapters of around 4 or 5 pages each, including illustrations, so it can be read all at once in about 10 minutes, or a couple chapters at a time if you only have a few minutes. But with its smaller size and thick paper, it even feels like a book meant for an older pre-reader or early reader, which seems enticing to M at this age. I have not seen them at our local library, but maybe you will be lucky and find them at yours. Either way, I think this is the kind of book and series that is well-deserving of a permanent spot on the home book shelf, and at $5.99 retail (or used at around $3.98, like online at www.betterworldbooks.com) it would hardly break the bank. We are eagerly looking forward to reading the next books in the series!
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars.
Come back next Monday when I will review the first book in the Nate the Great series (by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat).
Much of the reason I started this blog was to release some creative energy. I started it during a time when the only kind of writing I did was purely legal writing, which I loved, but considering how technical it usually had to be, I often felt constrained by the various realities (the facts and the law), editor (my boss) and readers (the judges, opposing counsel) at play. The blog was my way of tapping into a different region of my brain, putting words into print that did not require a second set of eyes. At best, I hoped to create a written record of M’s younger years to alleviate my guilt for never doing anything with the scrapbooking supplies cluttering our spare bedroom, all while forcing myself to test the writing waters in a more public forum.
I wanted to discover whether there really is an inner writer lurking within, or if it was wishful thinking. I can’t really explain it, but there is a part of me that must write every day. If you are a writer too—either professionally or just for fun—you know what I am talking about. Needless to say, I have answered that question in many ways over the past year, but overall the answer seems to be, yes. There is a writer living within.
So I’ve let her out and I’m going to see where she takes me. I’ve been working in earnest on both some nonfiction and fiction pieces. I’ve got a few freelance gigs going, some articles that have been published. I’ve started listing my occupation as “freelance writer” with more comfort in the past few months, and in almost every case have dropped “attorney” as any kind of qualifier (unless it is for a legal writing gig).
But what’s been great about this personal transformation is that it is coinciding with M’s interest in creating stories as well. And, almost by accident, we’ve found a way to do it together and beyond me making alternate endings to her stale book collection.
One day not too long ago, I had taken out a blank piece of paper when we were going to draw. I should probably mention that M’s interest in drawing has been mixed at best. Among her peers, she’s probably on the more rudimentary end of the scale when it comes to drawing people or other familiar objects. She’s always been a minimalist who just likes to put a few scribbles down on a sheet of paper and then describe what it is after she sees what it looks like. She doesn’t draw with much intent, preferring to back into her drawings after they are done. She also lasts all of about 3 minutes drawing with crayons. Paint buys me maybe another 10 minutes of free time, but there’s a lot more prep/clean up time so it’s a wash. Literally a wash. She is not a neat painter.
So after I had taken out the paper she did her standard scribble and said she was done. She said it was a tree and that was that.
Here is where I should probably mention that I am not someone who likes to pretend play with dolls or trains or pretty much anything. This is where my husband wins the parenting award for “Best Household Playmate”. He is great at playing with M for long periods of time. Unless he’s a great actor, he actually enjoys doing it too. He’s so much better than me in this department and you can practically hear M sigh a breath of relief when he comes home at night.
I like doing practical things with her instead. Cooking. Crafts. Gardening. Things that have some sort of tangible end result. I will do anything to avoid more than 5 minutes of pretend play (OK, I’m exaggerating a bit). It’s just who I am. I used to feel guilty about it, but not anymore. We each have our strengths. We each have our weaknesses. The sight of dolls and toy kitchens are my kryptonite, but I’m superwoman with a bag of flour and a kid in an apron.
Anyway, I panicked when I saw M start toward the pile of dolls on the floor for another round of playing “school”. It was only 3PM on a Wednesday. At least three more hours until Dad got home. Noooooo!
Quickly, I added something to the scribble she drew. I was creating a story. Because I can draw (slightly) better than M, she always likes when I draw something for her. I think all kids are like that. But what surprised me is that she then picked the crayon back up and added something else to the drawing. And she drew with intent this time, really trying (and actually succeeding, considering her skill level) to make it realistic. She told me what it was and gave me the next layer of the story. Then she asked me to draw something else on the picture.
We continued on like this for more than hour. One sheet of paper. Many zany ideas.
First, a tree (M). Then a picnic blanket under the tree (me). It starts to rain (M). The picnickers make a run for it (me). Lightning starts a fire (M). Two birds put out the fire with a hose (me). A caterpillar that smokes cigarettes comes on the scene (M). A huge bird arrives that is going to eat everyone (me). A picnicker that smokes (M).
Clearly, this image will come in handy when M is in therapy for pyromania or hypnosis for smoking cessation. It will also help me when I seek art lessons to draw less phallic fire hoses.
But more than that, M and I have found another way to have fun and not be bored to tears in order to do what the other one wants to do. It’s a joint effort that exercises our creative muscles and we get a lot of laughs out of it. Not being formally schooled in creative writing, I consider it on the job training. For M, it’s just being a silly kid. But we’re both happy when it’s time to punch out for dinner.
Copyright (c) 2012 by Kristen M. Ploetz.
About a month after M turned 4, we decided that she was old enough to now occasionally indulge in watching some movies, age-appropriate of course. Up until that point, she had seen a grand total of two movies: The Little Mermaid and Winnie the Pooh while on vacation earlier this summer. Wait, make that three movies — she had also seen a Shirley Temple movie this summer as I was testing out our streaming Netflix options. But that one was definitely more for me than her! I admit it – I got sucked in by those bouncy curls.
Our plan was to allow her to watch one movie every other Sunday. A family movie day if you will. It felt like the right time given her age, the selection of movies that (we feel) are appropriate for her to now watch, and, as a practical matter, because the long, cold winter months are now upon us and she has not yet fully embraced the idea of learning how to snowshoe as a family this year, so I expect there will still be a lot of indoor moments on weekends when the weather is particularly brutal.
And I’ll admit it: there’s certainly also a small part of peer pressure playing into this, because it has become quite clear that she is one of the last kids in her group to have not seen a lot of movies that several of the kids often talk about. I sense that she is somewhat being left out, or at least less than informed, about some of the dramatic play that her peers engage in, if only because she does not know some of the story lines yet. When we can, we’ve read some of the books (at least the ones I can tolerate), but sometimes the movie really IS better than the book.
I did a little research and came up with a decent list of about 20 or so titles that we could explore over time, movies that seemed (at least based on the descriptions and reviews) to be age-appropriate, had good storytelling (rather than just fodder for buying related toys) and that didn’t wade too deeply into themes that we did not want to expose her to just yet. Some of the movies on the list are Disney movies, but most are not. I really just wanted to find a good balance of movies for her to come to love over time. I think it’s harder to find non-Disney movies for preschoolers, but they do seem to exist.
With our list in hand, we figured there would be movies that we could borrow from the library or stream from Netflix, and occasionally buy outright if it was a particularly cherished and oft-watched flick. Oh how naive we were! Our library’s offerings in movies is paltry at best, if you can even get your hands on them. Netflix does not stream that many movies geared towards M’s age, and virtually none of the ones I had on my list. And just to show you how uncool M’s dad and I are when it comes to this kind of thing, we did not know that you can’t just go out and buy a Disney movie if the moment strikes (thanks a lot, Disney, for making me scramble last minute because we could not buy M a copy of The Little Mermaid for her mermaid themed birthday!). All of these forces together almost made me miss the video store.
But luckily, we serendipitously discovered that M’s Auntie MJ has quite a large collection of children’s movies. She graciously let us borrow several movies from her collection.
And, of course, despite the wide range of choices before her, the first one that M wanted to see was Disney’s Cinderella. By now, she had already read at least three different versions of the Cinderella story, one of which was Disney’s. She had been to Storyland in Glen, NH and met Cinderella herself–three times! All of M’s friends had seen it, or at least talked about it a lot and had the clothes and gear to back up their devotion. So it was no big surprise that this was going to be the premiere for our Sunday matinee that would kick off “family movie day”.
Cinderella screening, take one!
M lasted only about 10 minutes into the film before she said she didn’t want to watch it anymore and came up the stairs to tell me (she had been watching it with her dad since I was just getting back from an outing with her Gramma) that she was scared because Lucifer (the cat) was chasing the mice. It upset her. This scene was absent in all versions of the book, so it undoubtedly took her by surprise.
Cinderella screening, take two!
Much to my surprise, M requested another go at Cinderella. She made it through the whole movie this time, but she was certainly visibly upset during the cat-mouse chase scene again, and even more so when the stepsisters tore away at Cinderella’s dress. She also asked me why, unlike one of the non-Disney versions she had read over the summer, Cinderella did not invite the stepsisters to live with her in the castle and marry other sons of the king. That version in particular struck a chord with M because the message was that despite the way the stepsisters had treated Cinderella while growing up, she offered forgiveness and welcomed them to live with her in royalty. We can argue the merits of whether that Cinderella was acting like a doormat or not, but if nothing else I was happy that we had taken the time to read different interpretations of the same story because it at least gives M some room to choose what kinds of stories she wants to read and watch going forward, rather than be forced to adopt the version that mainstream media tells and sells.
Cinderella screening, take three!
Just like books, it seems, preschoolers have a tendency toward repetition with movies too. M definitely appeared more confident about how this story will ultimately shake out now that she knows what to expect and when. She started to ask many questions throughout the movie to confirm whether her hunches were true about the “character” of the characters. It was then that I noticed the shift from ingesting to digesting the themes of the story and this movie, all of which have now surfaced during her pretend play, whether it’s alone with her dolls or when she’s making her dad or me be the “mean stepsisters”.
To my surprise, it wasn’t the prince/Cinderella dynamic that she focused on, at least not these first few go ’rounds. That was the theme that I was actually worried about–this whole idea that a man needs to come in and save you, or that you can fall in love based on a fleeting moment and looks alone. I know, I know, it’s just a story…but this message is undeniably pervasive in some of the media marketed toward girls, and so I am sensitive to how much of it I want M to see at just four years old.
Instead, it was the dynamic between Cinderella and her two not so nice siblings that was the takeaway theme for M. Victim vs. aggressor. Interesting. And what surprised me even more is how M chooses to be the more demure Cinderella when we’re playing with her, yet she will quite adequately portray the harshness of the stepsisters if playing alone. It’s like she doesn’t want to test out that position of power in a real mano a mano scenario, even though it is with someone safe like her parents. Even more interesting. Perhaps she will change the roles and get more comfortable as time goes on, but my gut tells me that there is something about mild-mannered, well-behaved Cinderella that M identifies with more and so she will likely be choosing to play that role more than any other, even though to me it would seem like it would be more fun to play something you’re not.
Considering some minor issues that have been happening recently with one of her fellow (slightly aggressive) classmates at preschool, it is also not surprising to me that she is looking toward this movie for some answers on how to manage always being the “good girl” despite the continued bad behavior that, in her eyes, seems to be tolerated by others. At least the story of Cinderella does a good job of showing that even though you may have to wait patiently a bit, eventually (and hopefully) good will trump evil somewhere down the line. Though it would be nice if Disney could throw in a scene for their next release (which I WILL be ready for!) where Cinderella kicks Drizella and Anastasia’s butts. Just a little bit.
My guess is that she will keep choosing Cinderella as her bi-weekly matinee until she gets bored with it. If she starts gazing out her bedroom window looking for Prince Charming, perhaps we’ll return the movie to Auntie MJ. But for right now, this movie, and the glass slipper, seem to be the right fit for M.
Copyright (c) 2011-2012 by Kristen M. Ploetz. All rights reserved.
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