Benny and his friend Griffin at Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Busy Busy Busy

"I'm busy busy busy and I've got a lot to do,
and I haven't got a minute to explain it all to you …"

Those are the first two lines of a great children's song performed by
Kevin Kline and it describes our lives perfectly for the last two

"… For on SundayMondayTuesday I have people I must see,
and on WednesdayThursdayFriday I'm as busy as can be …"

Busyness, of course, has its own momentum. It's the lack of advance planning that kills me. It's a vicious cycle. Let's take Friday night's birthday party, for example, for Benny's little friend Lily.

Ron and I wanted to bring Lily a songbook and CD called "Philadelphia Chickens" (which contains the "Busy Busy Busy" song, actually). If we'd thought ahead, we would have picked up a copy while touring the Retail Heaven district in South San Francisco last weekend. Piece of cake.

But, of course, we don't think that far ahead. So Ron and I have been dashing out on our lunch hours this week to Financial District bookstores to find something suitable. Pickings were slim. Ron finally went over to the giant Borders on Union Square, where eight copies of the book were stacked near the back. I told Ron he should have stocked up. Benny has 15 classmates and they're all gonna have parties. I can feel it.

"… With the most important meetings and the most important calls,
we have to do so many things and post them on the walls …"

The list just grows. I still don't have a California driver's license. I still don't know my phone number by heart. Benny's preschool needed a form filled out by a pediatrician, which required finding a pediatrician, making an appointment, finding the office, etc. Now I've finally got the damn form, but I keep forgetting to bring it to the

And I just realized we've never washed Benny's nap stuff at preschool. Not once. In Benny's other schools, the staff just stuffed the bulging pillowcase under his cubby. But this school obviously expects parents to be proactive about blankies and sheets, which in our case means they never get washed. God knows what they look like. I'm afraid to find out.

One sad result of all this busyness is that I have limited time with Benny. I take him to school every morning, which is actually nice, because he's a sunny little guy in the morning. Ron picks him up in the afternoon and plays with him while I get dinner going and then the whole bath-story-bed landing cycle begins.

"…And we have to have our lunches,
though we don't have time to chew
and we have order many things in gray and navy blue …"

So I decided to slow things down a little. On Tuesday morning I stuck around the preschool a little bit
instead of dashing off to catch the train. Benny's been a little resistant about going to school lately, not fighting it, but unenthusiastic. I spent a little time watching the kids and chatting with a teacher. She's concerned about two bigger boys in the school, that they're not listening to the teachers, not gentle with the younger kids. Should she talk to the parents? "For Christ's sake yes," I said, trying not to roll my eyes. Certainly that's a better solution than telling the mother of one of the smallest boys in the class.

At 2:30 p.m. on Thursday afternoon, I picked up my backpack, said goodbye to my coworkers, and lit out of work early. As I walked up to the Dinosaur Preschool 30 minutes later, a 66 bus creaked to a stop nearby, and a familiar little face popped through the curtains to see the bus.

Well. The look on Benny's face when he saw me, two hours before the regular pickup, was indescribable. He wasn't in a hurry to leave, though – the children were singing songs while a teacher played the piano, so he zipped back down the stairs to join the fun.

This gave me a chance to corner the preschool's director, in the tiny kitchen. I gave one small hint about "bigger children" and the director immediately pinpointed the two boys and talked about how she would address that. Then I headed down the stairs, where Benny and some other children were performing a little Halloween play. (Benny was the Happy Pumpkin.)

As we walked back to the bus stop, I asked Benny what was his favorite part of the day.

"When you came to my school!" Benny shouted.

I wasn't sure whether to be happy or sad about that. But at least I'd stepped off that busyness treadmill and spent some time concentrating on Benny.

"… Yes, we think there is a reason
to be running neck-and-neck
and it must be quite important —
but if not, well, what the heck."

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Military History Seminar: Here Come the Cannons

Makers of Modern Strategy
From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age
Edited by Peter Paret

These days I'm endangering my spine by carrying around "Makers of Modern Strategy from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age," edited by Peter Paret. It's a weighty collection of essays by about 30 historians and
experts. I knew I was in for it when I opened to the introduction, which began: "Carl von Clausewitz defined strategy as …"

Crap, I thought. I've already done this. I've read Clause's "On War." Don't make me go back!

But the book is actually pretty valuable. Step by step, essay by essay, "Makers" leads us from medieval Europe to the Cold War. I'd just finished two Civil War books (the novel "The Killer Angels" and the nonfiction "Battle Cry of Freedom") and I was looking for someone to explain to me why these Civil War generals did so many crazy
things. If that meant going back to Machiavelli rubbing his greedy little hands together in 16th-century Italy, so be it.

In Mach's time, warfare moved away from knights and castles to guns and armies. The development of gunpowder rendered the knight's armor useless. The new money economy made raising armies much easier. Everyone went on the offensive.

This prompted Mach to write his book, "The Art of War," which harkened back to Roman times, because back then, if anything was Classical, then it must be great. Mach wasn't promoting chariots and bronze swords, but he did like ancient Rome's discipline and use of a citizen militia.

So I'm reading along, and Mach is this great genius, busy "transcending his time" or whatever, and then the essayist Felix Gilbert throws a wrench into the whole thing on page 28.

"However," Felix tells us sternly, "Machiavelli misjudged what was possible and feasible in his own day."

So instead of Mach's notion of a citizen militia, Europe's rulers went on using paid mercenaries for the next two centuries. Mach also didn't consider the rising costs of warfare, since somebody had to pay for those shiny
new cannons. But Felix insists that all subsequent military thought proceeded on the foundations that Mach laid.

And therefore (insert drumbeats here) warfare Enters A New Age. It's always nerve-wracking when that happens. Somebody is bound to get pounded, and probably more efficiently than ever. Mighty thinkers declaim grand ideas; then narrow-minded pinheads do everything totally wrong. Nobody can think clearly about what they're doing, and the next thing you know, some crazed Civil War general is leading an infantry charge up Cemetery Ridge,

But I'm getting ahead of myself, of course. It's time to leave Mach behind and march into the seventeenth century.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

The Cable Car Kooks

So here I am, tapping away in an office every day, bringing in the money for rent and child care and lemon Snapples, and I’m feeling pretty good about it all. But there are those darker moments – we all have those darker moments – where the bus was late and bagel was burnt and that little flip to my hair that looked so flirty in my bathroom mirror looks a little bit stupid now. Oh, the future looks dim indeed.

But wait, a guaranteed pick-me-up is always at hand, in the form of my local online mother’s group. The group shares its name with a famous San Francisco landmark you can probably guess, but let’s call them the Pyramid Popsies or Alcatraz Escapees or whatever.

Now, I’ll admit, I was a little bemused by my Ann Arbor mother’s group. A nice bunch, but a little twitchy. Well, I’ve hit the big time now, because the maternal members of the Trolley Trilobytes have hit a new level of freakiness.

I find myself staring goggle-eyed at the posts on the Yahoo group site. One mother recently received a Pottery Barn cloth pumpkin bag as a gift, with a handle for trick-or-treating and the name "Jayden" embroidered on it. “Unfortunately,” she wrote, “this is not how my son’s name is spelled. If anyone knows a Jayden, I would be happy to mail it to you.”

First I tried to consider all the name’s alternate spellings (Jaiden, Jaeden, Jaydan, Jaeidyan …). Come on, I wanted to write. Your child is two. He can’t read. It’s a pumpkin and he can carry it and that’s all that matters. But then, maybe I can’t judge. Benny’s name on his birthday cake was “Bennie” and I didn’t care, and the sticker on his preschool cubbie says “Beny” and I still don’t care.

Meanwhile, another mother is becoming a bit hysterical about the state of her house. “My floors are being neglected. I am on the lookout for a cleaning lady who agrees to do only the floors,” she writes. This mother is willing to pay $15 an hour to the paragon who can “clean the floors so that they are good enough to eat off of, all the corners as well as the baseboards.” She thinks it would take 3 hours to do a “sparkling job” on a 1,500-square-foot house.

A third mother wants to know if anyone can recommend a great piano player for a dinner party she’s hosting Saturday night. Still another mother wonders if it’s okay to have permanent makeup tattooed to their face while breastfeeding. (I say fine, but put the baby down first.)

Finally, a mother’s 2-year-old is getting bossy and controlling, constantly telling the mom where to sit. If she moves, and he isn’t satisfied that it’s not just the right spot, he makes her move again. She wants to know what we think. “I want to be respectful of his need to control his environment,” she writes. I don’t think she wants to know what I think.

With such great material only a click away, how can I ever feel down? I laugh in the face of balky freelancers and crazy deadlines because I have my Bay Bridge Bananas group.