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

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Marley & Me & Benny

The great thing about long visits to family are the occasional, unexpected pockets of free time. At home, if you have a spare 20 minutes, there are at least 30 to-dos backed up behind your eyeballs ("Oh, I have a chance to change the litter/change the sheets/vaccuum the carpet/fix that weird faucet drip/call the cable people....")

But when you're at a someone's house and lunch isn't for two more hours and it's 15 degrees outside and you're too scared to approach your sister-in-law's psycho 6,000-piece jigsaw puzzle (her latest was simply a pile of glittery and wooden beads with a single thread of blue yarn running through it), you suddenly have nothing to do. The dishes are wiped, the sleeping bags are rolled and you can't wash the stinky laundry in your suitcase because your poor hostess is busy washing the 500 towels her family is using. I suppose a superior guest would root around in the pantry and spontaneously bake up a key-lime pie (what is in key-lime pie anyway?), but I am not that sort.

Well, there's Benny, of course. But the last thing he wants while running around with his cousins getting into trouble is Mom. So I find myself reading kid's books from my neice's room or the region's sad little local newspaper. One family connection tried to get me to read his business book ("Overloaded" or "Overweirded" or something like that) but I'm still recovering from "Who Moved My Cheese?" and that was 10 years ago. So I chat with my relatives and eat another cookie and I'm happy.

Last Monday took the free time thing to a whole new level. I not only had a free 20 minutes, I had a free DAY. A bunch of guys turned up at my brother's house at 9 a.m. to replace the windows and we couldn't be there. So at 9:01 a.m., we were cruising Ann Arbor in our rented Chevy Aveo and life couldn't get any better.

It was still minus-10 or something and I was shivering in my thin San Francisco coat, so we decided to start the excitement at a Bob Evans. Benny brought along his new Army toys (a Christmas gift from Uncle Andy) and created an elaborate military compound on his side of the table, complete with sandbags and itty-bitty fuel drums.

"After this, let's go see a movie," I said.

That presented a problem. Benny doesn't really like kids' movies. "Shrek" freaks him out and a "Cinderella" video sends him hiding behind a chair. He enjoyed "Bolt" at a recent birthday outing for his best friend, I hear, but that was a big exception. Ron brought home "Toy Story II" last month and he refused to watch it. The only Disney movie he likes is "Bambi."

I put this down to the frenetic pace of most current kids' movies. Yeah, I know that "Cinderella" doesn't exactly start with a bang -- she's just getting out of bed, for Christ's sake -- but then there's all those mice running from the cat. Almost all kids' movies these days start with some frantic chase scene with constant camera cuts and pounding music. It just sets Benny off. Maybe he watches too much PBS. Maybe he needs some antidepressants. All I know is, don't get this kid near "Ratatouille."

So we decided to take Benny to the 11:35 showing of "Marley & Me," which is about a newspaper couple who adopt a very badly behaved dog. Benny happily accompanied us to Showcase Cinema, up to the ticket counter and into the theater himself. But when the first preview appeared on the screen, he realized he'd been had and would be forced to *gasp* see a movie.

"I want to go home," Benny said loudly.

"Look, it's a kids' movie preview. Maybe you'd like to see it," I said gamely. The screen showed an animated girl who lived in a weird house, then walked into another weird house and there was screaming.

"I want to go home!" Benny shouted.

"Look, if you stay through part of the movie, I'll buy you popcorn," I said desperately.

Benny tried to leave twice during the previews, but then blessedly "Marley & Me" began and it started with some nice scenery and a voiceover. We all calmed down.

"Is this the movie, Mommy?" Benny whispered.

"Yes," I said.

Silence. But I knew he was thinking, "I want to go home."

Benny liked the movie. The dog was nearly every scene and when he wasn't, Benny munched on his popcorn. There was a scary part when Owen Wilson finds a neighbor who was stabbed and I knew that was coming (I'd read the book), so I put Benny on my lap and asked him about other stuff and he was OK. The scene with Marley half-hanging out the car and walking on his front paws while Owen Wilson held on to his rear legs and Jennifer Aniston inched the car along the road cracked Benny up.

It was a nice, long movie as well (too long, really). So the window guys were finished at Andy's house by the closing credits.

I didn't think much about our outing until I visited my old Ann Arbor mother's group. They had a playdate the next day and it was fun and chaotic as usual. I mentioned the movie to the other mothers.

"You took Benny to that movie?" one mother asked in shocked tones. "I read that was unsuitablefor preschoolers .. you know ... the ending."

"The ending?" I asked. Then I remembered. The dog died. Actually the dog died for a good 30 minutes, since the movie's producers felt moved to milk every possible tear out of it, with flashbacks and pictures and little children's moving speeches beside a freshly dug grave. It didn't seem to bother Benny; we had talked before about how animals don't live as long as people.

I don't know, maybe we're courting childhood trauma here and recurring dead-dog nightmares, but at least he wasn't hiding under the theater seat. For really scary themes, you can't beat a kitchen scene with a French-cooking rat.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Night Night

I just got my hands on a new digital camera. Couldn't wait for Benny to wake up to try it out. Can you believe that this picture was taken in a dimly lit room?

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Vampire Bat!

Here's Benny all ready to go trick-or-treating. But we had to remember, he wasn't a vampire, he was a BAT. Um, okay.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Voting in San Francisco

Here's Benny outside our voting precinct — which happened to be somebody's garage two blocks from our apartment. The line to vote extended down the sidewalk to the corner. With 20 local proposals plus a dozen state proposals plus the presidential election, voting took a while. I had to bring a cheat sheet so I knew what to do. Check out the little dog in the window above the garage.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

An Imperial Engineer goes shopping

I've got a new hobby these days — trafficking in body parts.

I bought Benny his first Star Wars spaceship and action figure last week. I've been waiting for this day: The future opportunities to buy a galaxy-full of Star Wars stuff was one of the reasons I'd hoped for a son. I have fond memories of imaginary adventures with Luke, Leia, Darth and the rest of the Star Wars gang, who lived in a shoe box under my bed when they weren't launching rebellions or adopting little plastic kittens (Darth Vader had a pink one, of course).

So off I went to Target, where I snatched up a TIE fighter (I'd always wanted a TIE fighter) and went hunting for a little Darth to drive it. Darth Vader is the only Star Wars character Benny knows. He must have picked it up at school, since he refuses to watch the movie. Actually he refuses to watch any movie — we had to practically force him to watch "Toy Story II" last weekend and he gets a hunted look whenever we bring it up now.

Who ever heard of a chid who hates movies and pizzas? And yet Benny dislikes both. And of course, whenever we're part of a casual child-centered gathering, the first thing the hosts do is pop in a video and order some pizza. And Benny ends up behind a chair somewhere, peeking out at the terrifying horror scenes in "Cinderella."

Anyway ... back to point. (And the body parts — I'm coming to that.) So I've got the TIE Fighter, but I can't find Darth Vader. I can't find anybody I recognize except for Obi Wan Kenobi and he has red hair now. Those wretched movies that Lucas produced after the first Star Wars trilogy had messed up all the toys, turning the most familiar characters and ships into weird mutants (Have you seen the new TIE fighter? It looks like an airport terminal.)

I couldn't find Darth Vader, so I settled for a suitably ominous henchman of his, called the Imperial Engineer. Oddly enough, he didn't carry a screwdriver or T-square, but a wicked little rifle. I considered hiding the rifle from Benny, not because I'm opposed to weaponry in children's toys per se, but because I know from experience that those badly molded plastic guns will never stay in the action figure's hands. But I quickly forgot about the gun, because I was too busy starting at the engineer's extra arm.

Yes, there was an extra arm in the package, prominently displayed. I was baffled. Was there a manufacturing problem involving the Engineer's right arm, requiring a spare? But no, it wasn't the Engineer's arm, it belonged to another character. Was it some sort of trophy? That seemed kind of psychopathic.

The answer, which I found on the back of the toy, was that the arm belonged to the Droid, and the idea was to buy all the other weird mutant Star Wars action figures, each with a different piece of the Droid and when you had all the body parts, you could put them together to create a Whole New Character!

Well, OK then. So I took the Engineer and TIE Fighter home to Benny and he loved them. He spent the rest of that Saturday implementing complicated schemes involving them. I thought the Engineer would be traveling the universe in his TIE Fighter, conquering planets and a stuffed animal or two. But Benny is a practical sort, and the Engineer instead spent his time chasing zebras on the African plains with his TIE fighter (which, to me, seems really unsporting). Then the Engineer drove his TIE Fighter to the grocery store and after that (swear to God) to Home Depot. Obviously things are a little slow around the Empire these days and therefore a perfect time to run some errands.

So what about the arm, you ask? I wasn't about to explain the whole marketing scheme to Benny and have him nag me for weeks about buying other guys so he could collect more robot pieces. Instead, I popped the arm into my jewelry box, which has several compartments obviously designed for such a purpose. Maybe next time I'll get a leg. Or a torso. Then Benny's Engineer will have a robot friend.

Maybe they could go to ACE Hardware together.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Playing the Lottery

So I’ve got a new obsession in my life. And let me tell you, I’m not the kind of woman who needs a new obsession. Some women like a new obsession they can really sink their teeth into: a new job, a new boyfriend, those extra 10 pounds, the perfect organic heirloom tomato, the elementary school’s dingy playground equipment, a coworker’s slacker ways. ... These are all appropriate obsessions. These are obsessions you choose, even when you don’t know you’re choosing them. (“When did I start cruising farmer’s markets every Saturday morning looking for the perfect hybrid tomato seeds?”)

But some obsessions are not chosen, but thrust upon you. And I’m walking around nursing some low-level resentment these days because I’ve become obsessed with San Francisco elementary schools.

San Francisco does not have neighborhood public schools, but has implemented the lottery system, where a prospective student can attend any school in the city, regardless of where the child lives. The child’s parents submit a list of seven schools they like to the district and then sit around crossing their fingers hoping to get one on their list.

“87 percent of parents are assigned one of their choices for their kid!” the district trumpets, but that’s a load of hooey because that lovely figure includes siblings of current students, who get preferential status. The real percentage for non-sibling applicants is likely much lower.

Then there’s the problem of choosing what schools to list in the first place. San Francisco’s schools are wildly unequal in terms of educational quality and safety (surprise, surprise). So you have to figure out where the good schools are so you can write them on your list.

Fine, you think. I’ll ask around about the best schools and write them down. But the well-known quality schools are wildly popular, with zillions of parents listing them, so your kid’s odds of being assigned one are quite low. So you’re encouraged to sally forth and find “hidden gems,” public schools that are good enough so you can send your kid there, but obscure enough so you’re kid has a chance.

I’m sure you’ve seen the problem here. How in God’s name do you find the hidden gems? Well, you tour. You tour every freakin’ school in your chosen neighborhoods, you tour until you puke, you tour until the very phrase “test scores” causes a PTSD reaction that involves excessive drooling and a fear of chalk. You tour, your write down that list of seven schools and still your child might be assigned to some grim, understaffed school across the city.

So you need a backup. This backup is called “private school.” Now there’s a huge debate raging in this city about public vs. private, that the parents who send their kids to private school are cowardly sellouts indifferent to America’s future. Parents who truly love their country, the common reasoning goes, find a marginal school and pour hundreds of man-hours and resources into making it better.

More power to them, I say. May their tribe increase.

I, on the other hand, am the morally bankrupt slacker who just wants her son in a decent school that won’t require two buses and a train to get there. Public, private, parochial — they are all ways to do this. So we’re looking at public and privates. Actually, Ron is looking at public and I am doing the private schools. Thank God we can split it up. I don’t know how some mothers do this single-handed, although many do.

So now my new obsession are private and parochial elementary schools in San Francisco. I’ve got a spreadsheet, a file drawer and an Internet connection, so I’m ready. Wish me luck.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

The Seven Circles of Infrastructure

Tuesday was a long day. I'd arranged to arrive at Benny's preschool at 7:45 a.m. so I could dash over to a morning business event. Instead, the morning skittered out of control and I ended up dashing to the bus stop an hour later, red-faced and cursing the stupid shoes I have to wear with my best suit.

My lack of time management may actually have been a subconscious attempt at sabotage, since the morning event was an Infrastructure Business Forum. Two months ago I edited a newspaper section on Bay Area infrastructure and I'm still coping with the trauma. Ron and I were moving to a new apartment at the same time, and I found myself reading Dante's "Inferno," perhaps hoping to find a circle for newspaper executives who think an exhaustive, comprehensive special publication on infrastructure sounds like a kicky idea.

Instead, Dante muddled my thinking further and I started imagining the Circles of Hell for Infrastructure. The Editor becomes lost in a Wood of Typos and finds her way blocked by monsters representing Deadlines, Budgets and Photo Assignments. Virgil the poet (who never had to worry about inch counts) leads her to the right path to the surface, but first she must pass through the Seven Circles of Infrastructure.

The descent begins with the Dreaded Circle of the Overview, where sinners throw completely unrelated ideas into a giant cookpot. But the ideas never jell into a coherent discussion and the sinners must stir and stir and stir …

There is also the Circle of Pointless Graphics, where sinners must compare apples and oranges and bond measure allocations and throw in a few pie charts. Then we have the Circle of High-Speed Rail, where sinners must sit through endless planning meetings, and the Circle of Transit, where sinners must take the 43 bus around and around and around …

Of course, we can’t miss the Circle of Rail, where the sinners (mostly railroad executives) are tied to the tracks and lectured about the need for port-railroad cooperation. Or the Circle of Airports, which is well named, for sinners must circle endlessly and eat stale peanuts while airport officials argue about seawalls.

And finally, the Editor reaches the end of the section with the Circle of Water, where Satan himself sits encased in the ice of a frozen Hetch Hetchy water system in dire need of seismic retrofitting.

With such lurid images in my mind (and now, Dear Reader, in yours), it’s no wonder I didn’t want to relive the infrastructure section at the event. But I arrived at the perfect time — late — which meant I missed most of the presenters and didn’t have to hear any more about high-speed rail.


Sunday, September 21, 2008

Greek Play Seminar: "Agamemnon"

With "Agamemnon" I truly entered the stage of Greek tragedy. Aeschylus' first three plays dealt with sad events, requiring much moaning and crying and beating of breast. Good people died, stupid people lived, all surrounded by shadowy portents of woe. The language was poetic, but the emotions -- well, they were interesting, but did they feel real? The answer, for me at least, was no.

That all changed with "Agamemnon," Aeschylus' first play of a trilogy called "The Oresteia." It begins with a watchman, sitting alone at night on a roof.

"I've prayed God to deliver me from evil
Throughout a long year's vigil, couched like a dog
On the roof of the House of Atreus."

Atreus is Agamemnon's family name, and what a family. The House of Atreus is cursed, beginning with Atreus himself. Atreus' brother Thyestes seduced his wife, so Atreus killed his brother's sons and served them to Thysestes as dinner.

Agamemnon and his brother Menelaus are Atreus' sons, sometimes called the Atreidae, and are both powerful Greek kings. When Menelaus' wife Helen is stolen by a Trojan prince (Why can't these guys hold on to their wives? Everyone would have benefited if they came home for dinner more), the brothers Agamemnon and Menelaus gather a bunch of Greeks to invade Troy and get Helen back. This is, of course, the famous Trojan War, and it's been going on for 10 years now as the play begins.

The opening speeches in Aeschylus' plays have been real yawners so far, but the Watchman's is different. This guy has been sitting on the roof for 10 years, watching for a sign that the war is over, hardly able to sleep, weeping as the the city-state of Argos becomes less honored and honorable without its king. A fire blazes and he cries with joy. Troy is taken! King Ag is coming home!

The Chorus (as usual, a bunch of old guys) show up, but they don't feel like celebrating. The victory was dearly bought. Before the Greek ships sailed for Troy, King Ag and his brother had offended the goddess Artemis. (They killed a bunny; it really didn't take much to irritate a Greek god.) Artemis would not allow the Greek ships to sail unless Ag killed and sacrificed his oldest daughter, which, sadly he did.

The girl's death, of course, did not go over well with King Ag's wife, Clytemnestra. She's been seething for 10 years about it, and the Chorus knows it, and they doubt the king's homecoming will be a happy occasion:

"The black Furies wait, and when a man
Has grown by luck, not justice, great,
With sudden overturn of chance
they wear him to a shade ..."

Queen Clytemnestra turns up with what another blogger calls a cool bit of "information technology." She and King Ag had arranged beacons from Troy to Argos, each one lit after the other when Troy falls (remember that scene in the Lord of Rings when one of the hobbits lights a fire and beacons on mountains light up one after the other?) It's like that. The blogger I mentioned earlier even mapped out all the beacons, so if you care, check it out here.

Anyway, Clytemnestra doesn't really need the beacons, because a herald runs onstage, telling her that King Ag is almost to the palace. (Aechylus never explains how the Greeks traveled from Troy to Argos so fast.) Clytemnestra starts bragging about what a great wife she is:

"Delight from other men and ill-report
Are strange to me, as strange as tempered steel."

You can almost the the Chorus rolling their eyes and elbowing each other, because Clytemnestra has been carrying a torrid affair for years with King Ag's cousin. The Herald looks at her confusedly for a minute, then runs off again.
Clytemnestra sweeps back into the palace, leaving the Chorus with some time to kill.

The old men don't have the nerve to gossip about Clytemnestra, so they spend a happy page or two abusing Helen of Troy, who just so happens to be Clytemnestra's sister. (It's a really small world in Greek mythology.)

"Helen," they snarl. "Hell indeed she carried unto men and ships and a proud city."

A cloud of doom hangs over this palace as well, they continue, a "horror of dark disaster," and on this bright note, King Ag makes his victorious entrance in a chariot.

Ag hops out. He sounds completely neurotic at first, trying to be triumphrant and humble at the same time, but we must forgive him for that. The Greek gods were really touchy about too-proud mortals.

Clytemnestra comes forward to meet him and it's a typical wife greeting: You've been away forever, I've been worried sick about you, how come you didn't write more, and so on. Then she spreads out a purple sheet for him to walk on. King Ag is pretty haughty and cold to her and he just hates the sheet she laid out -- he's never liked purple, the gods might not approve -- but Clytemnestra talks him into it and they enter the palace.

The men of the Chorus just shake their heads, sounding a bit like Charlie Brown: "I don't know, Linus, Christmas is coming but I'm not happy. I don't feel the way I'm supposed to feel ..."

Meanwhile, King Ag's chariot is sitting there and it's not empty. He's brought a Trojan princess named Cassandra home as his personal sex slave. Cassandra has a terrible story: She was once loved by the god Apollo and he gave her the gift of prophecy, but when she refused to bear him children, Apollo turned the gift into a curse. She could still predict the future, but nobody would ever believe her. Everyone called her a crazy witch. She predicted again and again the fall of Troy, but nobody listened. She told them not to let the Trojan horse into the city, but nobody listened. So Troy was destroyed and all the men killed and all the women and children killed or enslaved. The ashes are still burning at Troy, and this poor princess has been picked up by King Ag and brought to Argos.

The Chorus tries to get Cassandra to leave the chariot, but she just shakes her head wildly and curses Apollo. Cassandra asks the Chorus where she is and hearing that she's joined the House of Atreus, she freaks out:

"Palace abhorred of God, conscious of hidden crime,
Sanguinary, sullied with slaughtered kin,
A charnel-house that streams with children's blood!"

She suddenly sees the death of Agamemnon by his wife's hand and her own death, following a line of blood leading from father to son.

The Chorus sighs. That's what you get with a prophet, they say, always bad news. "When did a prophet's voice ever issue in happiness?"

But it's too late for Cassandra, she walks knowingly to her death, entering the palace with a final word:

"Alas, mortality! when fortunate,
A painted image; in adversity,
The sponge's moist touch wipes it all away."

A pause, and then the Chorus hear Agamemnon crying out in horror and pain. They stage a quick little debate about what to do, and bravely decide to creep closer to the palace door.

Now Clytemnestra triumphantly enters, throwing the doors of the palace wide, holding a bloody sword. Behind her is Agamemnon, stabbed dead while wrapped in the purple sheet and Cassandra dead beside him. The queen does not deny killing her husband, she feels no shame. She considers herself an executioner, dispensing justice on her daughter's murderer and his prostitute.

She must be banished, the Chorus says, shocked.

Why do you judge me? the queen asks. Why did you not judge the king, who killed his daughter and carried on adultrous affairs with every women he could?

"Why did you not drive him from hearth and home
for that foul crime, reserving your stern judgment
until I acted?"

But the Chorus cannot forgive her and they cry for Orestes, son of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, to avenge the murder. But Orestes is out of the city at the moment (probably seeing a therapist), the Chorus is in the power of Clytemnestra and her own lover, who has finally arrived now that the dirty work is done.

The Chorus sneers at the lover, calling him a coward, and they have huge argument, which Clytemnestra finally stops. She has a headache now and is ready for a nice bath.

"Do not heed their idle clamour," she tells her lover in the play's final lines. "You and I, the new masters of the house, henceforward shall direct it well."


Saturday, September 13, 2008

Greek Plays: Seven Against Thebes

Greek plays always start in the middle of the story and Aeschylus' "The Seven Against Thebes" is no exception. Like "The Persians," it is a martial play, more set on reading the rolls of heroic soldiers than exploring character and plot.

Thebes was an ancient Greek city founded by Cadmus, who was out looking for his sister Europa, who'd been carried off by Zeus. He never found Europa, but he did find a great site for a city. Cadmus killed a dragon and the goddess Athena had him plant the dragon's teeth in the ground. An army of men popped up and started fighting and the survivors became the founders of Thebes.

Cadmus' descendents had the most terrible luck and nobody had it worse than poor Oedipus, who was fated to kill his father and marry his mother. The play "The Seven Against Thebes" begins after Oedipus is blinded and driven out of Thebes and his twin sons are fighting over the throne.

Eteocles is the son ruling the city and his brother Polyneices has gathered an army to attack. The play begins with a looong speech by Eteocles to his people describing the situation. A spy enters and gives a lengthy report: seven great chieftans are outside the gates, offering sacrifices to Ares, god of war.

Thebes has seven gates, you see, each with its own name. For reasons best known to Polyneices, he's decided to send one warrior chieftan against each gate, rather than massing all seven against one gate. Not the greatest military strategy (Clausewitz would never approve), but Poly is the leader, so they all go along. So now Poly's chieftans are busy playing paper-scissors-rock to see who will attack which gate.

Eteocles prays to Zeus, then leaves. And here comes the Chorus, a group of Theban women who are absolutely terrified:

"I wail in the stress of my terror, and shrill is my cry of despair ..."

They shriek for a good two pages, crying for the gods' protection, and finally irritating Eteocles, who hustles over to shut them up.

"Your flying feet, and rumour of your fears,
have spread a soulless panic on our walls"

He yells at them for a good long while, telling them that women are stupid and a pain, that the gods won't help them, to keep their voices down, to just shut up already. "Beshrew your cries!" he shouts. "In silence face your fate!"

This, of course, does no good at all, and Eteocles stomps out in disgust. The Chorus of women give a harrowing account of what happens to conquered people, working themselves into a real frenzy.

Eteocles finally returns, accompanied by six buddies who will defend the gates of Thebes. The Spy turns up and describes each of seven champions attacking Thebes -- each man's name, who his daddy was, what he's wearing and how much he can bench-press. Eteocles arranges his own champions to meet the enemy but saves the best for himself -- the Seventh Gate, to be attacked by his brother Polyneices. Eteocles will fight his brother at the gate.

The women start shrieking at the news, but Eteocles marches off. The defenders defeat the attackers, but at the Seventh Gate, the two brothers kill each other in battle. Says the Spy:

"So is the city saved; the earth has drunk
Blood of twin princes, by each other slain."

The bodies of Eteocles and Polyneices are brought in by their sisters, who sing a nice long dirge with the Chorus. A Herald arrives and says the City Council has decided to bury Eteocles (the defender) in all honor, his attacking brother Polyneices will be left out for the dogs.

The sister Antigone will not agree.

"I, I will bury this my brother's corpse
And risk your wrath and what may come of it!"

This, of course, sets up the famous Greek play "Antigone," where heroine must decide whether to bury her brother Polyneices despite certain execution for it. But "The Seven Against Thebes" ends here with the chorus carrying off Eteocles' body for a big funeral.

"He saved us from a foreign yoke,
A wild assault of outland folk,
A savage, alien wave!"

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Benny at Golden Gate Bridge

Click on the picture to see Benny on a beautiful day at Golden Gate Bridge.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Greek Play Seminar: "The Suppliants"

Well, I read "The Suppliants" and I gotta say I wasn't a big fan. It's a very early play, where the Chorus was still the main character. All the characters are pretty sketchy and the plot, well, it's pretty weak.

The action starts with 50 girls and their dad turning up on the shore in Argos. They are fleeing their 50 male cousins, who are trying to force a mass marriage. The 50 girls are the Chorus, although I assume the Greeks didn't actually crowd 50 actors on the stage.

Anyway, so the girls are scared and pitiful and possibly a little seasick. They know their 50 cousins are pursuing them, so they pray to Zeus (who is always so helpful to young girls) and wave little olive branches. The girls are called the Danaids after their dad Danaus (he's there too) and they hope the king of Argos can help them out.

The Danaids are still really freaked. "From my living lips my own sad dirges flow!" they moan, vowing to kill themselves if forced to marry their cousins.

Dad doesn't try to calm them down -- instead he points out that an army is approaching and reads a little lecture to the girls on how to behave. The King of Argos strolls over, checks their identification and listens to their story. "I need to talk to my advisers," he says, stalling.

A real king doesn't need advisers, the girls say.

Well, I need to talk to them, the King snaps, sounding a little defensive.
"Yea, I have pondered: From the sea of doubt
Here drives at length the bark of thought ashore."

(That sounds like he's made up his mind -- a bark is a boat -- but he really hasn't. I guess the King just likes nautical images.)

If you don't help us, we'll hang ourselves on these statues of the gods, the girls cry.

"My bark goes forth upon a sea of troubles," the King says, sticking to his theme. But in the end he agrees to protect the girls from their cousins. He leaves to tell his city the joyous news that he's committed them to a war with Egyptians to protect a lot of strange girls.

The girls sing happily, but Dad stops the celebration quickly. The cousins' ship is approaching the coast, he says. Stay by the gods' shrine and I'll run after the King of Argos and he'll bring back an army.

"O father, leave us not forlorn!" they cry.

Don't worry, says Dad. It will take some time for the cousins to land. They're not great with the ropes.

So Dad leaves and the girls freak out again. A herald from the cousins arrive, and he's definitely an unpleasant fellow. Come along or I'll beat you all up, he says. The King, of Argos, however, arrives in the nick of time, chases off the herald and escorts the girls to his city. But the trouble has only started.

"Alas for the sorrow to come, the blood and the carnage of war," the girls sing.

The play ends here, but there are certainly woes ahead. This play was apparently part of a trilogy, with the rest lost. According the Wikepedia, the story continues with Argos fighting the cousins. The king of Argos is killed and the girl's dad becomes the tyrant of Argos. The marriage is still forced on the girls, but Dad tells them to murder their husband on their wedding nights. All the girls do that except for Hypermnestra, who refuses, and she and her husband kill Dad and they become rulers of Argos.

According to another myth, the remaining girls are punished for their crime of murder. In the Underworld, ruled by Hades, they must constantly bring water from a stream with jars full of holes.

The moral of the story? In Greek mythology, you're screwed no matter what you do.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Greek Play Seminar: "The Persians"

So, I read “The Persians” by Aeschylus, written in 472 B.C. Although Aeschylus wrote it for Greek audiences, the play is set in Persia, specifically the ancient city of Susa, which is now in modern-day Iran.

A couple of Persian elders are milling about near King Darius’s tomb. Darius’ son, Xerxes, the new king, has gathered up every Persian guy who can walk to go attack the Greeks. Xerxes was still mad at the Greeks cuz they beat his dad at the Battle of Marathon, so off they went.

Well, they'd left a while ago, and the Persian elders are feeling anxious, so they decide to gather at Darius’ tomb and serve as the Chorus for this play,

To pass the time, they chant a long roll call of all the mighty warriors who went to Greece. Xerxes had gotten the bright idea of tying ships together to bridge the Hellespont, a narrow strait dividing Greece and Persia. This way, he could march his big army right over to Greece:

“The narrow Hellespont’s vex’d waves disdain,
His proud neck taught to wear the chain.”

Queen Atossa then turns up, widow of Darius and mother of Xerxes. She’s a nervous wreck after two dreams predicting Persia’s defeat. (Her first dream, about two women harnessed to Xerxes’ chariot, was disturbing even without all the symbolism.) What are the Greeks like, she asks the chorus.

Pretty darn tough, the chorus responds. “Slaves to no lord, they own no kingly power.”

Suddenly a messenger appears, looking all freaked out. “Woe to the land of Persia!” he cries.

Persian dead are lying in heaps on the Greek islands, the messenger continues. More lie on the bottom of the Aegean. Xerxes is alive, and returning, but most of the Persian host is dead, and in case they don’t believe him, the messenger starts listing every dead chieftan he can think of.

Yes, yes, yes, Atossa says, I’m sorry about Arabus and Artames and our buddy Lilaeus, but WHAT HAPPENED?

It was a dirty, rotten trick, the messenger answered. Some Greek guy turned up at the Persian ships and said the Greeks planned to sneak away in the night. Xerxes immediately arranged all his ships around the area to prevent this and waited for morning.

But the Greeks didn’t flee. They popped up the next morning and started shouting:

“Advance, ye sons of Greece, from thralldom save
Your country, save your wives, your children save,
The temples of your gods, the sacred tomb
Where rest your honour’d ancestors; this day
The common cause of all demands your valour.”

Then the Greeks attacked. Persia’s ships were so badly placed they couldn’t maneuver properly and were defeated.

Then the messenger runs off, leaving everyone horror-stricken. What to do now? Atossa ponders her situation. Since the Chorus is obviously useless, she can only ask her dead husband, Darius, for advice. They’re probably placing bets down in Hades on Persia’s continued survival. Maybe they’ve got some inside dope. Bring Darius up from the dead, she tells the Chorus, which they accomplish with surprising efficiency.

Darius arrives and he’s mad as hell (no pun intended). “With what new ill doth Persia groan?” he asks.

Atossa spills the beans and Darius says, well, what can Xerxes expect if he insists on bridging the Hellespont? Neptune is all mad at him now – “Presumptuous … vain mortal!”

Well, it’s not all Xerxes’ fault, says devoted mother Atossa. He fell in with some bad company. They made him do it. But what should Persia do now?

Leave the Greeks alone, Darius snarls. And clean up a little, Atossa, you look a mess. Put on your best dress for Xerxes and treat him nicely. Then Darius vanishes in the puff of brimstone.

Atossa runs off to dig through her closet, leaving the Chorus to wail for a good three pages until Xerxes makes a surprise appearance.

Since Darius didn’t tell them to be nice, the Chorus guys don’t hesitate to pour as much guilt on Xerxes as possible:

“Asia sinking on her knee, O king,
Oppress’d, with griefs oppress’d, bends to the earth.”

You stink Xerxes, sings the chorus, you’re a rotten, stinky king. Where are all your friends? Oh yeah, they’re, um, “sunk and smeared with gore.” Relentlessly they chant name after name of the tortured dead.

I’m sorry, Xerxes says, really. Look at my clothes – I ripped them all up and I really liked this shirt. You know, this is all so great, let’s all go to my house and we can moan some more. I hear Mom has a new dress:

“Lead to my house, and wail the fate of Persia.”

This sounds good to the Chorus, and they exit singing:

“The haughty arms of Greece with conquest bless’d,
And Persia’s withered force confounded,
Dash’d on the dreary beach her heroes slain,
Or whelm’d them in the darken’d main.”


Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Northern California Coast

Benny and I took a three-day trip to the Mendocino coast last week. We stayed at a beachfront hotel in Fort Bragg and rode the Skunk train through the redwoods.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Christine's New Seminar: Greek Plays

For reasons best known to myself (and too dull to tell anyone else), I've decided to start a reading program of Greek plays.

I'm not overly familiar with Greek plays — I studied a few in school, all tragedies, notably "Medea" and "Antigone." I didn't realize there were plays that weren't about insanely stubborn women. Antigone wanted to bury her brother, so by Zeus she was gonna do it if it killed her -- which, of course, it did. Medea was mad because her man left her and instead of suing him for every last drachma and making his life miserable for years, she killed everyone in sight except the guy himself and flew away in a chariot.

So you can understand why I wasn't totally enthused about this program. Would all the men be arrogant? Would all the women be crazy? What the heck was up with this Chorus, anyway?

But I'm determined, so I've found a page here that lays out all the greek plays in chronological order, beginning with Aeschylus, who wrote about 470 B.C. My first play is "The Persians" and when I finish it, I'll post a summary with comments.

Aren't you all so lucky?

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Scrubbing That Grout with a Toothbrush

The most recent figures from the University of Wisconsin’s National Survey of Families and Households show that the average wife does 31 hours of housework a week while the average husband does 14.

Well, well, well.

31 hours a week. That's 4.4 hours a day. And that's with the hubster pitching in his own two hours a day.

I gotta say -- that's a lot of freakin' housework. Six hours of adult elbow grease a day -- what is the average couple doing, picking dirt out of corners with Q-Tips? Where on earth can they find the time? I thought the average American couple was so time-deprived that they lived on frozen Tater Tots and got speeding tickets in the school dropoff lane.

Even when we lived in a house in Michigan B.B. (Before Benny) and I was unemployed for a few months, I didn't clean the house for any 4.4 hours a day. But perhaps that's just a character flaw; I could have six kids, a home knitting business and a petting zoo in the back yard and still wouldn't do four-plus hours of housework a day.

Of course, Ron and I don't live anything like that lifestyle now. We've downsized our lives so drastically in the last year that I still have relatives convinced we sleep on straw mats and eat off a blanket on the floor. At the moment we have a small apartment and that's it. No deck. No car. No playroom. Only two pieces of good furniture (our dining table is a perfect example of the Modern Card Table motif).

So I'd estimate that Ron and I do about an hour a day of housework each. And maybe a total of eight hours over the weekend, if the laundry's really piling up or the cat's shedding again. I'd have to clean from 7-11 each night to fulfill a four-hour daily housework quota and I gotta say, polishing shampoo bottles at 10:40 p.m. doesn't sound all that appealing.

But again, we keep our socks in plastic bins, so we by no means represent the average American middle-class family. So Misguided Readers, (Are you out there? Yooohooo!) share with us how much you clean a week. And keep in mind that the 31-hour number is for women working outside the home. For stay-at-home wives, the weekly quota is 38 hours.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Living Vicariously through Google

I’m reeling with fatigue today — stayed up to watch the Detroit Red Wings botch their chance to win the Stanley Cup last night. I hope my family from Michigan don't read this, because I truly have no right to complain. My brother and sister stayed up until 1 a.m. (their time), just to see the Pittsburg Penguins win in triple overtime. But even though the game ended before 10 p.m. (Pacific time), I was so revved up I couldn't sleep. And today is a long day, since I'm attending a Most Influential Women event, based on a publication I helped edit in April.

A new great thing I just learned about being me:
If you Google my name these days, you’ll get a bunch of articles about a crazy mayor's (no relation) flamboyant affair with his chief of staff (who shares my first name) and the legal suits culminating from it. Darn mayor. Before he went nuts, Googling my name yielded a zillion papers from a prominent (and prolific) neurosurgeon in Australia with my name.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Benny at School

This is Benny and his friend Sienna. I have no idea what he's wearing on his head.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Hamster Wheel

By all measurements, this year is a tougher one financially for Americans: the dollar is weaker, gas prices are higher, and home prices nationally fell 14.4 percent in March from a year earlier. We're all running on hamster wheels these days, legs churning madly and getting nowhere fast.

My little family is actually in better shape from a year ago, if only because our financial situation in 2007 was so dire to begin with. We're not out of the woods, but the trees have opened enough to allow a little sunshine through and the occasional sniff of fresh air. We actually took a little weekend trip this Memorial Day, something we hadn't done since moving to San Francisco.

One big reason for my sudden euphoria: Our new apartment. The last two weeks have been a crazy jumble of phone calls, open houses, credit checks and application forms. We came very close to leasing a beautiful place in the outer Sunset; two bedrooms, plus dining room and breakfast nook. Fabulous condition. $250 cheaper a month than our current place. But the commute to Benny's school would have been just as long, if more pleasant. We would've needed a car, with all its attendant expenses. Tempting, but we passed.

Instead, we chose a small place two blocks from Benny's school. $500 less a month in rent. No car needed. CIty Car Share cars nearby. Benny can ride his tricycle or his wagon to school. My 90-minute morning commute will be cut in half. So while I'll probably have to store our pots in the oven and my books in the garage, I can live with the sacrifices.

Friday, May 02, 2008

May Days of 2007

Spring is anniversary time around our house -- Ron and I were married April 29. But May marks another, newer anniversary, for it was in May 2007 that Ron left Michigan to work in San Francisco.

May was also the month when our realtor showed our house for eight days in a row, sometimes multiple showings in one day, and received no offers. We had priced the house at the amount we owed, prepared to take a bath on realtor fees and STILL couldn't move the thing.

So it was in May that Ron and I faced the prospect of paying both mortgage and rent for an undefined period, and that's when our move back to San Francisco ceased to be a fun adventure and became a perilous gamble. When Ron boarded that plane last May, we were gambling that I would generate enough income to pay the mortgage, that huge budget-busting house repairs would not crop up, that we would sell the house before the July property tax bill arrived.

Looking back, I'm breathless that we had the nerve. Two things gave us hope: My brother had agreed to rent the house from us and my work prospects at the San Francisco newspaper were good. Both panned out beautifully: Andy went crazy over the house and ended up buying it; and I'm still working at the Business Times.

So we're facing May 2008 from a slightly better position, with nothing more worrisome on the horizon than Benny entering kindergarten next year (which is actually a big concern, given the crazy S.F. process, and worth a blog post of its own). These days, instead of emptying out a storage space and keeping a house Swiffer-perfect, I'm planning a family trip to San Diego and working on a fiction project. I wish I could have seen a glimpse of the future last May, when I was arguing with basement contractors and setting up a garage sale.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

I'm back!

I must apologize for the accidental hiatus. Things spun a little out of control, beginning in February. My giant real estate project grew crazier and crazier, and I was spending every spare minute negotiating with our mortgage lender about the sale of our house. In March we flew to Michigan for a few days and SOLD THE HOUSE. Yes, we are no longer homeowners. In fact, since we sold the house three days before the end of March that meant NO mortgage payment for March. Oh, happy day.

I'm still a little dazed by our suddenly reduced exposure to the mortgage crisis. My brother bought the house from us and he seems happy. Now I can listen to NPR Marketplace again without silently sobbing.

I'm working four days a week these days, which is fine with me. Actually I was supposed to go to a four-day week in March, but I had to keep working Fridays because of these crazy projects.

Ron went to Baltimore last week and collected a SABEW award for this story. Next month we're all driving down to San Diego for a week-long biotech conference. (Ron will be at the conference. Benny and I are heading to the zoo.)

Now that we've sold the house (sold the house, sold the house, sold the house ...), I'm trying to figure out how to get 10 boxes of books, three bookshelves and a rack of hanging clothes to California. My latest scenario is taking a week off, flying to Michigan and then driving a little U-Haul van back to SF by myself. It actually sounds like fun, so I'm thinking about it. After all, I had a friend who drove from North Carolina to Montana with just her cat.

Benny is doing well. He was a very good boy while Ron was away, and I'll kind of miss the one-on-one time, which included backing 5 dozen cookies and playing marathon stints of Chutes and Ladders. (C&L moves along more quickly than CandyLand, which can cause brain freezes and excessive drooling after too many games).

Speaking of Benny, his picture above was taken during a school field trip to a Marin County ranch. They were traveling in cars, and I had a Bad Mother moment that morning when I dropped off his carseat. It looked completely inadequate compared to the gigantic space-shuttle couches that other parents brought for their 4-year-olds. Sigh.

Monday, February 25, 2008

The End of an Era

Around 7 a.m. today, when I was in the kitchen eating breakfast, making Benny's lunch and emptying the dishwasher (I'm all about multitasking in the morning now), I suddenly noticed the napkin which had, second's before, contained an entire toasted Eggo.

It was a cheap little napkin, thin and wispy, the type that if you dampen it to wipe the table, it will disintegrate in your hand before you get there. It was covered with faint pictures of witches, ghosts, spooky houses and pumpkins.

This wasn't any ordinary Halloween napkin -- it was the last Halloween napkin, the final survivor of a "10 for $10 sale" at Lucky's supermarket last September. I remember arriving home in triumph with a dozen bags of groceries and Ron's face as he opened grocery bag after grocery bag and said in disgust: "They're all napkins!"

Now some women might hesitate to buy thousands of Halloween napkins in late September. But I'm the one with Easter chick salt-and-pepper shakers in the dining room, stuffed Halloween pumpkins in the living room, three wooden Wise Men in the hallway and Thanksgiving turkey towels in the bathroom. Buying holiday-themed housewares always seems such a cute idea at Target; not so practical in real life. My sister categorically refuses to buy those cute bunny potholders or Christmas tree dishtowels. I fully understand why. But surely, some people out there change their oven mitts for every holiday. I suspect these are the same folks who dress their front-yard geese every week too.

But back to the napkins. Considering how wasteful my family is with napkins (Ron likes to ball them up and flick them at Benny), I thought the 10 packages would last two months, tops, and I could put out cute turkey napkins at Thanksgiving. But weeks went by ... Veterans Day and Thanksgiving and Christmas and Martin Luther King Day and Valentine's Day and Presidents Day ... and still we're eating with the witches and the ghosts.

This morning, however, I held the last Halloween napkin. Triumphantly I wadded it up and chucked it into the wastebasket. Tomorrow I'm heading out to buy cute bunny Easter napkins. Ten for $10, of course. They ought to last us until Labor Day.

Friday, January 04, 2008

I had trouble in getting to Battery Street

Those of you with children may know the Dr. Seuss book "I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew." It's about this poor little dude who was driven out of his happy meadow by nasty little weasel creatures. A chap with a camel tells him about

"The beautiful city of Solla Sollew,
on the banks of the beautiful River Wahoo,
where they never have troubles -- or at least, very few."

So off our hero goes, and of course, the camel gets sick. He tries to catch a bus, but the bus is canceled. A huge storm blows up and he takes refuge in a shack with owls and mice. The shack is washed away by a flood over a cliff ... our hero falls into a hole and pops out in the middle of a war ... and on and on ...

I feel like that poor little guy today. I woke up to pouring ran and howling winds from the tropical storm pounding the Bay Area, with flooding and winds gusting over 70 mph.

But it wasn't the winds that woke me up; it was poor Ron being violently ill from food poisoning. Poor Ron was sent to bed and I quickly got myself and Benny ready, made Benny's lunch and reserved a car. I ran the two blocks through the wind and rain to the parking garage in my Wells Fargo Regatta slicker, trying to dodge the clumps of wet leaves dropping from the spastically jerking trees. I arrived soaked to my knees, wet hair in my face.

I brought the car back, hustled Benny into it and drove through the storm to his preschool. Then I drove back to the garage, dropped off the car and ran for the No. 5 bus that just pulled up across the street. Like the poor Solla Sollew guy, I thought my troubles were over as I stripped off my drenched slicker and took off my shoes.

Alas, no. All the buses were suddenly rerouted to the Transbay terminal and we were kicked off at 4th and Market. I raced across the street again and took the subway downtown.

So now I'm here. In a rare moment of forethought, I had packed dress slacks, shoes and socks in my backpack, so anyone looking at me would never know I almost drowned on my way to work, except for damp hair and a faintly wild look in my eye.

As for the poor little guy trying to get to Solla Sollew? He never did make it to the city. Instead, he got himself a big bat and headed home, yelling:

"Now my troubles will have troubles with me!"

Rock on, dude.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Babyspace has a new name!

Since I'm not really Lost in Babyspace anymore — more like Lost in Cubicle World or Toddler Weirdness or The Yawning Chasm of Peculiar Fiction Writing — I've changed my blog's name. Then I got a little jiggy with Blogger's editing page and this is the result.

The name change, at least, seems necessary. Someone asked about my blog at the bar Friday night and I had difficulty describing it. It's not about babies anymore (obviously); instead my long-suffering readers get posts about writing, military history, business, video games and ... oh yes, almost forgot ... parenting.

The URL remains the same at, so no one has to mess with links. So pull up a chair, relax and stay away from deifacted nethacite.