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Archive for the month “February, 2013”


DSC00853“Just imagine they’re all four years old.” Someone once told me to try that when I was nervous about speaking in front of a group. Maybe you’ve heard it too: Look out at the audience and imagine them all as… preschoolers. Clearly, whoever coined that little quip had not spent a lot of time around young children.

One of the reasons I am excited about Obama’s proposed preschool-for-all initiative is that it is going to be so educational for parents. Preschool is not just valuable for children’s development, it’s valuable for parents’ development. Think about it: is there any job for which we show up so utterly unprepared, uneducated and unqualified?

As a young mom, I naively assumed guidance would spring up along the way, like traffic lights and road signs do when you’re driving. But more often, early parenthood resembles the confusion that ensues at a major intersection when the power’s out. No one knows what to do until the traffic cops arrive in their orange vests and jump out into the chaos and start signaling. Good preschool teachers are like those gutsy traffic cops. New parents show up, tired and edgy from all the inching along they’ve done in the clueless dark, and suddenly there is someone on the road who can show them the way.

If you’re lucky enough to have access to and are able to afford good-quality preschool—your child’s teachers will be—unlike you—prepared by years of experience. They will have actual degrees in early childhood education. Whatever your worry might be about your preschooler—is this cold really strep throat? Do these backwards twos and Ns mean dyslexia?—chances are it is something the teachers have seen 200 times before. Which means they—unlike you—actually know what to do about it.

There’s a tone to the media coverage of Obama’s pre-school proposal that suggests it is something that will mainly benefit poor families. This is true, and important, in terms of basic access and affordability. But we have to be careful here.  To suggest that parents who are educated and affluent are somehow inherently gifted with better parenting skills—and, therefore, their children are less in need of a good preschool—is misguided and arrogant. Education and income are no substitute for experience. And experience is what the teacher has. Not the new parent.

When I walked into my daughter’s classroom on her first day of preschool, her baby brother squirming in my arms, I remember feeling like I’d just waded into a knee-high, churning mountain stream of three-year-old energy. Then I looked up and saw Joni, her teacher, smiling at me, radiating calm, as she knelt to welcome Claire. The school’s motto was, quote, “Children thrive in a happy medium.” On that first day and every day, Joni embodied that notion. She had been teaching preschool for many years. Joni knew more about 3 and 4 year olds than I will ever know.

People talk about the “soft skills” you learn in preschool. But “soft” does not mean “unimportant.” In their central Seattle preschool, my kids learned to play, share and work stuff out with all kinds of other children. They thrived in a happy medium full of other kids.

Some people worry we’ll now start obsessively testing pre-schoolers. I hope not. I hope the “soft skills” maintain their high-priority spot on the preschool to-do list. Others worry the preschool programs Obama has cited as models can’t be scaled up to accommodate millions of children.  And then there’s the issue of how to pay for it all.

The price will be higher if we don’t. The research is in and it’s firm: every dollar spent on early childhood education saves dollars later in life. Children thrive in a happy medium. And so do their parents.

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., Thursdays at 4:54 p.m. and Fridays at 4:55 p.m. on KBCS, streaming online at and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area.  Podcasts available.

Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.


The Next Big Thing

DSC00853Book reviewer extraordinaire and writer of elegant prose Isla McKetta tagged me in an online writer’s blog series called The Next Big Thing. Isla is a copywriter by day, novelist by night, Richard Hugo House board member and indefatigable cheerleader of her writer friends. You can read Isla’s responses to to the ten Next Big Thing Questions here.  And here are mine:

1. What is your working title of your book?

Her Beautiful Brain

2. Where did the idea come from for the book?

When my mother was in her late fifties, she began to forget. A lot. She began to repeat herself. A lot. Renowned since high school for her beautiful brain, my mother was losing her mind to Alzheimer’s disease, bit by bit, just as I became a mother myself. I began writing Her Beautiful Brain because I wanted to tell her story. But as I wrote, I realized it was my story too: of motherhood in the age of Alzheimer’s.

For nearly two decades, her slow erasure shaped our family life. As my children grew, my mother shrank: slowly, for a while, but  then rapidly, weirdly, every which way.

3. What genre does your book fall under?


4. Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Ah, the fun question! Mom at 60: Debra Winger? Me at 35: Rosemary DeWitt?

5. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

It’s about what it was like to become a mom just as my own mother—twice divorced, once widowed, mother of six, loving, unflappable role model to all of us—began to lose her mind to younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

6. Will you be self-published or represented by an agency?

An interesting either-or question! I had an agent, who pitched my book a half-dozen times and then… stopped. But I didn’t know that she’d stopped, not for months. (I know, I know, I should have figured it out!) So now I’m setting out to pitch it myself to midsized and small presses.

7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

About a year and a half.

8. What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

When I read Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, I felt a great sense of kinship: her grief for her mother, her anger that this had happened, her determination to figure out what the hell to do with her grief and anger.

9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?

My mother inspired me to write. Alzheimer’s disease inspired me to write, because it is so insidious and it’s a galloping epidemic and yet no one wants to see, hear or think about it.

10. What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

In 2004, my husband and I produced a film about Mom and Alzheimer’s disease called Quick Brown Fox: an Alzheimer’s Story. Making the film made me realize I had so much more to say. I knew I would write a book, but I also knew that emotionally, I couldn’t start it until after Mom was gone. She died in 2006. Quick Brown Fox has been seen on PBS and other stations all over the world. It’s in educational distribution through Women Make Movies. And you can now watch it on Hulu, Amazon and other digital sites.


I was also tagged in this Next Big Thing game by the talented Donna Miscolta, author of the haunting, lovely novel, When the De La Cruz Family Danced. Read about Donna’s next big thing here.  And… by gifted playwright Scott Herman, who is writing a memoir about a loooonngg motorcycle road trip and the girl at the end of it.

Who have I tagged? I personally can’t wait to read what’s next for the multifaceted Wes Andrews, whose Verbalist’s Journal and reading/performance series have added excellent spice to Seattle’s literary scene. And Shahana Dattagupta, author of Thrive! Falling in Love with Life and half of the dynamic duo behind the Courageous Creativity ‘zine.


Generation Squeeze

DSC00853This just in from The New York Times: the “sandwich generation” is now also the “squeezed generation.” Visualizing this is making me feel very claustrophobic. But boy, do I get it.

The “sandwich generation” years started early for me. Just as I began having babies, my mother began losing bits of herself. Bits of memory, judgment, common sense, intuition, drive, mojo; all her legendary coping skills, honed through three marriages, six children, a decade of widowhood—all of them began to peel away like old paint. Now, it’s easy to look back and see it was the disorienting (for all of us, not just for her) beginning of her long Alzheimer’s-induced crumbling. Then, I was deep in the trees and had no way to see the forest with any clarity. I only knew I was sandwiched between the needs of young children and of my mother, who wasn’t even old—early sixties, that’s not old-old! And my own parental coping skills were forming in what felt like a funhouse mirror: no day ever the same, what with Mom’s escapades—losing the car, locking herself out—mixed in with the usual preschool zaniness: why can’t I wear my tutu to school in this snowstorm?

So: I know, I am, the sandwich-generation. I’m just not in the thick of it right now like so many of my 50-something friends are. Mom is gone. My dad and step-mom, still in their late 70s, are doing generally well. Ditto my mother-in-law, who’s 82.

Meanwhile, baby boomers have been awarded a new moniker—the “Squeezed Generation”–that makes being the ham in the sandwich sound cozy. Picture yourself squeezing the last drop of Dijonnaise out of the bottle: that’s the squeezed generation. Economists say workers in their fifties and sixties have lost more earning power, since the recession, than any other age group, with incomes now a full ten percent below what they were three years ago. They—we—are squeezing ourselves dry, post-Recession, not only to get our children through college, while retirement looms, unfunded, further and further down the road—but just to get by. If our parents need our help too, well then we’re really in trouble.

And when older boomers are laid off, things can go south very quickly, especially if they were employed in downsizing industries like manufacturing. One 62-year-old woman interviewed by the Times is working 3 part-time jobs, uninsured, crossing her fingers she’ll make it to the Medicare threshold without a major health disaster. Another, age sixty, has been looking for a job for five years since she was laid off by a mortgage company. She is convinced that prospective employees view anyone over fifty as a health risk. And she may be right: new research suggests getting laid off in your late fifties can shave three years off your life expectancy.

This may account for the creep of the word “great” in front of “recession.” For many, many Americans, this was no small-R bout of the financial flu. The Great Recession, like the Great Depression before it, has become a chronic, life-altering illness. Welcome to Generation Squeeze.

My flicker of hope is that the Great Recession will shift us away from our dog-eat-dog competitive individualism and toward generosity, sharing, caring about the common good. Community gardens, home exchange vacation sites, car-sharing—all great trends boosted, rather than broken, by recessionary times. Let’s keep the innovations coming: it’ll make us all feel a little less squeezed.

Grist has been running a great series on the sharing economy. Claire Thompson has their latest take.

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., Thursdays at 4:54 p.m. and Fridays at 4:55 p.m. on KBCS, streaming online at and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area.  Podcasts available.

Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.

Doll’s House

DSC00865“Teenage Girl Blossoming into Beautiful Object,” proclaimed a recent headline in the Onion. The faux-newspaper goes on to describe the high school junior’s, quote, “staggering metamorphosis from a young girl with thoughts, feelings, and aspirations into a truly stunning commodity.” This kind of nailing-of-truth-through-satire is what makes me a great fan of the Onion: where writers specialize in humor that makes you wince. And think: about the truth behind the laugh.

The struggle of young women—to be treated as persons, not objects—is not a new theme. It’s not a “problem” we’re going to “solve” overnight. It is a chronic danger; one that burbles up over and over again, in every corner of the world. In many places, more poisonously than others.

I recently saw Seattle Shakespeare Company’s riveting production of one of theatre’s most moving stories about a woman’s struggle to be a person, not a plaything: Henrik Ibsen’s play, A Doll’s House. At first, we think the main character, Nora, is as pretty and flighty as her husband Torvald thinks she is. He treats her like a little girl and she behaves like one. But as the plot thickens, we understand more and more about Nora. She has a secret: without telling Torvald, she took out a loan to save his health. Her pretense was that she got the money from her father. Now she’s being blackmailed. Pressure is mounting. She has to confess to Torvald. Will he stand by her? Will he understand the depth of love behind what she has done? No. Torvald can’t comprehend that his wife is not the pretty china doll he thought she was. He cares more about whether she has besmirched his reputation. And so Nora rises up, at the end of this 130-year-old play, and delivers one of drama’s most impassioned pleas for personhood. She tells Torvald she can longer be his “doll-wife.”

“I must stand quite alone,” Nora says, “if I am to understand myself and everything about me. It is for that reason that I cannot remain with you any longer.”

The United Nations singled out A Doll’s House for inclusion in its “memory of the world” registry, stating, quote, “few plays have had a similar impact globally on social norms and conditions.” Indeed, some theatre historians believe A Doll’s House is the world’s most produced play.

And yet Ibsen thought he was writing about the specific social conditions of his time. He titled his first draft of the play, written in 1878, Notes on the Tragedy of the Present Age. He had no idea how timeless and universal Nora’s struggle to define herself would become. How someday, that last scene would come to be called, as one actor friend quipped, “the slamming door heard round the world.”

Which brings us back to the Onion. One natural response to their headline—“Teenage Girl Blossoming into Beautiful Object”—would be: how depressing to think how little has changed; how highly we still value a woman’s beauty over her heart, soul and brain. Yes, but: I suspect the Onion writers are pretty young. And, like Ibsen did more than a century ago, they’re looking at what’s all around them and finding a way to make people think about it.

In Ibsen’s day, an Onion-style satire on women’s objectification might not have worked at all. People wouldn’t have gotten the joke. Now, thankfully, we do. Which makes us wince all the more. Which is a good thing.

Don’t miss the Restless Critic’s take on Michael Haneke’s difficult, remarkable Amour. 

Our films, The Church on Dauphine Street, 30 Frames a Second: The WTO in Seattle and Quick Brown Fox: an Alzheimer’s Story are available on Hulu, Amazon and other digital sites.

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., Thursdays at 4:54 p.m. and Fridays at 4:55 p.m. on KBCS, streaming online at and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area.  Podcasts available.

Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.

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