Thursday, October 16, 2008

Noni, part time model

Derek Zoolander: Well I guess it all started the first time I went through the second grade. I caught my reflection in a spoon while I was eating my cereal, and I remember thinking "wow, you're ridiculously good looking, maybe you could do that for a career."
Matilda: Do what for a career?
Derek Zoolander: Be professionally good looking.

Whenever visitors come, I like to take them to Art’s Delicatessen on Ventura Blvd. in Studio City. To me, Art’s is quintessential Los Angeles - from the old Hollywood “ROMEOs” in the corner (retired old men eating out) to the top heavy porn stars with their agents to the directors and producers discussing the set to the actors reading scripts over lunch. You probably couldn’t find similar crowd all in one deli in any other city in the world. When Toby‘s dad was in town last week, I brought him there and joked that in forty-five minutes he had seen what LA is all about. We walked across the street to the bank where he watched a macaroni-and-cheese covered Noni and Lucy while I deposited a check. As he was waiting, his LA experience was completed - a casting agent introduced herself and handed him her information, explaining that she’d like to see Noni come in for a casting call for an Old Navy advertisement next week.

That is how I found myself turning into Beverly Blvd. this morning, singing the Flight of the Concords song (“You’re so beautiful, you could be a part time model… but you’d probably still have to keep your normal job…”) while Noni slept in the back. I wasn‘t sure how I felt about my sudden role as a stage mom, but then I’d talked to some actors about the benefits of residual checks and decided that if Old Navy wanted to pay Noni to play with some other babies in cute clothing with the cameras rolling, that’d work out just fine.

I found the studio, parked the car, woke Noni from her nap, decided to honor her wishes to remain barefoot, and walked up to the studio. We soon found ourselves in a room full of parents chasing their babies with brushes. A young woman handed me a sheet of paper and instructed me to fill it out and then wait for our appointment. I plopped Noni down next to a pile of graham crackers and looked at the paper. It asked for my name, Noni’s name, our phone numbers. So far so good. I left the agent part blank. Then it got a little more tricky. Height? No idea. Weight? OK people, she’s the third, I do not keep track of these things. Favorite color? This completely stumped me. Should Noni have a favorite color? I wrote blue just because pink seemed too obvious. I checked it with Noni first and she nodded gamely while banging on the chair. Favorite song? This hit to the heart of my third-child-neglect-guilt (as chronicled in a prior entry). Would it look bad if I wrote that the only songs she ever hears are sung by pre-teen pop stars? I wrote “lullaby” because I do sing that to her every night and she seems to like it. Afterward it occurred to me that’s actually not the name of a specific song, but by then I’d handed in the paper.

Then we sat and waited in a room crawling with babies. It looked like a Benetton ad in action - babies with black bangs, yellow pig tails, dred locks, fuzzy red hair. All of them crawling and falling all over while their parents tried desperately to keep them clean and presentable.

After a few minutes, Noni’s name was called and I picked her up and brought her through a door, as indicated. Inside the room, five men and women, dressed in all black, stared at us from behind a bright spotlight and cameras. Next to the door, an X was marked on the floor in tape.
“Hello,” said one of the women dressed in black.
“Hi,” I said. Noni wiggled.
“How old is she?”
“Sixteen months.”
“Please put her on the X.”
“On the X?”
“Yes on the X. And then step back a bit.”
This is when I realized that this whole modeling thing might not work after all. I looked at the X and thought, are you kidding me? You want me to put her on the X and step back? Do you realize that this is a child who cries herself into a coma when I leave her surrounded by toys and in the arms of the sweet lady at the Y? There is no way in hell she is going to stand there and smile. Of course, I didn’t mention any of this, but instead I pretended that I expected it to go just fine and put her on the X. I took a step back. She took a deep breath…and screamed.
“Thank you,” said the lady in black.
“Thanks,” I said and Noni and I headed out the door.

When I was ten years old, we bought a welsh corgi from a kennel. Apparently, he had the perfect look for a welsh corgi - the right shaped face, the right colored nose, the right sized eyes. We didn’t much care since all we were looking for was a friendly, waggy dog. In fact, we’d gone in to buy the runt of the litter, one without perfect corgi looks, but he was too sick to bring home and my parents, looking at their two daughters waiting eagerly to bring home a puppy, decided that they’d pay extra for the good looking pup just so we could bring one home. The woman at the kennel agreed to sell him to us on the condition that she could show him from time to time. At his first show, Perry, trotted along the circle with the other dogs. The judges oohed and aaahed over his fine coat and perfect walk. Then they brought him up to the stand to observe him more closely. One of the judges pet his head and watched in horror as he rolled over, flailing his legs in the air and waiting for his tummy to be scratched. Apparently, this is not pedigreed dog behavior. It was the start and end of his show dog days.

I’m not sure if Noni’s cry for me will be the end of her casting days or not. Apparently they‘ll call if they want her to come back in, but I’m guessing they may be looking for a baby who is a bit more independent. Then again, I can’t help but wonder how many babies would smile cheerfully into a bright light and a room full of strangers, but there must be some who do. Either way, I’m glad that we went, chiefly for the Hollywood experience, which was capped off perfectly when we saw the four girls from The Hills step out of their limo and into a restaurant as we exited the studio.

Noni seems to be unaffected by her Hollywood morning. She spent the ride home kicking her legs and humming along to a new song I am teaching her. Whether we ever fill out any more forms again or not, I decided this baby has got to learn some baby songs. I sang her “Old McDonald” ten times on the drive home.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Losing My Religion

I was 32 years old when I first found a church that felt like home. I hadn’t really been searching my whole life. We were Easter and Christmas Presbyterians growing up, and I was perfectly content to spend my Sundays skiing down a hill rather than sitting in a sanctuary. I said my prayers every night (still do), as my grandmother taught me when I was young, and otherwise didn’t give religion too much thought.

When Toby and I started dating, he expressed interest in attending church regularly. His preference at the time was for a Catholic church, but he was willing to try Presbyterian churches as well. I felt somewhat indifferent to the idea of going to church at all and decided to go along with it since it was important to him. We did a bit of church shopping, and ended up at the Presbyterian church after attending a sermon where John Glenn, a member of the congregation, spoke about finding religion in space and the pastor, Dr. Barnes spoke passionately and intelligently from the pulpit. It was a more conservative church than we probably would’ve chosen on paper, but we were moved by the sermon and anyway, we had to find a pastor before our wedding.

When we moved to Maryland, we headed to the Presbyterian church right away, since it had worked for us before. We loved the historic church building, with a simple but beautiful sanctuary, only a quick walk from our house. But the sermons weren’t particularly inspiring and as I sat there every week, I started to doubt what I was really doing there. I listened to the pastor talk about Jesus as the only way to heaven and I told myself that he was saying that metaphorically, since love and understanding are the only way to peace, but it bothered me that we weren’t admitting that we were saying this metaphorically. And maybe “we” weren’t, was everyone else on board with everything we were saying to be true? What did that mean for all the people of the world of other religious faiths? I was sitting in a place where I was supposed to be searching for truth and instead I found myself feeling false. It just wasn’t working for me.

It didn’t help that summer that I read both “Under the Banner of Heaven” by Jon Krakauer and “The Power of Myth” by Joseph Campbell. Both of the books forced me to question my beliefs, the history behind the Bible, and the way in which a religion is started and then accepted as truth. At the same time, the Presbyterian church was searching for a new pastor in a way that didn’t seem to gel with our beliefs and priorities. (When Toby suggested in the re-visioning process, that we make the church a church known for being open to all types of people, a member of the congregation asked sarcastically, “Should we just put a sign out front that says ‘Welcome Gays’?“) We stopped going to church.

For a while, I didn’t miss it. It’s easy to fill Sunday mornings with trips to the park, bagel breakfasts, jogs around the park. But there is something beautiful about sitting in a room full of people who are all taking a break from their daily routines and thinking about their purpose in the world and searching together for something good. While the churches I had attended weren’t right for me, there was still something good happening there every Sunday morning. I could feel it when I walked out of church and wanted to be a better person for the rest of the week. Plus, I was no longer just going to church for my own benefit. I loved the idea of the girls attending a “school” every Sunday where the goal is not to teach reading, math and geography, but rather love, peace and compassion.

After some discussions and trying out a number of other churches, we finally did find another church. It wasn’t perfect, but Unity describes itself as a “positive, practical, progressive approach to Christianity” and that sounded like it might work for me. When I walked into the membership class and we went around the circle discussing what the word “God” means to you. Some people said peace, some people said togetherness, others spoke of a spiritual body and pure being. No one was telling us what to feel, but here was a discussion, a search. In one class, we brought objects that represented our spiritual journey. I brought in “Power of Myth” and we spent half the class discussing Joseph Campbell. I knew we’d found our church home.

When we arrived in California, we decided to try out another church, as the only Unity church near our house looked pretty small and scrappy and, drained of energy from moving, we thought it‘d be easier to attend a church that was already well established and not as much in need of our help. We went a number of times and enjoyed the members of the congregation and found Evie a wonderful piano teacher, but overall it just wasn’t the same. I read in the paper the other day, that 70% of people “cherry pick” from their own religion, taking parts of it to be true and just accepting that they will disagree with certain aspects of their own religion. This is what I had done all my life and, as a result, church was always a pleasant but not particularly meaningful place. After my experience at our last church, I realized I am no longer able to accept that for myself.

So today, I made the fifteen minute drive to the nearest Unity church. Yes, it is small. Yes, it’s scrappy. But a new minister started there two months ago and her sermon was amazing. I hadn’t realized how much I missed going to a place that feels like a church home until I stepped in the doors. I’m looking forward to bringing the girls back next week. I don’t know if they’ll grow up feeling the same way that I do, or if, as they get older, they’ll eventually embark on their own search for a place that gives them spiritual meaning, but either way I feel like we’ve found the right place to provide the framework for that discussion in our family.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Country Roads

Yesterday, we headed out of the city to Animal Acres farm. My friend Margaret and her daughter Gabriella had gone a few days before and suggested we check it out as a possible location for Lucy and Gabriella’s birthday party. It was a good day to take a break from LA - it had been uncomfortably hot all week, resulting in a blue sky directly over head but a cement gray horizon of smog obscuring the views of the mountains surrounding Studio City. As I was driving, I kept squinting my eyes and looking around to try to even get a glimpse of the outline of the mountains, but it was as if they had been erased altogether.

After twenty minutes of driving, we finally arrived at the mountains (still in existence) and the smog began to clear. We continued driving through the dramatic scenery that these tall brown mountains offered, set against the now perfectly blue sky. As we drove further, it became more and more rural. When we turned off the highway, we took a wrong turn and ended up driving by ranch after ranch on a dusty dirt road. We finally stopped to ask an old man wearing overalls and a baseball cap for directions. He smiled, crinkling his sun-worn skin, and pointed us the other way down the road. I thanked him and thought to myself that even if we turned around right at that moment, the whole trip would’ve been worth it, just for the taste of country that he offered.

When we pulled in to Animal Acres, we were greeted by the largest pig I have ever seen. She towered over Noni, whose eyes widened with awe and fright. Evie pulled the brown twine cord to ring the bell and a young woman in pig tails came out of the building and, pushing pigs out of her way, let us through the gate.

Animal Acres is a rescue farm and all of the animals there have been saved from either a slaughter house or another type of abusive situation. The girls pet the scratchy fur of the pigs, rubbed the goats’ noses, and took pictures with the sheep. Noni walked around instructing the animals on what they should say - “maa”, “baa” or “moo“. (She’s still working on “oink”.) By the time we left, there wasn’t much question that Lucy would have her birthday at Animal Acres.

When our tour was over, we still weren’t ready to head back into the city, so we drove down the road and found a park where the girls picked flowers, played in the dust (Noni did at least) and chased huge balls of tumbleweeds. {Evie’s piano teacher later informed us that in LA you make snowmen by collecting tumbleweeds, stacking them, and decorating them. Tumbleweedmen.} As for myself, I mostly just breathed in the fresh air and enjoyed watching them romp with a beautiful landscape for a backdrop.

Since arriving to Los Angeles, we’ve escaped the city either by trips to the beach or to the mountains, but there’s something about a rural farm town though that’s relaxing in an entirely different way. I have a feeling that Lucy’s birthday party isn’t the only time we’ll be back.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Lucy's Birthday Wishes

I recently asked Lucy what she would like for her birthday. Our conversation was as follows:

"Lu, what do you want for your birthday?"
"A guinea pig."
"Two rats."
"A car."
"What? Why would you want a car? No!"
"OK, a drum set."
"That sounds good."

It did not occur to me until a while afterwards that a drum set might not be an ideal gift. I mean, I don't want to discourage any musical exploration, but I suddenly had thoughts of, well, drums. Being played. In my house. A lot. And I realized that she actually had a brilliant strategy: Who is going to say no to drums after being asked for rodents and a car?

Friday, October 3, 2008

Home Sweet Los Angeles

Yesterday afternoon, five second grade girls came over to our house. I had invited all six of the girls in Evie's class to come over a few weeks ago, days after her comment about feeling unnoticed at recess, but hadn’t actually expected such an enthusiastic response. I was initially excited that she would have an opportunity to get to know her classmates better, but as the day approached, I began to feel a little nervous about having them all here. I wasn’t concerned with the chaos - in Frederick, we had parties with seventy-five people where the children outnumbered the adults. As the scribbles on our walls and stains on the couches clearly show, chaos has long been the norm in our family. But after hearing about Evie‘s shyness around her classmates at recess, I began to imagine them all as something out of a bad Hannah Montana episode. I envisioned them sitting around the table, sighing with boredom, and excluding Evie from their pre-teen conversation.

Fortunately, my vision was shattered even by the time we walked the two blocks home. The girls held hands with each other, easily dividing into partners with no hurt feelings, and spent the way home talking about how excited they were for a play date. I could tell this was a group of sweet, fun and basically typical girls. Of course I shouldn’t say “typical” , as they are obviously all unique - there is funny and somewhat bossy Jessica, quiet and thoughtful Julia, energetic Charlotte (who demonstrated a full split and numerous back walk-overs in our living room), chatty and cheerful Joy and studious and shy Nicolette - but they fell into the role of typical seven-year-old play with ease. They sat at the table, eating snacks and singing to Camp Rock. They dove right into imaginative play, with Jessica turning into the queen of the tree house and the other girls dividing into messengers and servants and pets for the queen. They built crowns out of pipe cleaners and showed each other songs they knew on the piano. And all the while, Evie was completely part of the group, hugging and giggling and playing.

When the girls’ parents came to pick them up, each one mentioned getting together again in the future. This afternoon, when I picked Evie up from school, she told me that the best part of the day was recess. The girls in her class started a "hopscotch club" and were planning on meeting to play hopscotch every day from now on.

We are still adjusting to life in a new city. We will always miss our friends and family and we have a ways to go still in creating a complete community for ourselves here, but with the recess issue resolved, I feel like all three of the girls are happy and that is a huge start to making Los Angeles feel like home.