Nov 9, 2008

Eden's Version of the Pledge of Allegiance

Seriously. This is how she thinks it goes.

"Everybody stand up, ready, set, go. I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. And to the republic one nation, under God invisible, with liberty and justice for all, everybody sit down."

Nov 6, 2008

Election Day

It was a big party at our neighborhood precinct at 8:00:05 p.m., just after NBC announced they couldn't project a winner in the presidential race until the polls closed on the west coast at 8:00 PST. At 10 seconds to 8, the anchor started the 10-9-8-7 countdown and all the pollworkers--plus Uzi, Maya, Eden, the neighbors who so graciously offer up their garage as a polling station every year, and whatever other friends were there--did the countdown with him. At exactly 8:00, the network called the race for Obama and we all started screaming, hugging, and literally crying with happiness and relief.
For me, it wasn't even so much that Obama won--though of course that was what I was hoping for--but that we'd had a fair election, and the democratic process in this country has been restored. After too many weeks of hearing about Joe the Plumber, it's Joe the Voter who prevailed.
The photo at top was taken at about 7 p.m. If we look tired, it's because we'd been there since the 6 a.m. set up with only an hour off for staggered lunch breaks. Because we're in such a remote neighborhood, we only had about 300 people on our rolls, and 70 of them had voted by mail, but we still had a good number of voters coming through. A couple of them were 18-21 and very proud to be voting for the first time. A few who showed up weren't on our rolls and had to do provisional ballots, which worried me a little since their votes weren't included in the count that night, and we had a number of important propositions on the ballot. (Like Prop 8, which lost.) We had a big rush in the morning before work and school, a smaller one after school let out, and another one at about 6:30. We couldn't listen to any election results while people were voting, so we'd turn on the radio during the downtimes. Nothing was happening--a few allegations of ballot machine problems and news about long lines, but nothing more--until about 7 p.m. PST, when Vermont was called for Obama and Kentucky and Georgia for McCain. Then results started coming in at a faster clip. I'd say our polling station was about 55 percent registered Democrats, 20 percent Republicans, 20 percent Independents or no party affiliation, and a couple of , and a couple of Libertarians and Green Party hopefuls. I'm guessing the ballots were about 75 percent Obama, 20 percent McCain. That's our liberal mountain town, for you. Two people wrote in "President Hillary Clinton," which I thought was kind of sweet.
Anyway, it's a big sigh of relief at this end. And now I don't have any good reasons left for not finishing my book ASAP.

Oct 30, 2008

Random Observation of the Week

It's hard not to notice...
The vehicles in L.A. most likely to be sporting McCain/Palin bumper stickers are Lincoln Navigators, Ford pickup trucks, and any kind of Cadillac, particularly Escalades.
The vehicles most likely to sport Obama/Biden bumper stickers are Priuses (big surprise there), Subarus, Lexuses, and Hondas.
Once in a while you see an anomaly, like a McCain sticker on a Nissan, or an Obama sticker on a Ford Explorer, but not that often. All in all, everyone's pretty polite about it. I haven't seen any stickers slamming the opposition, just ones that support the driver's candidate of choice.
The exception is the guy in the big Ford pickup with the two McCain stickers in the back window who started harrassing me on PCH the other day for having a picture of Obama with the word "Hope" under it on the back of my car. There's not much you can do at that point except laugh, wave, and shout, "Have a good day!"
Can you tell I've been spending too much time in my car? Los Angeles. (sigh)

PS: My husband thinks Obama should get a bumper sticker that has a portrait of me with the word "Barack" underneath it, just to balance things out.

Oct 27, 2008

Semi-egregious plug for next book, in writing my next book I've been reading an extraordinary amount about Mayan architecture, Mayan astronomy, sacred geometry, the history of Tikal, and the ancient Mayan calendar. (The book is the story of taking Maya to traditional healers in Belize when she was three to get rid of her aggressive imaginary friend.)

Lots of us have heard about how the Mayan calendar ends in 2012, and there are various theories about what that might mean, ranging from a resetting of the spiritual odometer to wholesale planetary destruction. (I'm banking on the former.) The intricacies of the calendar, and its prophecies, are much more detailed than that, however. According to one of the books I've been reading about Mayan prophecy, which was published in 2002, the progression of time toward 2012 is all about the development of human consciousness. The time period between November 2007 and November 2008 is prophecied to be a time of darkness, during which the forces of an earlier consciousness are going to rise up against the forces of light that are ready to push through, and try to push the light back to an earlier state of materialism and greed. This is supposed to last until November 12, at which time the light will shine through for about another year before a less destructive period of darkness will cycle through again.

No matter how you're voting this Election Day, that's a pretty interesting prophecy no? I like the idea that even though most of us don't think much about the ancient Maya, they spent an awful lot of time thinking ahead about us.

A budding writer in the house

Eden's in first grade now, and starting to write weekly essays for homework. The teacher has asked us not to correct the kids' spelling, since phonetic writing is part of the learning curve. Some of her attempts are just plain adorable I can't help memorializing them. Last week she chose the topic, "One little ship can ____." Here's what she came up with. (Notice how she works Iowa in to the essay. She does that just about every chance she can.)

One little ship can go. The ship is saling it is going a
vare laog wea to Iowa. Did you noe that thar is a
wotrfol in the back of the owshin.

Sep 27, 2008

Crickets, crickets everywhere

Last night, when all humans in the house were sleeping, Timmy the cat knocked the cricket house off the bookshelf next to Billy Bob's cage (when you keep a pet tarantula, you also have to keep its feed alive, don't ask), and they all escaped. So now six crickets are at large on the ground floor of our house, and they're all chirping at the same time since the sun went down. It's utter pandemonium over here.

Sep 24, 2008

What's your name?

If you go to the Sarah Palin Baby Name Generator web site at
you can see what your name would have been if you'd been born the offspring of Sarah and the First Dude.
You type in your name and the computer generates two random words for your new moniker. I'm Fire Patriot, which was a little upsetting. Not the patriot part, but the fire part, since we here in Topanga aren't all that keen on fires. Also, I thought Hope was a pretty darn good name to have right about now.
My friend Sky (Soup Landmine) sympathized with me and hastily christened me with a new name: Peace Rainstick. Much, much better.
My middle name, Iris, came back as Trowel Ogre, but let's not go there.

Sep 17, 2008

Lightning Rods

If writers and artists truly are the lightning rods for the culture, it might explain why so many of us are feeling so low. The anger and contempt flying around right now, as both sides of the election duke it out, is more venomous than any time I can recall in my adult life. David Foster Wallace's suicide on Friday weighs on a lot of us heavily right now. I'd never met him personally, but we'd traveled in some of the same orbits. I've heard he'd been depressed for a long time, but still, the timing of it makes me wonder if given the current circumstances that surround us all, it just became too much too bear. If outrage turned to deep despair, and was then unable to be synthesized into hope and action.

My suggestion to everyone at the moment is to avoid internet message boards at the end of online political articles, at all costs. You will see so much fury and hatred there, so much intolerance and desperation and ignorance. You will see the country split exactly in half, and you will see the vastness of the gulf between both sides. You will wonder what country you just woke up in, because certainly this can't be the one you were raised to be proud of and love, not this one where people regurgitate propaganda and spew hate at anonymous fellow citizens. It's like everyone's frustration and despair gets packed into tight little balls they're hurling at each other at 150 mph, forgetting what we have in common in favor of what drives us apart. You will see how the internet allows people the freedom, late at night when they're alone, to reveal their lowest selves without threat of retribution. It's amazing what comes out under those circumstances, how ugly and mean and little both sides can be. And maybe, like me, and like the writer Anne Lamott (see below; god bless that woman for putting it into words) you will be moved to try to make a difference these next six weeks by trying to counterbalance these evil impulses with arbitrary and indiscriminate kindness. For the past week, everywhere I go I try to smile at everyone I see. To remember to say, "Have a good day" to every checkout clerk. To smile and wave at every acquaintance I pass, even the ones I know support McCain. To say hello to strangers. To model warmth instead of distance. Is this a small thing or a large thing? I don't know. Some days it feels small and inconsequential, other days it feels there is no more important way to be living. If enough of us did it, it would be huge. That much I know.

Annie Lamott wrote an article for Salon a few days ago that my friend Leslie sent to me. It captured my feelings exactly when she wrote about having to walk out of church on Sunday because the pastor was not about "bearing up under desperate circumstances, when you feel like you're going crazy because something is being perpetrated against your country that is so obscene you can't believe it is happening."

It's a fabulous article. By an unparalleled writer. She even manages to provide some humor, which we can always use. Especially now. Here's the link:

Sep 15, 2008

Billy Bob's New Skin

Our pet tarantula, Billy Bob, molted yesterday, and it was one of the weirdest things ever witnessed in this house. We got Billy Bob back in early May, not long after I returned from Belize, and have been waiting for him to molt ever since.

First, a couple of words about Billy Bob. He is one freaky little dude. He's a Chilean Rose Hair, easy to find at any PetCo--kind of the Toyota Corolla of tarantulas. He lives in an aquarium in our TV room and eats live crickets, enough said about that. Most of the time he moves very s-l-o-w-l-y, flexing his hairy legs one at a time, until a cricket walks over to him and then he goes phoom! so fast you don't even see him grab it. My friend's son took care of him over the summer while we were away, and we though for sure he would molt then. But no.

For the past couple of days he seemed kind of down. He wasn't moving much, had a dull color, and wasn't eating any crickets. I kept saying, "Maybe he's going to molt," as if I knew what I was talking about. Then yesterday morning he made a small web and flipped over in the middle of it and spread his legs out wide. Maya thought he was dead. I said to give him a while. We read online that tarantulas flip like that when they molt, but he didn't move at all for a couple of hours and I started thinking he might be dead too. Apparently, some spiders don't survive their molts. But by the time we got home later in the evening he was out of his old skin, which is now lying curled up in the back of the cage like a huge, crumpled spider. We'll take it out in a day or two; in the meantime, we're supposed to leave Billy Bob alone for a couple of days while his new skin hardens up. He already looks about 10-15 percent bigger than he was.

I'd post a photo, but we're not supposed to make loud noises or disturb them during this sensitive time, and the flash might bother him. So I'll post a picture of him shortly after we got him.

I'm very proud of the freaky little guy. He had a big day yesterday, and he did well.

Sep 12, 2008

Another random thought

Just about the only good thing I can see about Sarah Palin's nomination and the way her instant celebrity has hijacked the election from talk about issues is this: Mothers in Los Angeles are finally starting to have intelligent, engaged conversations about something more important than their childrens' schools.

Sep 9, 2008

Middle School, the Big Yawn

So Maya started middle school yesterday, after months of anticipation and planning. I dropped her off and watched her head toward her homeroom, which doubles as her English class. She already knows most of the kids in her class from the Orientation, so there weren't going to be any big surprises. And it's the same school she went to last year, although on a new campus. Still, I was expecting some kind of big update when she got home in the afternoon. Instead, she flopped herself down at the kitchen counter and dramatically announced, "Mom, I already feel like I've been in middle school forever."

Sep 6, 2008

Deepak Chopra weighs in

Obama and The Palin Effect
From: Deepak Chopra | Posted: September 4th, 2008

Sometimes politics has the uncanny effect of mirroring the national psyche even when nobody intended to do that. This is perfectly illustrated by the rousing effect that Gov. Sarah Palin had on the Republican convention in Minneapolis this week. On the surface, she outdoes former Vice President Dan Quayle as an unlikely choice, given her negligent parochial expertise in the complex affairs of governing. Her state of Alaska has less than 700,000 residents, which reduces the job of governor to the scale of running one-tenth of New York City. By comparison, Rudy Giuliani is a towering international figure. Palin's pluck has been admired, and her forthrightness, but her real appeal goes deeper.

She is the reverse of Barack Obama, in essence his shadow, deriding his idealism and exhorting people to obey their worst impulses. In psychological terms the shadow is that part of the psyche that hides out of sight, countering our aspirations, virtue, and vision with qualities we are ashamed to face: anger, fear, revenge, violence, selfishness, and suspicion of 'the other.' For millions of Americans, Obama triggers those feelings, but they don't want to express them. He is calling for us to reach for our higher selves, and frankly, that stirs up hidden reactions of an unsavory kind. (Just to be perfectly clear, I am not making a verbal play out of the fact that Sen. Obama is black. The shadow is a metaphor widely in use before his arrival on the scene.)

I recognize that psychological analysis of politics is usually not welcome by the public, but I believe such a perspective can be helpful here to understand Palinʼs message. In her acceptance speech Gov. Palin sent a rousing call to those who want to celebrate their resistance to change and a higher vision.

Look at what she stands for:

--Small town values -- a denial of America's global role, a return to petty, small-minded parochialism.

--Ignorance of world affairs -- a repudiation of the need to repair America's image abroad.

--Family values -- a code for walling out anybody who makes a claim for social justice. Such strangers, being outside the family, don't need to be heeded.

--Rigid stands on guns and abortion -- a scornful repudiation that these issues can be negotiated with those who disagree.

--Patriotism -- the usual fallback in a failed war.

--'Reform' -- an italicized term, since in addition to cleaning out corruption and excessive spending, one also throws out anyone who doesn't fit your ideology.

Palin reinforces the overall message of the reactionary right, which has been in play since 1980, that social justice is liberal-radical, that minorities and immigrants, being different from 'us' pure American types, can be ignored, that progressivism takes too much effort and globalism is a foreign threat. The radical right marches under the banners of 'I'm all right, Jack,' and 'Why change? Everything's OK as it is.' The irony, of course, is that Gov. Palin is a woman and a reactionary at the same time. She can add mom to apple pie on her resume, while blithely reversing forty years of feminist progress. The irony is superficial; there are millions of women who stand on the side of conservatism, however obviously they are voting against their own good. The Republicans have won multiple national elections by raising shadow issues based on fear, rejection, hostility to change, and narrow-mindedness.

Obama's call for higher ideals in politics can't be seen in a vacuum. The shadow is real; it was bound to respond. Not just conservatives possess a shadow -- we all do. So what comes next is a contest between the two forces of progress and inertia. Will the shadow win again, or has its furtive appeal become exhausted? No one can predict. The best thing about Gov. Palin is that she brought this conflict to light, which makes the upcoming debate honest. It would be a shame to elect another Reagan, whose smiling persona was a stalking horse for the reactionary forces that have brought us to the demoralized state we are in. We deserve to see what we are getting, without disguise.

A random thought

Why do all the discussions about prohibiting abortion even in the cases of incest and rape always assume it will happen to "our daughters" or other teenaged girls? Can't a 30-year-old woman be raped? Can't a 40-year-old woman give birth? Why isn't anyone talking about the devastation such a policy would create in existing families--not just to a woman, but also to her husband and her children conceived by choice--if a married mother were forced to give birth to a child conceived by rape?

Rant du Jour

So I was standing outside the Topanga Homegrown clothing and gift store the other day, in downtown small-town Topanga, talking to my friend R. as I picked up her 11-year-old daughter for the day, and we were lamenting how the national emphasis on "family values" is messing up our own families' values. Since Palin's nomination the issues of teen pregnancy and abortion have saturated the news, to the extent that my kids are starting to ask questions I wasn't planning to be answering yet. Maya's still just 10, and the other day she asked, "What's abortion?" She'd heard kids talking about it at school vis a vis this election. I'd been hoping to hold off on that one for a while, like maybe until both my kids were old enough to spell "reproduction."

Eden was in the car, too, which means my audience had an average age of 8. I could have defaulted into a lame response like, "We'll talk about it when you're older" but I really hate saying that to kids. I think it insults whatever level of intelligence they have. What it really means is, "I can't figure out a good way to explain it in a way I think your limited intelligence can understand." Except this time what it would have meant was, "I don't want to have to explain it to you until I feel you're emotionally mature enough to really absorb and understand the complexity of the situation." It would have been an honest and legitimate response from a pro-choice mother in this case, but it probably would have invited Maya to go back and ask her friends to explain it instead. Sorry to use such pat rhetoric here, but I value my family too much to send my kids off to get an answer elsewhere when they've come to me for it first. So I did the best I could with explaining what it means to end a pregnancy, and why a woman might need to do that, to my 10- and 6-year-old daughters in a way that wouldn't confuse or upset them. But it really pissed me off that I had to.

Sep 5, 2008

Can't Stay Quiet Any More

Well, I started this blog back in April with the very best intentions of posting regularly, then became swept up in the chaos of a book deadline, the end of the school year, and preparation for two teaching workshops in Iowa. So I missed writing about a slew of family news, including Maya's fifth-grade graduation; the arrival of our pet tarantula, Billy Bob; the 500-year flood in Iowa City; and our July in Iowa. I was starting to worry that I'd abandoned the blog as just another good idea I once dabbled with. But the events of the past week have pulled me out of silence. Even with a book deadline pressing on me, I feel there is no more important time than right now for women to speak out against the hypocrisy and danger represented by the Republican Party, through the selection of Sarah Palin for vice president.

I realize I risk angering or alienating some of my readers with the posts that are about to follow, so if you don't agree with my points of view, you might want to stop reading. Because I've got some pretty strong opinions about what's going on in this country right now, and I'm going to be posting them. Frequently, and with passion.

I was at the gym after dropping the kids at camp, just about to leave for my office, when I saw Fox News (the gym's choice, not mine) on the overhead television announcing Sarah Palin's nomination. Like everyone else in the gym, and nearly everyone else in America, my first reaction was, "Who?" I felt an initial twinge of excitement to see a woman had been chosen. Pretty much the first thing we learned about her was that she was a mother of five, with a four-month-old infant who had Downs Syndrome. It was hard for me to get past the inherent dissoance there--a special needs infant, with a mother running for national office?--but I figured well, women make different choices, whatever. Then the flood of information about her so-called experience, and the blatant manipulation involved in McCain's decision to choose her, started coming our way. Yesterday, I received an email asking all the women in America who object to Palin's policies on sex education, reproductive freedom, creationism in the schools, and environmental opinions--as well as her blatant disregard for the Constitution's mandate to keep church and state separate and provide religious freedom to all--to post their own opinions on a new blog called Women Against Sarah Palin. You can send your own submissions to

I thought a good place to start would be with posting the submission I sent in tonight. Here it is:

Of all the objectionable points that can be made about Sarah Palin's nomination, and this past week has given us plenty to object to, the point I find most offensive is this: the way the far right and Palin herself, without much else to go on, are trying to use "mother of five" as a legitimate qualification for holding the second-highest executive position in America. That's what's supposed to convince us she's the best candidate for the job? That she's a mother, "just like us!"?

I watched two hosts on "The View" last week gush over how exciting Palin's nomination was and, when pressed to explain why, shouted, "She's a mother of five!" And I had to wonder, what country did I just wake up in? Do Republicans really think women are such idiots we can be treated as if we can't distinguish between the complexities of managing a household and the complexities of managing a world power? Yes, mothers do hard, honest work every day; yes, we rely on a set of skills shared by many executives and CEOs. I've been balancing work and motherhood for almost 11 years: you don't have to sell me on the superior organization and nearly inhuman personal discipline this requires. But my dominion is over a handful of individuals who are smaller, weaker, and biologically primed to adore me. To imply that women don't know this, or to try to dupe us into delusions of self-grandeur, is the worst kind of anti-feminism possible. It's a deception that's designed to appeal to the most dissatisfied and narcissistic parts of us, the parts that need to be reassured that the work we do isn't just worthy, but that it has the potential for national greatness. The most troubling part of this is that in a society that routinely devalues the work of mothers, this tactic will actually pull some women in by making them believe Sarah Palin is just a slightly more experienced version of them. This is pure deception, and trickery, and a complete insult to any mother with a brain. It reeks of patriarchy. It shows us exactly what Republicans think of mothers' intelligence. A tactic like this doesn't foster sisterhood among women. It mocks it.

Hope Edelman, 44
Los Angeles, CA

May 7, 2008

When Volcanoes Erupt

This past winter the girls and I were driving home from piano lessons in the midst of a terrible rainstorm. We were on Old Topanga Canyon Road, which is twisty and cringe-inducing even under the best weather conditions. I gripped the wheel tight with both hands and asked the girls to hold off on any questions or requests for a while so I could concentrate on the road. "These are the worst road conditions I've ever seen in Topanga," I told them--which is saying a lot. Then a little voice popped up from the booster seat behind me, "At least a volcano isn't erupting!"
That's Eden, always looking on the bright side.
It's a family joke now. No matter how grim things may look at any moment, one of us will chime in with, "At least a volcano isn't erupting!"
And now, what do you know? In Chile, a volcano actually IS erupting. Eden, who's obsessed with weather--her favorite books are a series of science titles like "Thunderstorms," "Hurricanes" and "Volcanoes"--is amazed. Still, it's not looking great for the residents of Chaiten, Chile--8000 of whom have been evacuated. That's more than the number who had to evacuate Malibu and parts of Topanga last October during the firestorms. Oddly, the photos coming from Chile of the clouds of ash look a lot like the plumes of smoke we saw pouring out of Malibu last year. As we were evacuating via Calabasas we turned around and saw a truly apocalyptic cloud of gray and white smoke rising from the mountains behind us. I supposed we could have comforted ourselves by reaffirming that at least a volcano wasn't erupting...but Chileans don't have that reassurance now. Nor would it do much for all the citizens of Myanmar recovering from the devastation and loss from the cyclone. During a week like this one, I'm trying to be mindful about reminding the girls to be thankful for every boring day.

Apr 29, 2008

My favorite photo of Eden, ever.
Taken this past weekend by our babysitter, Jillian, outside on the trampoline.

Back in the Saddle

Well, it's been nearly a month since I last posted, proving that I'm going to be as inconsistent with blogging as I am with keeping a journal--kind of unfortunate for a memoir writer. Good thing I have a decent memory. It's not quite as good as Maya, who can remember virtually every gift, compliment, or slight she's received for the past 8 years, but pretty good with details nonetheless.

It's been more than a month since I returned from Belize, and a couple of weeks since we all got back from the family trip there. One thing I realized--on both trips--was that I cannot in good conscience take checks from Random House to write a book set in Belize without giving something back to the place that gave me the story to begin with. If you saw the standard of living down there, especially compared to ours in the U.S., you'd know exactly how I feel. So while there I started looking into how to support or donate to the rainforest communities, especially in the area in and around San Ignacio, without being an obnoxious American who drops in and gives random handouts. The areas in which I've decided to try to do some good are libraries, school tuition, and afterschool programs. Here's the situation in Belize: everyone, even those who send their kids to public school at the primary level, have to pay some amount of tuition for education to cover uniforms and books. It can be as little as US$200 per year but even that is hard for some families to cover. Education is mandatory--and in English--until age 14, but after that high school costs quite a bit more, as much as $200 per month for tuition and even more for those who have to take public transportation to the nearest high school. In addition, some kids have nowhere to go between the time school lets out and their parents get home from work, so low- or no-cost afterschool and summer programs are important for them. School supplies are expensive and hard to get in Belize, so I figured that was a good starting point. Last week I sent six boxes of notebooks, pens, markers, glue sticks, etc. down to San Ignacio for the library's summer program and for Dr. Rosita's afterschool homework and conservation program for kids ages 8-12. The library also needs books for preschoolers and young adult novels, so if any of you have extra books in good condition sitting around and would like to donate them to Belizean kids, let me know and I'll make arrangements to pick them up.

It's not huge, but it's a start, and I feel it's very important to do this next book with the right intent.

Otherwise, life in Topanga speeds along at its quick and chaotic pace. I've started taking an adult bellydancing class on Tuesday mornings, which starts in about 15 minutes. The teacher, Melanie, also has a troupe for girls that Maya and Eden have been dancing in and performing with for several years. (I'll post a photo here.) I told Eden this morning on the way to her bus stop that I was taking Melanie's class for women who are beginners. "What about women who are enders?" she wanted to know. Both girls are having great fun knowing there's a skill at which they are much, much better than their mom. They're teaching me how to do belly rolls, which is a lot easier to do when you're 10 than when you're 43 and have birthed two large babies. The women's class is about 8 or 10 women of varying ages and bodies and natural abilities, but it's not really about having the perfect shape or perfecting the moves. It's more about coming together to dance what was traditionally a woman's dance for other women (in the harems, apparently), celebrating our femininity, and learning how to tell stories with our bodies. Which is really a physical form of memoir, when you think about it.

Mar 22, 2008

Belize Redux--Trip #1

Returned from Belize last Tuesday morning, and it’s been a catch-up race ever since. It wasn’t easy to blog or email from there, since email access was very limited and often very slow. That turned out to be a blessing, in its own way, since without internet, computers, or cell phones I was—gasp—actually forced to interact with people on a constant basis and spend time with my own thoughts. Which turned out to be one of the many highlights of the trip.

So. Belize! It was eleven days total, all of it spent in the Cayo District in the western part of the country. The first seven days were a workshop with Dr. Rosita Arvigo, learning about Mayan spiritual healing and the unique power of plants for spiritual and medicinal work. Rosita studied for many years with Don Elijio Panti, one of Belize’s most famous shamans, and her wealth of knowledge is extensive. She’s a generous and brilliant and funny teacher. There were about 25 or 26 students there for the week, and I don’t think I’ve ever met such a beautiful group of people before. For me, coming from LA, it was a big and nervous stretch to walk up to strangers, stick out my hand, and say, “Hi, I’m Hope,” but once I got over that hurdle I found myself in the company of 26 interesting, hilarious women and men (mostly women—there were only 3 men among us, like a creative writing workshop) who by the end of the week felt like more than friends. Cousins, maybe, or even reunited siblings.

We stayed in the River Camp section of Chaa Creek resort, sort of like a low-tech summer camp environment with bunks for two and four, that’s often used by large groups. My roommate, Michele, was a physical therapist and yoga instructor from Colorado and we would stay up late at night talking. I haven’t had a roommate since…well, since college, I think, and this was another highlight of the trip. Every morning we would all walk about a mile through the rainforest along the river, then across the Chaa Creek property, then through another patch of jungle past the Natural History Center and Butterfly Farm, then up a hill to Rosita’s house for class. On Tuesday we had an excursion day where we all canoed down the Macal River to the town of San Ignacio, walked around and did some souvenir shopping, had lunch in the village of San Jose de Succotz with Dona Juana, a traditional Mayan healer, and then toured the Mayan ruins at Xunantunich. Afterward we stopped at the Ix Chel Wellness Center, where Rosita and her husband Greg run a massage school and also where her Rainforest Remedies products are manufactured. I came back with a small stash of tinctures for stomach upsets, the flu, anxiety, and back aches that work better than any pharmaceuticals I’ve ever come across. She also has terrific insect repellant and a salve for insect bites and all kinds of rashes. Everything is made from leaves, bark, and other natural products found in Belize. You can find these items—and others, including Rosita’s books—at

The day after the workshop, I went back to San Antonio Village with Heidi and Seth (friends from the class) and a guide and translator (Docio, who was the supervisor of the river camp). San Antonio is where we started our journey with Maya in 2000, when we brought her to a Mayan bush doctor, and I was hoping to find him again. Docio, who has relatives in San Antonio, thought he’d located him for me. The man he brought us to looked different than I remembered. I had a photo of his house from 2000 but even though he brought us to what he said was that structure, it had been moved to a different part of his land and boarded up when he built a new house, so nothing looked familiar to me. But then he brought us inside the house, which he now uses for drying herbs. (That's a photo of us above.) I told him I remembered a handwritten letter on the wall introducing himself as a Mayan healer and he lifted a piece of paper on the far right wall and underneath it was a clipboard with the sign I remembered. Then he asked if the woman had brought the medicine back for us, so he remembered us. A few years ago, Uzi’s assistant at work—who’s Belizean—went home for a holiday and brought back some additional cough rub for us from him, and he remembered giving it to her. So we’d definitely found our man.

I spoke with him about Eden's psoriasis, and he offered to pick some leaves to give her in a tea and a bath. The next afternoon when I was leaving the local market in San Ignacio he found me in town and gave me a big bag of leaves. We rode the local bus back together—me to Cristo Rey, my next stop, and him all the way to San Antonio. It was market day, so the bus stopped about every 50 feet at individual houses to let women off with their purchases. The driver got out at every stop and opened the back of the bus to carry each family’s box of food to each curb. Riding the bus with Ovencio was definitely a demystifying process. For seven years I’ve thought of him as the mystical Mayan bush doctor who grew to mythic stature in my mind, and then we’re sitting together on an old school bus on a bumpy dirt road looking at a bag of leaves.

As a side note, bringing a bag of leaves into the U.S. from Central America isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. In other words, you can’t do it. You can, however, boil a pot of water, steep the leaves in it for about ten minutes to make a tea, strain the water, and let it cool, then pour it into plastic water bottles, tape them shut, wrap them up tightly in plastic, and bury them between clothes in your duffle bag. After I got home, Eden drank one cup of tea for three days in a row and we’ve bathed her nine times. So far her skin is doing really well.

One of the two leaves Ovencio gave me is known in Belize as Ix Canan (the Mayan name) or Santa Maria (the Spanish name). In the US apparently it can grow in Florida, Texas and California and is called either Scarlet Bush, Texas Firecracker, or Polly Redhead. My local nursery, which is a pretty comprehensive one, doesn't carry it and never heard of it, so I'm on a mission to find seeds or a seedling so we can grow it here. If anyone has any ideas, please let me know.

Back to the recap...

For the final three days of the trip, I stayed at Crystal Paradise resort in Cristo Rey, where we stayed seven years ago. It’s family owned, and I became reacquainted with some of the people who’d helped us in 2000. On Sunday, my last day, I’d done pretty much everything I’d set out to do on the trip, so I figured I’d join whatever excursion that day had an extra seat in the van. It turned out to be a trip over to Tikal, in Guatemala, a trek we’d also made seven years ago. I wasn’t planning to include a Tikal chapter in the book, but while making the drive and touring the Mayan ruins, and remembering things that had happened there, I realized it would make a good chapter. So that was a little bit of kismet at work there. A big highlight of this part of the trip was meeting Hugo, our driver. He didn’t speak much English and for 90 minutes from the border to Tikal, and 90 minutes back, I got the best Spanish refresher lesson of my life. Until then, I was very shy about speaking Spanish because I don’t like to speak poorly, but after just the first half hour an incredible amount of vocabulary and sentence structure started coming back. It’s inspired me to take some more classes. Of course, there’s the pesky problem of Hebrew words popping up sometimes if I can’t remember the Spanish one, but speaking two languages halfway doesn’t really make sense. I’d rather make strides with one of them—the more useful one in most parts of LA.

Hugo and his wife recently worked for CBS when they were filming "Survivor" on an island in the middle of a lake in the Peten region of Guatemala--Hugo as a driver, and his wife helping out with the laundry. He entertained all nine of us in the van with stories of how CBS took over with their base camp and film crews, and what happened to all the Americans immediately after they were voted off the show.

The next day, at the airport on the way home, I ran into three women from my workshop and we had a small mini-reunion. Everyone is spread out across the U.S., but I’m certain we’ll find ways to see each other again. Already, when we all go back down to Belize on Friday, I’ll get to see two, maybe three, of the women from the workshop who live in Belize. I was hoping to bring Uzi, Maya, and Eden back to Cayo but the hotel at the beach which we had to pre-pay doesn’t want to refund any of the nights, even with one week’s notice, so that’s complicating things. We’ll most likely stay on Ambergris Caye, the biggest of Belize’s islands, for the whole week. I know, I know…poor us. But I do feel as if a piece of my heart is tugging me back to the western part of the country, and I think another trip there before the end of the year is in order, if I can possibly make it work.

Mar 7, 2008

Heading to Belize, and Random Thought About Fake Memoirs

Here's an interesting and recently proven fact: If your flight from LAX to Miami leaves an hour late, it's possible to make up so much time in the air that you will arrive on the East Coast in UNDER FOUR HOURS. You will have to fly at close to the speed of sound, however, and will be reminded the whole way that traveling at such velocity is not only unnatural but a little unnerving.

Still. It gets you to Florida pretty damn fast.

My connecting flight to Belize leaves in about and hour and a half. And then in two hours I'll be in Belize City. It's hard to believe I'll be there so soon, after several months of prep. Most of the 29 workshop participants are landing between 11:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. and then we'll be shuttled two hours west into the rainforest. The workshop begins tomorrow morning at 9:30.

I spoke with the legal department at Ballantine before I left, to find out what the recommended procedure is for securing permission to use people's real names in the book. Because I've got such a wacky story (which really happened, a rarity these days it seems), I want to tell it in a way that ups the authenticity quotient as much as possible, and since real people are characters I'd like to use the facts at every possible turn. We all agreed it would be off-putting to show up down there with legal release forms, especially since English isn't everyone's first language. The answer from legal was that since the experience really happened, I don't need permission to write about the characters or places by name. Still, it seems to me that it's a good idea--even though I can't imagine any of the characters would object; they all come across like heroes, I think--to give people a chance to decide if they want their names and the names of their establishments to appear in a book. I figured I'd get verbal confirmations and take lots of photos of the people I'm revisiting for futher proof of their existence. But this was all the day before the Margaret Seltzer, aka Margaret B. Jones faux-memoirist story broke. Now I'm thinking I'd better take photographs of all the characters holding the day's newspaper in one hand and a big handprinted sign in the other reading, "I exist, and I consent to having my real name used in Hope Edelman's upcoming book. Signed, me."

I may be the only nonfiction writer who hasn't yet weighed in on this newest publishing debacle. Two debacles, actually, if you count Misha Defonseca's Holocaust memoir that was recently exposed as a fake, and three if you factor in that the facts in Ishmael Beah's book are also under fire. As all memoirists know, there's always been a fuzzy line between memoir and fiction, depending as we do on the devices of fiction to shape a story from the raw material of real life, and given the inevitable impulse to tweak and twist and embellish to up the ante and make a good story just a little bit more dramatic, or make a mediocre story just a little bit less ho-hum. What first-time (and even more seasoned, I imagine) writers don't realize is that the thing that makes a good story great is not inventing details, or appropriating a false persona. What makes a good story great is, put most simply, great writing. If James Frey had been a better writer, he would have been able to write a book in which three hours in prison felt like three months. If Margaret Seltzer had been as good a writer as her initial reviews implied she was, she could have written a kickass memoir about being a white girl with aspirations of being a gangbanger, and gotten her homey friends' stories into print that way. As for Misha Defonseca, a nonfiction book about why the hell she feels the need to invent a tragic, genocidal past for herself would be more interesting to me than a Holocaust memoir that isn't real. The idea of projecting oneself backward into a tragic past so fully that one believes it really existed strikes me as not just pathological, but tragic in and of itself. As a writer friend of mine said at lunch the other day, "If I were going to invent a past for myself, I wouldn't pick one filled with tragedy and abuse. I'd choose to be a rock star." Touche. But that would be too easy to fact check, I suppose.

And what's up with the older sister ratting on Margaret Seltzer after seeing the NYT profile of her? There's got to be some kind of family-drama story there.

Mar 2, 2008

Flu in the Coop

It's Flu Central around here right now. Maya had it a few weeks ago--high fever, headache, cough, sore throat, aches and chills--and I thought the rest of us had miraculously been spared, but then I came down with it on Thursday, and Eden woke up yesterday morning with a 102 degree fever. Uzi had some big clients from Amsterdam in town all last week and our babysitter's car broke down Wednesday night--one of those 'what else can possibly go wrong?' kind of weeks--so I had to take care of the girls myself Thursday and Friday when I was insanely, outrageously sick, which was exactly the opposite of fun. (Read: back-to-back videos in Mom's bed and microwaveable chicken nuggets and corn for dinner. Although to kids that probably does sound like fun.) Maya's flu lasted for five days--four of which perfectly coincided with our family vacation to Mammoth--and I'm on Day Four now. So hopefully I'm coming to the end of it. But poor Eden. She's trying so hard to be in good spirits, but her fever shot up to almost 104 this afternoon. Also, whenever her immune system gets challenged her psoriasis acts up, so that's making her uncomfortable. Uzi took Maya to her improv class at Second City in Hollywood, so I was home alone with her. I gave her some Tylenol and went to run a sponge bath, but while I was filling the tub she fell asleep on my bed. I figure that sleep is the best thing for her right now, so I just let her go for it. When Uzi and Maya got back they brought us a dozen pink roses with a Get Well card--so sweet.

I remember when Maya (and even Eden) were much younger, whenever I'd see 103.8 on a thermometer I'd rush to call the pediatrician. Thank god for our pediatrician ( He's a saint. Pediatricians have got to be the most patient human beings put on this earth. How many times a day do they have to calm down frantic parents during flu season? I'm guessing a lot. By now, I don't call unless there are unusual symptoms. Otherwise, it's Tylenol or Motrin (check), sponge bath (check), lots of water and juice (check, check), call the doctor if the fever lasts for more than five days. (Let's hope it doesn't get to that point.)

That doesn't mean I'm completely calm when a fever goes up that high--it still gives me a little twinge of panic to see the numbers on the digital thermometer go up, and up, and up. But what's freaking me out most right now is that I'm scheduled to leave Thursday night for 10 days in Belize (by myself) and I don't know how I'm going to get on the plane if Eden's still sick. I'm committed to going even if I'm not fully recovered, because it's for a workshop that happens only once a year, and I'll be doing research for my book down there, which is due in October, but I don't like leaving the kids for 10 days under any circumstances--and definitely not if one of them is sick. And the timing is very weird, because I just finished writing the chapter in the book (set in 2000) where Uzi, Maya, and I left for Belize and she was very sick with croup upon our departure. The pediatrician (not Dr. Jay, a different one back then) told us it was a virus, and she'd either get better at home or she'd get better down there, so we might as well go, which sounded like good advice. But we had so many airline delays on the trip down that it took us two days to get there--including a sleepless night in Guatemala City--and she got much sicker on the journey. Something about having a virus now, when I'm again about to leave for Belize, feels auspicious given that history. I'd rather get better up HERE than down there. I've got four more days. Let's hope that's enough time.

I'm just praying that Uzi doesn't come down with it, while I'm away. His system is usually the most resilient one in the house, so hopefully he'll be spared. We've got friends up the street who've got it now--all four of them--and lots of kids in both Maya and Eden's classes have been sick. Uzi says it's good for the immune system to get challenged from time to time, to stay in shape, which sounds plausible. Still, couldn't it get a one-day workout every couple of months, instead of a weeklong stretch every other year? That would be a heck of a lot more convenient for a working mom. For anyone, really. Let me know who I need to talk with about organizing this, and I'll be happy to place the call.

Feb 29, 2008

The Starting Gate

People have been asking me for a while now, "Do you have a blog?" "When are you starting a blog?" "Why don't you have a blog?" I've been resisting it with all number of excuses: I don't have time, who cares what I have to say, I'm too old for this kind of stuff, etc. etc. Plus, if I start a blog, what inevitably happens next? A My Space page where I start poking other moms from the elementary school? You Tube videos of my tricks for solving fifth-grade math equations? I don't think so. Then just yesterday I moved my office from a little complex in the heart of Pacific Palisades to a very cool, funky space on the grounds of the Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga Canyon, not far from our house. The Theatricum is an outdoor theater that puts on plays and concerts in the warmer months. It was started by Will Geer and his family back around the McCarthy Era when he was blacklisted in Hollywood. Being an off the charts leftist (Go, Kucinich) I feel like the place has just the right vibe for writing my next book. Still, the new office is far enough off the beaten path to mean that either I wholly embrace the spirit of Topanga or I'm going to be sitting in my little 120-square-foot room six hours a day longing for a Starbucks and a Citibank. So partly to chronicle the next year, and partly to occupy myself in this self-imposed isolation, I figured I may as well blog about my time here, in this strange and wonderful canyon, raising two daughters; being a post-boom, dot-com wife; writing a book; and driving my minivan all over L.A. Although I'm hankering for a Prius. Because this is Topanga, after all.

Here's a link about Topanga Canyon for those of you who aren't familiar with it:

I'm calling this blog 455 Girls because a) I'm planning to write about motherhood some of the time, and I've got two girls; and b) because both Topanga and my older daughter figure prominently in my next book, which is about taking her to a Mayan shaman in Belize when she was three to get rid of her aggressive imaginary friend. (True story.)

Why the 455? Because Topanga is small enough that all of our local phone numbers begin with the same exchange: 455. So when you go to the dry cleaner, or order food from one of the local restaurants, and someone asks for your phone number you only have to give them the last four digits. It's a little like living on a modern-day Walton Mountain. With a New Age twist. Kind of addictive, in its own way.