Sunday, January 30, 2011

Burning the Midnight Oil...

There are few things I like better than writing. It gives me a great sense of accomplishment to look at a screen full of words that I’ve strung together. I also like the fact that writing can give one the greatest excuse to read, to question and to communicate. However, despite the huge amount of time I spend at the keyboard, I’m hesitant to tell people that I am a writer. You see, with few things to show for my work, it seems somehow disingenuous.

Those that know me understand that I’ve had a lifelong fascination with the great and near great. Certainly any member of the British Royal Family and nearly all presidents and first ladies can command my attention for a long period of time. For several years I’ve been working at researching, writing and understanding some of their stories. Unfortunately, despite my best efforts, this work has so far amounted to several large boxes of photocopied oral histories, State Dinner menus and guest lists, letters and memos from presidential libraries; kind but unhelpful responses from presidential spouses and their staff members reminding me that the role of first lady is much more than organizing the social side of the White House; endless letters from ladies-in-waiting and private secretaries cordially declining any assistance with my current subject (unless I first become a published author); and several quite extensive outlines and first drafts of what I am convinced will one day be real books. Oddly, I am not completely discouraged, not that I haven’t been over the years.

Perhaps the chief reason for my enduring hope is that there are so many people who have been supportive and encouraging throughout the years. Thankfully, my wife is at the top of that list. I don’t know anyone who is more convinced of my abilities – certainly I am not. And then there are my children. While I see my files of letters from the secretaries of presidents, first ladies, queens and dukes as a long catalogue of closed doors, they are mesmerized by the fact that I’ve even written to these people and someone, anyone, has written back.

Other writers have also been helpful in so many ways, while some have been less encouraging. Perhaps my favorite letters are from two English writers of great age who took the time to respond to my rather naieve queries. Both nonagenarians, Lady Elizabeth Longford (successful biographer of the Queen, the late Queen Mother and Queen Victoria) and Georgina Battiscombe (one of the few to have written a full-scale book about Queen Alexandra of England) wrote witty, friendly and genuinely helpful letters telling me to simply write and keep on writing no matter what. Two other well-known royal biographers were less encouraging. One suggested that, “as an American, there’s no way you could possibly understand our Royal Family.” Another stated that with all of the information currently available about the royals, the only way to make any sort of living at it was to “make things up!” Thankfully, American writers are, on the whole infinitely more helpful and give one at least the hope that there’s success at the end of the tunnel.

Perhaps my greatest problem is a certain lack of focus. Ideas for books and articles flow freely… Entertaining at the White House: 80 Years of Presidential Style from the Roosevelts to the (insert administration in office when I actually finish this book!); Lady Bird Johnson: Unlimited Partner; Royal Sisters: The Lives of Queen Alexandra and the Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna; Pillow Talk: Doris Day and Her Early 1960’s Comedies; Life in LA: A Neighborhood by Neighborhood Look at America’s Greatest Megacity; Shiny Brite: An Illustrated Look at the Great Mid-Century Christmas; Kim Novak: The Art of Stardom… The list of titles goes on, and so does my seemingly endless enthusiasm. It’s the finished product that I’m missing.

Of course, there have been one or two successes – a series of articles in a historical journal, a (finished!) manuscript of essays about life with so many children and an illustrated children’s book. I keep assuring myself that, in time, I will finish them all. I’m young (ish) and I won’t be driving carloads of children around forever. In the meantime, I gather, I read, I take notes and, I try, to write every day. And I suppose that’s a little victory in itself. It can be a great challenge to keep up with the every day aspects of life – a family and a job and everything that comes with it – and to get anything else done is just icing on the cake.

Friday, January 28, 2011

An Ode to the Spritz Cookie

Well, Christmastime has come and gone and, if you're at all like me, you can't wait until the next yuletide season! Of course, there's lots of fun to be had in the meantime, but nothing beats Christmas in my book. For me, the best time of year starts on September 24 (my birthday!) and ends on December 31. Perhaps there is nothing I like better about the holiday season than the gift my mom and aunt put together for us each year. There's always a huge basket with lots of delicious homemade treats. And, in that basket, nothing is better than the much loved Spritz cookie...

An Ode to Spritz Cookies

By Jacob Gariepy, Poet?

Oh dear Spritz cookies, how I love thee so much,
So buttery and crispy and light to the touch.
How I could sit upon my bed and eat thee bite by bite,
All morning, all evening, and all through the night.

The tiny green trees leaving nothing to waste,
Their rich delicious aroma and wonderful taste,
The wee bitty stars and teeny pink wreaths,
Makes me so happy right down to my knees.

How I like to take you and pick you apart,
The taste of each cookie warmeth my heart.
As I munch and crunch and chew every bite,
I know nothing more fun, not by day or by night.

But then, at last, the tragic moment draws near,
The bag, once so full, is now empty, I fear.
And now for more Spritz cookies, I simply must wait,
Until next Christmas night, what a deplorable fate.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Start of a Series... Royal Jewels

This brooch was made in the late 19th century for the Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna of Russia. Marie, or Minny as she was known to her family, was the sister of Queen Alexandra of Great Britain, who was in turn the wife of Queen Victoria's heir King Edward VII. Minny was also the daughter of the King of Denmark, the sister of the King of the Hellenes (Greece) and the mother of the tragic Tsar Nicholas II - pretty well-connected, wouldn't you say? An avid collector of fabulous jewels, the Dowager Empress did have to leave some of her vast collection behind whe nshe fled Russia following the Russian Revolution. Exiled in her native Denmark, some of Minnie's lost jewels made their way to London with a cache of other Romanov baubles. Ever the opportunist, Queen Mary, the wife of Marie's nephew King George V, was given an advance look at the treaure trove housed at the Bank of England. Picking from countless sparkling tiaras, ropes of enormous pearls and stunning ruby, emerald, sapphire and diamond brooches, necklaces, bracelets and rings, this was one of the many acquisitions made by the Queen.

One of the present Queen's favorite pieces, the Empress Marie Feodorovna Sapphire Brooch is worn frequently by Elizabeth II, and will likely be passed on to future British queens.
This study was done in late 2008 and is the first in a series.
It’s oddly quiet in here. Where is the sound of crying? The blood-curdling screams of my two year old – being deprived of the one Matchbox car that he must have? LEGO’s being thrown down the stairs? Skateboard tricks being done in the attic (a space that our vertically challenged 8 year old can barely stand upright in).

The silence is unusual because we are the parents of, you got it - seven boys and a girl. Understand, I wouldn’t trade them for the world – a really good hot fudge sundae maybe, but generally, I can’t imagine life without them anymore. Not that I don’t try to from time to time, though.

Kids are amazing. When they are asleep next to you, warm, soft and silent, you can’t imagine how you could possibly have so much love for one little person. Then, they wake up, or grow up. The love is still there, but it’s a little harder to get to when you are in the midst of explaining why it’s not financially possible to meet every one of your child’s material demands. After all, little Johnny’s parents are sending him to baseball camp, buying him a new Ipod and taking him to Europe. Johnny’s dad also coaches the baseball team and takes the family out to dinner at least twice a week. Why can’t we just have another $20 to go to the movies, or buy another cell phone? Maybe I’m totally out of touch with the realities of today, but the expectations of a parent do seem to have changed. Simply providing guidance, love, food, shelter and clothing are the very least one can do. A father isn’t truly successful until he’s provided summer vacations, $200 skateboards and the latest and greatest from Nintendo for his growing brood. What are these kids expected to do when they are supposed to be asleep? If there’s no new video game to play, there’s precious little that can occupy the hours from 9:00 pm until they collapse from sheer exhaustion at an unspecified early morning hour.

But, I digress. Here I am with two more peaceful hours ahead of me. Nothing that I have to do, no one asking me for anything, just peace and quiet. It’s now that the panic sets in - I have no idea what to do with it! There are so many things that I could do, and yet it’s impossible to choose just one – listen to music? Watch a movie? Take a nap? Paint the kitchen? After mulling this problem over and wandering aimlessly around the house I finally decide on the book. Just as I crack the cover, I hear that familiar sound… the door. They’re back! Can’t those kids even let me have a minute to read a book?!!?!?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Coming Soon!

That's right... after months, maybe even years, of talking about it... "Severine", the story of a young girl and her adventures in Paris, will be in print soon! Watch this site for updates!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

“That guy looks terrified!”

This is my fifteen year old son speaking. We were in the waiting room of his mother’s OB watching as a very young couple stopped to make an appointment with the receptionist.

I couldn’t have agreed more. The man/boy did look terrified and I wondered if I had that same deer in the headlights look when we were having our first baby, almost seventeen years earlier. I don’t think I did, I was odd that way. Looking back, I see that I was more serious and more adult (also read as “stuffy”) when I was twenty than I am now. But, I can say that as I sat there, waiting for my pregnant wife to finish up her appointment for our eighth baby, I had never felt more relaxed at the prospect of another addition to our family.

Now that baby number eight, and son number seven, has arrived, that feeling of comfort has only increased. I’m much older now and my perspective has changed considerably. I know that waking up five times each night only lasts for a few months, and that there really is nothing better than laying around with a sleeping baby on your chest. Not only is there nothing better, there’s nothing more worthwhile. If you can throw reading a good book into that mix, you are about as close to heaven on earth as you can get.

My new son arrived just before Thanksgiving. As someone who loves the fall and winter, I was already into my favorite time of year. The pregnancy had been difficult compared to the previous seven, and the prospect of a post-natal wife seemed pretty exciting. I knew the discomfort she was feeling, referring to herself as a “trailer”, and we were both getting sick of eating CafĂ© Yumm, the one meal that did not impact her gestational diabetes negatively. It didn’t seem that our baby would ever come. But, of course, he did, and on his schedule, not ours.

This was the first time we’d had a baby at the new hospital, a giant brick pile that tries to look like a resort hotel in the Disney Grand Californian style, and the surroundings were unfamiliar. We arrived in the late afternoon and were escorted to the labor and delivery suite. It sounds quite luxurious, but all the tubes, cords and machines tend to dampen any spa-like atmosphere. Have you ever read the labels on the many drawers of supplies around a hospital room? The images of torturous pain that come from doing so is hardly comforting – catheters, swabs, lubricants… and those are the nicer things.

My wife is not one to act the role of victim under any circumstance. I can’t think of a single labor that occurred without lipstick and powder perfectly in place, and there’s little to no sound of pain emanating from her. She’s also always doing something until the last minute. She’s read, played handheld Yahtzee or, in this case, worked on some complex needlework until she absolutely has to give in to the fact that she’s really in labor and does, in fact, have to pause to have the baby.

Not for the first time, her stoicism resulted in the lack of proper pain relief. Her doctor, a diminutive man who really does think he knows everything (judging by some of his questions, I am not sure that he even knows that much about pregnancy and childbirth), had been with her through four pregnancies. Yet, in spite of countless office visits and four labors, he still had no idea how to approach my wife. “So, you let me know when you are REALLY in labor, O.K.? You know, there’s the part of labor where you’re kind of like, “I think I’m in labor”, and then there’s the REAL labor.” Yes, she knows, she’s done it before. Despite her assurances that she REALLY was in REAL labor, he didn’t seem to take it too seriously. After a lot of coming in and out of the room and doing nothing of much use, he was finally convinced that it might be time for an epidural. Understand that throughout this whole time, he bopped around the room and the halls in his annoying, peppy, “Isn’t it so fun to have a baby!” way. I’ve always thought he might be better suited to a role in one of those parades at Disneyland, dancing away, waving a colorful flag to the tunes of “High School Musical” or “The Lion King”.

Of course, it was far too late for an epidural. You see, my wife’s lack of screaming, grunting and thrashing often lead people to believe that she’s not really in pain. My own intervention is usually seen as that of an annoying and meddlesome husband.

Moments after the doctor and nurse informed us that we’d be having a baby in about twenty minutes, our little boy exited his mother and entered the world. The doctor was occupied elsewhere and the nurse looking at one of the many monitors around the room. Looking over at the bed, the nurse called, “We have a baby!” It was that fast.

As usual, I followed my routine – unable to speak for about fifteen minutes because I am so choked up. Walking around in a bit of a daze, I followed our little fellow through his check up under the heat lamp and back to my wife, over to the bath and back to my wife again. The usual questions were asked – “So, is this your last one, or are you trying for a baseball team? Ha ha ha…” I am really not prepared to answer either part of this question because, first of all, I am kind of focused on this baby and, secondly, I have no idea how many people comprise a baseball, football or basketball team.

The rest of the hospital stay is a bit of a daze. The night seemed to last forever. I can’t think of a less comfortable place to try to sleep, and I hadn’t just been through labor and delivery. Our night nurse had the personality of a piece of Wonder Bread, but this didn’t stop her from trying to engage in conversation, usually consisting of remarks that had absolutely no response followed by awkward silences. She also let us know that while my wife could have all the narcotics she needed to numb any pain, she wasn’t authorized to give her any kind of non-narcotic pain relievers. I had to sneak in some regular strength, Western Family acetaminophen – what a rebel.

The baby was another matter entirely. Perfectly healthy, perfectly content, he wouldn’t make a peep. I don’t just mean that he was quiet, I mean that no matter what happened, he would not respond. Poke his feet twenty times? Sleeping peacefully. Change him, take his temperature, toss him up in the air – nothing. I should note that he has since made up for this serenity by crying lustily each time I hold him, but that’s for another time.