#90, The Mother Who Wouldn't Tell Stories

gather round to hear this ancient legend

Is there anything that strikes as much dread in your heart as “Mom, can you tell me a story?” If one of them asks me I almost instinctively recoil?

It’s possibly strange considering I love reading and writing and I spent hours and hours, as a kid, telling stories out loud to myself. It was a compulsion, I had to do it.1 But that was for me, children. I have no desire to keep up a constant stream of entertaining background noise for you.

So yeah, they found a machine to do it for them. Alice and Hugh are super super into podcasts, which they’ve come to consider the next best thing to TV because it’s still kind of like a screen. (“Mom, can we listen to a podcast ON YOUR PHONE?” No.) Here’s what we listen to:

Pinna. Pinna is a streaming audio service for kids. It’s $7.99 a month or $79.99 a year but they often have 50% off deals. My kids’ favorite thing on it is “Grimm, Grimmer, Grimmest,” which is a really extremely good fairy tale podcast. The guy who hosts it, Adam Gidwitz, is great and truly talented for talking to kids in a non-condescending way (Google Adam Gidwitz and one of the top results Google suggests is “Is Adam Gidwitz married?” which I’ve wondered too.)

The reason I know he’s good at talking to kids is that the conceit of each episode of “Grimm, Grimmer, Grimmest” is that it’s being told in a classroom (before Covid, live in a classroom; now, on Zoom). Some of the kids’ questions and comments are incorporated into each story. I gotta warn you though that the kids are ~extremely precocious~, because — I learned by reading the show notes — the school he works with is Brooklyn Friends. After you listen to an episode of “Grimm, Grimmer, Grimmest,” you’re going to google tuition at Brooklyn Friends and you’re going to learn that it is $51,080 per year and you’re going to have the episode “The Strange Red Fox” on in the car for your kids and this is going to happen:

Adam Gidwitz: So the gardener pretty much had the most important job in the whole kingdom. You can probably understand why he was stressed and distracted. [cuts from telling the story to talking to the kids] Do any of your parents have jobs that kind of make them stressed sometimes?

Kid 1: Yeah. My mom’s a musician.

Kid 2: My mom’s a psychologist.

Kid 3: My mom sometimes has projects due because she’s a set designer.

Adam Gidwitz: Uh-huh, and does she ever get stressed before they’re due?

Kid 3: Not really. She just has to keep working and working and working.

Laura Hazard Owen [hissing from the front seat] Oh, she’s a set designer! Oh, she never really gets stressed! HEY KID, now tell us which bank your dad works at!

Alice: Mom, can you please stop talking so we can hear the story?

Circle Round. It’s a WBUR story podcast. We pay $51,080 annually for it. There are 132 episodes and 3/4 of them are “feisty girl outwits bad thing but in some different culture.” It’s pretty good. We had tickets once to a Circle Round live show when my mom was visiting, but Hugh suddenly started mysteriously limping so Kevin and had to take him to the doctor and when I told my mom she’d have to take Alice to the Circle Round show, the look on her face.

Wow in the World. I invite you to listen to one or two episodes and guess what you think the hosts look like, then google them and I guarantee it’s exactly how you imagined it.

Reading Bug Adventures. The key thing to know about this podcast is the episodes are extremely long, like 90 minutes-plus. It’s run by a children’s bookstore in California and sponsored by various children’s book publishers. It’s hosted by one of the store’s co-owners and you can tell that all her life she dreamed of being a singer but she wasn’t quite good enough to do it professionally so now she incorporates many minutes of her singing into each episode of the podcast, like sometimes rapping about mummies.

Kids Short Stories Podcast. Nothing worse!!! Hugh was obsessed for awhile. He broke his femur in March (this is unrelated to the limping incident I mentioned previously) and was in a spica cast for six weeks (it was horrible) and so for a time, we were letting him listen to pretty much unlimited Kids Short Stories Podcast, despite how truly intolerable it is to everyone else in the family, even Alice. I think we now all associate it with the darkness of that time, and even Hugh doesn’t really ask to listen to it anymore.

So imagine that there was a pretty dumb guy who was terrible at telling stories but he loved doing it. Like, a kid says “tell me a story!” and he enthusiastically tells the worst story you’ve ever heard, uses professional recording equipment to blast it into your home, and then tells a new one either three times a week or every single weekday if you pay for the premium package (we don’t). Now that I’ve heard dozens and dozens of these, I can safely assert that he doesn’t that he doesn’t write down or maybe even outline the stories before he records them, which he may think adds an element of realism — like, this story truly is being told to you live right now! Listen to this guy who has absolutely no idea where it’s going or how it’ll wrap up! — and it all seems harmless until suddenly he’s doing science episodes and you hear, from the other room — where you’ve banished your child with the iPad because you cannot stand to have Kids Short Stories Podcast playing in the same room where you are — this:

One day, Malachi was about to go play outside. He was so excited cause it was a beautiful day, the sun was out and it wasn’t too hot. And it wasn’t too cold. He put on his shoes and a nice little jacket because it was a little chilly because it was fall. Do you guys know what fall is? Yeah. It’s the season that’s right after summer. So when it’s really hot outside, that’s summer time, and in the fall is when it starts to cool down and not be so hot anymore. And so he put on his favorite jacket and went outside. He was so excited. HEY WAIT A SECOND. He ran outside and as he looked around everything looked very different. Something had happened. “Oh no,” Malachi said. “Something happened to the trees! The trees are not green anymore! All the leaves have been painted all these colors! Some are yellow and red and brown and … oh no. This is terrible. I don’t know … what in the world is going on, but something is wrong. I gotta call The Sci Guy! Let’s go!”

And so Malachi ran back inside and asked his parents to call The Sci Guy. And they called him and he answered. “Yes! Mr. Sci Guy! Are you there?” “Oh. Hey there Malachi. How are you doing?” “Well,” Malachi said, “I was doing great but I was going outside to play and something happened! It’s terrible! Someone went outside and painted all the leaves in the backyard and they’re not green anymore! I don’t know if there’s a bad guy or what’s going on but I thought you would know, so can you come over here and help me paint all these leaves back?” “Hahahahahaha.” Sci Guy laughed. “Oh Malachi. I would love to come over and show you exactly what happened. I’m pretty sure I know but let me come over and double-check just in case.”

And so Malachi, just like that he felt so much better. He just felt so much better knowing that Jim the Sci Guy was coming over. Because that would make everything better. One thing that was pretty cool about the Sci Guy is he had a teleporter. Yeah. Do you know what a teleporter is? Yeah, it’s so cool. It can send people places so that … I think Mr. Sci Guy lived really far away but somehow he could just poof! He could just appear in places so fast. It was great. Because whenever we had a science problem he was always there. And so just like that [poorly done knocking sound effect] Malachi and his parents raced over to the front door and sure enough there he was. Mr. Jim the Sci Guy here to help you with your science problems!

“Oh good, Sci Guy, I’m so glad you’re here. Can you come to the back yard? You have to see this. It’s crazy.”

“Yeah. Let’s go!’'

And so Malachi and Mr. Sci Guy walked to the back yard. They started to look everywhere and Malachi, he was very nervous. He said, “Sci Guy, do you see everything all the leaves have been painted! I really remember like just the other day everything was green and I don’t know how this happened.”

“All right Mr. Malachi. Let’s take a deep breath and calm down. All right. So. I know it looks like someone painted all these leaves, but actually it’s not paint. Let’s go take a closer look.” So Sci Guy pulled one of the branches down close so that they could get a closer look. “Do you see what I see?” “Uh … what are you looking at?” “Well, I don’t see any paint on these leaves. So. Hmm. What do you think happened?” “Uh, I don’t know!” Malachi said. “Um … can they like change colors like camouflage?”

“Well, you’re getting closer!” Sci Guy said. “You see, leaves, they’re actually this color.” So they were looking at a leaf that was bright yellow. And Sci Guy said, “You see this yellow color? That’s actually the real true color of this leaf!”

“Waaaaaait a second, Sci Guy,” Malachi said. “You’re trickin’ me. These leaves are always green.”

[awkward pause]

“You’re right! Like — during — most of the year they are green. But they’re green because they have something living inside them.”

“WHAT! There’s something living inside this leaf?”

“Um, kind of. [swallows] So you see, I brought my science gear and I have a special … uh … some special headphones that when we put them on we can talk to different creatures that don’t talk like us. And so, would you like to talk to this tree right here?”

“HAHAHA. WAIT was that a joke or are you serious?” Malachi said.

“Oh I’m very serious. You see we can put these headphones on and then we can talk to the tree, and I bet he can teach us all about these leaves, but they’re — it’s actually pretty cool.”

And so both of them, Malachi and the Sci Guy, both put on these special headphones and. “I don’t hear anything,” Malachi said. “Well, first we have to knock on the tree and kinda wake up and tell him that we’re here. Mr. Tree, hello, are you there?”

“WHY HELLO THERE!”

“WHAT!” Malachi couldn’t believe it the tree was actually talking.

“Can I help you on this beautiful fall day?”

“Oh. Hey there Mr. Tree,” said the Sci Guy. “You see, Malachi here, he had a really important question for you, because he got pretty — kinda worried, because your leaves changed color overnight. And he’s, you know, he was worried that, you know, someone was painting your leaves, which, that’s not good. And I knew that you would be really good at explaining how all this works. Do you mind telling us what happened?”

“Oh! hahaha. Of course I can! You see Malachi, my leaves are like a special, uh, grocery man that gets all my groceries and my food.”

“Your what? Your leaves are like grocery man?”

“Uh, kind of. You see, my leaves work very hard for me because they have something inside them called chloroplasts.”

“What’s a chloroplast? I’ve never heard of that before.”

“Uh. You see, a chloroplast is a really special thing that turns sunlight, water, and air into food so that I can eat it.”

[GASP] “Your leaves make you the food? Wow. I didn’t know that,” Malachi said.

“Yes. And can you guess what color a chloroplast is?”

“Um … well … it’s probably either yellow or green, but I’m gonna guess green,” Malachi said.

“You got it! You see, chloroplasts, they have the job inside the leaves, while it’s nice and warm during spring and summer time, they do all the hard work to collect the food. And then when fall comes, their job is over. So that I can rest during the winter. And when their job is done, their green goes away! Because the chloroplasts are not — working anymore.”

[GASP] “And that’s why leaves change color? Because the chloroplasts stopped working? Is there something wrong?”

“Oh, no no no. Remember, I am a tree that needs lots and lots of sleep. Because I’m very busy during [guy sighs heavily like he can’t believe he’s still doing this either] the summer creating oxygen. But that’s another story. And so … when it’s winter and it’s time to go to sleep, the chloroplasts, their jobs are done, and then guess what.”

[GASP] “WHAT!” Malachi said.

“The chloroplasts, they come back! In the spring. In my new leaves. And they help make my food yummy again.”

“WOW! What is, what’s the food called?”

“It’s called chlorophyl! It is delicious. It tastes like sugar.”

“Ooh! I like sugar!” Malachi said. “Wow. Mr. Tree. Thank you so much for explaining it to me, and telling me that the leaves, they change color in the fall and it’s not because something’s wrong but it sounds like they’re just getting ready for a big, long sleep during the winter.”

“Exactly. It’s good seeing you, Sci Guy! We should hang out again sometime. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen you.”

“Oh, yeah, Mr. Tree … it’s been a … long time, but yeah we should hang out some time, maybe we could, uh, go eat some dinner together sometime.”

“THAT WOULD BE GREAT! All right, well, I gotta get back to, you know, making oxygen and getting ready for my sleep. I’ll see you guys later! Bye!”

“Wow, Mr. Sci Guy. That was so cool!” Malachi said.

“All right Malachi. I’ve got to get back to the lab. I’ll see you next time.” And just like that the Sci Guy was gone. He had solved this amazing mystery and Malachi learned a lot about trees. What an awesome discovery! We’ll see you next time on Kids Short Stories. Bye!

Bonus, sometimes the stories are Christian.

1

We were at the playground, and there was a kid maybe 9-ish who was alone, sitting on the tire swing and narrating a dialogue allowed, so happily and completely un-self-consciously. It was sort of an unusual scene and yet I so identified with him, because I remember so strongly the urge in childhood, really the compulsion, to just be outside and in motion, telling a story. I sometimes think that was the happiest I’ve ever been and if I could recreate it I would have written a hundred books by now, but I’ve never quite been able to re-summon it.

Edith Wharton as a child did something similar (except when she grew up she did channel it into being a famous novelist):

“Making up” involved pacing around with an open book and (before she could read) inventing and then later half reading, half inventing stories about real people, narratives that she would chant very loud and very fast. The constant pacing and shouting were important parts of the game, which (according to Wharton’s memoir, A Backward Glance) had an enraptured, trance-like, slightly erotic aspect. Her parents spied on her, and it made them nervous. Edith’s Old New York, old-money-society mother tried to transcribe what Edith was saying, but she spoke too fast; Mrs. Jones’s anxiety increased when Edith asked her to entertain children who came to play because she was too busy making up.

#88, Hidey corner

I do not exactly think of Eileen as a “pandemic baby” because she was born on February 2, 2020, six weeks before we all had to start staying home. Kevin was there in the hospital and I did not have to wear a mask when I gave birth and we did bring her to Hugh’s preschool classroom as a tiny tiny newborn and let the kids touch her and we did go out to dinner with some friends and bring her with us and nestle her in a banquette when she was one week old. In other words we got to have a few “look at us, the super chill third-time parents, so relaxed, so natural” moments that were very good for my soul.

More importantly we had six weeks of the older children being in school before everything shut down. It was the real old-fashioned kind of school, too, where they were there all day every weekday from roughly 8 to 6. You know, the kind of school I used to worry was too much school and was bad for them and felt sort of guilty that they were there so much, either in all-day daycare or in school + afterschool, and that they weren’t maybe getting enough unstructured time at home! Hahahahaha! What a quaint concern!

(When this is over, will we go back to that kind of guilt? I propose that we not.)

So yeah, she’s not quite a pandemic baby but she came of baby age in the pandemic. Almost every person she sees is wearing a mask. She has been in daycare since September and all of her teachers wear masks all day. She absolutely recognizes people she knows even though she’s never seen their mouths. If a stranger in a mask smiles at her she sometimes cries and they’re like “It’s because I’m wearing a mask!” and I can either choose to say or not “Nope, it’s because you’re a stranger,” but yeah it’s definitely because they’re a stranger.1 We just wouldn’t be very far at this point if she were scared of everyone who wore a mask.

Haha, “very far.” Like we’ve made so much progress otherwise! We have not! Everything is always the same! The first year with Alice and Hugh shot by. All those Instagram posts with the baby’s first birthday where the mom is like “And just like that she’s 1”? I would never say that about this year. When people ask me her age, my first instinct is always that she’s a month or two older than she actually is, because time moves so slowly these days, and because every day is the same. If you come visit us on a given morning at, say, 6 AM — PLEASE DO, I MISS YOU ALL SO MUCH — you’ll find Eileen and me sitting on the kitchen floor. I sit in what I have come to think of as my hidey corner, it’s the corner between the dishwasher and the cupboard and I couldn’t figure out why I kept gravitating there until I realized that when I’m in that precise spot the older kids can’t see me from the other room. Lots of phone checking goes on there. It’s me with my coffee in my hidey corner, Eileen crawling around and eating Cheerios off a little foot stool.

The sun comes up one minute earlier every day now, I guess. And she throws the Cheerios ever more nimbly.

And she is learning to talk. Or, as one of her teachers put it, she is “finding her words,” which I love so much because it suggests that the words were always there in her and are just now bubbling up to the surface.


[Alice wailing] “Mom, I drew a pig at school and everybody laughed at me! I think even my teacher laughed!”

“I would never laugh at you! I’m sure the pig was great! Show me how you draw a pig.”

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1

Testing out footnotes here, as if the newsletter is normally so structured that I wouldn’t put in an anecdote otherwise. Our next door neighbor Jack is one of the people Eileen cried when she saw and who said “It must be because I’m wearing a mask.” We love Jack so in his case I said, yes, it must be the mask. Alice and Hugh are pretty obsessed with Jack, who is in his 70s. I have never seen them want to talk to anyone so much. His husband, also named Jack, died last year. Every time we see Jack, Hugh has a new question thing to say about other Jack. At first it was “The other Jack died.” At first also Hugh’s speech was unclear enough that I could sort of shout over him when he started talking about other Jack. Now his speech is easier to understand — yet again, proof that time passes, I guess — and this week he said clear as a bell, “Hi, Jack. Did you get a new Jack yet?”

#87, My top 4 posts of 2020

Have you been following MY INSTAGRAM? If not, 2021 is the time to start! To get a taste of some of what you’ll find, here are my TOP 4 POSTS OF 2020! (Click through!)

MY TOP 4 POSTS OF 2020

#4. HOME SKELETON

#3. WATER EXPLORATION STATION

#2. MAKE YOUR OWN CHOCOLATE

#1. HAVE A BABY

#86, "And if you're bad Santa will punch you in the face"

We didn’t do Elf on the Shelf because anti-surveillance state, etc. (I realize this is a little rich coming from someone who handed their DNA over to 23 and Me in exchange for the knowledge that “you are unlikely to flush after drinking alcohol.”)

And you know, it was convenient to be anti–Elf on the Shelf when my kids were still too young to respond to threats. As usual in all of raising kids, it’s really easy to be fervently anti-something that’s of no use or value to you or your family at that specific moment in time. (Never needed formula? Breast is best!) But this year has had a way of wearing childrearing opinions down, dulling them into vaguely held sentiments at best (unless it is your opinion about whether schools should be open in which case you are hyperaware, punchy, and vigilant, but also to tired to yell about it anymore).

Is it good for kids to be outside? Probably, but don’t kill yourself. Screentime?!?!?!?!? Fine as it turns out, bummer we wasted all that time reading articles about it. Should you give babies pouches? God, why not? Is the baby eating a bead? Well, as long as it’s a Perler bead.* (“Mom, is it okay for Eileen to eat a bead? Because she did.”) How does anyone even have the energy to have a strong opinion about any little thing at this point? (Seriously, has 2020 finally put an end to the breastfeeding guilt people? Or maybe they’re just too busy talking about how they won’t get the vaccine to care about formula shaming anymore?)

This is to say, we’re not getting Elf on the Shelf but it turned out that I had no problem introducing the notion of an all-seeing figure into my children’s lives when it became useful to me. For maybe the first few days of December it was “We need to be kind and caring to each other because that’s the spirit of Christmas and kindness helps make Santa’s magic work,” now it’s “HEY! SANTA IS WATCHING!” or, recently, “I swear to God I’m gonna throw one present away every time you whine.” These threats are entirely empty and Alice and Hugh 99% know this but that remaining 1% is just enough for them to begrudgingly stop doing the thing they were doing for a moment or two. The yelling also feels good on the parental level, “almost erotic how good” is right.

However, the yelling is coinciding with — please let’s not say causing — an uptick in violent statements from Hugh, who is four and I know it’s the age (“What’s your favorite animal?” “All predators”) but it is noteworthy. I recently overheard him and Alice recreating a scene in which Kevin had made them clean up their rooms; one of Hugh’s contributions was “Clean up your room or I’ll kill you.” We were listening to a story about Santa where someone threatens to ruin Christmas; Hugh: “If you’re bad Santa will punch you in the face.”

Alice: “Mom, can Santa read your mind?”

Me: “NO NO Santa can’t read your mind. The only person who knows what you are thinking is you and thoughts don’t really count. I mean, they are important but you can think whatever you want as long as you…” [trails off] “Nobody can read minds.”

Happy holidays everyone, I hope you find occasional joy and peace over the next couple weeks. I’m grateful to you for subscribing, reading, and writing back to me, and the next time some asshole starts a Substack, just remember we were here first. Here’s to 2021.

*Maybe you aren’t familiar with Perler beads because you didn’t buy 5 pounds of them from Goodwill so that your seven-year-old would have something to do with her hands during remote school other than tying tiny strands of fake cobwebs tightly around every pole-like surface in the room. It’s okay, all you really need to know is that they’re so tiny they pass right through a baby.

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