April 4, 2008

To Begin

The other morning I watched five game shows in a row on television. I wanted to turn them off, but I was too mesmerized by the contestants. The first one was a frail woman who said, “I am a simple, average housewife,” then proceeded to win a toaster by humming the fight song of Bangladesh High. The second one said she was a mother of seven, then spewed out the fuel formula for the Russian Soyuz XI space flight last year. The third was also a “typical, suburban homemaker,” who won a year’s supply of tulip bulbs by answering that the Sixth Crusade in Europe was led by Frederick II in 1228. (I thought it was Billy Graham in 1965.) After I flipped off the TV set, I sat there stunned for a minute. Not only could I not remember what I had for breakfast three hours before, but I realized that mentally I had let myself go to pot.

Erma Bombeck, “Gametime”
If Life is a Bowl of Cherries – What Am I Doing in the Pits?
(New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1978)

Much has changed in the 30+ years since Erma Bombeck published If Life is a Bowl of Cherries, when women were starting to think about what it meant for their “personal” choices to be “political.” But one thing remains the same, for sure. Then, as now, there was no such thing as a “typical, suburban homemaker.”

I started reading Bombeck’s column in The Dallas Morning News when I was 12 in 1974. I loved the way she deployed her wit and self-deprecating humor to chronicle the life of the mythic stay-at-home mom. I laughed with my own frustrated homemaker mom at the ways a “simple, average housewife” could be counted on to know about anthropology, engineering, and Medieval European history. I was inspired to know that she could publish a newspaper column to describe the phenomenon. And it hit me in the gut that she felt deeply insecure all the while.

Like Bombeck, I sometimes feel that I’m letting myself go to pot. I’m a former assistant professor of history who quit “to spend more time with my family.” Really.


This was my big morning today:

  • waking up my teenage triplets at 6:40
  • getting them to eat breakfast (choc. chip banana muffins and orange juice – hey, at least nowadays, the OJ has calcium – wonder what Erma would’ve made of that?)
  • dropping everybody at the train at 7:15
  • convincing the elderly Russian lady at the pool that it was OK for her to share her lane with me, even though she has a bad heart
  • writing several thank-you notes
  • questioning the foreman at the construction site a football-field distance away from my home office about what his crew is presently doing that is causing the dishes in my dish drain to dance
  • starting in on my to-do list.


Here’s what’s left on the “to-do” for today:

  • call the plumber (again) to get him to figure out why hot water is coming out of the “cold” faucets on the second floor
  • call the electrician to figure out why the electrical sockets on one wall in the kitchen have stopped working (teething mice?)
  • take laundry to the dry cleaners
  • re-schedule an appointment to meet with a neuropsychologist for one of the kids
  • fill out medication forms for the school nurse so my daughter can use her asthma inhaler before gym
  • get to the library to read microfilm of The New Orleans Times-Picayune from 1947
  • set up interviews with Sudanese refugees for a documentary
  • finish War and Peace (I’m loving it, but it’s too heavy to take to the gym).


Instead of tackling the to-do, I’m starting this blog. If you, too, are running away from your to-do list, come join me.

My blog, “Bowl O’ Cherries,” continues Bombeck’s practice of examining and poking fun at women’s choices. I have parked my behind on a chair at a kitchen table where family and the wider world intersect. Many others have taken a seat at this table:

Judith Warner
Lisa Belkin
Anna Quindlen
Katha Pollitt
Anne Lamott
Marge Simpson

…to name some of my favorites. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these women are all white and middle-class. We seem to be productively self-conscious about our privilege and our decisions.

I can answer questions about the implications of the transcontinental railroad on national expansion and labor unrest, can describe what it was like for the first Americans to read books, can explain how to record and transmit digital sound, and enjoy talking about the factors leading to the French and Indian War or the War in Iraq. Mother of Three with LD, I can also share my thoughts about the best ways to organize a mud room or swap stories about advocating in classrooms where kids’ needs might go unmet.

I am, in short, as typical and atypical as all American housewives.

And for the record, I know what the Bush Doctrine is. I cannot, meanwhile, field dress an Alaskan moose.