Wednesday, August 23, 2006

the Drunken Housewife interrogates Ayun Halliday: "Mama Lama Ding Dong"

We here at the Drunken Housewife (we being me, natch) are pleased to host Ayun Halliday today as she travels about the web on her virtual book tour for "Mama Lama Ding Dong", now available at all fine bookstores in the U.K. (In the U.S., it was published under the name "The Big Rumpus", widely available in paperback).

The question everyone must ask: how is "Ayun" pronounced? Is it "Ann"? Did your parents give that name to you (the impression I have is that they did), or did you choose it? How did having an uncommon name affect your naming decisions for your kids?

It’s pronounced “Bet-sy”. Self-inflicted at the age of fourteen. But I’m sick of talking about my name! I’d much rather discuss my children’s names, India Reed and Milo Hanuman. My mother once let it slip that she and my father chose my original name because it was so “plain”. Now what does it tell you that Milo’s middle name is that of the Monkey King and my long time front runner for a girl’s name was Mehitabel? Certain folks of my acquaintance seem to take a lot of pleasure in telling me that they met two other girls named India this week alone, or that “Milo” is almost as common as “Henry” or “Jack” these days. What can I say? Like many other parents, I aspired for children to have beautiful, special names, names with significance for me and Greg. For the record, in my book India’s name refers to the country and also a character in Eudora Welty’s “Delta Wedding”. Greg claims neither of these are so. Inky is my nickname for her. He calls her Dia. Milo is named for the south wall of the Milo Printing company in the East Village, which once boasted this gorgeous mural of the word “Milo” superimposed over a blue sky. I passed by several times a day when pregnant with India. I hope they’ll hang onto their names, but I am living proof that what fits a non-autonomous little bean bag of a baby might not be the best fit for the person that baby grows up to be.

I love the naming process. My first child is named after Iris Murdoch; my second is named after the noted feminist Lucy Stone...

Greg seems really absent from "Mama Lama Ding Dong." The only place in the book where he is discussed much is during the labor stories (beautifully written, by the way), where he comes off as ineffectual and perhaps a bit annoying, like most husbands in that setting (to put this in perspective, my own husband nearly fainted during my first labor, so we hired a doula for the second). He's much more of a presence in the "East Village Inky." Is there some kind of spousal treaty about writing about him? What does he do with the children?

Now I’ll have to reread the dang book to see if I agree. One of my favorite scenes in the book has me in a frenzy setting up the Christmas with Inky’s “help” while Greg lies on the couch reading the New Yorker and when I finally get the lights to work (having previously sent him out in the snow to buy emergency replacements for the ones) he glances up and remarks, “Sweet Christian miracle. How it blinds me.”

So, if it’s true that he’s underrepresented, at least he is underrepresented accurately.

He has always been an essential part of the children’s lives, as he has been in mine for over fifteen years now. Before the success of Urinetown allowed us to scrape by without day jobs, Greg was busting his heiner on our financial behalf as a location scout for Law & Order. It was not unusual for him to pull twelve hour days, fourteen hour days. Yes, the children spent much more time with me than with him back when I was writing Mama Lama Ding Dong (nee The Big Rumpus), so much so that he designated us as Paycheck Monkey and Milk Monkey.

Now that the children are older, the childcare is distributed much more equitably. He plays ball with them, schleps them to the Hall of Science in Queens, and rallies them for many other activities that I personally do not enjoy. Sometimes we even go out as a quartet, though there are certainly other parents at school who suspect we’re really the same person. Since they never see us together. Greg is the parent who does homework with them. He’s much more pro-active than I about teaching Milo to read, drilling India on math. He and Inky attend many Broadway musicals together and you can bet she is a much more appreciative audience member than her critical, bitchy mother would be! Greg also has much more of an appetite for playing than I do. He will joyfully throw himself into Legos, Playmobil, puppets, some game where everybody chases everybody else around. I’m more destination-oriented as in, “Hey kids, let’s take the subway to Chinatown or Coney Island!”

You’re right that Greg is all over the East Village Inky, has been right from the very first issue. I love drawing him with a larger-than-life nose and glasses behind which no pupils can be detected. He not only even has his own column, “Advice to the Fathers”, which I have to extract from him four times a year, like a recurrent impacted tooth. I suspect the Book-to-Zine Greg Disparity Index owes to the fact that the book’s original publisher, Seal Press, wanted me to write a book about motherhood with a capital M, while (to my mind, anyway), The East Village Inky is a record of my life. The zine’s wider focus allows me to take major detours into my childhood, my pre-maternal existence, and those glorious Urinetown-sponsored trips that have sent Greg and I out of the country. (I’d like to thank my mother for blowing her frequent flyer miles on the chance to mind her grandchildren 24/7 for up to 7 days running!)

Yes, there is a spousal treaty that places several subjects out of bounds, but Greg is not one of those subjects.

What parenting-related authors or books do you enjoy? Have you read Shirley Jackson's parenting memoirs?

I really like the zine, Hausfrau, by Nicole Chaison, a mother in Portland, Maine. She writes about her family in such a way that all the members come through with their quirks intact. Comedy is balanced with poignancy. She illustrates it with these scratchy stick figure type drawings that I find incredibly endearing, and not just because they make me feel like Matisse in comparison.

To lob a few other titles at you:
The Blue Jay’s Dance by Louise Erdrich
Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott
Fruitful by Anne Roiphe
The Mother Trip by Ariel Gore
Paula by Isabel Allende
Morning, Noon and Night by Spalding Gray
I Stand Here Ironing by Tillie Olsen.
and The Kid by Dan Savage

As for Shirley Jackson, you are the third blog du jour on this Virtual Book Tour to bring her up, so I am going to haul my sorry carcass to the library to address this gaping hole in my education! I read “The Lottery” in junior high, several times if memory serves, but it’s clear I’m missing out on something big!

You've got to read "Raising Demons" and "Life Among the Savages" by Shirley Jackson. She has a delightful sense of black humor. Those were among my favorite books long before I contemplated procreating. She's my role model in writing about my kids. And on that note, are your children old enough to be embarrassed by your writing about them? What are your limits in retelling potentially embarrassing anecdotes, if any?

Oh yes, I would imagine that any 6 is plenty old enough to be wounded by a betrayed secret, an unflattering anecdote or an ugly drawing. As with all people whose feelings I care about (and that winds up being pretty much everybody outside of the Bush family, and a few former co-workers), I strive for sensitivity in my public portrayals of them. Both kids have robust senses of humor, and enjoy having attention paid to them in print. It hasn’t been an issue yet, though I do try to stay alert for changing boundaries. For instance, I would never draw Inky prancing around nude the way I did when she was two. I wouldn’t even draw her in her underpants. Milo yanking on his weiner morning, noon, and night is still fair game – he laughs louder than anybody to see himself represented so realistically. If I tried to leave out that aspect of his…can we call it “personality?” … our close friends would accuse me of trying to whitewash things! Of course, if he’s stretching the trouser snake halfway ‘round his waist at nine, I’ll be investing in whitewash by the bucketful!

There are several huge things about our family that are known only to those who know us in the flesh. One of these things I would very much like to explore in print, but permission was sought and denied. It affects all of us, but the one it most primarily affects is not me.

I'd love to know the Huge Thing, but I won't ask. Your memoir of parenting doesn't seem to include sleazy goings-on in your playground circle. In my San Francisco parenting circles, we've had affairs amongst the stay-at-home parents, single dads forgetfully including home porn in photos submitted to the preschool yearbook, etc... Tom Perrotta's novel of cheating amongst that stay-at-home parents, "Little Children", rings all too true.

Damn, sounds like I’ve been hanging around the wrong playgrounds. New Yorkers are so provincial. Of course, I suppose it’s possible that all sorts of illicit diddling has been going on under my nose. It’s not at all out-of-character that I would be too dense to pick up on it. I’ve never seen "Desperate Housewives" either. Is that why everybody loves that show? Because it’s an accurate reflection of the rampant extramarital fucking going on in half the playgrounds in America?

I've never seen "Desperate Housewives" myself. I'm a drunken housewife, not a desperate one! As a vegetarian, I was a bit put off by your writing about your butcher and your feeling that, as a mother, you needed a relationship with a butcher. Then I went on to read your other books and learned that you yourself had some significant vegetarian history.

It wasn’t so much me wanting a relationship with a butcher as craving community, and a connection with the maternal figures of my past. I have very pleasant memories of accompanying my grandmother to Kinkaid’s, a real old-fashioned joint in Indianapolis where the white smocked butchers would always slip me a rolled up slice of bologna. It made me feel important as a child, noticed. The old guy who ran the butcher shop I refer to in Mama Lama Ding Dong not only made me feel like my children were special little individuals, worthy of notice, he made me feel welcome in a neighborhood I’d lived in for less than a year. I’d been subjected to plenty of “here come the yuppie invaders” ‘tude from folks who’d lived in the East Village longer than I, and it was a relief to be treated like a member of the in-crowd by a cigar-chompin’ Brooklyn old-timer, whose shop had been in the family for four generations. Also, I think you will agree, a much more meaningful social interaction that pulling a cellophane-wrapped package out of the meat cooler at Met Foods.

Ooh, and even though I’m the one who claimed meat overload, before we move on to another topic, can I sneak in a plug Greg’s play, Pig Farm? Just a few days left to catch the New York production, but it opens in San Diego next month, and ripples out from there.

Lately some other parents and I have been talking a lot about birthday party bags & decrying parents who put gifts in the thank you notes. Do you throw birthday parties for your kids? What do you give the child guests? What gifts for your own kids piss you off?

Gifts enclosed in thank you notes? Illicit playground affairs? Dang, woman! Many of the birthday parties to which we are invited are influenced by the cramped quarters in which most New Yorkers live. That’s why come the sweltering mid-summer celebrations in public parks, the pricey indoor gym extravaganzas, the rained-out-and-rescheduled-then-rained-out-again affairs. My most ambitious “party” for Inky was when we invited five of her friends to march with us in the Coney Island Mermaid Parade. (David Johansen of the New York Dolls joined the other judges in serenading her with the birthday song, we won two third-place medals, and boy howdy, did I need a drink when it was all done!)

Milo has only had one real birthday party, the kind to which classmates are invited. (Both of them are summer birthdays which lets me off the hook a bit in that respect.) At first his lack of traditional celebration was due to maternal negligence – I just couldn’t get it up to haul a granny cart full of cupcakes, chips, lemonade, watermelon and decorations to a playground in a heatwave, the way I had so enthusiastically when Inky turned two. It didn’t seem to bother him, and now he insists he doesn’t want what I think of as a party. For months he told me that for his sixth birthday, he wanted a Power Ranger piñata. I assumed that he had visions of breaking it open with everyone of his acquaintance, and girded my loins to squeeze a modest version of such an event into an already crazy-making schedule (End of school with all its attendant performances and “celebrations”, the Mermaid Parade, cleaning for sublettors and packing for the summer palace, and Pig Farm’s opening night (which dictated that Greg spent most of May and June as “under-represented” in real life as he is in the book).Well, miraculously, it turned out that I had completely misread Milo’s intentions. He wanted to haul that pinata to the summer palace (Greg’s childhood home) and beat the hell out of it in the company of one, count ‘em, one little friend who spends his summers in the vicinity. You better believe I told Greg to shut his yap when he started giving me ‘tude about hauling a piñata all the way to Cape Cod.

I’m surprised that Milo, who seems to have a real knack for math, doesn’t seem to get that the number of guests has real bearing on the number of presents. Of course, it hasn’t always added up that way. Not in our family. For instance, there was Inky’s fourth birthday, when Greg and I made her a doll house out of wine crates and in a bid to both repel giant, Barbie-themed presents and score more doll house furniture than we would have been able to afford, I declared that the party was a doll house furniture shower. Oh god, it seems so control freakish, now. I think I might have even worded the invitation in such a way as to indicate that the furniture should be wood. What a monster. On the other hand, my “vision” allowed a cash-strapped artist friend whose child was a bosom crony of Inky’s to give something make some teeny-tiny original artwork out of an index card, secure in the knowledge that it wouldn’t be upstaged by some enormous, curly-ribbon-trimmed gift-bag bursting with tissue, the contents of which cost more than she would ever spend on her own child’s birthday.

For Inky’s second birthday, we solicited pictures of monkeys in lieu of presents… I wouldn’t do that to a four-year-old, but at two all she really seemed to care about was the party hats and the cake. And that monkey scrapbook has grown over the years to a thickness that rivals the Manhattan Yellow Pages.

Just so long as I never come thundering down the stairs, threatening to call everybody’s mothers if the slumber party doesn’t settle down IMMEDIATELY!!! Oh wait, we don’t have any stairs. And our apartment is so cramped as it is, that I think I’d do what another friend did and rent a hotel room on the birthday child’s behalf. Let the guests go all Beastie Boys on the Brooklyn Marriott.

As for goodie bags, I do feel deep gratitude toward any hostess who finds some way around filling them with a bunch of chintzy plastic crap from Party City. (In a recent issue of The Atlantic, Sandra Tsing Loh referred to this aggravating goodie bag loot as “piñata chum”. Brilliant!) Unfortunately, the kids expect them and even the most humble cake and ice cream party ends up costing more than you ever think it will. The year of the doll house furniture shower, I was oh so creative as to stuff Inky’s brown-paper goodie bags with homemade coloring books, joss paper, cocktail umbrellas with the sharp tips snipped off and pinecones hauled home from the summer palace. Aren’t I wonderful? One of the little guests, whose parents are creative, kind-hearted, Buddhist East Villagers, rooted through her bag with growing disbelief, and then loudly announced, “I don’t like this goodie bag!” Her horrified mother stoutly insisted that the Emperor was wearing clothes, but from the four-year-old perspective, Curlylocks’s complaint was merely a valid statement of the obvious. I still laugh when I think of her wrinkling her nose at that pinecone.

Right up there with the pinecone, one year I included feathers from my Amazon parrot in the grab bags. (I save her best molted feathers). Thankfully no little kids dissed me to my face!

Okay! Given that I am a "mother who drinks"(as differentiated from those mothers who describe themselves pompously as "mothers who think"), I've got to ask: what's your favorite cocktail?


So let's all hoist a mojito today in honor of "Mama Lama Ding Dong"'s publication in the U.K. I just happen to have some fresh mint in the fridge... hmmm...


Frances said...

Having a wine here! (Sorry, no idea what a mojito is, and I thought that *I* was a drunken housewife also...)

Great interview!

Silliyak said...

I don't believe you are bound by the Geneva conventions (not that it would matter if you WERE) I would have tried a few Abu Graib techniques to get to the REAL truth. She may very well have WMD's somewhere.

Anonymous said...

Dang, I agree with Ayun that there be some wacky goings-on in Parentland in SF! Gifts inside thank-you notes? So then does this require the recipient of the thank-you note to write their own thank-you note? And include another gift? Stop the insanity, already!

Freewheel said...

I liked your question about the limits on retelling potentially embarrassing anecdotes. The larger issue is whether the children's privacy should be better protected.