Busytown by Jolisa Gracewood

Mama lama ding dong

Blundering through the forest of life, it's always nice to find that someone ahead of you has thoughtfully dropped breadcrumbs to mark the path. When I was newly knocked up and about to move to New York City, it was Ayun Halliday who sprinkled a trail of tantalizing fairy bread all the way to the grubby city (and yea, even unto the birthing centre in which Busytot was born, although I didn't know that until later).

Ayun has been chronicling her adventures in big city tiny apartment kid-raising since her daughter Inky turned one, in a deceptively scrappy little quarterly handwritten zine called The East Village Inky. I had been surreptitiously reading along even though I a) wasn't a parent, yet and b) wasn't a resident of NYC, yet.

But you don't need to be either to appreciate the most appealing, cranky, generous and downright digressive prose since Tristram Shandy. Ayun will write around the block to follow an idea to its conclusion, and this being New York, on the way around the block you see and hear things you never saw before. Not least the pile of dog poo on Avenue A with the spoon sticking out of it.

(And it's not just an urban thing: I am confident that even if she lived way way out in the boondocks, Ayun would be able to milk equal drama out of the walk to and from the barn. Moving to the country didn't exactly rust E.B. White's typewriter, and Ayun is quite as incorrigibly observant and unerringly fresh. In fact, putting my writing-teacher hat on for a second, I should note that Ayun never, but never, repeats herself, an astonishing thing in a writer as prolific as she is. I forgive her the occasional run-on sentence and a near-pathological aversion to commas on those grounds alone. Magnanimous I.)

Anyway. The East Village Inky - which is still tirelessly handwritten, folded, stapled and mailed by the writer herself, despite a circulation now in the thousands - gave me heart that I too could be a parent, that I could be a parent in a big noisy city far from home, and that parenting could be not just a fascinating side-job but a sweet, marvellous, maddening vocation. It also, although I didn't realise it at the time, hinted that spinning comic tales about one's quotidian life, with or without illustrations, might be a fine way to find a community and perhaps even one day make a living.

Sure enough, sooner or later, Ayun's zine turned into a book (The Big Rumpus), to be followed by a series of self-mocking memoirs about travel (No Touch Monkey, and Other Travel Lessons Learned Too Late), bad jobs (Job Hopper), and food (Dirty Sugar Cookies). You've got to admire someone who can turn slacking, eating, wandering, and bum-wiping into a literary empire, albeit an empire strictly confined to the bookshops of America-land (and would that more empires were as respectful of boundaries, eh?).

But now that first book has finally been released to the rest of the English-speaking world under the possibly more excellent title Mama Lama Ding Dong, hence this month-long virtual book tour on which I am one friendly stop. Hey, bludging off other people's blogs while sprawled on one's very own couch for an entire month is such a supremely resourceful and Kiwi thing to do that I couldn't refuse.

Re-reading The Big Mama Lama Ding Dong Rumpus in preparation for this visit, I was struck anew by how raw it is: the children (now six and nine) are so very wee and young; the writing fairly tumbles across the page in a hectic present tense that captures not just the energy of the zine, but the helter skelter awe of those early years in the parenting mines. Not to mention the bone-deep exhaustion:

I can't help thinking of Io, the Greek maiden whom the gods turned into a calf and bedeviled with a pestilential cloud of flies. Whenever she stopped running, the flies bit her mercilessly. She had no choice but to stay on the move. This, as Hermes and even Prometheus observed, was torment. You know it's bad when even the guy chained to a rock so a hungry eagle can devour his self-regenerating liver feels bad for you.

From the moment she wakes me in the morning, I am Io and Inky is the flies. The flies want breakfast, vitamins, and a stack of books read aloud. They need to know what we're doing today. They petition to watch TV shows that don't come on until 4.30 in the afternoon. The flies don't want to listen to National Public Radio.

And we're off, through a series of wandering essays that take as their premise reliable topics like breastfeeding or circumcision or potty talk, but sparkle off on so many rewarding tangents that you almost forget where you started. If, like me, you can't get enough of birth stories, you will flip straight to the chapters about the births of Inky and her brother Milo. The first leads to a heartbreaking two week stay in that place of broken dreams, the NICU ("What are dreams? They are plates you can afford to hurl against the wall as long as the important things escape unharmed"). The second brings us straight home to Brooklyn that same night ("The last thing I saw before I fell asleep was that little baby's head and when I woke up in the morning, he was still there"). Both are sweet, affecting, and comical.

Enough with the long-winded intro. I took advantage of Ayun's own fondness for a good ramble and asked her some incredibly roundabout (and cheeky) questions, which she kindly answered in kind. If you like your prose by the yard, never let it be said you don't get your money's worth on these pages.

Let’s get straight to the point, because my readers want to know the truth. You’ve written winningly and wittily about the highs and lows of parenting, low-wage labour, travel on a shoestring, and food; you write and illustrate a brilliant quarterly zine with a huge circulation; you’re married to a Tony-award-winning playwright who is also a really lovely guy, you have two fabulous children who supply you with an endless stream of anecdotes for your writing; plus you’re a hot-looking, fun-loving, very talented woman. So, what do you think of New Zealand?

Oh shit, they aren't all going to be trick questions, are they? Howzabout I defer my reply until such time as you convince the National Tourist Authority of New Zealand to fix me up with a month of hotel rooms and round trip tickets for the whole family? In which case I shall speak of New Zealand in only the most glowing light, with plenty of supporting anecdotes.

Reading between the lines of Mama Lama Ding Dong, you had not one but TWO surprise babies (hey, not to pry, but what were you guys using for contraception -- clothes?). In the zine and the book, you describe your plunge into parenthood with the Let’s Go zest of a seasoned backpacker who’s been offered a mystery ticket. It could even be argued that your follow-your-nose CV (see Jobhopper) made you perfect for the job of full-time parenting on a shoestring in a big city. But I have to ask, as an up-and-coming bohemian theatre chick, were children ever even a twinkle in your eye? Or was it a case of life gives you lemons, make lemon meringue pie?

By the time I started wishing I'd had a free-wheeling bohemian childhood, I was already well into my teens and of course, considered myself a very mature adult-like specimen. I was really into my second hand Woodstock album and the whole Summer of Love thing, which I had missed out on due to the fact that I was, in 1967, a church-going, Middle American 2-year-old wearing a smocked dress with puffy sleeves and a sash.

But boy, did I pore over those images of long-haired hippie mamas nursing their babies in the back of their Volkswagen microbuses and tangle-haired little kids whooping it up as their parents protested the Vietnam War. They must have had an impact, because on some level, I always wanted to be a mother, even though I never desired the conventional trappings that are often presumed necessary for the office: a reliable and comfy income, a large home, a family-minded mate who would be willing to "try" for a baby.

I have to admit, I was as shocked as anybody to find myself married. If there was a way to get married the way I got pregnant, that's probably how we would have done it. It's lucky for us that that diaphragm failed because it's hard to imagine a situation in which Greg and I would have ever appeared well-positioned to become parents. And then, once we were parents, it's lucky that breast-feeding isn't a fail-proof method of contraception, because no way would he have deemed us well-positioned to expand our little family, what with our tiny one-room apartment, and our toy income.

This isn't some sort of pro-life stance, by the way, just an observation that for low-budget artistes of a certain age, who harbor this sort of ephemeral, poorly thought out dream that they might one day like to have children, getting knocked up might be the most expedient, and perhaps only way!

Serious question now, because I’ve been wrassling with this issue. Do you ever get superstitious about writing about your children? I mean, do you run around making the sign of the evil eye to ward off Bad Things Happening... like, say, alien abduction, or them growing up and writing about you?

I think that might explain why I almost always strive for the comic approach. I live in hope that the gods can't be bothered to squish one of their inconsequential, bell-shaking little jesters. A paper sword, to be sure, but one I'm comforted to carry. And really, if the aliens are going to get your kids, the aliens are going to get your kids. (Please don't let the aliens get my kids.) The possibility that they might grow up to write about me makes for a pretty good system of checks and balances as far as I'm concerned.

Still serious: there’s a fine genealogy of American women writing about the, er, joys of motherhood, going back to Jean Kerr, Shirley Jackson, Nora Ephron, of course Erma Bombeck, Adrienne Rich, Tillie Olsen, and many others. It seems that the territory gives you two choices: make ‘em laugh (before they ruefully go back to folding the washing), or make ‘em cry (after which they rush to the barricades). You manage to do both in one book, which is marvelous. But some of the most comic writers - I’m thinking particularly of Shirley Jackson here - turn out to have really dark, unhappy sides that they couldn’t put into print. When we make sport of our lives as mothers, do we say enough about the dark side? How do you handle the balance between speaking truth to power, and laughing it off? Are they even mutually exclusive?

First off, just let me say how much I love New Zealand. And thank you for chucking me into such stellar company, particularly Tillie Olsen, whose stories I could and do read many times over. I wouldn't say I'm more tortured than your average bear, but I certainly have my share of dark moments, far more than make it into print. Sometimes the editor pulls my punches for me, explaining that the comic framework gets bent out of shape if I get too heavy. Sometimes I shy away from exploring something in a public forum, either because I don't want to hurt a friend or family member, or because someone I care about has declared a topic off-limits. Writing sticks around, you know? I’d like to cover my ass as much as possible. For all my scatological inappropriateness and self-mockery, I strive to speak the truth as diplomatically as possible, which probably ensures that the biggest lies in the book are the truths that didn’t make it in.

I love your writing for its solidity of detail and for the narrative voice, a trademark blend of mocking self-deprecation and drama-queen self-aggrandizement, with a side of genuine, open-hearted curiosity about how the world works. So I assigned a chunk of Mama Lama Ding Dong ("Neo-natal Sweet Potato," the story of Inky in the NICU) for a class I was teaching on non-fiction. The students’ responses tended to fall into two categories, either “OMG I don’t even like babies but it totally made me bawl!” or “Who is this crazy lady and why does she have to, like, overdramatize everything?” I don’t really have a question here, I just thought you’d like to know that’s how it plays on the youth market… oh wait, I do have a question: how did you come by your writerly “voice,” and how intentionally do you shape your stories, and who are your writing idols?

I spent about a decade writing and performing short plays for a theater company in which the actors could allegedly only play themselves, though in reality we were always coming up with all these cockamamie post-modern justifications as to why we could write ourselves parts that seemed very much like characters in a –gasp – play! Maybe even a –double gasp – Saturday Night Live skit!

Some of our short (I’m talking two-minute) plays were serious, but most of them were funny and I found that I was able to get the most laughs in the plays I had written myself. Because we always needed new material, I was always writing, refining that persona. So I guess those goddamn students of yours are partially correct when they say I “dramatize” things, though I must take exception to the “over” part. The self-mocking voice I’d found with the Neo-Futurist really started to hit its stride in The East Village Inky, possibly because it wasn’t subject to my acting skills or lack thereof.

I’m not entirely sure I understand the question about intentionally shaping my stories. I usually have a topic in mind when I sit down to write a chapter, but I’m so prone to tangents, I rarely get around to the anecdotes that I’d been so burning to tell. Of course, once it hits the editing stage, there’s lots of intentional shaping, usually at the suggestion of Leslie Miller, the fantastic editor who has much better instincts about my autobiographies than I do.

There are so many writers whose voices I envy and admire. To concentrate on the ones who draw on their personal experiences in a comic way: Spalding Gray, Lynda Barry, Jonathan Ames, David Rakoff, David Sedaris, Susan Orlean, Margaret Cho, Sandra Tsing-Loh, Julia Sweeney, Marion Winick… and I’m a huge fan of This American Life, a radio program that tends to feature this kind of writing.

We share a hopeless, rose-tinged nostalgia for Ma Ingalls and the pioneer way of child-raising, in the golden days before piles of pointless plastic brand-name crap took over from corn-cob dollies and hand-hewn wagons. How do you filter all the cultural dreck for your children? Have you ever buckled and acquired some ghastly item you swore you’d never let across your threshold, merely because it was their plastic-crap-loving heart’s desire?

I am aided by the fact that we live in a space that many Americans would consider much too small for a family of four. If we don’t have room for a coffee table, we sure as shit don’t have room for a three-story purple and pink plastic Barbie Dream House.

I really don’t find it that difficult to avoid what you so aptly call plastic brand-name crap. My secret is that I restrict myself to buying them things that don’t set my teeth on edge, but every now and then, I cave, ante-ing up for a Batman backpack or a Sponge Bob Squarepants toothbrush. I guess that’s one good thing to say for the unchecked consumer culture to which we’re relentlessly subjected – you may be stuck with a mother like me, who’ll let hell freeze over before she buys some crappy, sweatshop-made toy that reminds her of how witless most children’s programming is, but she might very well buy you a pack of juice boxes on which a cartoon character that you love and she can’t stand appears. There are endless opportunities to ease up on the hard ass thing without totally compromising the values we strive to live by as parents and citizens.

And I have to say that I’ve gotten mellower with age. When they were littler, like two years old say, I was really on guard against creating the sort of little monsters who throw tantrums for stuff they don’t want or need. I didn’t want them to have toys whose dialogue was already scripted. I acted as if I was blind to all the icky, battery-operated, space-hogging, television-related crap, while simultaneously praising the hell out of crayons, blocks, that one special baby doll, the hundreds of little plastic animals that Milo has come to love more than anything. In this respect, I do feel like I’ve exerted an influence that has helped shape Inky and Milo into kids whose company I enjoy, who receive presents gracefully and gratefully.

Which is why it was such a joy to present them with a couple of the six-inch Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle action figures they’d been admiring at the drugstore. They come with these nifty little throwing-stars or death-stars or whatever they’re called, some sort of weapons shaped like circular saw blades. I even convinced my mother to buy one for Milo’s birthday, a development which shocked and ultimately pleased us all.

I’ve been drooling over your new food-blog, Dirty Sugar Cookies. You are one iron-bottomed chef, ma’am! So tell me, how do you keep your girlish figure?

It’s not too difficult to keep your girlish figure if you were a well-padded girl to begin with! Now go wipe your mouth.

And now a few rapid-fire bold-face name-drop gossip-column questions. What’s it like being married to another writer? Totally Dashiell/Lillian, Ted/Sylvia, or what? Dish!

There’s not much to recommend it in terms of health insurance coverage, but otherwise, it’s really nifty and not just because of the booze! Oh wait, that was Scott and Zelda... Anyhoo, it’s great to have someone who understands deadlines, not so great when our deadlines overlap. It’s great to be with someone whose work I respect so much, not so great to share a desk with him, mostly because he gets really mad when I get crumbs on the keyboard of our mutual computer. I hate being condescended to as “the little woman” by some of his producers and other bigwigs in his theatrical orbit, but I love feeling like I’m a part of these productions and theatrical history that I’m not really a part of at all.

Is it true you live across the road from a Hollywood heart-throb, his new bride, and their quaintly named baby? Did you doorstep them with a lasagne and some adorable booties?

I have not brought Heath and Michelle any lasagna, though I believe he told some celebrity glossy that the neighbors did welcome them to the hood with casseroles. I think maybe he got confused and it was really Ang Lee arriving with booties for his godchild and an undressed salad for the new parents, who I assume, have a lot invested in maintaining their girlish figures.

Every now and then I get a really strong desire to stand under their windows, howling “Ah wish ah knew how to quit you!” And I ain’t even seen that thar movie.

Rumour has it you used to canoodle with a certain Stephen Colbert – true? Did he do that mock stern “Look here young lady, keep that up and I’ll have to spank you with a hairbrush” thing on all the girls, and was it like, totally hot?

Yeah. I mean, not the spanking part, but yeah, Stephen was my college sweetheart and I have very fond memories of our romance. I try to avoid bringing it up myself because I don’t want to look like some sort of fame-crazed parasite, who’ll stop at nothing to draw attention to herself. His wife and kids, his mom, his thousands of brothers and sisters and his current friends are the ones who have every right to bask in the golden glow of the Colbert star. Those college memories are enough for me. And if it ever looks like it’s getting to the point where I’ll have to start selling plasma, I’ve got a few photo albums from the mid-80’s that might well fetch a fortune on eBay.

Last question: if there was a sudden rift in the time-space continuum and you bumped into your pre-children self, what would you most want to tell her?

Get a better camera so your photos of Stephen Colbert will be worth more when you hit the plasma-peddling stage.