Marta Maria

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Location: Viljandi, Estonia

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

A Reading Rainbow

I have to admit, I was worried that Marta might never learn to read. She has shown for most of her life a general disinterest in academic-like things. Most of the time, I have been torn between thinking that she really knows these things, and is too lazy to show it:

ME: Marta, what letter is that?
MARTA: Yawn ...
ME: Marta, what letter is that?
MARTA: C'mon, let's play
ME: Marta, what letter is that?
MARTA: Yawn ... A

Other times I have caught her not knowing things, which really scares me. Yet all of a sudden she wants to read. She is literally bringing me books. Most of the books deal with animals, and so far I have read her to sleep two nights in a row!

Some of the books are ones that I remember. That is because they once belonged to me. Take the character above, from The Fantastic Funny Finger Book (Price/Stern/Sloan 1979). Here's the caption:

Is 'disco' even a word anymore? I'm not so sure. It's a referential word, but I don't believe that in English we use it as it was originally intended. But here I am in 2007, reading a book printed the year I was born to my daughter. And she is enjoying it.

Another book we read together is a McDuff book about a small West Highland Terrier. Eddie, the Westie in our family, sadly passed away last summer, but Marta hasn't forgotten him.

"I want to read about Eddie," she says to me. The McDuff books have a slow pace, but I think they're pretty satisfying. I don't mind reading about our friend McDuff.

Altogether, I am encouraged by our reading adventures. I have to say that I feel really good after reading her a couple of books. It's like exercise.

Monday, February 19, 2007

The Lives of Princesses

Did you know that there is a princess fad on? I was totally unaware until a fellow parent pointed me in the direction of this New York Times magazine article from December entitled What's Wrong with Cinderella?.

Diana may be dead and Masako disgraced, but here in America, we are in the midst of a royal moment. To call princesses a “trend” among girls is like calling Harry Potter a book. Sales at Disney Consumer Products, which started the craze six years ago by packaging nine of its female characters under one royal rubric, have shot up to $3 billion, globally, this year, from $300 million in 2001. There are now more than 25,000 Disney Princess items. “Princess,” as some Disney execs call it, is not only the fastest-growing brand the company has ever created; they say it is on its way to becoming the largest girls’ franchise on the planet.

In the article, author Peggy Ornstein discusses how this princess fad is actually confusing for our generation that grew up when the feminist movement was still going strong and little girls were given Our Bodies, Ourselves, not princess paraphenalia.

As a feminist mother — not to mention a nostalgic product of the Grranimals era — I have been taken by surprise by the princess craze and the girlie-girl culture that has risen around it. What happened to William wanting a doll and not dressing your cat in an apron? Whither Marlo Thomas? I watch my fellow mothers, women who once swore they’d never be dependent on a man, smile indulgently at daughters who warble “So This Is Love” or insist on being called Snow White. I wonder if they’d concede so readily to sons who begged for combat fatigues and mock AK-47s.

Like the author, I too watched "William wants a doll" when I was a kid, and I have sort of this idea in my head that too much Barbie is a bad idea for little girls. The idea is that those girls that get too much Barbie as little girls grow up to be obsessed with body image as teenagers and graduate to abusive relationships or anorexia or just being ho-bags in general.

But just try explaining that to my daughter as she puts on her crown and heads for the mirror:

Maybe it was the dentist’s Betty Boop inflection that got to me, but when she pointed to the exam chair and said, “Would you like to sit in my special princess throne so I can sparkle your teeth?” I lost it.

“Oh, for God’s sake,” I snapped. “Do you have a princess drill, too?”

She stared at me as if I were an evil stepmother.

“Come on!” I continued, my voice rising. “It’s 2006, not 1950. This is Berkeley, Calif. Does every little girl really have to be a princess?”

My daughter, who was reaching for a Cinderella sticker, looked back and forth between us. “Why are you so mad, Mama?” she asked. “What’s wrong with princesses?”

Who can argue with that?


Being surrounded by this little princess all the time and accompanying princesses like cousin Simona, I have learned that I shouldn't fear "the princess" too much because deep down, little girls are beasties. Slate writer Michael Lewis asks questions about raising his daughter's properly in his recent article, "Have I Screwed Up My Daughters Forever."

Just four weeks after the birth of my son, both of my daughters are living, in effect, outside the law. They act as if they have nothing to lose, and, materially speaking, they don't. They've behaved so badly, for so long, that everything that might be taken away from them has been taken away: TV, candy, desserts, play dates, special dinners, special breakfasts, special outings with parents. They are like a pair of convicts in a Soviet gulag with nothing more than they need to survive—and still they continue to subvert the authorities. Oddly, their teachers all say that at school they remain little angels.

How true. I have seen Marta participate at lasteaed where she is polite as can be, but then at home, she turns into tough-girl Marta who hits her father and throws hysterical fits if she doesn't get something at a specific moment. I have a hard time taking "princess tantrums" seriously, and perhaps ignore them at my own peril. But do you really want to wade in when the legs and arms are flying?

I coat the first bite in whipped cream, swipe it once through the molasses, and, slowly, raise the fork to my mouth. Then I see Dixie's face. Her lower lip trembles and tears stream down her sweet little face. It's an involuntary response to a horrible realization: Daddy doesn't care. He's going to inhale his yummy dessert even though he knows Dixie can't have any. It takes a few seconds for the sobbing to kick in, as she runs from the room.

Sometimes Marta is just plain *dumb*. She argues with me over things that just cannot be argued. Take fire. I have told her it is very hot, but she has insisted on several occasions that it is very cold. Then there are the things she doesn't understand are prohibited, like pushing the washing machine buttons. What satisfaction does she get from that? I don't know, but she enjoys it.

Plus, she really isn't afraid of heights. She's constantly climbing, and fiercely independent. Today I was informed that I was not allowed to put her boots on. She could do it herself, so she said, until the point I actually put them on her.

Last night she took yogurt from the refridgerator while I was using this very laptop. She then proceded to dump the contents of the yogurt all over the floor. Did you know that cleaning up yogurt and cleaning up paint are very similar activities? I did not know this until last night.

This is my life, the life of a father trying to negotiate between a strong-willed child, Disney, other little princesses, yogurt, and fire.

That's not that there aren't enough tender moments to make up for this whirlwind. Every day when I pick Marta up from school she runs - runs - across the room and jumps into my arms like I was Michael Landon and life was Little House on the Prairie. She wraps her arms around me and is so happy that I am there. Words cannot describe - sniff - these fatherly moments. And I am glad that there are the beastie moments in between these moments though, so that I can relish the Little House on the Prairie moments more.

Speaking of beasties, the other night Marta and I got into a little back and forth after I called her a "beastie girl."

"I'm not a beastie girl!" she insisted. "You're a beastie boy!"

Friday, February 16, 2007

I'm a girl factory

I have an old friend who just gave birth to her second son this year. Another acquaintance is having his third boy. The neighbors downstairs had two boys too. But me? I'm a "girl factory" as my colleagues at work put it when I told them.

Last week Epp had to go to the hospital, or, more specifically, the women's clinic to rest. Without going into all the details, she needed to get off her feet for awhile. But during her stay they did an ultrasound and it turns out that there is a 95 percent chance we are having another little girl.

This is good for several reasons. The first is that we have boxes and boxes and boxes of barely used baby girl clothing. We also have femininely-inclined toys, princess castles, DVDs, and a very doting grandmother who likes to buy pink things.

Also good is that this also works with our family dynamic of having all the females in my life dump their estrogen-induced fury on me when they feel like it. Because I am accustomed to this, what's one more female in my life crying at the same time as all the others?

Third, perhaps most beneficial, is that I make a pretty lousy male role model. I don't watch organized sports, I'm not that handy with a drill, I can't take a car apart and put it back together, hell, I haven't tied a tie in awhile, and I am not sure if I could if I had to do it right now. In other words, I have no skills to pass on. If we had a son, it's highly likely that he would have a better grip on fixing household appliances than I would. Now, I can write songs and I am a talented writer and journalist. But if your car breaks down, you can't sing it back to life again.

Which leads me to think, are we given children of certain genders for certain reasons? Do certain dads get sons because they have skills to pass on, while other dads get daughters because they are better at dealing with estrogen-induced fury? Maybe so.

Anyway, I can officially stop banging my head against the wall now. This girl will be called Anna.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007


Last weekend we went to Laulasmaa, which is a resort about 35 kilometers (20 miles) from Tallinn. Laulasmaa boasted a nice swimming pool, saunas, and good food. To keep Marta and her cousin Simona occupied, I took the girls to the beach one afternoon.

Here is a photo of Marta making a snow angel:

And here she is on a swing:

This body of water is called Lahepera and it was mostly frozen when we got there. There was just a tiny opening in the clouds, which made the lighting very interesting:

Marta and Simona decided to try and move some of the sand from the frozen beach onto the ice to, I don't know, make things seem more beachy. I was very careful to make sure that they didn't get to close, and eventually I decided that we should go take a little hike in the woods nearby:

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Marta's New School

Today was Marta's third day of lasteaed or kindergarten and the first day she made it through naptime. Marta goes to school by sleigh because it's the fastest way to get there. Here's a photo of Epp and Marta outside the school:

Before going inside, you need to park your sleigh next to the other kids' sleighs in the shed next to the school. Marta's is the one on the far left:

Marta is a very social person and funny too. I haven't seen it in person yet, but I think she is already winning friends:

Each kid in lasteaed has their own pissipot for when nature calls:

They also have their own lockers to keep their winter warm stuff. Marta's has an apple on it. The teachers originally put Maria Marta by mistake, but now it has been corrected to show her real name:

Monday, February 05, 2007

Marta's New Home

This is our new home. As sad as it was to leave all our stuff behind in America, it feels damn good to actually have a new roof over our heads after living on planes and in airports and even in Warsaw, Poland.

Europe is such a strange entity. It's supposed to feel different but it feels the same at first but then it actually feels quite different than the US. If you can follow that. I know that I felt a little strange about moving Marta across the Atlantic. Would she magically become polite in mid-air? Would my child change, as our surroundings changed? Fat chance. As soon as we were escorted to the Hotel Okecie in Warsaw to spend the night and eat yummy, greasy Polish food, Marta was running around, telling ladies that she liked their hair and, by the way, did you notice my pink boots? One guy even gave her a rose. How cute.

On the planes, she was really into the Polish babies. I got really tired of chasing her. On the way to Tallinn she kicked and screamed. The Italian guy in the seat behind us was very upset. He put his fingers in his ears. The Polish guy in the seat in front of us was content though, flipping through his nudie mag and drinking a can of beer at noon. See, Europe is a little different.

In Tallinn, we put our bags in our old Valgevase apartment and headed south on the train to Tartu. Marta spoke to her mother in Estonian, but to all strangers in English. She didn't realize that she was in a country where almost everybody spoke her literal mother tongue. And that's sort of something I have been paying very close attention to. The bilingual child learns one language from Mom and one from Dad. That way she learns no mistakes and has the benefit of being really smart and cool and knowing two languages.

This situation came to a head when we got to Elo's place in Tartu. It was snowing and cold but Tartu looked beautiful with its wintertime lights. Marta first tried speaking to Simona in English, and Simona knows some English, but then Simona was asking me to translate and I realized that Marta was going to be forced to use her mother tongue (instead of her father tongue) to communicate with her cousin.

The thing is that Marta is a social animal, and like a comedian, she knows her "lines." She has a routine, "my name is Marta Petrone, I'm three, do you like my pink boots?, come on, let's play" that she never uses with other, non-English speaking kids. Never used. Until now.

Today she went to school, where the kids are also three and really know no other languages. I watched as Marta said "come on" a few times with no response, until she said "tule!" and her young friend obliged and followed her. We are told that she used her English more than half the time at school. My guess is that she will phase out as the days progress and she gets accustomed to using her Estonian language skills.

She still has the differentiation down between Epp and I. This morning she woke up and said, "Come Justin, wake up, wake up" with no hesitation, in the same way she'll confidently tell Epp that she wants to eat something in Estonian. I've got her to the point that she knows that my language is called "English" but she hasn't figured out, at least with me, that Epp's language has a name and is its own entity.

I'm glad Marta has this time though. Her school is so cute. It's this sprawling yellow house with a red roof and her class is the "Mesi Mõmm" class, or "honey bee," where other cute children gather and räägi eesti keeles. Outside, while they were playing, many had their own kelkid, or sleighs. It was a site to behold, seeing little midgets holding on to their sleighs like they were fishermen in dingies. I hope she likes her school. Her teachers seem experienced and like they've got their heads screwed on right.

Marta is also happy to see family members she hasn't seen in a long time. Both her and Simona went after Priit and attacked him like good nieces. I think Marta likes yelling Priit's name. Anyway, she is doing better these days. Less jet lag and less cranky behavior, which means she still is pretty cranky anyway, but not extraordinarily cranky.