Thursday, March 11, 2010

A Maus in the House

A paper-mache mask sits drying on my dining room table, painted grey, an art project by Little Babe for his Ninth Grade English class.

The assignment was to reflect upon Art Spiegelman's Maus, which the class had just read. In addition to his essay, comparing Spiegelman's father, Vladek, with Odysseus, Little Babe made a Maus mask, which is taking forever to dry.

I don't remember doing anything remotely as sophisticated in high school, one million years ago.

Little Babe's high school encounter with Spiegelman's masterful work helps to bridge the gap between him and his older brother, Big Babe, a culture writer in Berlin. Indeed, when Big Babe was a student at Columbia, he studied with the Artman himself, taking classes in Spiegelman's studio because the artist liked to smoke while he taught.

My youngest has been the baby of the family for so long that watching him catapult into adolescence is a form of endless entertainment, hinting of science-fiction. Who is this kid studying Latin and Ancient Rome? What's that foliage on his legs? When did the 'stache sprout on his upper lip? When did he take up electric bass? And did he actually inform me that he's starting a rock band called Off-Key??

And while everything he is learning at his excellent school has proved mind-expanding, this particular English assignment forced Little Babe to venture beyond Manga -- one of his obsessions -- and embrace the artistry of graphic novels by the masters.

Next stop: Will Eisner and R. Crumb.

While I am pondering Little Babe's metamorphosis, Middle Babe calls. A junior in college, she switched to a Philosophy major at the end of last year from Music and Theatre after developing polyps on her vocal chords. The transition went seamlessly; my songbird and actress turns out to have a natural ability for philosophical inquiry. While walking to the gym, she talks to me about her upcoming Heidegger paper, her essay contrasting Martin Buber and Hermann Cohen, the Logic exam she took this morning. She says this all glibly; I am mindblown, amazed, bursting with admiration and pride.

Spring break starts this weekend; Middle Babe has a ticket for the 11:15 Bolt Bus out of Baltimore tomorrow morning. She tells me that she will call me when her bus approaches Penn Station, asks if I can bring Little Babe, her best friend Rebecca and Alfie and Nala the Pomeranians when I pick her up. She tells me she will text me a list of food to buy in preparation for her return home. I make a mental note to move all of my papers and boxes out of her room.

It is a Thursday morning and my work day is well underway. Reporters call to arrange interviews with clients; I make my pitch calls, draft materials, book appointments. Amazingly, spring is in the air though the sky is overcast and there is a chill. It is visible in the optimistic quality of the light; it is tangible after this severe, entombing winter.

Yesterday evening, HOBB left for his annual journalism trip abroad, taking 16 students with him to the Middle East. In two weeks' time, we will join him in Jerusalem for Passover and a family Bat Mitzvah. I am traveling with my two younger children and Big Babe will join us from Berlin. The prospect of being together serves as a golden carrot at the end of a very short stick, luring me forward through my busy days and action-packed evenings.

The Maus mask gleams at me from across the dining room table. I reach across and touch it, surprised to find the paint nearly dry. Now all that remains to be done is the shading of the inner ears, the snout, the mouth. If he is feeling ambitious, Little Babe can clip a few bristles from our kitchen broom and make whiskers.

Tomorrow morning, the mask will be packed and taken to school but for now, on this late winter morning in March, there is a moment of perfect suspension, the prospect of a Passover together with my family in Jerusalem, a homemade Maus in my house.