Friday, December 5, 2014

The Language We All Speak

A few days ago, a friend of mine posted this on Facebook:

“Oh no!  Where in the world did I hide that elf on the shelf!?  Kids are soo excited about tomorrow and his arrival.  I am already exhausted and must search…” #25days #yearofthelazyelf #whateverahashtagmeans #ughelf

Fifty-four comments ensued.  FIFTY-FOUR.  Which, what?

What started as a joke – fellow moms commiserating about elf “chores,” others (myself included) contributing to the thread with excessive hashtags – became a real conversation.  It reminded me of the time I got something like sixty-five comments in a post asking what people put in their potato salad.  (Surely I must jest, you think.  Surely, I assure you, I do NOT.)

So I got to thinking, what do the elf and potato salad have in common?

Both threads were real conversations – banter and opinions and back-and-forth.  Both posts speak the language of their primary audience – parents, who by virtue of being just that, typically cook and play games with their kids.  Both posts contained humor and/or questions, which requested, either overtly or intrinsically, the participation of the audience.

But what I think both elves and potato salad are really about is…identity.  Potato salad, for Americans, is an exceptionally regional dish.  One’s knowledge of ingredients shows your prowess in the kitchen.  And your participation in the thread identifies you as someone who helps out, someone who is ready to lend advice, when asked.

With the elf, it’s the same.  Each reply to the thread has a meta-meaning -  whether or not you even own an elf.  Everyone has an opinion.  Either it’s a fun family tradition in which you love participating (thereby branding yourself as a great parent, attentive and fun-loving), or it’s a commercialized cash cow that requires almost unendurable energy during what is already an energy-intensive portion of the parenting year (thereby branding yourself as the anti-establishment, stick-it-to-the man type of parent (or maybe just lazy)).*  Maybe you create elaborate elf tableaus each bedtime hour, evoking shrieks of glee and wonder each morning after, or maybe you tell your kids that the elf sucks and is creepy and that’s why your family will be elf-less FOREVER.  Maybe, like me, you grudgingly bought one in an unfortunate episode of parental guilt and now are regrettably and forevermore bound to that red-suited joker.  Maybe, like me, you have (as of this year) assigned all elf duties to your eldest child, much to her delight and your relief.  Maybe you bitch and moan about the elf publically, but secretly like making snow angels out of sugar on your kitchen counter.  Or maybe you post a photo of your elven shenanigans each morning on Facebook, because you truly love providing these to your children, and you also enjoy seeing what the rest of the elf diaspora is up to.  All of these choices brand us as a certain type of parent, a certain type of mom. 

*Disclaimer: I have friends of all types, so no judgment.  Just noticing.

The point is, every mother I know has an opinion and stake in this elf thing, like it or not.  It’s a language we all speak.  Do you agree?  What else, besides the elf and potato salad, would you add to the list of things that get everyone talking on Facebook?  And on which side of the elf equation do your personal loyalties lie?

**Side note – Right when I posted this I got on Facebook and one of my friends had just posted this e-card.  And it had 16 likes already.  You see?  THAT ELF IS EVERYWHERE.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Parenting: A Cautionary Tale

Last week I had sinus surgery so every minute I wasn’t lying on the couch with a bag of frozen peas on my face, I was reading, which was awesome.  (Isn't it a depressing state of affairs when even surgery is a welcome situation as long as it gives me a few hours of alone time?)  Hence the stack from the last seven days…

Of the choices above, I’d say The Secret Place is your best option, though all were satisfying.  (Hopefully I’m embarking upon one of those phases in which everything I choose to read ends up being great…do you have these?  I haven’t had one in a while, and I’m hopeful.)  Anyway, even though I found French’s novel a bit more predictable than her previous ones, it was still expertly paced and plotted – she’s really a master of structure.  A House in the Sky was probably the most memorable – a memoir about a freelance journalist who is kidnapped and held prisoner in Somalia for over a year.  I just finished The Poison Tree last night and I found it even better than the previous Erin Kelly I’d read (The Burning Air).  I think there is a third by her as well – has anyone read it?

But I don’t really feel like talking about books today.  Instead, a story.

What they might not tell you about parenting is how unbelievably gross it is.  And I’m not talking about babies, here, even – I’m talking about the whole gamut of the parent job.  Allow me to illustrate with what I’m sure will only be a momentary episode – an incident that in the future will probably prove to be only a brief glimpse into the overall disgustingness that is the charge of a household of small children and pets.  In other words, you will find this story revolting, but it is also woefully ordinary.

We have a dog named Henry Baxter, who is a 12-year-old West Highland Terrier.   Though spry in his puppyhood, recently Henry has started to decline – he has cataracts, he can no longer clear the jump onto the couch, and, most notably for the purposes of this story, he cannot tolerate human food.

He really can't be bothered to look at the camera.  Fine, Henry Baxter.  FINE.

So, there’s an easy solution to this.  WE DON’T FEED HIM FROM THE TABLE.  Ever.  It’s simple really – chicken makes the dog vomit?  DON’T GIVE HIM CHICKEN.  Bacon causes regurgitation?  DON’T GIVE HIM BACON.  Steak equals barf?  You get the picture.

However, on the particular night in question, my 8-year-old son, Owen, decided he didn’t want his dinner.  So to avoid being forced to eat the requisite three bites, he fed his entire plate to Henry while I was doing the dishes.  You can imagine my, uh, dismay.

The thing is, the barfing thing never happens right away.  It is stealthy, and unpredictable.  Around 11 that evening, I sank into an uneasy slumber. 

The following events are difficult to explain, but I will try.  Maybe bullet points would work best here.

·         1 AM – Become aware, mid-REM cycle, that Henry has moved from his tuffet on the floor to my bed.  Remain asleep, but semi-awake in the manner in which Chuck Norris slumbers (asleep yet watchful).

·         1:35 AM – While still asleep, become aware of retching noise in close proximity to own face.  Dreamily realize that if dog does indeed throw up, the vomit will slide between the headboard and the wall, causing much nocturnal strife.  Make split-second difficult yet necessary decision.

·        1:35:05 AM – Shift, Matrix-style, into position as vomit receptacle.  Flawless positioning of hands achieved through apparent successful echolocation since room is still black, lights are off, eyes are closed, and body is mostly still sleeping.

·         1:35:06 AM – Catch dog barf in bare hands.  Awaken.

It is a grim state of affairs indeed when the lesser of the evils is catching your dog’s vomit in your own outstretched hands, but there it is, people.

But the story did not end there.  OH NO IT DID NOT MY FRIENDS.  Because nothing in parenting can ever be easy, or fast, or convenient.  So as I ran to the bathroom and sanitized myself, I realized that my night was only just beginning.  Now it was time to parent.  Natural consequences, and all that stuff.  Ah, the glamour of parenting strikes again.

So I cleaned my hands, preserving chunks of chicken in sink basin to serve as visual aid in parenting mini-lesson to be enacted.  And I went to awaken my 8-year-old son.  He was, of course, exhausted, so he cried throughout the ordeal.  But I taught him to strip the bed, scrub Resolve into carpet, and start the washer (fortunately, my stealth-like barf ninja skills were effective in preventing vomit down the wall, so he got to avoid that job).  Whatever else I’m doing wrong with these kids (and there is a lot, I’m certain), my kid knows how to do laundry now.  And I’m pretty sure he won’t be serving his dinner to the dog again.

From this experience I glean this as truth.  Moms will do basically anything, ANYTHING, to avoid one more godforsaken mess to clean up.  Amirite?  What's your grossest parenting story?

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Love Wins – Rob Bell

I don’t read a lot of Christian apologia.  Though I am a Catholic Christian, I don’t enjoy reading about my faith.  I honestly don’t enjoy reading the Bible either – it’s a struggle for me.  My true love in reading is the escape that it provides…so when I read, I want plot and characters and twists and surprises.  I like to think, but I don’t really want to philosophize, if that makes sense.  So my review of this book feels clumsy to me, and for that I apologize.  I’m out of my league in this genre, honestly.

However, this book has been popping up in conversations and my Facebook feed for a while now, so I thought I’d give it a go.  I’m glad I did.  Overall, I loved the point of the book.  Love Wins is a back-to-basics message – not at all revolutionary in terms of my personal beliefs, but a nice affirmation about what I believe to be right in terms of how to live and interact with others.  Life, according to Bell, is not about getting somewhere else (heaven, or whathaveyou), but about loving others (no matter what their faith, politics, sexual orientation, etc.) and living your best life now.  Eternity starts today, says Bell, and the way we live now in terms of the good work we do and the way we treat others indicates our future path. 

Or something like that. 

Bell also makes the excellent point that there’s not one “right way” to everlasting nirvana, and that judgment is not ours but God’s (or whatever force each one of us calls “God” ) and that God/“God” is truly merciful and loving and wants us to be with her/him forever in eternal joy.  God, in other words, is bigger than our belief in Her/Him.  Most satisfyingly, Bell trounces the idea that if we don’t respond to God in the right way, we will be eternally tortured.  Because in what way does “eternal torture” fit with the idea of a loving and perfect God?  Love wins – the title really says it all.

(The book is about 200 pages, and though it is easy reading – most paragraphs being of the 3-sentence variety – the previous paragraphs are in no way the entire message.  That above rambling is just a couple of the points that held the most weight with me.)

From the first, Bell admits that nothing he says is new – but I think that everything in the book bears repeating, especially in the charged and Bible-thumping climate we live in today.  It’s the kind of book that every member of the Westboro Baptist Church needs to read about twenty times in a row, in other words.  People need to be reminded that love is the answer, no matter what the question…and that questioning one’s faith and philosophies is an exercise that is essential.  He reminds Christians that questioning is where understanding and strength are born.

However.  (Of course there’s a however.)  While I agree completely with Bell’s message, I take issue with his rhetoric.  To put it bluntly, his argument commits a logical fallacy.  For those of us who don’t know what this is (confession:  I totally had to look it up), here’s a definition:

A fallacy is an argument that uses poor reasoning.  
An argument can be fallacious whether or not its conclusion is true.

To explain.  Bell’s central argument (or thesis) is advocating for a non-literal interpretation of scripture.  (As a Catholic and an academic, this is not an issue for me.  I read the Bible as a product of history, as a product of many translations, as a work that came into being hundreds of years after the death of Christ.  I read the Bible as a masculine text – written and compiled and read exclusively by men for most of its history.  I read the Bible as a literary work – dependent on the interaction and partnership between writer’s word and reader’s interpretation.  I read the Bible as allegorical, as symbolic.  All that jazz about the world being created in seven days?  Who knows?  Who cares?  Maybe God’s definition of a day was 8,000 years!  And so on. 

So reading the Bible in a non-literal way is obvious, to me.) 

My problem with Love Wins is that the proof and support Bell uses for his thesis is literal Bible quotes.  Bell says we need to read the Bible non-literally, using literal quotes to back up his assertion.

Do you see the issue here? 

So, anyway.  Again, loved the message about love and life and God’s love and all that.  But I wish that Bell could have found more relevant proof for his assertion – proof that would perhaps address a wider audience.

So I wonder, have you read the book?  What did you think?  Which parts were helpful to you?

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

I've only had the book a few months, but already it looks like somebody put it through a garbage disposal.  That should show you how well-loved it is already.

So it won the Pulitzer, and so that should be enough.  But really, and as much as this word is a complete cop-out, it’s utterly amazing.

Tartt first came on the literary scene with The Secret History in 1992, and followed up with The Little Friend in 2002.  The Goldfinch came out last year (2013).  Are you noticing a pattern?  The woman takes ten years to write a book, a thing that’s quite unique in this era of “publish or perish.”  (Actually, some of the first sketches of the book date back as far as 1993!)  Tartt virtually refuses to be a slave to the publishing machine, giving few interviews or readings, and generally bowing out of the promotions side of book sales.  She’s not even on Twitter and largely lets the work speak for itself.  What?

Anyway, the story itself is great and her characters positively transcendent.  In terms of plot:  It is laden with bad decisions and terrible situations and hard drugs and art and esoteric shit about furniture restoration (which, really, were some of my favorite bits, because I’m like, ALL IN when it comes to esoteric shit nobody knows anything about.  I mean, all that restoration stuff could’ve been one hundred percent made up and I’d be like, “Great.  Love it anyway.”  Moving on.)  The centerpoint of the novel is an actual painting entitled “The Goldfinch” by Fabritius, who Tartt describes as “the missing link between Rembrandt and Vermeer.”  Not to give too much away:  The painting survives an explosion in New York City (shades of 9/11) and then moves through the novel as a talisman to Theo, the main character.  And if you want more than that, you’ll have to read it. 

But here’s the BEAUTY.

Boris is the best-drawn character I’ve EVER READ.  Ever.  Ever. 

He’s compared to Dickens’ artful dodger, and he is so real he throbs.  He moves; he tears up the pages and walks into your living room.  I’m not sure if I’ve ever had as much of an experience of character-LOSS as I had at the end of this novel – HE WAS THAT REAL. 

And if that isn’t enough, Tartt herself has been compared both to Tolstoy and Dickens themselves.  The woman is only fifty and has only three books to her name, but you can’t read a review of her work without seeing yet another comparison to those behemoths.  (Tartt admits to being raised on a steady diet of Dickens and recognizes that she’s internalized his style.  Also, she loves the comparison.  “Who wouldn’t?” she asks.)

A couple of asides.  During my mourning of the book’s end, I scoured the internet and found a couple of amazing things about this novel that are just so cool I had to share. 

One:  The actual painting “The Goldfinch” really did survive an explosion back in 1654, in Delft, yet Tartt didn’t even realize this until after she wrote her own explosion scenes in the novel.  Read more here.

Two:  The original publication of the novel coincided to the day with an art show opening at Manhattan’s Frick Collection.  (This was not intentionally orchestrated.)  And guess which painting was included in the exhibition?  Yep.  More here.

Basically, STOP EVERYTHING YOU’RE DOING AND READ THIS RIGHT NOW.  It’s in my top ten all-time list.  (OMG, that’s a total blog post.  Sarah’s Top Ten.  What’s in yours?)

Monday, August 11, 2014

I'm Baaa-aaaack

So, hi.

I know I know I know.  It’s been almost a year.

I also know that most of you know me in real life, so it’s weird to apologize or whatever for just LEAVING the blog, but I feel like I need to make mention of the absence and explain it for the other four or so awesome people who only know me here.

I got a job.

That’s the short story.  Obviously there’s a longer more involved one – an agonizing job search of almost a year, and then all of a sudden an interview, then another and another.  And then one minute I was at a Mumford and Sons concert, and the next I was getting the call that I got the job, and the next Mike was out of town on business for three weeks to Holland and I was juggling three kids and then Eloise got a part in a play and I’m WORKING FOR THE FIRST TIME IN EIGHT YEARS and everything is mayhem and chaos.

The job was originally a part-time internship, but me and the job?  Got along like a house afire and a few months later they asked me to stay on permanently, so it’s basically the perfect situation for me to still get to take the kids to school, be there when they get home, and balance it all, sort of.  Plus, I love it.  I love my job.  I work for a nonprofit called Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston, and I get to do their social media and write their newsletters and blogs and reorganize their website and take photos at cool events and learn about all these different faith traditions and meet amazing people and spend my time there hashing out ideas and brainstorming with some seriously brilliant people.  I get to spend the day playing on Facebook and they pay me to do it, you guys.  Click over here and take a look at our mission and programs, seriously, it’s the shit.  I love love love it. 

But all the things they are BUSY, man.  My husband’s job is demanding, and my kids are in approximately one million after school activities plus there are friendships and the dog and homework and cooking decent dinners and the commute and the price of dry cleaning and stepping on Legos at one AM and Where is your lunchkit and Get in the car and Find your other shoe! and you know.  I know you know because you are all out there doing it too.

The “cooking decent dinners” part is debatable.  Lately it’s another day, another shameful, shameful meal.

Anyway, I’m back.  I’ve read some seriously good stuff lately, and I miss it here.  

Friday, September 20, 2013

Short and Sweet

Two books I read lately that I need to make mention of.  First is Kate Morton’s The Secret Keeper.

I read The Forgotten Garden a few years ago, and upon reading this offering, I realized why I waited so long to read her again.  She’s a talented writer, but DAMN if it doesn’t take her 200 pages to get warmed up!  The last half of the book was excellent, though.  So if you don’t mind a plodding buildup, I would say it’s worth your time.

Also read recently is Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. 

Set in London, it is a story told from the point-of-view of an autistic teenager, and I would whole-heartedly recommend it to anyone affected by autism, or anyone interested in reading a great book, really.  I found it on this list (one of the best book lists I’ve ever read), and it is simply beautiful.  Haddon is a genius at illustrating the way the boy’s mind works from the inside, and provides a completely original perspective on this affliction.  Fascinating.

I don’t have much time, so I wanted to leave you with this piece of perfection from Curious Incident:

And outside the window was like a map, except that it was in 3 dimensions and it was life-size because it was the thing it was a map of.

Brilliant, yes?

Monday, September 9, 2013

When Body Image Hits Home – Here I Go, Getting All Political and Stuff

Last week I read this and then this and of course this happened and then my eight-year-old daughter told me how she “couldn’t wait to have breasts because it was so pretty.”

This isn’t the first time she’s mentioned this, but in the wake of all that BUSINESS last week and what with my feminist ire being ON HIGH ALERT I decided it was time for a talk.

Eloise has never had Bratz dolls, nor do we have cable.  We limit her screen time, she’s not allowed internet access on her iPod, and she doesn’t listen to much popular music.  I honestly don’t think she’s seen a full episode of I, Carly or Hannah Montana.  (Sometimes I truly feel that I’m doing my kids a disservice – will they be able to relate to other kids their age, in middle school, for example?  Do I even want them to?  My friend Emily always says, “Your kids are screwed until college.”  Maybe I should homeschool.  HAHAHAHAHA NOT.

However, none of these restrictions come from a place of fear – I’d say they come more from a place of disdain (much of TV is stupid, and those Bratz dolls are butt-ugly) and laziness (do I really want to pre-screen hundreds of teeny-bopper pop songs and videos for appropriateness?  NO.  KILL ME).  Yet I don’t feel like she’s particularly sheltered, honestly – we read constantly, we watch movies as a family, we have tons of friends, we travel, we talk about everything.  Her best friend knows all about popular music and Justin Bieber, and so Eloise isn’t totally clueless.

I asked Eloise why she felt like this – why was she so interested in boobs, and why right now?

So she begins to talk about the Sailor Moon books (her current obsession), and explains how all the girls are so pretty.  She describes how their bodies look, and explains that she hopes to look similarly, someday.  And sooner rather than later, to be clear. 

Are you familiar with the series?  I’ve been a little conflicted about her reading them, but as we talk a lot about what she reads I figured it was ok.  (Prior to this conversation I was more concerned about Sailor Moon’s boyfriend, but apparently "they don’t go on dates or kiss or anything, they just see each other from far away sometimes.”  Huh.)  Plus I’m philosophically opposed to censoring her reading of something that she loves so much.  (Also, again with the laziness – I really do NOT want to spend my priceless free time reading manga.)  But I do realize that anime presents visuals of hyper-sexualized women, so it’s given me pause.  Simultaneously, I have respect for art and see this style of art as a fascinating and ground-breaking sub-genre.  Whether or not I exactly LIKE it isn’t the point – “liking” something is never the point, with art.  Art is supposed to make you uncomfortable.  I get it.  I respect it.

I asked her to bring me the books.  Here are examples of some of the graphics, for those of you not familiar.

Immediately I was reminded of this truth:  You can’t hide culture from the kids who grow up in it.  Whether you want to or not.  Eloise doesn’t notice Kim Kardashian flaunting a bikini on the cover of US Weekly in the checkout at the grocery store.  But she found that Sailor Moon series in the library and ATE THAT STUFF UP.  Culture is going to find your kid wherever she/he is, like it or not.  And furthermore, guess what?  Our kids are human.  Which means that they are sexual beings.  And for me to fight this and cover it and shrink it and trap it is a fight against the way we were made.  I’d rather use my energies toward teaching my kids how to look at their culture objectively and intelligently, and how to use the moral compass I’ve taught them to navigate their way responsibly.

My revelation was this:  I can do one of two things.  I can take the books away from her and not allow her to check them out, ever again, a la Mrs. Hall

Or, I can work with her, in an open and honest way, to teach her critical thinking.  I can look at the world with her, bravely, and help her to make sense of it by eliminating shame and embarrassment, and I can try to teach her to question what she sees. 

So I asked her why she thought the artist drew the women in this way.  Did she know anyone who looked like this, in real life?  (Present company excluded, obvs.  HAHAHA.)  But really, do I look like this?  Do her aunts or my friends or her grandmother or our neighbors look like this?  Does anyone who is a human look like this?

Note proportion of leg to body.

Is it right, morally, for an illustrator, or editor, or anyone to present such a skewed version of the female form to readers – male or female?  Why do you think the illustrator made this choice?  Do you think the illustrator is telling us women should look like this?

Then we talked about the eyes. 

I explained to her the idea of the disturbing “Caucasian Beauty Ideal” and told her that in Asia, statistics show that the most popular cosmetic surgery is blepharoplasty, or eyelid lifting, which is used to make Asian eyes look more Westernized. 

Knowing this, I then asked Eloise to consider the artist’s depiction of Sailor Moon’s eyes. 

I asked her why she thought the illustrator made this choice?  And how do you think the Japanese manga audience feels about this depiction?

Furthermore, should we look to TV, magazines, or media in any form as a guide to how women should look?  What messages are being sent to women through these vehicles?  (A quick aside:  As much as we hope to combat this stuff with Dr. Barbie or the Lego scientist minifigure (and as much as I applaud these efforts), it’s a drop in the ocean.  It's nowhere near enough.  Those efforts pale in comparison to the plethora of images assaulting our girls from every direction.)

Eloise couldn’t answer a lot of these.  She’s only an eight-year-old girl whose reading level outweighs her maturity level.  (This is both a blessing and a problem.  I’m going to have to work really hard to stay a step ahead of her.  She’s reading The Help now.  This morning we had to talk about a gory miscarriage, attempted rape, and alcoholism.  And that was before 8 AM.  God help me.) 

And look, I don’t have the answers, either.  I'm just trying to figure it out, like everybody else.  But I do know that we need to teach our daughters to ask the questions.