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. 

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds – Alexander McCall Smith

I’ve been meaning to talk to you about Alexander McCall Smith for a long time, but since I haven’t been able to hear my own thoughts for the last three months, it was kind of out of the question.  However, all three (the baby too!) children started school yesterday, and it is actually quiet here.  I feel strangely adrift, still getting my bearings.  I haven’t been alone for almost nine years.

Yesterday I was a little down, a little emotional – I’m not really a crier about things like this, but it’s quite something to leave your last baby at kindergarten and wave goodbye.  So yesterday I was a bit out of sorts.

Today, however.  Today I went to not one, but two yoga classes – one on a whim!  SPONTANEITY!  Then made an (unplanned) trip to the grocery store to get fixings for a lunch just for me.  Just because I felt like it.  And now I’m shopping for fabric online and all of a sudden, I’m like, WHAT THE HELL WAS WRONG WITH ME YESTERDAY? 

This is amazing, people. 

The house is quiet, and I’m calm, which is a sensation to which I was previously unaccustomed.  I am actually, at this moment, living in a day free of chaos. 

(That is, for one more blessed hour, until my darlings come home.)

(Did I just totally jinx my afternoon?  Probably.)

Anyway, in the meantime, no profound words of wisdom today, only a recommendation to read McCall Smith.  I just finished The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds, which is the ninth novel in his Isabel Dalhousie series, so I wouldn’t start there.  Start at the beginning of any one of his series and let yourself wind your way through them.  They are such a treat.

Although McCall Smith is probably best-known for his No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books (which are also wonderful), my personal favorites are the Isabel novels.  Set in drizzly Edinburgh, they are easy reads, and honestly, not a lot actually happens.  These aren’t gripping page turners.  Characters drink a lot of tea, and answer letters, and play the piano.  They have coffee at the delicatessen.  But Isabel and Jamie (and company) are so loveable, and the author treats them with such tenderness…it’s just a joy to read a good book about good people doing honest, admirable things, sometimes.  (Although I do love Breaking Bad, don’t get me wrong.) 

The Isabel novels are the literary equivalent of a cozy quilt, a rainy day, and a mug of hot cocoa by the fire.  They are relaxed and funny and gentle.  They are happy-making.  Enjoy.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

If You're Missing Girls, Read This

Girls in White Dresses by Jennifer Close. 

It’s hilarious – again, rom-com done right, and with a pulse and a grittiness that is hard to find in this genre.  I think I laughed out loud on just about every page.  Close “gets” girlfriends:  How we interact, how we talk to each other, how we love each other.  Plus, she’s a genius with dialog.

The story centers on a group of twenty-something female friends in Manhattan.  Like Dunham’s Girls, the women live in vermin-infested walkups, desperately trying both to make bills and “find themselves,” but the novel’s scope continues through this period and into their middle adulthood (careers, marriages, babies, divorces). 

To me, the best part of the book is Close’s understanding of female friendship.  True girlfriends, the best kind, know exactly what to say when we’re at our worst.  They are masters of self-deprecation with the timing of a comedian, or an Olympic hurdler. 

One of my favorite parts from the book happens at Mary’s wedding.  (Background:  Mary’s mother-in-law is named Button.  She’s insufferable, as the name would require.)  During the reception, Button finds Mary and says, “You know that Ken can’t eat shrimp, right?  He breaks out in hives.”

“Yes,” Mary said.  “I know.”

“Oh, okay.”  Button seemed relieved.  “I just wanted to make sure.  I just didn’t know why you would ever serve shrimp at your wedding if you knew your husband could break out in hives.”

Mary went to the bathroom and locked herself in the handicapped stall.  She stood in her dress and breathed deep breaths until she heard Isabella walk in.

“Mary?”  Isabella called.  “Are you in here?’’

Mary unlocked the stall and stood there.  “Button,” she said.

Isabella nodded.  “Harrison’s mother told me last weekend that she thought polka dots were out of style.” 

“So?”  Mary asked.

“I was wearing my pink-and-white polka dot dress,” Isabella said.

“Okay,” Mary said.  “Okay.”

This is what we do, right?  This is how we communicate our support of and love for one another – no matter how bad your situation seems, it’s actually normal, and at least we’re all in this crazy fucking boat together.  Girls in White Dresses is a love letter to girlfriends. 

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

On Daughters, and Shopping

Last August, I took my then-seven-year-old daughter, Eloise, and her best friend, Lola, shopping for the perfect first-day-of-school outfit. 

Eloise is a great kid – but of course I think this, she’s mine.  She’s smart and beautiful and wacky and creative.  She’s also strong-willed and stubborn and emotionally high-strung and sometimes extremely flaky.

To illustrate:  At breakfast I’ll suggest an outing – the zoo, for example.  The kids and I (Eloise included, of course) will discuss when we’re leaving, the things we’ll see, what we’ll pack for lunch.  Maybe Eloise will help make sandwiches or gather water bottles.  We’ll load the car.  And 30 minutes into the drive there, Eloise will look up from her book, dazed, and say, “Wait.  Where are we going, again?”

I cannot tell you how many times this EXACT SCENARIO has happened.

But she’s one-of-a-kind, that’s for sure – and this is probably my favorite thing about her.  This morning, for instance, she said, “May I please have some peanut butter and crackers to cease my appetite?”  Not to be funny.  That’s just how she talks.

Lola, Eloise’s best friend, is also a great kid, in a completely different way.  She’s outgoing and friendly, the life of the party.  She draws people out and makes friends easily.  She and Eloise complement and balance each other – where Eloise is shy and reserved, Lola is talkative and open.  Where Lola is physical and energetic, Eloise is calm and peaceful.  It’s a fun friendship to watch, precisely because of their opposites. 

So, on this particular day, the day of the back-to-school shopping, we ended up at a popular clothing store.  You know this place – lots of jersey knits, t-shirts, leggings, jeans.  Lola and I start picking items to take to the dressing room.

(I must note here:  Lola is truly fun to shop with.  She tries everything on, asks your opinion.  “Do you think this top looks better with the skirt or the jeans?  Which color sweater is cuter?  Do I need a bigger size in these?”  It’s kind of like shopping with a teenager, when you were a teenager.  The main point of Lola’s shopping is the dressing up, and the socializing, not the buying, necessarily.)

Eloise, meanwhile, wanders around the store, blurry and unfocused.  Or, at least that’s what it seems like.  She floats, not really engaging with anything, not exactly participating in any part of the trip.  And this is the point at which I get a bit frustrated with her, honestly.  This is supposed to be fun!  Who doesn’t like a new outfit?  We’re even here with her best girlfriend, and still – she’s just not that into it, really.

So I hold up one of my selections.  “Honey.  What do you like?  What do you think of this outfit, with the leggings?  You could choose any color.  What about the purple?”

And she says, “Nah.  Not really, Mom.  I don’t really like any of this.  I’ll just wear something I already have.”

(Again, time out.  I must interject here:  This is TOTALLY INCOMPREHENSIBLE TO ME.  Wear something one already has?  Whatever FOR?!?)  For the love.

I say, “Why?  This is what kids wear!  There are lots of cute outfits here – what’s not to like?  I want you to pick something.  It’s fun to wear a new outfit on the first day of school.”

Eloise looks at me appraisingly.  Considers.  Sighs.  “Okay, Mom.  Fine.  Where are the yellow satin blouses, then?”

And that’s when I got it.  This girl, my dreamy sleepwalking-but-awake child, the one who is never really HERE, always ELSEWHERE – she lives in her head, and in her (rather volatile) emotions.  She spends most of her time thinking about things that don’t exist.  Fairies, for example.  Magic.  Fiction.  Tall tales and supernatural creatures.  Cotton balls and Q-tips that signify animals, and pieces of paper cut into a million intricate shapes that make sense only to her.  Art detritus left in her wake, made-up melodies hummed under her breath.  So nothing at a store, ANY store, is going to be as wonderful as something she dreams up in her marvelous imagination.  Nothing could possibly compare.  This is who she is.  This is why I love her to pieces.  This is why she makes me ABSOLUTELY crazy.

So this summer, I’m doing a little preemptive surprise sewing.  I hope she’ll be pleased.

Friday, July 19, 2013

A Conversation, with Jenny

So Jenny and I were at the pool a few days ago and I was telling her about this woman in my yoga class, we’ll call her Anna, who admitted that she “wasn’t a reader.”  (I must note that Anna was speaking with the instructor, not directly to me.  I was just eavesdropping, like a creeper.)

Anyway, Anna went on to say that she felt really guilty about it because she knew it was important for her kids to see her read and enjoy it, and she worried that they weren’t getting the right scholarly influences from her at home, etc.  And the instructor replied that there was a lot of societal pressure about this subject and if we had a dollar for every single thing that inspires guilt in us as mothers, we’d be rich, or something like that.  Let it go, in other words.

It got me thinking.  I’m a reader, a writer, and a former English teacher and scholar, so of course my home is rich in print, and I read constantly, and we go to the library and to the bookstore, and we read together and separately, and listen to books on tape, and I go to book club and we go to book club and I read to them and with them and in front of them.  But that’s easy for me – it’s what I’d be doing anyway, independent of my role as a mother.  Reading is not something I decided and committed to do.  Being a capital-R Reader is natural for me; it’s who I am.

And then I thought about Mike, my husband.  He is not a Reader.  I think he’s a genius, though.  He can build anything, fix anything, make sense of any kind of technical problem.  He’s a talented musician, a wonderful artist, and a successful businessman.  And I know many other successful and brilliant adults who have fabulous careers and live quality lives yet don’t really do books. 

So to play devil’s advocate, I posed the question to Jenny:  Is it really a parenting absolute that we need to be so diligent about our kids’ reading?  Do we need to raise Readers?  (And I’m certainly not championing illiteracy.  I’m talking about being a Reader, a lifelong lover of books, not knowing how to read.)  The short and easy answer is yes, of course.  But I guess my feelings are complicated by the fact that there are SO MANY things our kids need to know how to do nowadays – swim and use the internet and play basketball and do chores and drive a car and ride a bike and plant vegetables and sit still at the symphony and serve their communities and recycle and say please and thank you and budget money and eat organically and so on and so forth – that it gets overwhelming, for a parent.  I can honestly say that I don’t require my kids to get enough exercise.  None of them are very athletic, and I don’t force it.  Maybe I should.  I mean, with childhood obesity rates, and everything.  But no mother can do everything.  (And it’s so hot here in Houston.)

Jenny’s response was in the affirmative.  She wants to raise Readers.  And her reasoning is persuasive – reading takes us out of ourselves, teaches us about the world, forces us to see things from differing perspectives.  Reading promotes a larger world view.  Yet while I agree with her, I wonder – is reading truly the only thing that does this?  We then tried to think of families we knew and realized that pretty much all of our friends were either Readers, or married to one.  Which means that their kids have the experience of at least one parent as a Reader.  Are these kids truly better prepared, more educated, smarter? 

My point is that we all feel guilty about some area in which we don’t measure up.  Can we cut ourselves some slack on the reading thing, knowing that there are plenty (TONS AND TONS) of extremely successful adults who aren’t Readers?  Or is the guilt well-placed?  What do you think?

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Some Summer Reading Suggestions

I really want to be writing today.  But this is going to be quick, because my dog reeks SO BAD I can smell his fetid ass from across the room.  I have no choice but to cut my writing time short, to take care of his repulsiveness.  I’m resorting to mouth-breathing, for the present.

I want to tell you about two books I’ve read recently that you might like.  The first is Lalita Tademy’s Cane River.  It was an Oprah book many moons ago, and it’s one that was repeatedly recommended to me, which is the reason I finally got to it (it was published like ten years ago or something).

Anyway, meh.  It’s okay, I guess.  The research is excellent, the writing fine, but the subject matter just isn’t my cup of tea.  If you have a particular interest in either slave narratives or genealogy, you’d probably really enjoy it, but I found the characters very stock and predictable.  So, whatever.

Then I read The Fault in Our Stars by John Green and OH MY GOD, kill me.  

This book will rip your heart from your chest, sucker punch it, stomp it on the ground, resuscitate it, and then repeat maybe 100 more times.  It is technically categorized as “YA,” but from what I can tell, the only thing “YA” about it is the age of the two main characters.  (Furthermore, I have a kind of ethical issue with this label.  What does it even mean?  While I understand that categorizing must be necessary for marketing purposes, it seems a bit demeaning.  Right?)  The Fault in Our Stars is a love story, and a cancer story, and I really can’t tell you anything else about it or I’ll ruin it for you and that would be morally reprehensible.  I will share this texting exchange between myself and my friend Wendy, who loaned it to me, for the purposes of convincing you of its absolute awesomeness.

Me:              Ok, Wendy.  I cannot be held responsible for any abuse I do to your                                book.

Me:              Because I tried valiantly to hold myself off w postit notes; and now I’m swimming in LITERARY DESPAIR AND AM DYING.  Every sentence and I’m DYING.  Don’t give me books like this again.  I’m a wreck.  Sorry for the defacing.  But you must agree, there was no alternative.

Me:              Not that I pulled it apart.  I just had to write all over the margins in pen

Me:              IN PEN.  Ran out of postits and couldn’t contain myself.

Me:              Sorry girl.  Nothing that could be done

Me:              I’m a wreck.

Me:              Love you [insert adorable and adoring emoticons]

Me:              Sleep lovely.

Me:              [insert additional blushing happy face emoticons]

(An aside:  I just noticed that this is less of an “exchange” and more of a “monologue.”  I promise that I do have actual friends, and that Wendy does, indeed, exist, as a physical being.  For real.)

So there you go.  Read it right away.

To close, I must direct your attention now to this little gem, which I’ve watched on YouTube maybe fifty times in the last two days.  THEY PRONOUNCE “NICHE” CORRECTLY.  Kill me now, I can die happy. 

You're welcome.