Saturday, August 29, 2009

Strong Feelings About Words

Over a week ago my blogging role model Mothership ( from Motherhood the final frontier, a blog I highly recommend - ) attempted to rope me into a meme. I tend to resist this sort of thing mighty fiercely. But the ideas behind it snuck into my head and influenced the radio-rant station that plays in my head when I forget to obsess about politics, religion, finances, and what is for dinner. So in the interest of drowning out the current din in my head about such exciting topics as how to make myself get more exercise, I am going to tackle these questions.

Which words do you use too much in your writing?

The sad thing is that the word “ the” is literally overused in my writing because when I get tired I just write it two or three times in a row like a sort of type-stuttering. I also have to take the word “very” out of almost every sentence. There could easily be an argument made for the overuse of “I” as well.

Which words do you consider overused in stuff you read?

I hate it when new, probably unnecessary buzzwords are introduced and then heinously overused. Examples? Sustainable, and sustainability have replaced the old fashioned concept of just plain sensible. When did something that is not wasteful or designed with build in obsolescence in need of a special word? The same goes for carbon footprint, which is just another way of saying relative piggishness (high carbon footprint) versus relative stewardship of the planet (low carbon footprint). I am glad that use of these words has made wise use of resources trendy but I wish we could have just kept it in style all along.

Another word that I would like driven out of the language is the use of “got” when describing something that nobody would wish upon himself or herself. I got banana's at the store. I got some good news. Fine, no problem there.
He “got” raped? He got mugged and murdered? I don’t think so. He got a rash maybe. Although in the interest of not blaming the victim perhaps we could say he suffered from a rash. Agency is key- if people are always going out and getting mugged, murdered, and ripped off, then how are we to stop any of it? In the same line of thinking I would like to see the phrase “ blaming the victim” retired from the language because nobody does it anymore.

What’s your favorite piece of writing by you?

That varies from day to day. I hate most things when they are just finished, but if I leave them alone for a week or longer and come back then I am entertained by my own irreverence. I am pleased with this one;

What blog post do you wish you’d written?

I have several favorite blog posts. My favorite concept, that I wish I had thought of is from Vagnino Monologues- a series called " so you think you don't like poetry" that offers wonderful accessible poetry to change the minds of poetry haters everywhere.

My favorite romantic story is

Who I still owe for this

What is the strangest thing you have ever been asked to write about?

I don’t have to be asked to write about strange things. It comes far too naturally. More likely, I have to be asked, repeatedly, and with increasing volume not to write about all the strange things that happen daily in my family.

Name three favorite words…

Liminal, Jungian, and flourless chocolate cake.

And three words you’re not so keen on?
Cognizant- Please replace with aware. I just like the way it sounds better. It is less stuffy- and aware is one of my most favorite words and concepts.

Victim- just get rid of the whole concept. Replace with awareness.

Codependence- again, be done with the whole concept. Replace with awareness. I think I have a theme going here.

Do you have a writing mentor, role model or inspiration?

I have several. My role model as a writer is my father- who never fails to use writing as a way to explore his passion for art, music, and dance while financing his need for constant travel. My favorite writer as a child was Roald Dahl and I recently discovered an amazing children’s story by Saman Rushdie that was very much in that league.

I have a grudging respect for Elizabeth Gilbert, a huge deep love for Anne Lamott, and a wavering affection/annoyance thing going with Augusten Bourroughs. I also love David Sedaris and my small and reasonable goal is to somehow write like all of them, only better.

What is your writing ambition?

You mean apart from the Booker Prize and being on Oprah’s Book Club? I just stole that line from Mothership, and I don’t think American’s get the Booker, but I am open to all possibilities. I would actually rather win the Newbury Award than any other, once I get my 1980's version of "Go Ask Alice" ready for the young adult readers of the world. 

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Give Me That Microphone

Growing up I had an absolute horror of public speaking. It was so vicious that I intentionally let my grades droop at the end of middle school to avoid any possible chance of being chosen to give the graduation speech. The thought of standing up in the school gym, in front of the students of my small, insular, mostly supportive school was beyond terrifying. I was also the kid who could only mouth the words when singing ( in large groups) at assembly and I tried to get permission to take a shower in my clothes after gym. I was generally thwarted by life. My father was chosen to give the guest speech to my class and I had to get up and introduce him. He added insult to injury by playing a drum and asking the whole room to chant with him in Yoruba. Wince, hands over eyes, hide under the stage.

As I have aged my ability to be embarrassed by anything anybody else does has been worn down by the wild unpredictable whims of my loved ones ( with the exception of my grandmother's love of using loud french as a secret language to talk trash about other people in public- somehow " stupide" never seems to be as hard to decode as it should be). I have come to enjoy my father's willingness to sing, dance, shout, and do martial arts while also giving a slide lecture. I have come to join the rest of the family in our loud, competitive story/joke/outrageous lie telling. I may even have become one of the loudest tellers of myth and hyperbolic truth. I have also grown much less fearful of individual performance, thanks to an incident at the registry when my skirt elastic gave way while I was holding a baby and a toddler. Maintaining dignity in granny pants without losing my active toddler, dropping my baby, or losing my place in line was instructive.

Perhaps one reason I have learned to keep talking, or walking, or whatever I need to be doing is that I have rosacea. When I am hot, angry, passionate, or have eaten spicy food, or anything I am allergic to I turn bright red, not just my cheeks but my throat and chest. I am a teacher, and opportunities to be hot, angry, or passionate abound on any given day. Wearing a turtleneck up over my nose all day gets old after a while. I learned that if I just kept on talking and moving and making sense, a little, that I could in fact live through it. And I learned that the less I cared what I looked like, or what other people thought about me, the less often I flushed in public.

Oddly though my ability to hold it together in my classroom did not carry over to less performance anxiety in other settings. I can keep the conversation moving forward in my own space, or with my own family, but put me in a new group and I am as shy as I was when I was three. But then recently a good friend asked me to go with her to an open mike event and just check it out, as she was considering reading some of her creative writing. I went with her and listened as people from my community told stories, sang, rapped, read random passages from books, joked, and ranted. I felt a strange affinity for these people, most of them strangers. I wanted to try it.

The next time my friend and I both signed up. We were very nervous. We smoked cigarettes. My bladder behaved as if I was nine months pregnant. I coughed, and wheezed, and trembled. But when it was time to just do it I got up and told a story without notes and words came out of my mouth, words that made some sort of sense. I felt so dizzy with basic fear while I did it, but then I felt a wave of ease when I finished. And then the next week I did it again, only this time I read something I wrote. And this time I did not feel shakey, or incontinent and I was able to stay in my head while I did it, so I can actually remember what I said. I was also able to pay better attention to other people because I was not so caught in fear of my own potential failure.

I am going to keep doing this- and move to combine things I have written with stories I have always loved to tell. I am going to write new work that is specifically designed for performance live. Perhaps, like my father, I will add some music and dance and singing, but perhaps not.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

What I really wanted was an Ivory Elephant.

A few days ago I was stuck in line, in Dunkin Donuts, behind a woman who was to my mind the epitome of all that is wrong with society. She wondered if she could order the special, a large coffee and a muffin. But, instead of coffee she would like some ice tea. Lemon, no raspberry, no on third thought, lemon. With ice, and a slice of real lemon. Lots of ice, two straws. And, instead of a muffin, would it be possible to substitute a bagel? I watched as the young woman who was serving her struggled to maintain a friendly demeanor. I watched as the line behind this woman got longer and longer. Then she wanted some water, for her son. No, not just water, also with a slice of lemon. Oh, could you dump some of it out and add more ice? And another piece of lemon. I had plenty of time to think about what exactly was making me so irritated. I am very sympathetic to people on special diets, the gluten allergic, diabetics, lactose intolerant, and others. I am not troubled to go out to dinner with friends who want to ask the waiter questions, or see if there is a way to use soy milk instead of cow milk in the latte. It was not what she wanted that troubled me so much as her apparent unawareness that the store was short staffed and that there were quite a few people in line behind her. Or was she aware?
When I got finally to order I asked for a large latte with caramel. The patient young lady brought it to me, and then rang up a regular coffee, saving me several dollars. . She winked at me. I made up a story in my mind about how I was being rewarded for ordering something off the regular menu. I accepted my bargain beverage, and wandered back out into the humidity still thinking about people who want something just a little more.
I thought of an old friend who is a contractor. He told me that people tend to pull this same stunt, only on a much larger scale, when they have work done in their homes. He told me that just recently he had built an elaborate staircase for a couple in an affluent suburb. The wife had changed her mind a few times about the type of wood she wanted, but had settled on quarter sawn oak. My friend had worked very hard to build a staircase to a standard of craftsmanship that was normal one hundred years ago but is now almost impossible to attain. He was very proud of his work. On the day he finished the wife stood at the bottom of the stairs, which curved up to a landing and then curved again . She remarked that maybe it would be better if the stairs came down on the left side instead of the right. How hard would it be to take them down and put them back the other way? My friend managed to communicate with her that while it would be possible , it would not be done by him now or ever. He also might have mentioned that should she so desire that he rebuild the stairs entirely out of ivory, , that he would not be interested in that project either. He might have made fun of her posh but put on accent, or copied her dramatic hand gestures. Let's just say it was not a meeting of the minds. But his imitation of her saying in a whiny voice "I know I said I wanted a stair case, but what I really had in mind was an elephant, a big white elephant carved out of ivory..." was quite endearing.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

My Grandmother Explains It All

The recent uptick in the debate about gay marriage, and my jaded response, which is that it is time for us to take a critical eye to the so-called standard version, the one where they man and woman get married, buy some real estate, have some babies, cheat on each other, abuse substances, rack up substantial credit card debt, fight whose parents were the worse influence , gain a bit too much weight ( or conversely take up running to the point of anorexia) stop having sex,and eventually divorce, had brought my attention to the every more maddening attempts of the "defense of marriage" crowd to stake out marriage as their ordained hetero-turf. I had a flash of insight as I remembered one my essential moments truth about my family of origin, and their relative ability to make any sense about anything at all.
I spent most of my summers, from about five to my twenties, living with my grandparents ( and later just grandmother) at their large, moldy, partially winterized home on the ocean. My grandmother was bound and determined to shape me to be the same kind of woman as herself, no matter how much this might anger my own parents, who were not her biggest fans. It has always made me go "hmmm" to ponder how my parents thought it was a good idea to send the kids off to live with their biggest critic. To say that words flew, both to the face and behind the back, in a constant battle for my child-soul, loyalty, and class affiliation, as well as basic understanding of my gender roll, would be a major understatement. My father made no secret of his belief that his mother-in-law was a thought criminal, a person capable of remote castration using her mind alone, and also the traditional rich/bitch/witch and anything else that rhymes with itch. My grandmother made no secret of her belief that my father was a lunatic, a practioner of the dark arts, and even worse, a writer. As a result, for much of my childhood I felt like a push me pull you in a fight of magical proportions. But I gained much from this, because I could not choose sides, without being ripped in half ; I had to learn early on that not everything that people say is true, and not everything they say you have to do must be done, and not everything they say they believe is even remotely believable.
One moment of awareness came when my grandmother first heard about AIDS. She was scared, of course, because she had her hair washed and combed up into a beautiful puffy fluff, and pinned tight enough to stay that way until next weeks wash, by a man she described as a 'flit'. Gay still described pretty purple flowers on an Easter bonnet in her world. And if AIDS was transmitted by touch, then surely she could catch it by having her hair washed? No, not likely, her best friend reassured her, not unless a whole lot more is going on at the same time. Like what? My grandmother wondered. Well, um, urgent whispers. My grandmother sat frozen as her friend explained, in what must have been fairly graphic detail, what she would have to do with her stylist to be at risk. She actually turned pale. Did you know about this? She demanded. Um,yes, I had to admit, I have heard tell. I will spare you the rest of the conversation, in which is was revealed that my grandmother was literally unaware of many of the options on the sexual menu, and this explained why she put unmarried same-sex couples on opposites sides of the house during visits, but put gay couples together. She just thought they were limited to harmless cuddling. Oh, my poor grandfather.
I did encourage my grandmother to attend more foreign films, and I lent her some beach paper back novels that contained some core information. She underlined an entire scene in a spy novel where two women get freaky on a sail boat, and left it out in the hallway so that I could too benefit from this new knowledge. I was stunned that the things I had gathered from the great works of Judy Bloom while in middle school were newsflashes to this woman in her late 70's, but more was to be revealed. A few weeks into her research she sat me down on the sun porch and told me that she had been reading and she had figured out what was causing all these perfectly nice young men to "go gay". It was of course, the fault of the feminists. Feminists, as you all perfectly well know, are all heterosexual women, promiscuous, and boldly bluntly critical of their many male sexual partner's performance. In fact , they rate them in a system that is similar to an Olympic event, not just giving them a score card, but letting them know how they stand up ( or not, as the case may be) to the competition. So when Jane ( the evil feminist) sleeps with Tom, Dick, and Harry ( my grandmother really used these names, perhaps the most mortifying part of the whole conversation, where I felt I was sliding into a surreal gross joke) and then she tells poor Tom that Dick has a bigger package ( not her real word choice) and Harry knows how some better moves ( again, not quite how she put it) and so Tom of course, turns gay. And this is a good move for him because gay men never objectify each other or make comparisons, or even care about size at all. It only matters to women! Of course! More importantly I now understood the cornerstone of the "Brides must be virgins" rules on traditional marriage.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

But Sir, Don't You Know?

My father is a man of great imagination. I have to say I may have gotten some of my storytelling and hyperbole from him. The thing is with my father though, that when he says he is going to do something, no matter how fantastical, age-inappropriate, celebrity stalkerish, or just plain dangerous, he is no fooling going to do it. He is also not going to get smacked down for hubris the way ordinary mortals do, either. He is going to learn a new martial art as a senior citizen, date a Kennedy, get kicked out of Angola with an AK-47 in his face, mysteriously master Arabic in his one year of Law School, you know, that kind of stuff everyone's father does. But once in a while he meets with frustration.
Recently he decided to use the carrot method to motivate some of his students to achieve a goal. Let's just say hypothetically that he wanted them to kick the asses of all the other students at a decent sized university. Let's just say that they had not done this in a while and that if they did win, a big gold carved cup would be bestowed on them, in a ceremony that might look like something from Indiana Jones and the Golden Snitch, if that was a movie. He wanted them to win, quite badly. So he made them a solemn promise. If they could just please bring home the glory of the golden chalice he would reward them by throwing a large party, lots of beer and pizza, and also just for the fun of it, a real live Lion. I don't know about undergraduates, they are a funny bunch. They really wanted to meet the lion. So they practiced and practiced and they punched speed bags while playing "Eye of the Tiger" over and over, and they won a lot of different sport game things.
My father proudly and happily called up Barnum and Bailey, and told them he needed a lion, not for the whole day, just for the afternoon. As soon as the exact nature of his inquiry was understood the circus put the special concierge of circus animal rentals on the phone. This person had a very posh British accent, the sort that would suit a butler in a 19th century costume drama.
"But Sir, don't you know that a lion is a man-eating carnivore? Lions can be quite unpredictable. In the past there have been a number of unfortunate incidents.Do you really think this is an appropriate guest for your event?"
Did they perhaps have anything similar to a lion, maybe just a hair smaller and a hair less man-eating? Like a leopard? or a tiger? The devastating truth was revealed that these animals also can get kind of crazy at parties. There was also the issue of the cost; $10,ooo per hour, for the most elderly, docile, and threadbare of the lions. And that did not include insurance, which might not be easy to arrange.
Many would falter when met with this kind of unimaginative withholding of circus animals from the party environment. Not my father, oh no. Instead he called up another one of those numbers that we all have in our rolodex. Right after "circus rentals" we find "fursuit rentals". We don't? Nonsense. Of course we do, if we know how to throw a decent party. He rented a couple of very high quality lion costumes. He found a couple of shy but eager to dress up students, and the party was a smash.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Running with Brooms- College Quidditch comes of age.

Today one of my colleagues assisted a student in writing a paper about our school's proud tradition- Intercollegiate Quidditch. We have a fine team and participate in the World Cup. As soon as the student left we rushed to investigate . I learned that the sport, which has been moderately adapted from the Harry Potter version ( due to technical difficulties with flying brooms and recruitement of golden snitches) has blossomed into a sort of dodgeball/soccer/running mad in a cape with a broom between your legs and trying to snatch a couple of tennis balls in a sock out of the back of the "snitches" shorts- mayhem. I could not find any live video on line, just some compelling photographs of the recently developed official brooms, which look a bit like rifle handles with black toothbrush bristles at the end. I was able to determine that Quidditch is coed, muddy, and played mostly at fancy schools like Princeton and Amherst.
I have many questions, many of them unanswerable until next fall's Quidditch season, when I plan to attend as many live games as possible. But one thing that immeadiately came up was the way in which Quidditch is fast becoming an American sport. The logo is the outline of a broom riding athlete against a red, white, and blue shape that brings to mind the major league baseball insignia. Does Quidditch have the same presence in the United Kingdom? Alas, it seems not. There is a web site designed to "Find Quidditch Partners in the UK". The best thing about it is the survey questions. Rate your level of interest in the sport from "obsessed", "enjoy it" "gotta be in the mood" and "not that good". Skill level? Choose among "Waiting to Bloom" and "I suck" among some other more optimistic possibilities. A gentleman named Lee, 39, from London, also interested in Yoga and FourSquare, is the only person we managed to match up with.
I look forward to the day when Quidditch makes strides into secondary education, and a gifted snitch can obtain the golden scholarship to Princeton to play in glory. I also hope to see Quidditch, perhaps with some what more forgiving rules about full body tackling, introduced to younger children, so that they may find the chance to mix a favorite book series, a cape, and a little rough outdoor play in a new American hybrid- fantasy sports that take place with real players. Magic, clearly phallic brooms, mud, reading appreciation, costumes, and athletic prowess; If this sport doesn't have something for everyone then I can't think of anything that does.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Othello 2

There is an article in the NYT today called "Teenage Girls Stand by their Man'. Apparently it is shocking and surprising to the writer, and several people interviewed, that teenage girls would want to blame Rhianna for getting smacked around by Chris Brown. The article is in the fashion and style section. Of course! Because only girls who want pretty purses care about this whole silly thing anyway.
The thing that sends me off the deep end is the ending, where a teacher suggests that the way to get these kids thinking is to have them write a new ending for Othello, one where Desdemona gets help in time. What would that look like? Perhaps adding a time machine, or the intervention of Jesus, or both would help, as it did in my current favorite film Hamlet 2. I mean, why should anybody have to die in a tragic play? It's a bummer, and it wrecks the sequel because the cast is all dead. And if we can rewrite Shakespeare, we can rewrite the private lives of pop stars, and then maybe our whole culture. Are you happy now? Good.
Okay, lets do this. But before we do I need to mention one of my all time favorite student papers. One of my students wrote a paper about Othello a few years back. The thesis was " Othello killed Desdemona because she was a cheating whore, and if my girlfriend cheated on me I would kill her too.". I had to hold still and breathe just a little before I gently suggested that he might have missed the part where Iago set her up, or that other part in class where we talked about how the whole double standard made it possible for him to do that.
Here is my suggested new ending for Othello. Jesus beams down in the time machine and holds a prayer circle ( kind of like the Bush in the Oliver Stone version) and everybody suddenly realizes that Iago is a manipulative sociopath ( who needs hugs, and prozac) this leads to the awarenesses that women have just as much right to sexual agency as men, being genuinely kind and pure and loving is so much more important than silly gossip, and come to think of it war is wrong, and so is racism. Everyone becomes gender neutral, a similar shade of pretty blue, gently environmentally socialist, and then they sing, loudly, about how therapy is going to help everyone. Curtain fades, as they all wander off to the female orgasm meditation circle. Aw.
Then Jesus gets back in the time machine and lands on the White House lawn. Soon Republicans and Democrats are similarly overcome with so much empathy and genuine hope for social justice that it feels like a warm bath on ecstacy. It spreads world wide, ending violence, oppression, bad taste, reality television, and pms. Did I mention that all world religions suddenly realize that they share a ban on killing and a do unto others rule, that if followed would end war and the necessity to carp about religion? Just love each other people. Stand by your man, stand by your woman, and stand by your designer purse. Fade out.

Monday, March 16, 2009

More Thoughts on Parenting

I mentioned to my daughter that I was blogging about sex talks with the young teens. She found this more hilarious, in an ironic doesn't even begin to cover it way, than I had anticipated. Apparently I am well qualified to tell people what not to do- and may in fact be uniquely able to describe how to be horrifying, inappropriate, and just all around gross- so that others may avoid my monstrous fate.
1) Remember that if you lie you will probably get caught. While I got very good results from my story that the break down lane on the highway was a place for parents who had lost all patience with sibling squabbles to get some back up from the state police- I did lose a small amount of credibility when it was revealed that sometimes the police were actually disciplining the driver.
2) At the same time, keep in mind that if you tell the truth you are probably setting a bad example. If your child asks you " did you ever try acid?" it is not a good idea to explain that mushrooms give a more interesting and organic high. Kids will ask specific questions- don't answer them. Use the question to find out why they want to know. What have you heard about acid? Then try to a science teacher approach to the facts. When asked " did you ever have sex with more than one person at a time?" the correct answer is " do people actually do that?".
3) If you are still friends with anybody who knew you well in those interesting and fun filled teen years, try to avoid getting into big remember when conversations when your children are within twenty miles. One fun story about how mom used to jump off the roof on a dare, just like that great pool scene in "Almost Famous" can undue years of discretion.
4) If at all possible, drive the car pool from time to time. If that is not possible volunteer to take the kids to a movie at the mall. Let them all sit in the back. You will be amazed, truly, to find out what your kids friends will cheerfully reveal if you keep silent and don't swerve the car off the road when you overhear something about blowjobs. Pretend to be singing along with the radio, keep your eyes facing forward, and you will soon know what level of sex and drugs and rock and roll awareness is present in your child's peer group.
5) Be aware that your kids and their friends are probably rummaging through your stuff. Try to be honest with yourself and remember how you babysat for your middle school science teacher and told everybody about the racy stuff in his bedside table ( no I did not do that, but I did things like it). Or how you smoked your dad's pot, or read your older brother's Hustlers. You did not do these things? Good for you. Maybe you kid won't either. But don't think you are any better at hiding things than a bored teenager is at finding them.
6) Don't make threats unless you are prepared to follow through. I made the mistake of telling my kids that if they , or their friends, ever drove drunk that I was taking them all down to the morgue to see some dead bodies. Soon after we saw a parent make a similar threat- only since this was CSI or some similar, he actually dragged his daughter to the morgue and showed her a dead body. This leads straight into - 6B- be prepared for statements like " that guy is even more psycho than you mom". This is a good sign that you are holding some sort of line.
7) Let you children compile a list of the ten worst things you have ever done to them as a parent- it is okay to even have subsets- meanest punishments, rudest comments, grossest attempt to normalize masturbation, ugliest outfit ( high waters with clogs was a favorite of my children) most embarrassing conversation with the teacher- and let them share it with you from time to time. It will make them feel better- and if you are doing this right, it will make you laugh really hard, especially later when they are all grown up and dealing with defiant children of their own( here is hoping we get there one day). Try not to laugh in front of the kids though- that just makes the list longer.

Dating, the Second Round

No- I am NOT talking about dating after divorce, or after the end of a long relationship- because I know absolutely nothing about that, other than it is mortifying, terrifying, and there are some very upsetting people out there. I tried eharmony and for some reason they decided to match me up with people in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Apparently there are no book reading, humorous, sober, reasonably attractive men in my age group on this continent. It is a little hard to do that "just a cup of coffee and we will take it from there" when the man in question lives in Dubai, so that was a problem. Then I tried craigslist, or rather my daughter tried it for me- wrote a sweet little ad looking for " a nice man for my mom". You would think that would cut down on the first contact photographs of hard-ons, wouldn't you? Nope. We got a nice flashfile of Mr. Bean with a boner that kept springing up and down, and a number of nice gentlemen who would like to be spanked, and then told to stand in the corner with soap in their mouths, because they are dirty, smutty, bad boys. Then I tried a web site for sober people. Oh dear. Typical guy is proud to be honest about the fact that he just got out of jail " but just for credit card fraud, not armed robbery, because, just being honest, I never got caught doing that" and he is " a bit out of shape" and " not a reader" and as a 45 year old is quite reasonably only interested in women under 25. Well, he sure does have that honesty thing going for him.
So, no, this is not about that kind of dating. This is about what happens when your own child starts dating, and you have suddenly got memories of being that age again, and of all the things your parents told you ,or didn't tell you, and all the things your friends told you or showed you, or hinted at and then the actual memories of what it was actually like. I have survived this bizarre time of life- having had children rather young- but am now seeing my friends reach this juncture. So I want to share my infinite wisdom.
1) Start early, using literature. It is alwaysbetter to leave a book lying around with nice straightforward lines drawings of the reproductive system than to over do it in the "Mommy and Daddy love each other very much" department. Kids want to know about sex, but they absolutely do not want to know about their parents having sex, with each other or anybody else, ever. Think of your own parents if you doubt me. Now stop making terrible face.
2) Answer only the question that is asked; do not elaborate. Wait for the next question. So if your child says " Last night the baby sitter let us watch Rosemary's Baby and I just want to know how Rosemary got pregnant" just say " The Devil knocked her up with a spell" don't get all crazy with penis in vagina stuff, because is not the answer to this question. Wait for the next question.
3) Make a serious effort to provide the same amount of information to children of both genders. If you are going to buy your son condoms when he is fourteen, slap him on the back and say " atta boy" then what are you going to do when his sister hits 8th grade? Or if your eldest is a girl, and you just want to sew her underpants to her undershirt, and tell her to watch out because " a stiff prick has no conscience" what will you tell her brother? I can not actually answer this question- since my children are all female- but I can tell you that only buying condoms for the boys is a big mistake, as is only cautioning the girls to be careful who they kiss.
4)Do what you can to fight our lovely culture. If you have any success with this, please let me know.
5) Be prepared for a wild time sorting out your own memories, both fond and traumatic. Just as having your child learn to read brought back memories of your own early literacy, watching a child start to date is going to bring on some whoppers. If you don't journal or blog or email your old friends to process - this might be a good time to start.
6) Be around. Now is a good time to be the parent who is has got their cell phone with them at all times, charged, and volume on. Be prepared to come and intervene as needed.
7) Have a good code word for abort mission. This means that your child can call you up and say
" Oh please, please , please can I go swim in the abandoneed quarry on ecstacy with the escaped convicts, everybody is doing it?" and you will know that the please, please, please was code for Mom ( or Dad) I don't want to do this, but I don't want to seem uncool, so could you please forbid it and get me off the hook?
8) Have a no harm, no foul rule. This means that if your kids gets into the shit, and then has to call you up to get them out of the quarry later, you go get them and don't make a big huge fuss. If you punish your child severely for being in a bad situation then the next time they won't call you- they may call somebody who thinks a good solution for a little alcohol poisoning is to leave the kid in the woods. This doesn't mean chaufering your child from jackpot to jackpot- and I wish I could tell you that being open and available means your kid will be far less likely to get into danger. Not so, but being the first person they call is invaluable.
Alright that is enough for now- More as soon as I think of it.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

All Alone in the Dark with the "I Can't Believe It's Not Butter!"

No, I am not planning on ranting about margarine today- although I do think it is a very bad thing- and possibly symptomatic of all that is rotten in Denmark. I just could not bring myself to write a blog post called " Why Do I Even Bother ( To Discuss Gender) Anymore?" or something equally boring and sarcastic.

Yesterday I spent my morning with my Comp 2 students, wading through Othello. The assignment was to take Emilia's speech defending women who cheat ( 4.3.80-99, should you care to give it a try) and translate it into modern language, so that it might be used as part of the script on General Hospital, Desperate Housewives, or some such. Each section did their own version, and each added certain key elements- what follows is a synthesis of them all. In response to Desdemona's assertion that she does not believe that there are in fact women who cheat on their husbands, Emilia responds;

Plenty of women cheat, but it's the man's fault. If he won't take care of our needs- goes out and shoots his wad at the strip club- while telling us where we can and can't go, shorting our fun money, smacking us around...well then women can take an attitude too.
Let those men know that women want a little something-something, a little bit of strange, just like men do. Why do they cheat on us anyway? Is it a game? Do they have crushes? Are they just weak? Sure, all of the above. But don't we like games? Don't we get a little buzz from flirting? Don't we just have to have it sometimes too? Sure we do.
Just tell those men to treat us nicely or else we are going to pull the same shit on them- because they showed us how.

So I was proud of my students- because "pour our treasure into foreign laps" is clearly about a lap dance, and I would never have seen it myself any more than I would have thought to translate "gall" as attitude. But then we started talking about what, if anything, had changed since 1604. They informed me that boys who run around are still players, and girls who run around are still whores, skanks, and some other words they wouldn't say in class. They also told me that they know people, relatives, who still have the wifey on an allowance, and if she spends it wrong she is going to get in trouble. It's justified, see, because some women just shop too much.

I got a little sad, and managed to cheer myself up by asking them to tell me why the names Othello, Iago, and Desmona are not used more often as baby names. I mean, Iago could be a girl name too, Iaga. Sweetness. Little Desdemono? Othella?

They reminded me of the lovely family that named their son Adolf Hitler and their daughter Aryan Nation ( which does have a certain soft ring to it, if you completely detach the meaning of the words from the sounds).

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Do We Live Here? Really?

I have continued to think about the fierce way that my parents tried to raise me outside of the norms of our times, or at the very least, neighborhood. I lived in a subdivision that was part of a Catholic Parish. Everyone went to Parochial school, and Mass, and everyone lived in 1950's ranch style houses with perfectly flat even grass lawns and tar driveways with new model American cars, just washed, parked in neat rows. My neighborhood reminded me in many ways of the scary planet with all the little children bouncing identical balls from " A Wrinkle in Time".
My house, on the other hand, was a two-hundred year old farm house, falling apart at the seams. We had a rickety white fence and the grass grew waist high by mid summer. Where my neighbors had plastic runners to protect the pale blue wall to wall carpeting my parents had dog and cat fur laden oriental rugs, often tangled up from the animals racing through the house. Where my neighbors had perfectly clean white walls we had bookcases up to the ceilings.
It went deeper than that , of course. My father wrote at night, by the light of every bulb in the downstairs and to the sound of Mambo and Jazz. The house was full of African art. Our car, oh the horror, was a fourteen year old Peugeot with a hole in the floor and one door tied shut with rope.
I have often wondered why my parents bought this house ( other than the extremely low price, even for the times, of $30,000). Why couldn't we have lived with the other college faculty, where I could have had neighbors who did not honestly, genuinely, believed that I was going to burn in hell, and that I talked " like I was from England" ( not really, much more Websters than OED) and that reading was for the bathroom, only. Were they trying to make sure I grew up to be able to assimilate into the culture at large? Did they think that being chased through the woods with nail guns by the neighborhood ruffians would be character building? Did they think it wise to make us aware that we were in fact a sort of strange minority, so that when Reagan won in 1980 I would not be shocked silent and wonder where these Republicans came from? (If so, they failed).
My brother and I did learn, and fast, to drop our snobby college town accents and unnecessary vocabulary words. I learned to argue for religious tolerance, and when that failed, I learned to lend out my library of horror fiction as a springboard for more wide ranging discussions ( what is a succubus you ask? perhaps you should ask the nuns?) . I learned to speak television, and barbie, and soda pop and once fluent found that I loved this culture, I was not faking. I also learned that standing fast worked better than running with most bullies, but that with a select few it was important to run like the wind. I learned that most parents hide the Playboys and the cigarettes in similar places, even if in other ways they are not like mine. I learned to assimilate, in other words. But I am still wondering why my parents put me in a place to feel like a second generation immigrant ( in a neighborhood where many of my neighbors were just that).

Sunday, March 8, 2009

In the Land Without Television

This morning I read with interest Motherhood: The Final Frontier, a blog by a woman I knew in high school. She was venting about the Whorification of Dora the Explorer, a problem that seems to be gripping parents of young girls right now. It is not a new problem. Barbie always set my motherly teeth on edge, and was banned and reviled by my mother before me. Of couse, I had lots and lots of Barbies, and so did my daughters. The bitch just knew how to hussle her slutty little ass into the house, welcome or not.

The issue is making me think about what happens to girls in our culture, and actually what happens to all children, when parents try to shelter them from the mean, ugly, plastic, materialist, addictive, all Vegas all the time world of television, luncheon meats, and toy AK47's.

My own mother was one of the truly fierce 1970's culture warriors. We had no television, but many books. We had no war toys. She made our lunches from scratch- home made minestrone and whole grain bread. We went to Europe, not Disneyland. She read us Beowulf when we were five and six. We were encouraged to go out and play in the woods and stream behind out house. She did not wear make up, except for the rare dinner party. She sewed our clothes.

What happened? Well, we became two very sneaky kids, that is what happened. We managed to watch plenty of television at the neighbors. We convinced our babysitter that we were grossly abused and deprived and she brought over a small television and a whole lot of candy. We traded home made humus on sprouted wheat bread for twinkies. We traded Steiff stuffed animals ( that would be worth a fortune today) for a box full of plastic toy guns.

Then what happened? Well, my mother found my brother shooting at me with a pellet gun that made noise, and flashed a bright light, while spraying hard red plastic "bullets" in all directions. She had a moment of really peaceful Zen/Quaker/Nonviolence and then she snapped and stamped on it, screaming at the top of her lungs. My brother somehow managed to put it back together. It didn't shoot so well anymore but it still made a terrible noise. Victory was his, I suppose.

I focused my rebellion more on the getting, hiding, and eating of sugar filled treats. I kept candy and gun hidden in springs of my bunk bed. I hid the back up supply elsewhere, so that if one stash was found there would be something to get me through.

Our elementary school teachers complained that we were both becoming compulsive liars. Our desire to appear to have watched the latest television shows was great enough that we would ask one kid what they saw and then use the information to fake it with the rest of the class. I think I picked this trick up from a character in "Small Change". My parents broke down and bought us the television during Watergate. I remember being truly furious that the trial kept interrupting "General Hospital".

Of course when I became a parent I thought I could handle it all so much better than my parents had. I got my kids lots of books and art supplies but I figured they could handle a little television. I got my wake up call when my three-year-old took a look at the stickers from Columbia House, one of those buy 10 CDs free deals. She pointed out to me Madonna, Michael Jackson, George Michael, and on and on, almost every single artist on every single tiny little stamp. It wasn't just the recognition, in a nonreader, that jarred me. It was the reverent tone of voice. I turned off the cable that day.

Did it work? Nooooo....But it didn't hurt either.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Arranged Marriage

Pilou, an old friend of my grandmother, grew up in India, in a wealthy family of the sort that has always arranged marriages for their offspring.. She was a rebel though, and a child of the 50's, and she told her parents that she was done with the old ways. She would marry a man she loved and she would find him herself. Pilou impressed me, as a child, because she wore gorgeous silk saris, and because she cooked everything until it was a black ash of its former self.

Every year her family went away for several weeks in the summer when it was terribly hot- up to a resort in the northern mountains- to swim in a lake and socialize with, unsuprisingly, other wealthy families on holiday. The summer after she announced her independence she met a man on this holiday. He was handsome and he was kind and he also was fiercely independent from the old ways. They met as equals, they fell in love, they announced to their parents that they would wed. Pilou was relieved that instead of crying , her mother got right to work planning an wedding of insane proportions.

Years passed- they had children, the children grew old- they too were fiercely independent. The oldest daughter wanted an education in Europe. Pilou became frightened. She had herself been so lucky, but what if her daughter were less fortunate? What if she chose unwisely? What to do?
Pilou went to her mother with her concerns. Her mother laughed heartily.

"Oh Pilou, my darling!" She said." I thought by now you would have realized! Do you not remember how every summer we traveled in July? And that year we went in August? Do you not know your own parents ? That his family also changed their plans so that the two of you independent young people could meet and make up your own minds who to marry? "

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Glowing Breadcrums on the forest floor

I don't really believe in coincidences . I know life is always trying to get my attention and tell me something important. What it might be often eludes me. For example last month one of my students, in a business case study class, wrote a long and touching essay about caring for his grandmother as she died. Complications of her illness led to the amputation of first one leg and then the other. At the same time a classmate in a writing class wrote about another true story of a relative who lost his legs. And then I had to read "No-No Boy" - in which a main character not only loses a leg in WW2, but has to suffer through a series of follow-up surgeries, as the rot creeps up his leg inch by inch and eventually kills him. Okay, so there is a theme here, I am seeing it, sort of , and it is yucky. Then my feet turned blue. Not slightly blue, but really truly purple-blue, like already dead, and probably got that way by freezing and then rotting in a peet bog for a few thousand years. No biggie, nothing my acupuncturist can't easilly fix, right? Not so fast- like I could run easilly on these sore blue stumpy feet.
My accupuncturist explains to me solemnly that blue feet are a sign that my circulation is not working right. Yes, my western medicine doctor would clearly nod in agreement. But why? I have been staying inside the nice warm house and wearing double sox and stretching and walking and all that good stuff. Well, my kidneys are tired and you know what that means! Fear, and lots of it. Fear? Why so? Its not like there is anything wrong with the ecomomy on the macro scale or my bank balance on the micro scale? Well, of course that is, but that isn't news. But my acupuncturist tends to be strangely prescient so I ask him what to do.
"Get out of here! Go somewhere else. Try something new. " Okay then. Now we have that settled. I will just up and go because its not like I am in the middle of graduate school, or employed, or owning real estate , or a parent, or dog owner, or anything. So, where to?
My daughter calls from India- she has been there over a year and she has no plans to ever return. Unless, that is, I come get her. And just showing up and shoving her on the plane is not going to do it. She wants me to come to India, live there a while, and then slowly gradually she will transition first from hanging out with mom, to flying on a plane with mom, to maybe staying on the same continent as mom. Sure, I tell her, just as sooon as you find me a way to live in India without having to drop out of graduate school. And then suddenly a woman in India wants me to work for her, and she has a line on a housesitting situation, and it could be an internship, and when can I start. Oh. My feel are already feeling a little less blue.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Praise Song for the Day

The first class of the semester is taken up with reviewing the syllabus, making terrifying threats about academic thought crimes, and generally establishing that this is a free and open classroom under my benevolent rule. I want my students to feel safe and comfortable expressing their ideas, both half-baked and brilliant, but I also want them to feel unsafe and uncomfortable calling each other and everything else lame, retarded, and gay. It is a delicate balance - one that seems to work best if they think I am a little scary.
The second class is all about establishing the study of literature as a much more worthwhile and accessible enterprise than they had previously thought. I ask how many of them hate poetry and see a sea of hands. Play haters are numerous as well. Resistance to short stories is minimal. That is why we start with short stories. But this time I am going to start with poetry- the inaugural poem. What better way to focus on audience, purpose, meaning, and form? First we deconstruct text-messaging as a genre. The agreement of all three sections is that its best features are brevity, informality, and the hiding of all emotions. The worst features are the brevity, informality, and hiding of emotions. Boys like it better than girls. All have horror stories of being offended or offensive by accident. Everyone agrees that it is an amazing way to keep in touch with a loved one when the plane is landing, the fridge is empty, or the others on the subway are eavesdropping.
Then they tackle the poem. Most do not recognize it, even though most watched the inauguration. But they start to pick up snatches of meaning right away. All three sections seize on the phrase "love without need to pre-empt grievance" and suggest that when combined with " darning a hole in a uniform" that this is a poem about repairing our world wide reputation. One kid says that he would like to be proud of his blue passport and not want to lie and say he is Canadian. Only one student objects to the poem, feeling that it, and the whole inauguration just harped on race too much. After all the US is one of the least racist countries in the world? What more do these people want? The rest of the class laughs merrily at this notion.
I did not really like the poem all that much when I heard it performed on television. I was more taken with the Revered Lowries prayer;
Lord in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning
we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get back, when brown can stick around- and when yellow will be mellow- when the red man can get ahead man, and when the white will embrace what is right. Let all those who do justice and love mercy say amen.
I don't usually like poetry that rhymes. But this one stuck in my mind, so much that I was able to recite the better part of it to my class and watch with a certain amount of badly hidden glee how this just didn't please my " don't you go playing that race card' student. This semester should be interesting.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Blogging Is Like Spin Class

Today I am watching the third or fourth gigantic snow dump of this year. By year I mean school year. I don't really think of years that other way- with the January transitions. I mean, January is in the middle of the cold dark winter.Who wants to start the year then? September is nice cool sweater weather with new books and notebooks and maybe even a new outfit or two. And yes, I know there are people out there who do not go to school or teach or have children or parents who go to school or teach and they can't relate to this "school year" thing. Well I can't even begin to go there. If you don't teach or go to school then you have to work in the summer! Who would do that? Other than everybody who teaches, because they need the money?

I do not mind that people like to do their "resolutions" at this time of year. The health clubs need the new members right now. They especially need the people who join but do not actually go to the gym. These people make the local YMCA affordable to the rest of us.

I have made some resolutions of my own. One is to stop worrying about my really appalling grammar skills, and somewhat shaking spelling. I can get help. I can avail myself of the support of my many literate friends who really seem to know why you are not supposed to end a sentence with dangling stuff.

Most of my resolutions this year have to do with accepting myself and my world a little bit more graciously. So instead of saying I will lose such and such amount of weight, until I look like I did when I was a substance abusing, eating disordered, but yeah, thin, fourteen-year-old , I am going to work on liking myself enough as I am to just do more yoga, walk the dog a little farther, get off the T a little earlier, eat more fresh fruit and veggies, and just be okay with it all. Similarly, I am going to stop worrying about what will happen if anybody were to actually read my blog and find out that I just can't stop writing really long " sentences" ( I am learning in grad school that just tossing in more commas doesn't really make it a proper sentence) and that when I get angry and passionate my entire sense of syntax goes out the window . A few days ago I got so upset about the fact that NYC has the Beastie Boys and Boston has what? New Kids on the Block? that I spelled confused "right and "write". Holy stupid ranting English teacher.
It's okay. Its like the jumping around my living room instead of going to the gym today because, um, there is this blizzard. I am actually writing. I am making the slow and gentle move from writing for many many many ( yeah, I know, cut at least two of the many's - I would mark that on a student paper- but it really is many many many) years only in my journal, I am moving towards this blogging thing. And I have shared the location of my blog with at least three people who will read it . And I think those three people all would agree that I should not be a professional copyeditor. So what? If anybody ever gets froth at the mouth apopletically grieved by my grammar then they can say so and I will fix it, just like the NYT . But the point is that instead of waiting for my writing to be perfect ( like waiting until I look perfect in a leotard before going to the gym) I am going to be writing imperfectly in the hopes that I will then get more comfortable with my flabby, huffing ,out of breath, ( would really rather go back to smoking thanks) writing skills and then as I sweat it out get a little less selfconscious about people seeing my uncooordinated efforts. If I just do it, like Nike ( the archetype, not the sneaker) then I will , if nothing else, get a little more comfortable with group exercise. In that same vein I am encouraging all of my brilliant writer friends to blog too. We can do this people. Then I can determine that getting up in the morning and reading my friend's blogs is kind of like going to the 5am Spin class, only for my brain.

Friday, January 9, 2009

My Imaginary New Neighbors

I have the worlds best neighbors now. They live behind me. When our kids were little they used to make an ice rink in the back yard, and my kids learned to skate by pushing a stack of plastic crates around in front of them. We got dogs at the same time. We car pooled. We listened to each other's children talk in the back seat while we drove and we compared notes when they went through the terrible teens. I spent New Year's Eve with them, eating far too much, and arguing about who had the craziest relatives. The categories for the evening were " religious nuts", " real republicans" and " doctors who perform surgery on the dining room table". My grandfather had his appendix removed by his father after eating too many of the neighbors green apples ( and being so scared to confess that he lay down and was cut open? Why? Too late to ask now...) but my neighbor's dad routinely brought home body parts from autopsies and waved them around the house while sharing morsels of scientific wisdom. He won that round.
I don't ever want to move, because I love these neighbors so much. But then there is the rest of the neighborhood. There is my primary care physician who lives across the street, a very outspoken Hungarian, who has a need to give me advice on men, sex, love, and finance that sometimes borders on the terrifying. There is the lunatic widow on the corner who shouts " Your dog STOOLS on my lawn!" and once sprayed my children with her garden hose on purpose for no reason other than the vague possibility that they too might be plotting to stool on her property. My dog by the way doesn't stool anywhere, and he doesn't shit on her lawn either.
There is also a crazy lady who wears carmen miranda hats and jumps up on cars to avoid my terrible pet. You would think he was a Mastiff or something. He isn't. He loves everybody- almost. He does kind of hate crazy ladies, after a while.
I think I may be having some vague class issues with my neighborhood. I suspect that they all listen to the kind of pop radio station that plays eight songs in rotation, with the bad words bleeped out. I listen to NPR and college radio. My good neighbors and I had a huge laugh last year at the book "What White People Like" ( farmers markets, David Sedaris, marijuana, pure bred dogs, pretending to learn a foreign language, Wes Anderson movies, writer's workshops- see for more if this gives you a sneaky uncomfortable feeling) . The joke is that its not "white people" like the ones I grew up around, the second generation immigrants with plastic covers on the furniture, new cars every other year, built in sprinklers, and Catholic School from K-Grad. We are only talking about postmodern white people, the kind that like to throw the word meta around, and enjoy self-referential and self-deprecating and self-absorbed inquiries and rhetorical situations.
But here is the terrible truth, that I am sneaking up on it slowly. I think I might want to move back to the land of the Volvos with Green Peace stickers, and little free prayer flags from the Dali Lama. I think I might want to return to my people, the people of a certain kind of college town. I live in a college town now, but it is not the kind that requires recycled linen grocery sacks. I want to move back to Cambridge. Ooh, okay I said it.
Of course now I am concerned that I might have to deal with really annoying neighbors. Because Cambridge is just full of those opinionated, easilly frusterated, sighing in the check out line, fierce faced pains in the asses that look a lot too much like me.
There is still quite a lot to think about. If I stay near here I can afford a decent sized place with sunlight and appliances and closets and a view of the ocean. If I move into town I can afford a shoe box underneath the highway, with the windows set at 'garden level' and my very own hook ups in case I want to bring along a fridge or washer and dryer. Hard to say, hard to say. I think it will really be a question of getting a feel for the neighbors.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Menacing Christmas Trees

My dog has a few quirks, as dogs do. He is massively prejudiced against people who do not look like perfect cardboard cutouts of people. So a hunchback is to be suspected of wrong doing , but so also is a parent with a baby strapped to their chest. Both present themselves to my dog's somewhat simple evaluations skills as aberrant in the extreme. People should not have lumps.

He is also very very distrustful of things that lie in wait. This time of year can be difficult for him, as the streets are literally teaming with an almost impossible to imagine evil; trees that lie on their sides poised to attack. We just returned from a walk where we had to carefully walk past at least ten of these unspeakable things. None of them did actually pounce, and he neutralized them all by lifting his leg and liberally sprinkling them with dog pee, which we all know stops them, at least temporarily from being able to hurt us.

His brother shared his fear of Christmas trees, after all, who doesn't? But older brother also had a terrible fear of dwarves. It did not help that I initially failed to understand what he was seeing with his special dog vision, when my neighborhood was mysteriously filled with them. I still do not know why the town covered all the firehydrants with burlap bags. These too, mercifully can be made safe to pass with a little quick urination.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Nothing to Worry About

My younger daughter lives in India. She likes to play fun tricks on me, like sending her sister a post card that says;
" I bought a moped. Wow, is it ever hard to steer, especially going really fast! I almost got wiped out by a bus yesterday! Don't tell mom ! ( just kidding nosey, I know you already read this Mom). Just kidding? I still have not been able to get a clear answer to the question
"Does this moped exist? Or were you just trying to make me dangerously insane? "
Facebook is also a fun way to send a parent into an imaginative frenzy. My older daughter likes to post pictures of herself surrounded by large reptiles- a room full of venomous snakes ( some in jars, others just kind of playing in the corner ) or a yard full of alligators. And guess what? After the snake bites a towel three or four towels and drains all the venom out of its cute little front chompers you can hold and pet it quite safely! But don't wipe your eye with the towel. And make sure it really bit down hard on the towel and wasn't faking you out.
This morning I got a slightly upsetting phone call to tell me that my daughter has accidentally revealed to our health insurance company that she is in India indefinitely. Apparently this has magically removed all obligation on their part to pay up if she gets into major trouble. No worries Mom, because she was only in the hospital overnight. Just a tiny little bacterial infection or food poisoning or whatever causes high fever and hallucinations and dehydration- but nothing to actually worry about when an IV full of antibiotics nipped it right in the bud. The upside is that the cost of a private room in a decent hospital, with multiple doctor consults and the IVs was the equivalent of $80. Oh. And her boyfriend has a "mildly" infected foot, by which she means that the bone is poking out, "just a bit". It is silly of me to get worked up about any of this.