Sunday, December 20, 2009

For 2010: Let's Decrease Our Specific Gravity



Photo credit: Liz Owen

A Christmas cactus, blooming just once a year. Here's my metaphor for how we blossom despite everything in the world that weighs us down.

This holiday season, I share with you two poems I first heard in the heat of summer, sweating in the stands at Cornell University. A dear friend of mine graduated with her Ph.D. that day. She visited me this past weekend, sparking my memory of these poems by A.R. Ammons.

That summer of 2001, Ammons, who taught at Cornell for many years, had recently died. A colleague of his read the poems at the graduation ceremony, and I've remembered them ever since.

Reflective

I found a
weed
that had a

mirror in it
and that
mirror

looked in at
a mirror
in

me that
had a
weed in it

Correction

The burdens of the world
on my back
lighten the world
not a whit while
removing them greatly
decreases my specific
gravity.

Let's drop that weight, if we can. Let's spread our wisdom yet reserve out strength for the battles that really matter—and, always, let's feel joy, fleeting as it may be. Joy, joy, joy.


The photo of the exuberant cactus comes courtesy of my yoga teacher Liz Owen at Lizowenyoga.com. I encourage all who live in the Boston area to take a class with Liz.

The poems are from A.R. Ammons, The Selected Poems (Expanded Edition), Norton, 1986.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Election Day: John Woolman and the True Meaning of Liberty


At my son's Quaker school, Tuesday mornings begin with Meeting for Worship. The school maintains silence from 8:30 to  9:00—no ringing phones or talk in the hallways, the children gathered in their classrooms in meditative circles.

This morning, Meeting was different, though. My son's second-grade teacher had invited parents to attend. He led the circle as John Woolman, an American Quaker from colonial times who spoke out against slavery.

The second-graders have been learning about Africa and the roots of Abolitionism, and I found this connection with Quaker history revelatory.

It's also Election Day in Massachusetts. The Democratic primary will likely determine who gets Ted Kennedy's Senate seat, even before the actual Special Election in January. Yet pundits say turnout will be low. Whatever you think of the man's foibles, Kennedy's long tenure as a Senator made a difference to working people. So what if it's cold outside? This is New England; it's not too cold to vote.

All right, I'm entering into pundit land myself, which brings me back to John Woolman—although not in the way you might expect. I now know that Woolman wasn't your average political loudmouth.

My son's teacher, Chris Hoeh, had asked parents to wear the simple garb of Quakers at the time, usually black clothing with a bit of homespun white. Some of us did, but it turns out he was wearing an off-white shirt, white pants, even a white hat.

The reason why became part of the lesson.

Chris began the Meeting with a few moments of silence, then spoke as John Woolman might have in 1772, during his last trip to England, where he died that same year. Woolman was born in New Jersey and lived there throughout his life, but he traveled widely, testifying at various Quaker Meetings about his beliefs. (Click here to find out more about Woolman.)

He not only opposed slavery—at a time when some Quakers in the American South still owned slaves—but he spoke out against the injustices suffered by the poor. Chris, speaking as Woolman, told us about his life and why he'd come to feel what he did.

He explained that although many Friends dress in dark garments so as not to glorify themselves, he had decided he could no longer wear any cloth that was dyed. The reason? The dark dye (indigo) was produced on plantations that used slaves. Chris later added in response to questions from the kids that Woolman probably wore no cotton either, only wool.

I had never realized consumer protests went back this far. Perhaps that only reveals my ignorance as a non-Quaker, but it seems few on the American protest scene—from anti-sweatshop activists to Teabaggers—know of Woolman or his quiet testimonies.


William James referred to him as a Quaker "saint." Regardless of my uneasiness with spiritual terms and hagiographies, this wintry morning I felt illuminated by a bit of sunshine.

As a magazine writer, I'm fascinated by another tidbit: Woolman's Journal (published after he died) is sometimes called one of the oldest American serial publications.

Once I'd headed home from the Meeting, I hit the Internet. Here's an excerpt from 1772, after Woolman's arrival in London, courtesy of the Street Corner Society's online version of John Woolman's Journal:
I have felt great distress of mind since I came on this island, on account of the members of our Society being mixed with the world in various sorts of traffic, carried on in impure channels. Great is the trade to Africa for slaves; and for the loading of these ships a great number of people are employed in their factories, among whom are many of our Society. Friends in early times refused on a religious principle to make or trade in superfluities, of which we have many testimonies on record; but for want of faithfulness, some, whose examples were of note in our Society, gave way...
I confess, I'm not a humble truth-seeker. But I feel moved to point out that this is another dangerous time for Americans, one in which it's far too easy to give way.

The freedom to speak out in public—to "quake" with the power of one's beliefs, even if others are opposed—is something Quakers hold dear. Woolman spoke up years before the Declaration of Independence was signed, but these days I wonder if children sometimes have a firmer grip on the truth than adults.

The second-graders asked many questions during the Meeting. They were restless by the end, but they seemed unusually attentive. Other adults were there, including the Head of the School in a black Quaker-style hat; their teacher was acting the part of somebody else, riveting in its way. I wondered how much of this my son, part of the restless contingent, was really taking in.

But one story captivated them all. Chris described a childhood incident in which Woolman saw a mother bird and her babies in a nest. As Woolman told it, all he thought about at that moment was whether he could hit the bird with a rock. So he aimed and threw high into the tree, and down came the mother bird, who then lay dead at his feet.

"What happened to the babies?" one boy asked softly.

Their teacher shook his head. "They probably..."

"They died," the same boy said.

"Because their mother died," my son added, not looking at me.

For my restless child, an adoptee from Vietnam, this was not an idle remark. But it wasn't for any of the others either. In Woolman's story, he climbed the tree to kill the baby birds quickly, knowing they wouldn't survive without their mother, feeling terrible remorse.

No parent wants to make children feel such grief, but I welcomed this moment in a classroom of middle-class kids. This teacher was not scared of presenting the ambiguity. People can be cruel to one another, even Quakers who profess their own inner light, even children who like to throw rocks. And life itself is full of difficult-to-resolve questions.

"I have sometimes felt a necessity to stand up," Woolman wrote a few days before he died of smallpox. He was 51.
[B]ut that spirit which is of the world hath so much prevailed in many, and the pure life of truth hath been so pressed down, that I have gone forward, not as one travelling in a road cast up and well prepared, but as a man walking through a miry place in which are stones here and there safe to step on, but so situated that, one step being taken, time is necessary to see where to step next.

For more information on Quakerism, take a look at Quaker.org and Quakerinfo.com, as well as the link to the Friends General Conference from this post's title.

Post-election update: Martha Coakley won the Democratic primary.  Turnout was very low, as predicted. The Boston Globe's headline for one front-page story: "A lack of interest, time kept many away." [12/9/09] 

Monday, November 30, 2009

Is Cuteness Trendy? Sour Grapes from Vanity Fair


There I was on an airplane to California, stuck with the December 2009 print issue of Vanity Fair because I couldn't get my credit card to work for a video on-demand feature. (Julie & Julia, if you must know.)

OK, I can deal, I thought. VF is a guilty pleasure, anyway, and I might even read the cover profile about Robert Pattinson of Twilight fame. I noted the blurb at the bottom of the cover—"How Grandmas and 12-Year-Old Girls Are Corrupting American Culture"—thinking, huh, that sounds sexist, probably about Twilight, whatever, not what I'm in it for.

Turns out this piece by Jim Windolf was not about Twilight or that particular void of an interview; instead, Windolf's article about girl oldsters and youngsters is called "Addicted to Cute"—with a tag line of "America has been flooded by a tsunami of cute."

To which I put it to you right now: Really?

"Addicted to Cute" stoked my ire about trend stories. This one falls into the frothing-at-the mouth category. It's a mere reaction to something that may or may not be a trend, showcasing the writer's slick use of words and pandering to the audience by running all sorts of pictures of puppies and pandas. Read me! Read me! I hate this crap but READ ME.

I happened upon cuteness not by searching through VF's table of contents, which is always buried in a swath of ads, but by random page-flipping. When I started seeing Pikachu, puppy piles, and dogs in human clothing, I realized I'd found the grandma/12-year-old piece, although within the article itself there are only the slyest of references to this being a female phenomenon—a sexist warning flag.

I object to the idea that cuteness has now become a "broader cultural movement" for two reasons: (1) While we may indeed be awash in cute critters on the Internet, Smart Cars, and cupcake boutique bakeries, the love of cuteness doesn't seem like a new trend at all.

(2) Even if it is a trend, who cares? Why is it so bad that a sushi chef has crafted a creation out of colored seaweed showing President Obama's "cute" face? Or that the media gush about the Obama dog?

Windolf opens with the "Hahaha" baby video, which shows a baby laughing helplessly as his off-screen dad says "Bing!" and "Dong." He notes that at the time of writing, this was one of the most-watched YouTube clips at about 100 million views. Here's the video:



Here's the VF takeaway:
"Cootchie-coo behavior used to be reserved for private moments in the home. But now, with the Internet's help, people feel free to wallow in cuteness en masse, in the company of strangers."
Just who these "wallowing" people are remains an open question.

A page or so later, Windolf has trotted out the not-stunning news from experts that human beings are hardwired to go "awwww" when they see infant-like characteristics: big eyes, round head, chubby cheeks, cuddly puppy fat. He notes (via Stephen Jay Gould) that Walt Disney got the point decades ago, as Mickey Mouse morphed from a skinnier rodent to the rounder head and ears. (On VF's website, we even get Windolf discussing "the roots of cute.")

So what's the trend, if the tendency goes back to the dawn of human consciousness—or at least to savvy animators like Walt Disney?

Think of It's a Wonderful Life, which would surely qualify as a cuteness fest in Windolf's terms, with guardian angel Clarence and Christmas tree ornaments jingling when angels get their wings. Frank Capra knew the power of cute, just as surely as the website founder of Cute Overload and Hayao Miyazaki and other purveyors of Japanese cuteness (or kawaii) do.

Sure, sure, sure, Windolf grumps, long before Hello Kitty, there were the Monkees and the Osmonds and Bambi. But "the cute acts of today," he writes, "aren't controlled by a corporation or impresario looking to cash in; they're cute by choice."

This is a problem? Excuse the sarcasm, but I am not convinced that cuteness in the hands of corporations has less impact or that the appearance of "more than 150 other cute-animal sites catalogued by the recommendation engine StumbleUpon" proves there is a new and soul-killing trend on the loose.

There's more of everything on the Internet—foodie sites,  political ravings of every persuasion, fan clubs for every bit actor in Hollywood history. I could just as easily claim there's a trend in belief in the paranormal or wizards.

The "moreness" numbers of the Internet don't reveal anything except the very large trend of what it means to contend with so much cultural input in a virtual social setting. I'd like to see an analysis of that, or many cuts at this very big subject, but it isn't here.


Let me come clean and say that I share Windolf's loathing for Disney's Winnie the Pooh and pictures of cats in little arm casts. I've never been a girly girl, and I cringe at terms like "puppehs" (lingo from Cute Overload) and "cutegasm." When Windolf writes, "What is the antonym for 'cutegasm'? Because that's what I'm having right now," it gave me a vicarious thrill.

Yet that's about all this trend story amounts to—a vicarious thrill for hipsters and the cultural elite—and it's not enough to support its larger claims about this "tsunami" we're all suddenly being assaulted with.

Windolf does raise some interesting questions about the uneven power dynamic in a cute response—the baby being "dinged"  has no control over what the adult is doing, and we love to watch people doing pratfalls or otherwise losing control. But the inherent sadism in everything from stand-up comedy to parading bears in top hats is about more than cuteness.

The sour grapes of this article, with its longing for more "edge" in the cultural zeitgeist rather than everyone buying more candy bars (another dubious  contention) is really about girl stuff.

Windolf doesn't talk to any feminists about this issue, and I have to ask why a male writer is so "depressed" about the supposed triumph of the emotional and sentimental. The female sensibility that cuteness evokes is anything but monolithic.

Exhibit A: an actual twelve-year-old girl. A few mornings ago while in the Bay Area, my "niece" (her term; awwwww) gave me a tour of her bedroom. This included photos of lion cubs and seals and puppies taped to the wall beside her bed. She had sparkle pillows and stuffed butterflies amid the bookshelves and family photos. She loves cute—as we joked—but she's also very funny and very opinionated. She has a calendar of cute dogs, but on this month's selection, she had taped a piece of "CAUTION" yellow tape across the dogs' snouts.

Why? "It seemed like a warning against cuteness," she said.

This reality of strong girls who like emoticons but also LOL obviously worries the guys at VF. Windolf concludes: "I would not doubt the power of cuteness. It will bat its lashes and crinkle its nose, and it will smother its critics with its softness."

Funny thing about the smothering of opinion, though. Besides Windolf's anti-cuteness manifesto, this VF issue includes only one female feature writer. The editorial content is surrounded by high-fashion ads of poreless young faces. James Wolcott's diatribe about reality TV is called "I'm a Culture Critic...Get Me Out of Here!"

I'm with him in his disgust, but dissing reality TV isn't exactly cutting-edge commentary. When Wolcott says of the annoying Gosselins of Jon & Kate plus Eight that "We are now stuck with them for the foreseeable future," my response is that maybe Wolcott thinks he is but the rest of us can easily decide to flip channels or just turn off the TV.

The snarky bitterness emanates a whiff of something else: anxiety. All these male cultural critics are railing at the readers who have run away to the Internet, whether we're reading the Daily Kos or a wonderful blog about the literary scene called Ward Six  or Cute Overload.

That's a problem for VF, a glossy that surely counts on female readers. Based on the Audit Bureau of Circulations, VF's circulation numbers for the past five years can most charitably be described as flat—and that would be when viewed through a pair of Dolce & Gabbana rose-colored glasses. Without the grandmas and twelve-year-olds, magazines like Vanity Fair have to remake themselves or go under.

I submit that requires a major shift in conventional thinking and audience and culture. I can see why Wolcott and Windolf are worried. But their fears are masked by high-gloss condescension, because as we women know, anxiety is not cute at all.


This post originally appeared on Open Salon. The bunnies are from "This teacup is too big..." on Cute Overload.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Map of My World—or Why I've Fallen off the Edge


I've just completed an assignment that has starkly revealed how little I know about "bedrock" reality.

Before going into detail, I'll put it to you: What would you write if you were asked to describe the geography of the United States? What kind of map would you draw?

I've been challenged by this in the past few weeks, and so, coincidentally, has my seven-year-old son.

In my Vietnamese class, my fellow students and I first translated a narrative titled "Địa lý Việt Nam" ("The Geography of Vietnam"). This essay included sections on "Núi và cao nguyên" (mountains and highlands), "Sông" (rivers), and "Biển và bờ biển" (oceans and coastline). Each section contained several densely packed paragraphs of Vietnamese, detailing facts like the highest point in Vietnam (Mount Fansipan) and the length in kilometers of various rivers, including sông Cửu Long (the Mekong).

In class and at home, I pored over a map of Vietnam in Vietnamese, split between two modes: learning the facts of the landscape and a different way of expressing those facts. I found it fascinating and mind-twisting.

I've always been good at reading maps, but here even places in Vietnam that I had visited needed to be rediscovered. The reframing of place names, provinces, and borders in another language seemed an apt metaphor for viewing the land through a different cultural lens.

Yet I didn't expect such mental twists in viewing my own country. Our next assignment was to write an essay about U.S. geography. I thought this would be a snap at first, until I slammed up against my ignorance of information like the length of the Mississippi River.

Wikipedia (there's a joke in this link) and a variety of websites became my friend. But the real twist came in expressing direction and geographical formation in Vietnamese. My ignorance of the facts I thought I knew—what are the tributaries of the Mississippi, for example? Where does the Columbia originate?—made me feel I'd suddenly just landed on American shores, scratching my head.

One small example: directions such as northwest or southeast in English are reversed in Vietnamese—that is, tây bắc (or "westnorth"). This is easy enough to get used to, but it does also involve a perceptual shift in how one moves in physical space. The Southwest, for instance, is referred to as "miền Tây Nam" ("area West South").

Meanwhile, unknown to me until I attended a potluck breakfast in my son's second-grade class, he had drawn his own map of Vietnam, complete with illustrations of a compass and a ship. There's a thumbnail of it at the top of the post, but you might not be able to make out Nick's personal labels for places. Under "Hannoi," he inserted "us + me"; under "Da nang" he put "didn't go to"; and with "ho chi men city," he wrote "I was born here" and "next time."

Nick's map is accompanied by a story. "Chapter 1 Hotel!!" begins this way: "In Hanoi when I first looked at my hotel it was great with Ho Chi Minh's sayings as famous as MLK to Vietnam." In the second chapter ("Me!"), he writes, "Mom said that we would go to the market place. Vendors were selling everything from fish to...well sea food."

My husband and I were delighted to see his map and to read the story, of course. But it also brought home to me how personal one's sense of location in the physical world is. In Nick's case, after one visit to Vietnam a year ago, he can recreate that geography and label the places that matter to him far more vividly than he can the landscape of where he lives in Massachusetts.

I don't mean that he cares more for his birth country, although I think he'd say that he does. He is also quite rooted in our corner of Cambridge, the streets of our neighborhood that we often walk to school, the collection of shops a few blocks from our house. It's possible to live many places in your mind and heart, and I see his map of Vietnam as so much more than a geographically correct drawing.

As for my geographical correctness, I muffed the verbal description of oceans around the U.S. that I gave in class. When asked why the oceans are important, I basically said the equivalent of "they have everything from fish to...well, uh, seafood."

On the written essay, I scraped through with a B-minus, which is starting to look like a good grade to me. My inability to get top marks, even if I study for hours, is another mind-twist: my old assumption that if I just work hard enough, I'll succeed just doesn't cut it in this class. My new map of the world has dragons and demons on the borders, and includes the possibility of falling right off the edge into the unknown.

The funny thing is, I've felt an odd burden lift from me, a weight I hadn't even realized I carried. All the shifts in perspective have made me see that my internal topography is changing all the time. I think even a year ago, I might have found this a scary thought, one that required maximum mental fortifications. But just as a map of a country like Vietnam isn't static, it doesn't make sense to take the bedrock of me for granted, either.

I've discovered that my knowledge of geography is thoroughly embedded in personal experience: my old wood-block map puzzle of the United States from childhood; the many times on family car trips that we crisscrossed the flat agricultural lands of the Central Valley to the Sierra Nevada mountains; the bike trails I've traversed repeatedly in Acadia National Park in Maine. I used to run along the trail from Inspiration Point in Tilden Park, so my memory of the spine of hills that separates Berkeley and the East Bay from the Delta isn't just visual; it's in my feet.

The borders of my map might jump from a floating turkey vulture above Tilden to the buzz of a hummingbird off the trail, from the traffic jams of Saigon to late fall in New England. If I drew a map of all these places—as Nick drew his of Vietnam—I'd label everywhere I've been and where I want to go, including the mysterious edges I can't know.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Am I Crazy to Study Vietnamese?

Đi học về—home from school—and the pros and cons of multi-tasking



This past weekend, my family attended a concert at a local Catholic church with a Vietnamese congregation. It was a fund-raiser featuring the legendary Khánh Ly, who, up until the Fall of Saigon, was akin to the Joan Baez of Vietnam. Her collaboration with the protest-songwriter Trịnh Công Sơn is still beloved by that generation of Vietnamese.

So there I was in a church basement with my family and 200-plus Vietnamese Americans. There was Khánh Ly, looking amazingly good for a woman in her mid-sixties, belting out those beautiful songs. She joked with the audience, accepting roses from her fans. She stood before multicolored tinsel streamers, a mirror ball flashing rainbow light.

I'd been nervous about attending this concert. After months of studying the language, I had performance anxiety about speaking Vietnamese. This turned out to be silly; we were in a suburb outside Boston. Yet I'd hoped to follow what was spoken on stage, if not sung.

Instead the words swirled over my head, out of reach. I felt like a frustrated cat, batting at flecks of light—or a little girl, trying hard to be an adult.

The revolving mirror ball, the language I don't quite understand, are emblematic of so much of my multi-tasking life. My attention divides and divides again. I'm not ADD in any clinical sense, but one book that's become a touchstone for me in the last few years has been Edward Hallowell's CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap!

Hallowell, a psychiatrist who lives in the Boston area, popularized ADD and ADHD as diagnoses, and has written a number of well-known books about coping with these disorders. But in CrazyBusy, he goes a step farther, arguing that our multi-tasking, post-millennial, "CrackBerry" era fosters a form of cultural ADD. In that sense, we're all suffering.

I agree. And yet a funny thing has happened this fall, as I juggle more balls than ever, and I live with the consequences of an absurd decision to study Vietnamese for a second year in a row. I've started wondering if divided attention is a bad thing.

Most of us middle-aged geezers complain about memory problems. It's as if you hit forty and BAM! You can't remember your friends' names or how to spell words like gizzard geezer.

Most parents of young children, regardless of age, also complain about memory lapses. You're sleep-deprived, you're required to track dervishes in diapers, your vocabulary gets reduced to Elmo levels of comprehension. If you're working, you're subject to all manner of interruptions at home and the office.

As I sat down to write this, for example, my son Nick barged in and said, "Can I show you my armor?" He proceeded to put on a purple-felt apron from his dress-up box, securing it in back with a set of numchucks (string-connected sticks usually whirled around in a deadly fashion).

He placed a napkin over his head, crowning that with a robin-hood-style hat—the complete medieval samurai warrior. It was impressive.

Where was I?

I've been hit with a double-whammy, it seems: I'm way over forty with a seven-year-old child. (My own parents are also quite ill, but that's another story.) I'm back to writing full-time.

Then there's my Continuing Vietnamese class. I started studying Vietnamese because my son was born in Vietnam. (I've told some of this saga before in print: Click here for the long version. Also see my post "For Shame.") But my original reasoning, with its whiff of selflessness—I'll help Nick get in touch with his birth culture—no longer makes sense. I'm proceeding because of my own arcane interests and a stubborn need to prove myself.

Still, I almost dropped out at the beginning of this semester. It's a very small class of four students, two of whom are fluent speakers, and a dedicated teacher. There's absolutely no place for me to hide.

I have good days, especially when I've done the homework. But more often, they're bad. Very bad. Last week, I missed half of one class because my son was home sick; I arrived at another class with the tail-end of a migraine. I couldn't remember simple grammatical constructions. My stumblings were mixed with long, awkward silences in which I'm sure you could hear the gears grinding. I kept mumbling, "Em chưa hiểu." ("I don't understand yet.")

The week before, I found myself confusing the use of "open" and "closed" in English when distracted by my son. Now all my confusion of verbs of motion and prepositions in Vietnamese seems to be transferring to my native language.

Most of each class is conducted in Vietnamese; I understand about 50 percent. My worst moments are when I'm asked direct questions in which my comprehension is zero. The words seem to bounce off me like a handful of pennies thrown at a mailbox.

At the last class, the name for the Red River—sông Hồng—near Hanoi, a name I know well, kept tripping me up.

There's no doubt that some of my struggles are physiologically caused. Many researchers now believe that what we geezers really experience is failing attention. In "The Midlife Memory Meltdown," an article for O magazine adapted from her book on the topic, journalist Cathryn Jakobson Ramin says of our aging brains:
"When the frontal lobes are in top form, they're adept at figuring out what's important for the job at hand and what's irrelevant blather; a sort of neural “bouncer” automatically keeps out unnecessary information. In middle age, that bouncer takes a lot of coffee breaks. Instead of focusing on the report that's due, you find yourself wondering what's for dinner. Even background noise—the phone chatter of the coworker in the next cubicle—can impair your ability to concentrate on the task before you."
The thing is, I've always been like this. I'm great at synthesizing ideas, but I've never been good at memorizing facts. Historical dates elude me; foreign vocabulary evaporates as soon as I'm not immersed in it.

I'm also a life-long insomniac—an Olympic champion of sleeplessness—so much so that my husband thinks Barenaked Ladies wrote "Who Needs Sleep?" for me. Lack of sleep is a major cause of memory problems.

But the ideas! My many proliferating story ideas! Here's where I shine, and sleeplessness doesn't seem to slow me down. It's no accident that I'm running four blogs now—one in an editorial capacity for the Women's Review of Books with multiple authors on various deadlines—and writing print articles and prepping for teaching my magazine class in the spring.

A few years back—say, 2006, when CrazyBusy first came out—this would have seemed even crazier to me than it does now. Yet despite the fact that my brain isn't getting any younger, I feel more alive. I've gotten better at mental juggling. I won't claim I'm more organized, but my constantly dividing and skipping attention seems to be sparking me as a writer. I find myself excited by ideas all the time.

In part, that's because I have more control over my own writing and its distribution—a definite silver lining in these cathartic days in the publishing industry. Blogging encourages creativity on the fly.

But the study of Vietnamese also seems to be feeding my passion for words. Just the poetry of Trịnh Công Sơn's songs, the longing for peace and a lost Saigon, testify to so much rich complexity. "Xin cho tôi" ("Please give me" or "May I") ends with "May I ask for just one day."



There's another benefit, too: Experiencing bouts of incomprehension in class takes me back viscerally to what it's like to be a child. It's rare at my age to be humbled in quite this way. In Vietnamese class, I'm always being corrected and looking for approval; I feel by turns resentful, defiant, ashamed, and excited. I'm distracted by big booming life outside the window.

More than Vietnamese culture, then, I'm re-learning the culture of childhood. I'm that little girl listening to Khánh Ly, grasping for flecks of light. For a writer-parent, that may be the best training of all.

In CrazyBusy, Hallowell himself distinguishes between the "stress" that gets your juices flowing and the anxiety-producing mess of having too many commitments:
"If you’re busy doing what matters to you, then being busy is bliss. You’ve found a rhythm for your life that works for you. This world is bursting with possibilities; its energy can be contagious. If you catch the bug, you want to jump out of bed each day and get busy, not because you are run ragged by details or because you are keeping the wolf from your door, but because you are in love with this fast life."
I'm often grumpy about familial distractions; I long for the kinds of writer's retreats I used to take at colonies or in cabins by myself. The real world can get me down, no question, but I know my own work has taken off since I became a mother, despite the additional juggling.

Even the wisest of us doesn't know everything. And perhaps there's a real benefit to failing and stumbling and smacking up against our limitations. For writers, being in control is not necessarily a good thing.

This makes the whole concept of attention "deficit" wrong in metaphysical terms. Maybe we're all dumb mailboxes, pennies bouncing off us in this dervish of a universe. Instead of simply coping, maybe we need to accept the pennies, the flecks of rainbow light, our disorganized version of manna from heaven.

What about you? Do you struggle with divided attention? Do you ever find it a blessing?

Where was I?

Sunday, October 18, 2009

I Don't Mind Being Named Martha Anymore

On Embracing the Talking Dog—or Silly Girl—in Me


I'm almost fond of Martha Stewart. She's got chutzpah, rising from the ashes of securities fraud. But anyone who's seen the messy piles in my house would know that I loathe housekeeping and hand-woven flower wreaths. I lack that Martha's spit and polish and need for physical order.

I'm not embracing my inner housekeeper here. Yet a recent mention of a children's book called Martha Doesn't Say Sorry! in a New Yorker article got me thinking about my given name, my long-time ambivalence towards it—and the possibility that maybe, just maybe, I'm growing into it.

According to Daniel Zalewski's article, the latest picture-book Martha by Samantha Berger involves a "stubborn" otter. It has a transparent moral message, Zalewski notes, meant to encourage discipline.

But my first reaction was to think, oh, no! Not another wacky animal character named Martha!

There's already Martha the hippo of all those George and Martha books by James Marshall; there's Martha the talking dog of Martha Speaks and other titles by Susan Meddaugh, now a PBS cartoon series.

To be fair, Zalewski's article is about a lot more than potential Martha-bashing; he argues that many "obstreperous" children's books today depict parents as wimps. He also cites a slew of other characters named everything from Olivia to Finn to Lilly. There's no nefarious trend in naming creatures Martha—I think.

But do other people second-guess their name, as I have since childhood? Some do, I know. For those crossing cultural boundaries, often in the most painful way, it's a serious issue. See The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, in which an Indian immigrant's son resists being named Gogol Ganguli. Or talk to any international adoptee, even one as young as my seven-year-old son.

Back in the day, I longed to be Miranda or Antoinette or Angelique. Instead I got stuck with a long-dead grandmother's name, somebody with whom I'd never shared a personal connection.

I hated being a girl named Martha in the 1960s and 1970s. It was right up there with "A Boy Named Sue." In my Bay Area schools, I was the only one among a swath of Kathys and Debbies and Sherrys. There were a few Martas and Maritas, but the Spanish variations seemed to have infinitely more soul than my Anglicized "tha."

Flashback to third grade: It's February. President's Day is approaching, along with my annual dread of what will be shouted at me on the playground: "Martha Washington! Martha Washington? How's George?"

A year later, I'm at Bridget B's pool party, a few months after the Beatles's White Album has been released. I walk into the B family's swanky new house in a new suburban tract of what will eventually become the outer reaches of Silicon Valley—she's got a pool!—and the other girls giggle, as Bridget plays, "Martha My Dear."

I've never heard it before. I'm blushing, and I hate blushing. I suspect Bridget is trying to humiliate me. "It's so cute!" she insists.

I was still a child, but my response then was more complicated than hating "Martha Washington." I was embarrassed by the idea that I could ever be anyone's inspiration. It was even more depressing when I found out later that Paul McCartney wrote the song for his sheepdog.

Flash forward: I'm an adult hanging out with my friends' kids—and later the friends of my son—and these children love to say to me, "George and Martha!" (downcast eyes, sly grins) or "Are you a dog?" (snort, snort). I laugh along, because the kids seem so delighted to meet an actual human being named Martha.

Not so long ago, a friend of mine shakes her head and tells me, "You really don't seem like a Martha, you know?"

I'm guessing that's a compliment. Various baby-name books and websites translate it as "lady" (from the Aramaic "Marta") or mistress of the house. It's a good fit for Martha Stewart but didn't stick to Martha "Calamity Jane" Cannary Burke, frontier hellion of the late 1800s.

By 2008, the name Martha was ranked 617 in popularity, according to the Social Security Administration. At least it made the top 1,000, but Martha has been on a steady decline for a century, with a few spikes around 2000. Emma and Isabella were the most popular girl names in 2008; Madison was fourth, and Olivia came in a hot sixth.

(I feel compelled to point out that, in addition to Martha, many animal characters have old-fashioned women's names like Olivia and Frances—a pig and badger, respectively—as well as Opal and Daphne of the Toot and Puddle universe—also pigs.)

Meanwhile, Namipedia users on the Baby Name Wizard site rated Martha as sounding smart and strong but not young or sexy.

Yet when I think about Martha the hippo or Martha the talking dog—and really take in those wonderful books—I realize that maybe the name fits me better than I used to believe.

Martha the dog can't shut up after she eats a bowl of alphabet soup and gets the gift of human gab. In Martha Speaks, she annoys her family by rambling on as they're watching TV or reading:
"There's a poodle over on Circuit Street I'd really like to play with. He's small, but what a dog! And speaking of small, I'm sure you're all curious about the early days of my life..."
Martha the hippo wears huge print skirts and is George's best friend. She's pictured smoking a cigar and playing a saxophone. In George and Martha Back in Town, she stands on her head on a surfboard. George, the lifeguard, has a tough time reigning her in:
"Very soon George saw that someone was disobeying the rules.
'No horsing around!' he called through his megaphone.
'It's all right!' shouted Martha. 'It's only me!'
By college, I identified with "Martha My Dear." It became an affectionate nickname from some of my closest friends, who would address letters to me as "M.M. Dear." Others still call me Marth or M ("Em").

The most famous of us—Martha Graham, Martha Stewart, the fictional Martha Jones of Doctor Whomake things happen. Martha may even have become cool because of that sexy Doctor Who character, at least in the U.K.

So is it possible that I actually like my old-fashioned, unpopular name?

This is a fate I never could have imagined at fifteen. But it's true. I can save the world with words, especially in the guise of the latest Martha Jones. I'm zany and stubborn and I refuse to apologize. I can't stop talking or writing, and what's wrong with that?

Even Paul McCartney has said Martha was his muse, not just a sheepdog.
When you find yourself in the thick of it
Help yourself to a bit of what is all around you

Silly girl...

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

"I've Got the Most Scathingly Brilliant Idea": When Do Writers Need to Let Go—or Not?


This past week, I've been thinking a lot about the old movie The Trouble with Angels. In a short story of mine, the main character—Miriam—dreams of Hayley Mills. In Miriam's dream, Hayley is sorting laundry, folding railroad handkerchiefs:
"They were the kind Miriam’s father blew his nose into, then looked up from, embarrassed. It had been Hayley from The Trouble with Angels—blonde, boyish, mischievous, a girl caught smoking in a convent school, saved by Mother Superior—oh, how Miriam had longed for this as a child."
I've been editing this story, wondering whether I should cut the dream. I keep polishing that paragraph, trying to convey enough information without bogging it down. Feedback from several writer friends has been mixed—what does this mean? will today's readers even know who Hayley Mills is?—but I'm irrationally attached to Miriam's dream.

When a writer loves something too much, endlessly fiddling with it, that often means it needs to go. At least that's my editor self talking; I've certainly given such advice to students. Yet, for the moment, Miriam's dream remains.

Why? As Kate Gabrielle of Silents & Talkies writes in an April 2009 birthday ode to 63-year-old Mills:
"If you are a girl, and you were born anytime from about 1950 to the present, you probably loved Hayley Mills films when you were little...and if you're like me, you never grew out of it."
The Trouble with Angels is one of my all-time favorite guilty pleasures. It's like candy canes and macaroni and cheese. It's dumb and dated and still mildly subversive.

Most of all it's got Mills playing against her "frilly-knickers" Disney roles—her curls are still golden, but she's a rebel. It's got Rosalind Russell, a toughie actress I'll always love for not playing pretty wimps, as the sternly righteous Mother Superior. And it's got Ida Lupino directing it, a rare feat for a woman in the early 1960s. Set in that tumble-down convent school, it's really about the intense friendship of girls and girl culture when boys aren't around.




Ah-ha! Like the Nancy Drew series, The Trouble with Angels might be considered a spark for young feminists. Mary Clancy, the character Mills plays, is always saying, "I've got the most scathingly brilliant idea!" The movie is about loss and change and growing up.

I have other reasons, too, for loving Mills and the movie, some no doubt tangled beyond my conscious understanding. (Spoiler alert for the rest of this paragraph, if it still matters after all these years.) I know that Mary's decision to become a nun at the end of the movie felt deeply satisfying to me in the 1970s, when the convent-school setting already seemed absurdly anachronistic.

I've never been Catholic, but the romance of the church got to me, not to mention a girl's commitment to faith and anything but a conventional life. A budding young writer, I felt a need for my own solitude.

That may be why the movie's pleasures are so enduring for a certain kind of dreamy girl—just like my character Miriam the poet—who not coincidentally resembles Rachel, Mary's goofy best friend, played by June Harding in the movie.

So here I am, back to special pleading for Miriam's dream, wondering about how easy we fiction writers need to make our references for readers. Real life is so mysterious. How can good fiction ever be completely transparent?

The same might be asked about the destiny of a woman who was once a huge star. Her career took off with her Disney films Pollyanna and The Parent Trap—she was at her peak in 1966 with The Trouble with Angels, a non-Disney effort—and then zoomed downward with episodes of the Love Boat and three made-for-TV Parent Trap sequels in the '80s.

For some, this plummet from worldwide fame is a cautionary tale. But perhaps it's a more complicated script for what really happens to girls when they enter adulthood. The fact that Mills was considered for the part of Lolita in Stanley Kubrick's film—an idea that essentially got nixed by Disney when she was under contract—seems especially symbolic.

She recently appeared in Wild at Heart, a British drama about an African wild-animal park on ITV that also starred her sister Juliet. ITV's site describes the Hayley Mills character as the "mother of Sarah and something of a battleaxe."

In a 1997 interview, Mills told then-editor-in-chief Ingrid Sischy of Interview magazine:
"Joan Plowright once said that you don't need to go to a psychiatrist if you're an actor, because you can express so many of your problems and your emotions through your work. And you really can. The theater in particular is a great discipline. You can't stop in the middle of a play and burst into tears because the person you love has walked out on you and your life is collapsing around you, or because you've had bad notices. You have to get on with it. You have to draw from your deep inner resources, those strengths that keep us all alive."
Hayley the pretty tomboy remains indelible, just as my own version of that tomboy survives in me. I first watched The Trouble with Angels on "Dialing for Dollars," a Bay Area TV station's old afternoon movie show. Decades later, I watched it on a big screen at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, during an Ida Lupino retrospective.

I now own the DVD. I'll always call the movie's vision of girlhood scathingly brilliant. And by the way: We don't grow up to be battleaxes.

Monday, September 28, 2009

How to Discourage Young Readers: Turn Books Into Numbers


In first and second grades, I had a hard time with reading. There was trouble in my family. My mother had been hospitalized, and my dad was a struggling graduate student, caring for two small children. I got stuck in the lowest reading group at school. I sat with other "under-performing" kids, obsessively drawing pictures of horses.

Oddly, I was a whiz at arithmetic. I'm guessing that numbers didn't scare me, stripped as they were of drama. But stories? The ever-shifting relations among words and meaning? Too risky.

Decades later, books are my profession. I'm now running a blog called WOMEN = BOOKS, and have encountered far more book-blogging sites than I ever would have dreamed. (Did you know that the second annual "Book Blogger Appreciation Week" kicked off in mid-September?)

Yet how I learned to read can't be distilled into an easily reproduced action plan with "metrics." I've been thinking a lot about reading education lately, in part because my seven-year-old son has yet to discover the joys of chapter books. (I'm a little worried, though I know I shouldn't be.) More to the point, Accelerated Reader, the bane of many a literary parent in the public schools, has clumped into my awareness like a bully with no sense of humor.

In "Reading by the Numbers" an excellent but disturbing New York Times essay, novelist Susan Straight reflects on the rise of AR, a "reading management" software system produced by Renaissance Learning.

It's been around for awhile, so my only justification for ignorance until now is that my son's just reached second grade and is going to a groovy private school. Still, in an earlier piece that I wrote about Straight's essay, I was surprised by the loathing for AR expressed by some parent- and teacher-commenters.

Here's my friend Angela Mann, mother of two teenagers in California: "Ah, the AR system. My pet hate. My kids have been forced to use this hideous reading system for years."

Here's another old friend of mine, a long-time teacher in Washington state who wishes not to be named: "As a Title 1 Reading instructor in an elementary school, I have experienced Accelerated Reader and detest it. My opinion, garnered from my 18 years experience in public education, is that teachers who use it are lazy."

It's hard to blame public schools for pushing reading as if it's the answer to everything from McJobs to Global Warming. (They're pushing math and science, too.) But parents and teachers have every right to be angry about mindless quantification just to "make the numbers."

The education bureacracy, lashed on by companies that profit from curriculum "systems" like AR, are trying to trap the equivalent of a many-armed goddess in a soda can.

Accelerated Reader is used by upwards of 75,000 schools around the country, notes Straight. Participating students get points for reading books, with a goal of 50 points for outside reading in a given class.

That means students get a point tally instead of that tingle of recognition when a story speaks to them. As my teacher-friend explains,

Teachers use AR to measure comprehension on "leveled" books. The child says he/she has read a book. The teacher tells them to log on to the computer, answer the questions, and return with a printed-out score. Why not listen to a child read and talk about the book to measure comprehension?

Then there's the way books are rated. Straight says she delved into the mathematics of the ratings system, which likely has something to do with page length, average sentence difficulty, and percentage of tough vocabulary words. In this scheme, according to Straight, Willa Cather's My Antonia gets 14 points, while Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix gets 44.

I like the Harry Potter books just fine, but comparing one to My Antonia is not only apples and oranges; it's simply the wrong message about what makes a great book great.

Renaissance Learning's website carries the tagline: "Advanced Technology for Data-Driven Schools." But how do you measure character development and emotional catharsis? My friend Angela doesn't hold back about AR's banality:

I've seen it turn readers into point counters and strategists. What can I read to give me enough points? Why should I read this when I've already got my points for the semester? Why should I read this when it is not an AR book and doesn't count?

My teacher-friend in Washington adds:

A few years ago, shortly after AR was purchased by our school, I took an AR test myself on a book I'd read many, many times. Rather than focusing on the deeper meaning of the beautiful historical fiction story by Joan Lowery Nixon, the historical facts, or the motivation of the characters, the AR test asked me about the color of a dress a character wore. I had no idea. I was stunned. The question had no relevance in the story at all.

Not all parents and teachers hate Accelerated Reader, but as I've discovered after googling around, opposition to it is nothing new. On the Family Education Network's site for parents (FamilyEducation.com), an entry about Accelerated Reader has generated 30-plus reviews going back to 2000. Titles range from "Excellent" and "AR Encourages Reading" to "AR Sucks!!!" and "AR Can Shame Readers."

The latter review, posted in 2004, opens with, "My son is now in 5th grade. He used to love to read. Hates it now." This writer concluded, "I am forming a parent organization to fight AR current policy. Anyone want to join?"

For me, the ineffable thing about reading clicked by third grade. My dad had a teaching position at a local college, and we'd moved out of graduate student housing into a suburban tract. Suddenly I was reading chapter books. In my memory, it feels like the Doctor Doolittle series saved me.

Earlier still, there are family photos of me as a toddler looking at books with my father. He says "leopard" was one of my first words, because I loved animals. One of my favorite books in elementary school was The Golden Treasury of Natural History. (It took awhile before fiction ruled my universe.) Regardless, I didn't lack encouragement from my parents.

But fiction or non-, I always hated the canned reading assignments in school. By fourth grade, I was really hating the SRA program, which involved a series of color-coded stories and assignments that you worked through, moving up the levels. It was a competition, getting up to Gold or Purple.

The current promotion of AR has made me curious again about SRA—aka the SRA Reading Laboratories. These materials have now been used by more than a 100 million students, claims McGraw-Hill, their current publisher. On the publisher's website, the beginnings of the SRA reading program's 50-year history are described this way:

A lesser man would have given up.... [H]is oversized shoe box with its sections of coloured story cards and questions, which the students could mark themselves, didn't look like a text book; and that's what the educational publishers he took it to said...
Never mind that SRA ended up with McGraw-Hill, a textbook behemoth. According to this telling, the humble author of these shoebox materials, Don Parker, finally hit up a small publishing company called SRA (Science Research Associates): "It wasn't the sort of name you would associate with a schoolbook publisher, and indeed it wasn't—it produced aptitude tests for soldiers returning from the Korean wars trying to find a job."

Parker was supposedly doing battle with old-fasioned textbooks like "Dick and Jane." But the "Science" in SRA's name and those aptitude tests for soldiers tell the real story. When publisher Lyle Spencer of SRA agreed to take on the shoebox project, "It was the best decision he ever made."

Financially, no doubt. Yet for a self-motivated reader like me, nothing could have been more beside the point. I lived for free library days.

So how do we—or the schools—spark a love of reading in children? What matters most? I believe teaching students to be critical thinkers about what they're reading, whether it's a Twilight book or Pride and Prejudice, is crucial. But giving kids points for reading books neither encourages analysis (although Renaissance Learning would claim its AR system of quizzes does just that) nor a love of reading.

Consider this excerpt from Straight's essay and all it says about how novels expand our notion of the world in ways that can never be quantified:

One day last spring, after my eighth-grade daughter finished reading “To Kill a Mockingbird” (assigned reading for class), she sat on the couch, thoughtful and silent for a long time. Then she looked over at me and said: “I think that was one of the best books I’ve ever read. And not everybody could understand it. But I do. Especially Tom Robinson.”

Her father is 6-foot-4, 300 pounds and black. We talked about how American society has historically projected racial fear onto innocent men, and about how Harper Lee portrayed the town of Maycomb so vividly that you could see the streets and porches...

“To Kill a Mockingbird” is worth 15 points.

As I sensed at six years old, numbers are safer than stories; they can be pinned down. But a mom in the hospital? Racism? That requires something very messy—a lot of thinking and feeling.


Another version of this post orginally appeared in Talking Writing as "My Antonia Vs. Harry Potter: Crunching the Great Books." Thanks to writer Jeanne Schinto for sending me the link to Straight's essay.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Oh California...I'm Not Coming Home

In the 1970s, when I left the Bay Area to go to college, Joni Mitchell's "California" was my anthem. I was a wraith of a girl, a straight-A student. I was never a surfer, but Beach Boys songs reminded me of home, too. Back then, being from California seemed essential.

Here's Joni singing with all that youthful longing:

But my heart cried out for you California
Oh California I'm coming home...
I still love California. But I can no longer come home to it in a romantic swoon, and it's not just because the Golden State has been tarnished by economic and natural disaster. It's because I've lost the sense that any place can "take me as I am." My loss is personal and profound, and in it I recognize the calls for a return to an older dream of America.

I support the Obama administration, but this emotional recognition worries me. On Saturday, September 12, thousands will participate in the "Taxpayer March on DC." I hope White House staffers are paying due respect to the feelings under all the crazy talk. I fear they are not.

It's hair-trigger, the way so many leap from their own grief to political rage. I know my lack of security has everything to do with the fragile health of my parents. I'm outraged at the government, but letting my anger spill over to governors and presidents does me no good. Maybe it feels good for a few seconds, but then it doesn't, not at all.

If you look at websites for groups like the Tea Party Patriots, there's little content about policy. I tried to pull a quote with substance, yet all I found were references to "our Founding Fathers," "free markets," and "limited government." It's all about mobilizing, speaking up, resisting.

It's relentlessly personal. It's feeling-driven, just like a pop song, and what an irony that the language of lefty organizing—all that attitude about "Sunset pigs," in Joni's words—now does service for conservatives. Our supposedly lost country is a long way from 1971 and Laurel Canyon on her album Blue. Yet in that California dream, everyone wanted their own freedom, too. They wanted to sink into a reverie of pleasure.

No bourgeois values. No war. That was just a dream some of us had.

California has always had a libertarian strain. My dad the political-science professor understood this well, starting with the election of Ronald Reagan as governor in 1966. But I didn't get the zeitgeist shift earlier this summer, when my family happened across a "tea party" rally in Times Square. One block was suddenly packed with white skin, and there were exhortations about "not taking it anymore" from revved-up guys on megaphones.

I did feel the shift by the end of August, however, in San Diego. An old friend we visited in La Jolla says that on election night, when she ran out her door to cheer for Barack Obama the minute the polls closed, she heard only one other answering yodel blocks away.

There was far more cheering in the Bay Area and Los Angeles last November, but the aggrieved conservatism is also California. As a teenager, clutching both Blue and David Bowie's Diamond Dogs as identity totems, it was easy to sneer at Southern California. Yet its dreams of beaches and surfers and casual hook-ups most evoked what I called myself then.

We're all culpable in our desire for a metaphorical home. The longing for a golden past is easily manipulated by conservative interests, who use code words like "individual liberties" and "fighting change." But existential angst is what I'm talking about here—a complex brew that can send the strongest of us running to a cause. Progressive politicians reveal their own biases when they don't see how much the current dissent is animated by hurt.

Oh California. You symbolize more than you know.

My home is elsewhere and has been for years. But I visit the Bay Area often because my parents are both ill. My father, in particular, is slipping into the frozen darkness of Parkinson's Disease. On a good afternoon, he and I might spend ten minutes under the lemon tree in his backyard, an occasional hummingbird buzzing in the leaves. I smell my past there: the scent of the dry hills. I smell my dear father, in his baggy sweatshirt, as he talks about letting go, about having lived a good life, about his worries for my mother.

Yes, I'm scared that one season is ending as another begins. But to conflate my loss and fear with the state of the country would be to lose my soul—and these days, my soul is the thing I come home to.

Joni has lost her amazing young voice, too. But some would say she's attained something richer and more hard-won. Even by 1976 and her album Hejira, she was on the endless road again. Ron Rosenbaum's paean to her transcendent song "Amelia," about the "ghost of aviation," explores longing in a far more complicated key:
I was driving across the burning desert
When I spotted six jet planes
Leaving six white vapor trails across the bleak terrain
It was the hexagram of the heavens
It was the strings of my guitar
Amelia, it was just a false alarm
As Rosenbaum notes of the many meanings of false alarm, "when used colloquially, [it] is more often taken to be analogous to—if not synonymous with—'false hope.'"

Joni was never a romantic swooner. In a review in NOW Magazine, Susan Cole complains of a difficult interview with her in 1994. Cole quotes Michelle Mercer, author of the biography Will You Take Me As I Am: Joni Mitchell's Blue Period, as saying, “Joni Mitchell is not like us. She’s driven to recreate herself as an artist in ways that very few people do. She’s been through so many stages of regeneration.”

Last week in La Jolla, I took a walk to the beach by myself before heading to the airport. At the end of a cul-de-sac, among all these deceptively modest bungalows in a million-dollar neighborhood, I stepped out on a ledge between houses. There was the blue Pacific and the white sand and a watery haze in the air. I expected to feel a last "ah," a sweet snort of Southern Californian fun and sun to take back with me to the east coast.

Instead I was suffused by sadness. My eyes blurred. I watched several surfers up the beach, black crescents in their wet suits. The swells were large but orderly, and when one surfer stood, he or she descended into beautiful white froth, then paddled back out to do it again.

I kept watching them, counting seconds, daring myself to wait until they took another wave—and two did, cutting down the same swell and into the same sparkling froth—not graceful, but fully alive and present.

I thought of myself, getting up and roaring down another wave, of the need to keep getting up and splashing down into the cold froth. I thought of my father, who often needs a push to get started out of his chair just to take a few mincing, wobbly steps forward, who needs my help now to lift his legs onto the bed before descending into sleep.
Oh it gets so lonely
When you're walking
And the streets are full of strangers
All the news of home you read
More about the war
And the bloody changes
Oh will you take me as l am?
Will you take me as l am?
Will you?
Oh California. I will remember you. I watch the surfers and also feel ecstatic. The day I don't find myself yodeling down a wave is the day I die—or so I tell myself, under a misty blue sky, my body still brown and whole and able to lift me up.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Family Vacation? Help! Cries Mom, Send Moose and Squirrel!

At a particularly low moment yesterday, I whimpered to my seven-year-old son, "Would you stop talking? Please?"

"Mom, why do bees have sticky hair?"

Silence.

"Because they use honey combs!"

It was Day 3 of a week-long stay on Cape Cod. Every day I'd been pulling my son Nick on the tagalong attached to my rental bike. Yesterday had included the dubious adventure of going to Martha's Vineyard by ferry—with the bike—for a grunting tour on dusty roads in close to 90-degree heat. Just a hint for the Obamas when they get here this weekend.

For those unfamiliar with children's bike equipage, a tagalong is a third wheel and handlebars that can be connected to an adult bike. That means pulling approximately 80 additional pounds, counting the small child who will inevitably squirm and, in Nick's case, pedal backwards.

By this low moment, we'd returned to Wood's Hole and made it off the ferry. Sweat was pouring down my face, but Nick perched happily on the tagalong, still talking at my back.

"Mom, in the Vietnam War, did people want to escape?"

"Not now!" I huffed. "Can't you see how much I'm working?"

God. I'd resorted to waspishness: Can't you see how much I'm [fill in the blank]? Evil Mom. Shouldn't I be thrilled that my child loves to ask questions? Serious questions about Vietnam, his birth country? Tough questions like "Why does China own Tibet?"

I am thrilled. Yet the brilliant monologues on the back of my bike are also mixed with fully dramatized scenes from the Rocky and Bullwinkle show—"What's your name, Natasha? Fatale, Fatale! Boris darlink, even Moose and Squirrel know that. Boris, you leetle squirt!"

I don't do well on family vacations. It takes at least a week of grueling exercise to slow down my mind. Or a week of complete solitude in a cabin miles from civilization. I seem to learn this every summer, as we spend a week at the Cape or on an island in Maine, my son a different age each time, and me longing for a few seconds to stare into space or to hike ten miles by myself. Instead I get my son full-throttle, with no child-care breaks and endless negotiations about what to do next, and me feeling horribly guilty.

Typical po-mo feminist mom. Typical entitled selfish ridiculous writer mom.

A few disclaimers: My husband enjoys the family time of these vacations. He also gives me breaks. However, some of our trips are tied to his work—as this one was to an academic conference—and so he's often gone during the day, while my son and I are left with each other. This is both good and bad.

During one of our treks on the Shining Sea Bikeway between Wood's Hole and North Falmouth, for instance, I was struck by the trail's beauty, even during a heat wave. Yet for me, cresting a small hill with a view over coastal marshland to the shore, it just wasn't the same with this exchange:

Me: "How gorgeous!"

Little chatterer: "Did you know Boris eats rutabagas?"

Me: "Look at the ocean."

LC: "What's a rutabaga?"

At one point, when I was negotiating a tricky turn into a beach parking lot with a UPS truck barreling micrometers from my son's exposed leg, the little chatterer said, "Mom, can I tell you the names for all those guys in my story, Kun the Turtle, his friends' names, remember you said we could figure out what would happen—"

"NOT NOW!" I cried. "Can't you see how much I'm concentrating?"

"Is it OK if I keep talking? You don't have to answer."

He kept talking. Within moments, I was answering.

When I complain about the little chatterer, my husband laughs. He's the one who usually gets stuck with the tagalong on our family bike rides.

"I just don't answer him," he says. "Pretty soon he shuts up."

He's a good guy, my husband, and a practical one. But I think I'm wired differently. Words make me respond—it's the writer in me, the pedant. Words are luscious things, not just chit-chat or time-fillers, and despite every drip of sweaty frustration with the chatterer these past few days, I know that words have weight for Nick, too. They are himself: Look at me, look at me, what do you think? Am I funny? Am I fabulous? Will you always love me? Can we get married? Will I be famous someday?

It's amazing, really, being privy to so much that's usually private in adults. Once, as I was wrestling with the bike locks, Nick tugged my arm.

"Mom?"

"What?"

"Why do people like me?"

I wanted to melt, and not from the heat. "Because you have great ideas," I said. "Because you're funny."

Nick kept looking up at me, as if unconvinced.

Because you're you, I thought.

OK, I love this child. Maybe expecting a family vacation to be a vacation is a fool's errand. Maybe vacation is the wrong word. It's more like moments of being—strings of shiny shells interspersed with stinking seaweed and whiny requests for ice cream.

On one of our first mornings here, Nick crept into bed with us, snuggling against me, and fell right back to sleep. I held my husband's hand, and he squeezed mine, as if transmitting his warmth to me and to Nick, who was silent for once, blessedly silent.

But I realized later, during another tagalong monologue—You know the thing I like best? Mom? Living!—that by listening to children, we affirm who they are. Listening is as important as touch; it gives them the freedom to shout and argue and annoy and bedazzle.

I try to explain what a rutabaga is or why China has colonized Tibet. I tell my little chatterer that I love life, too, although I'm not sure it would be my number-one choice if I had to live without the people I love.

LC says, "Yeah." Then he cracks a joke, putting on his Boris Badenov accent.

I know that I can't protect my son from all harm. But I can inoculate him against despair. And if I do—please, God, yes! I love living!—perhaps I can also inoculate myself.


This post originally appeared on Athena's Head, Martha's Open Salon blog.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Seven-Year-Olds Don't Get Star Trek

Here are two random facts my son Nick knows: Mr. Spock has green blood. The guys in red shirts always die. When the new Star Trek movie came out this spring, and my husband and I saw it, Nick became more curious. I thought--hoped--our seven-year-old was ready to hop aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise, at least with the far less violent, 1960s TV series.

I envisioned us watching all the episodes together, me professing about them in mini-ethics lessons: the value of loyalty, respect for differences, a can-do attitude. Nick is an adoptee, born in Vietnam, and I thought Trek's inclusive vision might add an extra spark. I'd reminisce about when I first saw those episodes as re-runs in the '70s. In my ninth-grade geometry class, I had wryly picked them apart with my fellow nerds.

Imagine my anticipation, then, a few weeks ago, when Nick and I watched his first, "The Trouble with Tribbles." In it, a space station and the Enterprise get inundated with furry little creatures. The story is played for laughs, with one goofy fight, but nothing scary for any child (like ours) who loves Jackie Chan.

Nick wasn't scared. He was bored. Within moments of the opening credits, he was squirming beside me on the couch, begging to watch something else.

It suddenly became clear to me that, developmentally, my seven-year-old isn't ready for the complex system of obligations and loyalties that animate Star Trek. He didn't get any of the relationships among the crew. He didn't get the friendship between Spock and Kirk. He didn't get the notion of competing space empires, or why Captain Kirk was so snappily pissed off at a petty bureaucrat.

While what I like may rub off on my son, it does so in ways I can't predict. Nick holds up his fingers in the Vulcan salute, giggling as he says, "Live long and what?" Then I play earnest parent, "casually" mentioning that Mr. Spock is half-human, half-Vulcan. Kind of like an international adoptee, huh? To date, Nick's response has been a shrug.

If he doesn't get the social complexity of Star Trek, it's unlikely he gets the convolutions of adoption, either. I think I've known this all along. But when a boy is an only child who's used to conversing with adults, sometimes even this hyper-intellectual mom forgets he's very young.

We've talked openly about his adoption since he was a baby, trying to normalize words like "orphanage" and "birth parents." Just the other day, he made up the following riddle:

Question: "What do you call a baby elephant?"

Answer: "An El-orphan."

But in assuming all babies are orphans, my son has got a whole world, maybe a whole universe, of coming to terms ahead of him.

By the time Mr. Spock's bicultural dilemma begins to resonate with Nick, he'll have his own ideas about morality and ethics. Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry's plaid-pants version may appeal to him; or maybe he'll like Star Trek: The Next Generation's New Age spin, with the android Data who just wants to be human.

Nick was drawing cartoon ninja figures when "The Trouble with Tribbles" finally ended. He still sat with me on the couch, though. He kept close, and I finished the last of my wine and stared at the infinite sky outside our living-room window.

I felt sad; I felt cleansed of delusion for a few seconds. I saw all the questions Nick will be asking about himself as he gets older, and the many versions of him materializing out of dust and light and our imaginations.

He's already boldly going elsewhere.

Friday, July 24, 2009

For Shame

I've almost finished reading Scott Turow's One L, a memoir of his first year at Harvard Law School in 1975, and I'm struck by how bedeviled he felt by shame. "Me, too! Me, too!" I want to shout. This past year, while studying Vietnamese at Harvard, I struggled mightily. Learning a new language at my age has become a prolonged internal wrestling match with my fear that I'll never be good enough—a good enough mom, a good enough translator of Vietnamese culture for my son, a good enough writer.

Turow's account sounds so familiar. The context is very different—first-year law student in classes of 100-plus litigious brainiacs vs. my small language class—but his observations feel fresh 30 years later. He likens studying the law to studying a foreign language. And as the semester grinds on and he sinks into depression and bombs a mock exam, he makes clear that this kind of intensive learning experience lets loose personal demons (or "my enemy," he calls it) very fast.

Here's just one quote: "Over the weekend I remained in agony and disarray. I had never before failed an exam. That it would have no bearing on my grade did not matter. I had been confirmed in my suspicion that I was a ludicrous, miserable, unworthy failure."

Ah, Shame. You are a great humbler. Perhaps you have the firmest grip on us perfectionistic types. I've begun working with a Vietnamese tutor this summer, and she corrects my pronunciation every other word. I don't love it. It's sort of great. It takes me far outside myself—as being a parent does—into landscapes where I'm constantly checking the map.

Sometimes it's just plain funny, like the time in class when we were answering questions about a Vietnamese folk tale. In it, the River God (Thuỷ tinh) and Mountain God (Sơn tinh) end up locked in battle. As I attempted to say in Vietnamese that the angry River God finally had to withdraw his troops, I managed to mix up the word for troops (quân) with the word for pants (quần). My teacher replied, deadpan: "So Thuỷ tinh is taking off his pants?"

My seven-year-old son still delights in telling this story on his mom, who unlike Mary Poppins, is practically imperfect in every way. Vui lắm!

As for Scott Turow, he's still practicing law and writing terrific mystery novels. From Turow's web site: "Only in the mystery novel are we delivered final and unquestionable solutions. The joke to me is that fiction gives you a truth that reality can't deliver."