Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Christmas Books

My new shelves ~ just for Christmas Books!

Recent additions to my collection include . . .

~ something new ~

Santa Lives!
Five Conclusive Arugments for the Existence of Santa Claus

by Ellis Weiner

"But while we often like to comfort or flatter ourselves
with the thought that the future is now,
the brute truth is, the future is not now.
The present is now. The future is later --
in some cases much later."

~ Ellis Weiner, from Santa Lives

A delightfully droll and witty philosophical mock - up, including The Ontological Argument, The Causal Argument, The Argument from Design, and so forth. My older son Ben gave it to me for Christmas last year because he has just been assigned to read it in his philosophy class at Purdue. I gave several friends a copy this year, along with Yiddish with Dick & Jane and The Joy of Worry, also by Weiner and equally clever!

and . . .

~ something old ~

Sleigh Bells for Windy Foot


Maple Sugar for Windy Foot

by Frances Frost

Thanks to my cousin Maggie for introducing me to Windy Foot last year, calling my attention to these books, and sharing her memory of reading them aloud with her mother (my Aunt Frances) every Christmas as she was growing up. Sleigh Bells is a charming story of getting ready for a rural American Christmas in the late 1940s.

Speaking of the good old days . . . Check out these wonderfully nostalgic images!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Martha Beale Mysteries

Historic St. Peter's Episcopal Churchyard, Philadelphia,
~ as it was in the 19th Century, so it is today ~
(looking west toward Old Pine Presbyterian)

If you're in the mood for a murder mystery, the novels of Cordelia Frances Biddle, with lots of old Philadelphia history and a strong female lead named Martha Beale, are just the thing for a long winter's night with the snow whirling and wind howling.

Back in September 2010, I mentioned The Conjurer in a list of titles by friends and friends of friends. Cordelia was one of my Philadelphia neighbors, and her research of the city is impressive. If you've never been, it will come to life for you; if you've been already, you'll be transported right back to those time - honored streets once more.

A couple of dark and stormy November afternoons provided the perfect background for the hours I spent immersed in Deception's Daughter. In the opening chapter, entitled "In the Wind, Ghosts," Martha's young daughter Ella explains earnestly: "But the wind cannot be wretched, Mother . . . It bears the ghosts of all the souls who have gone before us" (3). When little brother Cai "begins to whimper about invisible demons winging through the air . . . Martha . . . tries to convince him that the unseen spirits are not ghouls or wraiths come to haunt and harm him, but angels with enormous and shining wings flying close to earth in order to protect him." Even so, "Cai remains steadfast in his belief that ghosts are riding in the wind. . . . " Ghosts are everywhere, and they especially enjoy spiriting through cold chimneys and terrorizing small, defenseless boys" (6 - 7, 127).

One of the Fairmont Mansions
Artist Unknown

Additional favorite passages:

" 'Oh, bosh! Should have. Could have. Would have. What an odious trio. When I was forced to keep to my rooms these past days, I made a promise to ignore those gloomy villains. I suggest you do the same' " (from Deception's Daughter, 108).

"How is it that our solitary existences are so dependent upon others? We believe we're self - governing, but circumstances continually work to remold us; and we grow like trees clustered in a forest: bowed down by prevailing winds, stunted within the shadow of larger plants or flourishing because a neighbor has toppled and relinquished its proprietary ownership of light and air" (from The Conjurer, 206).

Continuing saga:

The third Martha Beale mystery, Without Fear features thespian Becky Grey, who first appears in Deception's Daughter. Biddle writes that "Becky is able to descend deep into the depths of dark Philadelphia. Loosely based on Fanny Kemble, married to arch-conservative slave-owner Phila gent Pierce Butler."

And fourth: The Actress

If you are interested in learning more, check out Cordelia Biddle's fabulously informative website.

Map of Gray's Ferry, 1790
Just a few blocks from where our West Philly House
at 48th & Baltimore was built 100 years later!

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Meat and Potatoes

Les pommes et les pommes de terre
dans mon évier de cuisine

In continuation of yesterday's post of food - related reading, I have to say a little bit about one of my favorite novels of the 90s:

My Year of Meats
by Ruth L. Ozeki.

The narrator, Jane Takagi - Little, has been hired to write a television series sponsored by "the Beef Export and Trade Syndicate, or, simply, BEEF - EX" (9). The goal of the weekly show -- entitled My American Wife! -- is to promote the American beef market in Japan. Jane's job is to find and film fifty - two ideal American families, i.e., white, middle - class, 2.5 kids, no deformities, no irregularities -- who eat lots of home - cooked beef at every meal. As her agent in Japan explains, "You must catch up healthy American wives with most delicious meats" (10).

However, as her "year of meats" progresses, Jane grows more and more disgusted with the beef industry (kind of like The Jungle in this respect) and her programs begin to veer off course. First, she annoys her boss by featuring a less than perfect family (the parents are Mexicans and the father has lost a hand to an accident at work), but at least they eat Beefy Burritos. Next, it's a large Louisiana family with two biological children and ten adopted Amerasian and Korean children, in which the husband instead of the wife prepares the meal of roast pork! After that, it's a family with a wheel - chair - bound daughter who craves lamb chops; then a "biracial vegetarian lesbian couple" who choose to demonstrate Pasta Primavera for the Japanese viewers. Oops! Jane is in big trouble with the higher - ups at BEEF - EX!

I love the organization of Oseki's novel: twelve chapters, given the Japanese names for the months (e.g., "The Ever - Growing Month," "The Poem - Composing Month," "The Gods - Absent Month") and each beginning with an appropriate passage from The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon that is then somehow woven into the chapter's meaning:

"On the day after a fierce autumn wind
everything moves one deeply.
The garden is in a pitiful state
with all the bamboo and lattice fences knocked over
and lying next to each other on the ground.
It is bad enough if the branches of one of
the great trees have been broken by the wind;
but it is a really painful surprise
to find that the tree itself has fallen down and is
now lying flat over the bush-clover and the valerians.

"The Pillow Book"
Sei Shonagon, painted by Hisashi Otsuka


A few additional points gleaned from
recent food - themed texts such as

Eric Schlosser's book Fast Food Nation
~~ also the film version
~~ also Chew On This, with Charles Wilson


Barbara Kingsolver's book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

1. the American French Fry as we know it is a truly evil force

2. ditto: high fructose corn syrup

3. if you have any self - respect,
you will never eat at McDonald's again

4. eat little or no meat

5. buy local eat seasonal (well, I already knew this)

6. shop at the Farmer's Market as often as possible,
even if the prices are higher than the grocery store

P.S. Ruth Ozeki also writes of french fries
in her novel about the potato: All Over Creation

(which I read back in 2006)

Also worth watching:

Friday, September 30, 2011

You Are What You Eat

The original book jacket:
not the usual offering of fresh fruit, flowers, and candles
but candy, ice cream, and Pringles Potato Chips instead;
similarly, I admire the cellophane wrapped cupcakes
that I sometimes see on the altar at the Vietnamese
manicure shop where I like to get my nails done!

Alison McGhee's haunting, tender novel, Shadow Baby appeared on my list of Highlights from 2007; but I can't resist mentioning it once again, this time in connection with Bich Minh Nguyen's humorous yet serious memoir Stealing Buddha's Dinner, an exuberant ode to all the foods kids love. If I had been organized enough to list "Highlights" in 2008, Nguyen's book would have been a frontrunner. Nguyen, who came to Michigan from Viet Nam in 1975, tells the entertaining story of how, as little children, she and her sister learned about American culture through American food as it appears in TV commercials, school lunches, restaurants, fast food, family gatherings, grocery stores, endless snacks, holidays -- delicious food everywhere you turn, even in literature!

The funny and wonderful thing is that I knew exactly what she was talking about! Even though I'm older than Nguyen by nearly twenty years and was raised from the start on typical midwestern fare, her longing references to the tantalizing foods of childhood spoke straight to my heart. We American kids born in the late 50s and early 60s also craved (at least until we tasted them) the novelty cereals, packaged desserts, and highly processed convenience suppers that appeared so appealing in their boxes and trays. Over the years, a few of these things came our way (Pop Tarts, for instance) but others (like Jiffy Pop) just never did. And never did Mrs. Butterworth or Mr. Kool - Aid, or the Pillsbury Doughboy speak to us in our kitchens as they did on television. When I read Nguyen's description of waiting for these miracles to occur, I felt at one with her disappointment.

What Nguyen's memoir shares with McGhee's novel, in addition to an earnest, adorable, intelligent, girlish narrator, is an extended tribute to the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Both real - life Bich (pronounced "Bit") and fictional Clara from Shadow Baby have grown to admire Laura's confidence and determination. In addition, Bich likes the way that "Laura never stints on food. The scraping of butter on a dry slice of toast merits her attention as much as a holiday feast" (154 - 55), and Clara likes Laura's straightforward way of addressing her mother. Emulating Laura, Clara says, "I'm the only girl I know who calls her mother Ma" (8).

Throughout the novel, whenever a crisis arises, Clara asks herself what Laura the Pioneer Girl would do; and in Buddha's Dinner, Nguyen analyzes the entire Little House saga in light of the food eaten by the Ingalls family: "All of my fictional friends liked to eat, but perhaps no one did more than Laura Ingalls Wilder" (153, see Chapter 11, "Salt Pork"). Never a true Little House follower myself, I still relished these allusions and admired the way in which both authors have so skillfully woven the intertextual references into their work.

Sadly, both young narrators also grow to realize the prejudice in the Little House chapter of American history. Clara says, "When I started reading about Indians, I had to revise my initial impression of Laura. It was hard to do that. I loved Laura so much. At first I tried to defend her . . . Then I had to admit it: the pioneers were awful to the Indians" (30). Bich experiences the unkindness at a personal level, feeling certain that Ma "would never have let Laura consort with me. . . . As I grew older, I had an increasingly uneasy time reading the books. . . . Not just Ma Ingall's hatred of Indians . . . I knew that people like me would also have been considered outcasts, heathens, and strangers; we didn't even count" (157, 160).

Why I didn't read more of the Little House series as a child I do not know. Of course, I was aware of them, but they didn't capture my imagination the way they do for some. However, I did read a couple of them with my own children, and once upon a snow day, we looked up the Little House recipe for gingerbread and did some baking.

Another memorable food - related episode in Shadow Baby is Clara's "show of nonreading solidarity" with her elderly friend who cannot read, a gesture which takes the form of removing the labels from all the canned food in the pantry. Her mother, Tamar, who "prefers to eat out of cans and jars" is annoyed and mystified, though not angry, even though Clara refuses to explain the nature of her experiment. Clara concludes that it wasn't a very effective exercise in solidarity after all, but I don't know -- it has stayed with me long after reading the book. I also remain amused by Tamar's pronouncement that "Margarine is science run amok" (160); though she doesn't draw the line at eating processed foods unheated, straight from the can, she does draw the line at margarine!

"Science Run Amok!"

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Local Peace

Engine Books is offering a discount on bulk orders of Other Heartbreaks for reading groups / book clubs. In addition, Patricia Henley would be happy to SKYPE with book clubs who read the book and want her to talk about it. In fact, if there are groups in our local area, she would be happy to attend.

Please feel free to contact Patricia Henley via facebook,
and THANKS for spreading the word!

"Sandra's love for Kelly is not the sort you hear about in songs on the jukebox. It's not desperate or crazy. They met three years ago and it was one year before they made love. Kelly said he wanted to get to know her first and Sandra thought that was a novel idea. When she remembers that year going by, she imagines ranging in the high country on a long hike, when it's tough-going at first and you don't know what to expect. Maybe you slip and fall when the trail crosses a creek bed, maybe the first lake is small, disappointing, but you push yourself, you glory in the little things along the way, the shooting stars and glacier lilies, the marmot whistling, and before long, just as you are simply traveling, putting one boot in front of the other, for the bliss of it, you come upon grand peaks and a string of alpine lakes so rare and peaceful that you imagine no one else has ever been there before you. It's where you belong. That's what being with Kelly is like. Easy, once you reach cruising altitude. Paradise, kind of. And ordinary. Common pleasures renew them. Razzing one another; watching a video in their bathrobes; dividing a foxglove in the fall; lying awake in one another's arms at midnight, waiting for Desiree [Sandra's teenage daughter] to come in from some breakneck double date. Love you can't imagine when you're young, when you think that love is you winning him over, a treadmill of pursuit and chicanery."

from the story "Love You Can't Imagine"
by Patricia Henley

The above quote is one of my all - time favorites, from a short story that I read twenty years ago and never forgot. These characters, Sandra and Kelly and Desiree, do not appear in Henley's upcoming collection, Other Heartbreaks; yet I felt compelled to mention them here because the women in these latest stories -- June, Jenny, Meg, Ellen, Bonnie, Barbara, Emma, Sophie -- are heartbreak survivors. If they re-discover love, it will not be about pursuit and chicanery. It will be a love they could not have imagined when young. In the opening story, Henley writes, "Some forks in the road no one knows about but the two people involved" (20). Other Heartbreaks is a book about those forks, those divergent paths.

A few months ago I had the good fortune to meet Patricia Henley, virtually on facebook and actually out on the sidewalk, since, as it so happens, we live only a few blocks apart. Whenever I read a book of short stories, I always wonder if the various characters know each other. Is the book of stories a little world, a little community, where the inhabitants wander from page to page? Do they encounter each other while out walking or biking, or stopping by the post office? I like to think they do!

In this collection, I particularly relished the local color in a few of the stories: the Wabash River, Tippecanoe County, Battle Ground, Brookston, Delphi. I was transported by the mention of vintage perfumes, Tabu and White Shoulders. I chortled over the absurdly symbolic professions assigned to a couple of lesser characters: the emotionally distant "attorney specializing in outer space law" and the "professor who had devoted herself to her scholarly career -- she studied companion animal behavior -- until she found herself still alone . . . " (13, 69). And then there's Ellen's dream job: "Something temporary that would not require new clothes or even an attitude adjustment" (67).

If I had to pick a favorite, it would be the first story in the book, "Rocky Gap," about four adult siblings, June, Jimmy, Anne, and Peggy. The occasion is the first family gathering since the death of Peggy, the youngest sister. Henley's description of their childhood reminded me of growing up with my own five siblings: "They got into plenty of trouble. [Well, we didn't really, not all that much.] Setting field fires. [In fact, this did happen to my little brother -- an accident!] Grinning innocently. They were innocent. Six miles from town, with only network TV" (23). Yes, that was us!

And so was this: "They survived their parents' excess, their imprudence, their disorganization, their inability to harness their darkest energy. That generation, they didn't know much more about psychology than people who lived during the Civil War" (20).

Just the other day, my twin brother and I were discussing the eerie reality that one day, one of us six kids will be the last one standing; one of us will bury the preceding five. Then I opened Henley's book to find one of those well - timed reading coincidences that seem so often to grace our lives. As the family gathering and the story itself draw to a close, June and her partner Tanya discuss Peggy's passing:

"Don't take it wrong. What she said helped."
"What'd she say?"
"She said, 'Someone in your family has to die first.'"
Someone may beg to be released from pain with morphine.
Someone may suffer head injuries in a car crash.
Some fortunate one might keel over in a vegetable garden from heatstroke. . . .
The last sib will have to watch it, and scatter ashes. Or ride in a car behind the hearse, to and fro.
(23 - 24)

Yes, that will be us . . .

Other Heartbreaks is due out in mid - October. So as the seasons are changing, why not pick up a copy on one of those "Sunday afternoons, in the bittersweet hours from three to seven," curl up in a sunny window seat, and lose -- or find -- yourself in the community of these heart-broken souls. Share their quest for local peace and tenderness and love you can't imagine.

More Favorite Passages

16: "They toss little scraps of origami wishes into the fire. June thinks she should wish for World Peace, but she doesn't. She wishes for Local Peace."

69: "On Sunday afternoons, in the bittersweet hours from three to seven, they held an open house for friends and students and neighbors."

81: " 'We've been building a bridge, right? . . . I thought -- when I saw you -- that the last little bit of the bridge would click into place. . . . But there's still a gap.' "

101: "Her house was like a Carl Larsson watercolor, homey, cheerful, some earthy potpourri simmering atop the woodstove, the colors of her second-hand linens and furniture Swedish-pastel, chosen to ward off the chill of the long winters."

148: " . . . it's a fallacy to think that a mother can travel alone. If you have children, you're never quite whole again. There's a reason why they're called your flesh and blood . . . "

Engine Books is offering a discount on bulk orders of Other Heartbreaks for reading groups / book clubs. In addition, Patricia Henley would be happy to SKYPE with book clubs who read the book and want her to talk about it. In fact, if there are groups in our local area, she would be happy to attend.

Please feel free to contact Patricia Henley via facebook,
and THANKS for spreading the word!

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Favorite Quotations from the Latter Potters

Sam as Shepherd Boy and
Ben as Harry Potter (December 2000)

See also my recent post
on the Quotidian Kit:
"Happy Birthday Harry Potter"

In preparation for this summer's movie, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2, I spent the month of July re-reading the last three Harry Potter novels, finishing up just in time for Harry's birthday.

It was a worthwhile memory - refreshing endeavor; and in the process, I jotted down a few favorite passages:

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

269: "He only knew that he did not want to see their looks of horror; that would make the whole thing seem worse and therefore more difficult to face."

459: " 'Just because you've got the emotional range of a teaspoon doesn't mean we all have.' "

482: " ' I suppose it's not really prophecy you're doing, is it? I mean, you're not seeing the future, you're seeing the present. . . . it's odd, isn't it? Useful, though . . . ' " (ellipses in original).

509 - 515: " 'Now, how many autographs would you like? I can do joined - up writing now, you know! . . . Look, I didn't learn joined - up writing for nothing, you know!' "

655: " 'The thing about growing up with Fred and George,' said Ginny thoughtfully, 'is that you sort of start thinking anything's possible if you've got enough nerve.' "

847: "According to Madam Pomfrey, thoughts could leave deeper scarring than almost anything else."

[Likewise, StoryPeople storyteller Brian Andreas describes: "sharp things that hurt for years afterwards every time you think of them."

Harry Potter and the Half - Blood Prince

46: " ' . . . sadly, accidental rudeness occurs alarmingly often . . . ' "

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

44: "It felt most strange to stand here in the silence and know that he was about to leave the house for the last time. . . . It gave him an odd, empty feeling to remember those times; it was like remembering a younger brother whom he had lost."

325 - 26: "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."

[J. K. Rowling includes this passage from Matthew 6:21 as the inscription on the gravestone of Ariana Dumbledore. I like it because it also happens to be one of the readings that Gerry and I chose for our wedding ceremony, twenty - two years ago.]

718: " 'It is a curious thing, Harry, but perhaps those who are best suited to power are those who have never sought it.' "

723: " 'Tell me one last thing,' said Harry. 'Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?'

"Dumbledore beamed at him . . . 'Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean this it is not real?' "

Monday, June 27, 2011


A Favorite from the New Yorker

I recently had the following query from someone who read (but perhaps did not fully grasp) my
Trilogy of Homebody Thoughts:
Homebody Anybody
Homebody Somebody
First Fiddle

Question: "Are you suggesting that, because I work full time outside the home (as does my children's father), that we don't "take care of our own children?"

Answer: Well, none of us can be two places at one time. If you are at home full time taking care of children, then you are obviously not at a workplace full time. If you are working outside the home full time, then someone else must be taking care of the children -- unless they take care of themselves or are left unattended. The fact is, if you are away from your children, then, no, you are not taking care of them. Someone else is. Perhaps you have provided for their care, but you are not working as their full - time caregiver for the simple reason that you are working somewhere else, doing something else.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

First Fiddle

Barefoot Prodigy by Martha Moore
Contemporary American Artist

When I was in junior high, a 5 x 7 reprint of this painting appeared on the back of a cereal box -- The Fine Arts, brought to you by Post Grape Nuts! I cut it out and propped it on our piano where it stayed for as long as I can remember, certainly until well after my high school years. Somewhere along the way, Gerry and I picked up a poster - sized copy, which is still looking good after twenty - odd years, framed and matted in our family room. That little girl has been an inspiration to me and many others for several decades now. She can do anything!

Now, for the third installment in my
Trilogy of Homebody Thoughts,
following Homebody Anybody
and Homebody Somebody

Not long after the last presidential election, my wise friend Etta sent me a "really great article," "The Momification of Michelle Obama", written by her "new favorite feminist Rebecca Traister." Etta explained that "it's an article about how the feminist movement has to keep on top of and point out when the culture keeps going back to what it always does, i.e. putting women into categories of 'Motherhood' OR 'Career-Women.' Why are women judging each other for what kind of a feminist they are or what kinds of choices they make? It is never that easy, and at least 70% of all women know that (30% are the self-righteous crazy women like Sarah Palin). My question is why do women have to make these choices, and when will it end? Given that life is unfair and the choice is unfair and I didn't really have a choice to do what I really set out to do, I have chosen to be happy within that parameter. Otherwise the only one that suffers is me. I think that it is still the culture we live in that restricts us . . . Michelle and Hillary have the brains and talent to be President but instead their husbands are."

Now that you have read Etta's preamble, click here if you have a couple of minutes to read Traister's article. Sure, it was written a couple of years ago, but it's just as relevant now as it was then. So relevant, in fact, that at the risk of sounding melodramatic, I'd say that it is a pretty accurate description of my own life, except that I didn't become successful in my profession before having my children, so I had less to walk away from.

I do find it odd of Traister to suggest that walking away from a meaningful career that provides extra but not not necessary income for the family is more difficult than it would be to give up working to make ends meet. I always thought it was the opposite -- if you are struggling to make ends meet, then you have more difficulty choosing to walk away than if the money is optional to the budget -- in which case, you have the good fortune of choosing how to spend your time, how to focus your energy. It's a luxury to make that choice. And if you can make it at all, why not make it in favor of your kids? Yes, it's wrong for Americans to obsess about Michelle Obama's clothes and household choices, but why shouldn't or wouldn't she pick parenting as her first choice these days? Her children need her, now more than ever.

I appreciate Traister's final observation:

"In certain critical ways, Michelle Obama will come to stand in more prominently than anyone could have imagined for the shortcomings of feminism as described by Linda Hirshman in her 2006 book Get to Work in which she argues that the weighting of domestic responsibilities toward the woman in a family handicaps her chances for professional and economic success. Obama has already said that one of the issues she plans to put front and center while in the White House is the impossible bind faced by working mothers. She knows the trade-offs and sacrifices all too well.

"And now, she is in the unenviable yet deeply happy position of being a history-maker whose own balancing act allowed her husband the space to make his political career zip forward, his books sing, his daughters healthy and beautiful, and his campaign succeed. In having done all this, Michelle Obama wrought for herself a life (temporarily, at least) of playing second fiddle. Then again, did she have a choice?"

I like this conclusion because I like to think that my own balancing act allowed my husband to "zip forward" and our children to "sing." On the other hand, why does Traister have to embrace the assumption that profession is first and home is second fiddle?

It's a struggle sometimes to enjoy being at home with people asking you all the time "when are you going back to work?" Sometimes I fear that I've spent the last twenty years trying to come up with a good explanation for my choices that won't make me sound lazy and unambitious.

Recent reading for further perspectives on this topic:

1. Mama, PhD: Women Write about Motherhood and Academic Life
Edited by Elrena Evans and Caroline Grant

2.Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace
by Ayelet Waldman

In conclusion, two heart-warming anecdotes:

My friend Karen recently said, "I'm happy 'at home' and enjoy being here for my family, but I know what you mean about the questions about ever going back to 'work.' I recently was at a doctor's office and he asked me what I did for a living. And I sighed and said, 'Oh, I'm a stay at home mom' for lack of a better term. And I liked his response, 'That IS work!' "

My younger sister, who works at a pre-school, likes to tell the story about the little student who asked her one day, "Miss Diane, do you work someplace?"


Monday, June 13, 2011

Homebody Somebody

Spice of Life!

A few additional Homebody thoughts, compiled after reading:

1. The Ten-Year Nap
by Meg Wolitzer


2. Click: When We Knew We Were Feminists
edited by Courtney E. Martin and J. Courtney Sullivan

After re-reading Anna Quindlen's bothersome late twentieth century essay on the topic of "Nesting," I thought I'd take a look at the new generation of writers in Click: When We Knew We Were Feminists. Some get it, some don't. Nellie Beckett, for example, can see that it's all real work. She writes that "Being a feminist means making my own choices but it also means supporting the choices that women in my life make. I'm a feminist for my mother, who chose to stay home with her kids and was criticized for doing so. She's now applying to be a lawyer. Despite her excellent credentials, law firms seem to think that fifteen years as a stay - at home mom don't qualify as "real work" (34). Thanks Nellie!

J. Courtney Sullivan, on the other hand, takes another tired old swipe at cookie - baking. She observes that her mother was successful professionally yet punished for not simultaneously being the perfect homemaker, victimized by a culture that devalues caretaking in the home while at the same time fetishizing it. . . . Those other mothers in my neighborhood, with their brownies and their wreath-making and their long dull days in the house, were no doubt victims of this too" (196 - 97). Wow, Courtney! Way to devalue!

Okay, I understand about her mother and our culture's schizophrenic attitude toward housekeeping and homemaking, but was their neighborhood really filled with women who spent long dull days stuck in the house making wreaths and brownies? Again, I hear an annoying echo of Quindlen's upholstery appointments and empty hours. For me and my parenting acquaintances, however, the hours were never empty. The years and days have been neither long nor dull. They have been fleeting and packed from morning until midnight with tasks and errands, and work of all kinds: free - lance, part - time, professional, communal, volunteering and fund-raising; grading, reading and writing after the children were tucked in bed. Some of it was inspirational, some of it was not -- but isn't that true of all work? And, yes, arts and crafts and baking did enter into the picture; but it wasn't dull; it was fun!

I'm the first to admit that running a household is something I always wanted to do. Quindlen confesses that she ran from that role "with furious little feet when [she] was growing up." That's okay. But, guess what? I ran toward it. Sure, popular television made it all look so easy and attractive -- June Cleaver vacuuming the carpets while wearing pearls and heels; and Donna Reed, the very image of comfort, handing out those brown-bag lunches. But it wasn't that. In fact, I was only too willing to follow the excellent advice of Barbara Ehrenreich: no need to iron the diapers or polish the ceiling; that kind of make - work can go by the wayside. Still, as a student of literature, I wanted what Yeats' describes: " . . . a house / Where all's accustomed, ceremonious."

I wanted to take an hour pulling the dinner together. As mentioned before on this blog, I've been inspired by writers like Laurie Colwin, who shows her readers how to feel "ennobled" by the elemental, yet potentially elegant, task of feeding loved ones. Or Joan Didion, who writes so beautifully about "the repeated rituals of domestic life. Setting the table. Lighting the candles. Building the fire. Cooking. All those souffles, all that creme caramel, all those daubes and albondigas and gumbos. Clean sheets, stacks of clean towels, hurricane lamps for storms, enough water and food to see us through whatever geological event came our way. These fragments I have shored against my ruins, were the words that came to mind then. These fragments mattered to me. I believed in them. That I could find meaning in the intensely personal nature of my life as a wife and mother did not seem inconsistent with finding meaning in the vast indifference of geology and the test shots; the two systems existed for me on parallel tracks that occasionally converged, notably during earthquakes" (The Year of Magical Thinking, 190 - 91). Never do Colwin or Didion undervalue nesting!

My experiences growing up had shown me that home was a happier place with a dedicated grown up human at the helm. If you ask me, it's not good growing up in a house that isn't run by anybody. Dreamy Leonard Cohen writes that "My favourite cooks prepare my meals, / my body cleans and repairs itself, / and all my work goes well." Very good for Leonard and wonderfully poetic, but I have yet to meet the body or the house or the child that cleans and repairs itself. Best to have someone committed to these tasks rather than crossing one's fingers and hoping for the best.

I can't help thinking, just for a moment here, about one of our babysitters from those early years -- not a teenage girl, mind you, but an adult mother who claimed to run an in - home, small - group daycare service. She "fired" my child from her group because, according to her, when he was there she was unable to accomplish her household chores such as cooking and laundry! Ah ha, I realized, this was a daycare service for children who didn't need daycare (something like David Letterman's laundry service that only accepted clean clothes)! The other children in the group were able, apparently, to clean and repair themselves. Not my child; he needed some minding, which, of course, is why I was seeking out a few hours of childcare in the first place!

Likewise the house. It's a better place to live if someone is minding it.

I recall a magazine article I read back in the mid 90s, when my children were small -- about the father who was put to shame when his young son exclaimed about the household, "It's like Mom runs this place!" The message, of course, was that every adult in the family should be equally competent at every task -- no division of labor allowed! Dad must now scurry to become as proficient as Mom is at whatever it is that Mom does best. And vice versa, surely. But this model isn't always possible, or timely, or effective, or even to be desired. If my children had ever exclaimed in wonderment that "It's like Mom runs this place," my husband's answer would have been immediate: "You bet she does!"

How unfortunate, though, that the implication of laziness and lack of ambition has attached itself to the task of running the place.

I encountered this when an old friend was in town for business and we met for dinner, an enjoyable occasion until the separate checks arrived and while charging hers to her company card, she said, "I guess your husband will have to pay for yours." Funny she couldn't see me as paying for myself.

Or the well-meaning (?) family member and house guest who glanced up as I carried in the grocery shopping and declared, "Out spending your husband's money again?" Funny it didn't occur to her to ask, "Out taking care of your family again?"

Or the party guest who stated, "So I guess you just do pretty much whatever you want to all day long." Funny it didn't occur to him that I, like any other responsible adult, spend many hours per day fulfilling obligations.

Or the husband who, hearing his wife tell me that she had retired from part-time work to become a busy grandmother, chimed in to chide: "You can't really call it retirement unless it comes with a pension." Funny how little he was able to honor his own wife's effort as mother and grandmother.

Friends, relatives, colleagues, feminist essayists -- they should offer support for our choices which in turn support their choices. So why the denigration? Why the sneering? Because apparently a woman's worth is measured by her income.

Maya Schenwar brings this point home in her excellent article about homechooling. Because it is unpaid, homeschooling, like homemaking, is not always thought of as real work, regardless of how challenging and rewarding it may be. Schenwar enumerates the "tricky questions for homeschooling mothers" raised by the issue of homeschooling. For example:

"Can women trade their careers for their families without sacrificing a few of their feminist values?"

Since most homeschoolers are women and most of their income providers are men, does the woman's economic dependence on her husband set a bad example for her children?

Is it truly possible to live at a remove from sexism and consumerism?

When stay-at-home moms and homeschoolers choose to leave the workforce, to what degree if any are their decisions actually influenced by insidious patriarchal forces?

How deal with feeling undercompensated at times?

How negotiate the fine line between protesting capitalism and becoming unpaid labor?

Although I did not take on the challenge of homeschooling my own children, Schenwar's conclusion still rings true for me as a summation of the years I have spent so far at home with my children:

"As the feminist homeschooling movement gains momentum, mothers will increasingly be faced with tough, identity-defining questions: Does being a feminist mean you have to have a paid job? What does it mean to raise a feminist kid? Is there a feminist definition of success, and should there be? It’s important to keep in mind that a homeschooling mom is many things besides a homeschooling mom — even if she can’t stop talking about her kid’s latest papier-mâché dinosaur. Forging these more complex identities entails recognizing all the hats they wear besides “homeschooler.” Packebush is a zinester, Schira is a webmaster and writer, and so on. They’re Marxists, or anarchists, or punks, or please-don’t-define-me-the-reason-I-homeschool-is-to-get-away-from-this-label-slapping-bullshit human beings" (see "Learning Curve,"

I am intrigued by the title Meg Wolitzer has given to her novel about stay - at - home - motherhood: The Ten - Year Nap. One thing I can say about my first decade (soon to be two) as a stay - at - home mom and politically incorrect housewife -- it sure hasn't been a nap!

Far from it! Regarding all the brain cells and manual labor required to keep the family up and running, I relished the following line from a Christmas letter we received from some of our British acquaintances who have two sons, both of whom are just a bit older than our two and no longer living at home full - time, proof that the organizational needs of the family don't go away just because the kids get bigger; perhaps, in fact, the opposite: the needs increase with size! The writer of the letter is the husband Julian (an Anglican priest in Sheffield, England), who pays this loving tribute to his wife Veronica, in his succinct list of how each family member has spent the previous year:

"Veronica busy keeping everyone else going
-- well someone's got to do it."

Or as my wise friend Eve wrote to me about rising above that nagging, sometimes overwhelming "errand - girl" sensation: "If I didn't do these things, we would have a very different family--and that's the truth."

Very plain prose, yet I think both Eve and Julian (and Anna F. / previous post, just below) express what we crave -- not reams of praise, but merely the affirmation that working in the home is way more than brownie baking and wreath making; that what we spend so many hours doing is absolutely necessary, not a frill, not a frivolity. If we do it out of love -- good; if we happen to love doing it -- good. But all that aside, it's primary, not secondary to everyone's well - being. That's all.

Scroll down (or click) for Part One . . .

Scroll up (or click) for Part Three

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Homebody Anybody

"McCartney's Mini-Mart"
Our amazing pantry, designed by Gerry in Philadelphia

"These days I live in Brooklyn, NY and 'work in the home' with my seven - month old daughter. I always remember how you told me that your wife 'works in the home.' I thought that was a wise way of looking at it, and I especially appreciate it now, because although I don't have a job, I certainly work."

Anna F. (former colleague of my husband Gerry)

"I'm happy . . .
yet I'm aware of the ironic ramifications of my happiness."

Anne Taintor (ellipsis, Taintor's)

Way back in her first book of essays, Anna Quindlen said that occasionally she "met a woman with children in school all day and no job, and . . . thought, quite uncharitably and almost reflexively, what in the world does she find to do with herself all day?" ("Nesting," in Living Out Loud, 41 - 43). These sharp words have echoed in my mind ever since I first read them, many years ago. Now that my children are not only in school but nearly out of school, they haunt me with a new vigor.

Yes, Quindlen retracts her "uncharitable" knee-jerk reaction: "I don't think that anymore" she says. Even so, I've never quite been able to decipher her tone here. She observes that "we undervalue nesting," while simultaneously claiming that nesting is not work. What is it, then? Play? What Quindlen imagines is delusional, certainly not the life of any woman I know with children in school all day and no job. "Now I imagine" she writes, "lunch with a friend, considering slipcovers, doing a little gardening, spending an hour working on dinner before everyone arrives home. That life -- of ladies' lunches, of appointments with the upholsterer, and shopping trips stretched to fill the empty hours . . . barely exists now . . .[is] barely tolerated by men or women."

Lunch with a friend? Maybe once every couple of weeks.

Considering slipcovers? Considering what exactly? Whether that peanut butter stain will come out in the washing machine?

Doing a little gardening? Okay, maybe picking up sticks and raking out last year's leaves.

Working on dinner for an hour before everyone gets home? Well, what exactly is wrong with that? I wouldn't call that self - indulgent; I would call that good for the whole family. Is it indeed more honorable to be way too busy with paid work than to spend a full hour -- or more! -- organizing dinner for one's family?

Ladies' lunches? Every other week or so, I admit.

Appointments with the upholsterer? How about running into a tiny little family owned shop, grabbing a couple of sample books, and bringing them home for the kids to see, and then playing voice mail tag with the upholsterer for the next couple of days in order to work out the rest of the details by phone. Oh yes, and there was that one time when the upholsterer did come to our house to fit seat covers for the dining room chairs and scolded my toddler for touching the fabric, looked scornfully at the cats, and rolled his eyes in annoyance. That was a leisurely afternoon, so idyllic, so idle.

Shopping trips stretched to fill the empty hours? Are you kidding? How about in and out of Walmart as quickly as possible? Or ordering a few items from Lands End and hoping they fit? Or dragging in a hundred pounds of groceries for the billionth time? That's what shopping means to me.

Empty hours? Ha!

Quindlen points out that most stay - at - home moms of the fifties were not living the life of June Cleaver. But she glosses over the stay - at - home moms of today, choosing instead to describe a fantasy life of discretionary hours and conclude that perhaps "the very rich" stay - at - home moms spend their days thus. Well, I wouldn't know about that. But wait a minute, not all of the women at home with children in school and no job are rich, let alone very rich. I do know about that. Quindlen knows about women such as herself, with babysitters and jobs; but she draws no distinction between her very rich fictitious bon-bon eaters and millions of real women who care for their homes and children in an unpaid capacity, lumping them all together into a group whose chosen role is "barely tolerated by men or women." Not tolerated by Quindlen at any rate!

All this is not to say that I did not read and reread and quote endlessly from this book. I did, and have given many copies to many friends, yet I remain stunned, shocked -- dare I say shamed -- by her admitted intolerance for the non-revenue-generating (I refuse to say "non - working") choice. The assumption that profession is first and home is second fiddle has become such a cliche that you might think it would lose its currency. After all, Quindlen wrote these words twenty years ago. Yet all you have to do is google "Linda Hirshman" for the brittle affirmation that a life of money - making work is the one true path. Forget the liberal arts; forget volunteering at the food pantry; forget that it can take all day to run a homestead, especially one with children in it (even if those kids are at school for several hours of the day).

Scroll up (or click) for Part Two: "Homebody Somebody"

Scroll up (or click) for Part Three: "First Fiddle"

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Big Hair Day

Print by my cousin Pam Carriker
from her series of historical women

Related hair blogs:

Royal Hair
Scary Hair ~ Fortnightly
Scary Hair ~ Quotidian
Off to a Bad Start
Ad Hairenum ~ Fortnightly
Hair Today
Lililth, the Long - Haired Seductress
My Friend Hair

In these various hair blogs, I look at a number of relevant texts, including several recent novels, all featuring characters of greatly conflicted hair:

High Maintenance
by Jennifer Belle, 2002 (see earlier post: Highlights)

Miss American Pie:
A Diary of Love, Secrets, and Growing Up in the 1970s

by Margaret Sartor, 2007 (see earlier post: Memoirs)

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, 2009

The Help
by Kathryn Stockett, 2009

In these novels, you can find all the major forces, with hair taking on each of the opposing roles:

Character vs Self
Character vs Other
Character vs Society
Character vs Nature / Fate

Altering the state of your hair as it grows out of your head is mostly a fight against Nature. Conforming to currently held standards of beauty -- or deciding not to -- is a struggle with Society. Standing in front of the mirror and cursing your hair for its defiance -- or giving up as it takes on a life it's own -- is a battle with the Other. Torn between judging yourself harshly or embracing the reality of your appearance? That's a conflict with the Self.

Chris Rock presents all of these conflicts in his wise and witty documentary Good Hair. He focuses specifically on the African - American hair industry, and the complicated, conflicted, costly quest for good hair, i.e., good / straight / Asian / white.* As the film demonstrates, the results can be fun and beautiful, but also disturbing.

For example, in her interview for Rock's movie, actress Traci Thoms questions:"To keep my hair the same texture as it grows out of my head is looked at as revolutionary; why is that?”

Interior designer, Sheila Bridges (who is bald naturally, due to alopecia, says: "I think the reason hair is so important is because our self - esteem is wrapped up in it. It's like a type of currency for us." Beautifully and eloquently, Bridges models the possibility of rising above baldness rather than living against it.

I first learned of alopecia just last month, when watching the movie Grey Gardens (2009), in which Drew Barrymore portrays a character, the real life Edith Bouvier Beale (1917 - 2002), who faced the condition bravely with her glamorous collection of scarves and turbans.

Young Edith Bouvier Beale

Drew Barrymore as Edith Bouvier Beale

*That's white as in race not as in hair color, which is yet another area of social and personal judgment, prejudice, anxiety, conflict, and alteration.

In Susan Newman's The Book of No: 250 Ways to Say It -- And Mean It and Stop People-pleasing Forever, hair coloring is the topic of one of her assertiveness training "Scenarios":

" 'You would look a lot younger if you colored you hair. Have you thought about it?'

What's going on here: Your friend is giving you her point of view, one you may not agree with. You don't want to be bothered with the time-consuming maintenance once you begin coloring your hair, and you're not unhappy with the gray. Rather than come back with a bard or show your annoyance with her for implying you don't look so great, be gentle. She'll get the hint that she's gone over the line.

Response: 'Thanks for the suggestion, but I like the gray.'

Alert: A friend will very likely back off when she realizes that you don't appreciate her beauty tips" (26).


Usually on the realistic side, Newman comes across as incredibly optimistic, even naive, in this particular scenario. Plenty of friends (or so - called friends), firm in their belief that artificial coloring is the norm, will not be dissuaded quite so easily.

[Note to self; not about hair:
"The Drifters" by Harold Pinter:
"You made of your friendship a tool to bludgeon me with."]

August Update
Check out Judith Newman's "Defense of Curly Hair" in The New York Times: "Making Waves, With No Apology" (and comments following)

September Update
My friend Eileen sent the following link:"Does Your Hair Have a Mind of Its Own?" and said, "Personally, I like that my hair knows its own destiny and follows it through!"

Debbie & Kitti: English Majors on Graduation Day
We had BIG hair before anybody ever heard of big hair!

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Movie Tie - Ins

Cool new nail polish color: "Not Like the Movies"!
Next, I would like to try "Not Like the Book"
. . . I wonder what color that would be?

So, life is not like the movies, and the movies are not like the books! Even so, I'll be in line later this summer to see the film version of Kathryn Stockett's 2009 bestselling novel, The Help. It was a compelling narrative, and I'm curious to see the how it will be depicted. Soon to be viewable are a few other recent favorites . . . well . . . fairly recent.

Warhorse: take your choice ~ screen, stage, or text.

I guess it's actually been three years since I sat down one snowy day in February 2008 and read Sara Gruen's 2007 novel, Water for Elephants all in one sitting -- very unusual for me. Usually, even when I love what I'm reading, I have a bad habit of allowing myself to be very easily distracted, always jumping up for this, that, or the other -- a cup of tea, a load of laundry, etc. But this novel about veterinary science, circus trains, and aging definitely held my attention, like watching a very good show. I just kept wanting to see what would happen next! The elderly narrator and the subtext on aging provide a very thought - provoking twist to the story. Though, speaking of twists, I remain a little miffed at the way the conclusion makes the opening seem like a trick. Still, I'm looking forward to seeing this one very soon (in theatres April 2011).

Later that same year (2008), I read Erik Larson's non - fiction thriller from 2004, Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America in a rather uniquely appropriate setting, considering that it is about the Chicago World's Fair in 1893 - 94. A couple of people had recommended it to me, so I started it on the train going up to Chicago early one morning, picked it up again that night on the return train, and finished it a few days later, faster than I read most things. The chapters alternate between American history and true crime. Utterly sick, but captivating. I would recommend reading it only if you don't mind being creeped out in a jack - the - ripper kind of way . . . and I bet the same thing is going to be true for the movie adaptation, coming in 2012, starring Leonardo Dicaprio.

It was also back in the summer of 2008 that I watched Notes on a Scandal (released in 2006). I was so mesmerized by this movie that I had to order the book (published in 2003) by Zoe Heller and read it right away. I passed it on to Gerry who also read it quickly, and then we watched the movie a couple more times before returning to netflix. As always, a few changes had been made between text and film, e.g., calling the movie not by the full title -- What Was She Thinking? [Notes on a Scandal] -- but by the subtitle only. However, both are very well done, filled with thought - provoking analysis of the personal motivation behind reckless behavior: "Some people live in constant fear of having their secrets found out; others have a kind of arrogant certainty that anything they wish to keep private will remain so. Sheba belongs to the later group" (220). Ah ah! so that's what she was thinking!

Every now and then I hear a rumor that Don Delillo's 1972 novel End Zone is going to be made into a movie, but nothing seems to have come of the proposition yet. I wish it would! I read the novel a few football seasons ago (late summer 2007) upon the recommendation of a well - meaning friend who felt that it might help me understand what it was that my sons were doing out there in the end zone. I've learned a lot about the game since then; yet I still think the visual aid of a movie tie - in would increase my appreciation of this book about college football, nuclear warfare, and James Joyce.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Imagery from Afghanistan and Iran

Saffron, the world's most expensive spice,
is derived from the flower of the saffron crocus
(Crocus sativus)

A few favorite passages . . .

from The Saffron Kitchen, Yasmin Crowther

"It was suddenly a warm afternoon, a lost summer day in late autumn . . . " (48).

"That's the way of things: saffron, shit, saffron, shit" (175).


from The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini

"Now, no matter what the mullah teaches, there is only one sin, only one. And that is theft. Every other sin is a variation of theft. . . . When you kill a man, you steal a life. You steal his wife's right to a husband, rob his children of a father. When you tell a lie, you steal someone's right to the truth. When you cheat, you steal the right to fairness. . . . There is no act more wretched than stealing, Amir" (17 - 18).

"Then I realized something: That last thought had brought no sting with it. Closing Sohrab's door, I wondered if that was how forgiveness budded, not with the fanfare of epiphany, but with pain gathering its things, packing up, and slipping away unannounced in the middle of the night" (359).

from A Thousand Splendid Suns, Khaled Hosseini

"You make the night to pass into the day and You make the day to pass into the night, and You bring forth the living from the dead and You bring forth the dead from the living, and You give sustenance to whom You please without measure.

"Give sustenance, Allah.

"Give sustenance to me" (87).

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Little Golden Books

Who remembers these books? The stories of sad little Puff who learns the hard way what it means to be a good friend and wise little Bobbie who chooses to spend his money not on things, but on a memorable experience!

These were a couple of unforgettables from my Pre-K Reading List.
Here's another one:

This innocent autumn scene by artist Eloise Wilkin (1904-1987) appears in her illustrated edition of Robert Louis Stevenson's Child's Garden of Verses (click on the picture to enlarge the text for reading Stevenson's, "Autumn Fires"). Known for her darling portrayals of chubby-cheeked children, Wilkin worked for Simon & Schuster, illustrating Little Golden Books from 1943 - 1961.

I had a few of her books as a child, and the dreamy child-centric life depicted on those pages contributed greatly to the vision of a perfect world that danced in my little head. As for visions of sugar plums, I looked no further than the gingerbread house with windows of spun sugar in Wilkin's illustrated Hansel and Gretel, one of my earliest Little Golden Books:

I've had these books for a long, long time.
Remember the old rhyme?

Make new friends but keep the old,
one is silver, the other gold.

These old friends are Golden!

I was also fond of the Child Horizons Series, especially the story of how "Mr. Apple Names the Children." The boys are called MacIntosh and Jonathan; the girls are called Delicious (Delia, for short) and -- my favorite -- Snow. Snow Apple. What a great name!

See, in the upper left hand corner of the orange book: that's Mr. Apple at the library (back before the internet), researching apple species, trying to find the perfect name for his baby girl (story by Jean McDevitt). I also liked the one about Tallulah, a bookish girl who spent her days hiding up in a chinaberry tree, reading her favorite books and spying on the passersby. What a great pasttime!

Link to earlier blog post: "Childhood Autumn"