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Monday, April 30, 2007

Respecting the right to choose

Don't get the wrong idea - that title's not a reference to the abortion issue. Not going there.

A blog post in On Balance spurred some thoughts on the ongoing conversation (argument? debate? discussion? knock-down drag-out?) regarding the choices of women with children to stay at home with them or be employed. Along the lines of a comment I made in a post a few days ago, this is a "choice" that has to be seen in one's socioeconomic context - there are many, many women who don't have it. If they're single parents or have partners whose income just doesn't stretch far enough to support a family, they will most likely be working for a paycheck and making the necessary accommodations for their children's care and well-being in their absence (at least, we hope they're making those accommodations, but that would be another place I'm not going today).

The thing is, if I understand accurately, one of the goals of the feminist revolution was to give us all access to more options, including the more traditional ones concerning caretaking of our families and homes.

I know that many SAHMs feel that they are making the best choice for their families, and hopefully for themselves as well, but many employed moms would say the same. One of the arguments made in The Feminine Mistake (second link below) is that women shortchange their own financial security - both short- and long-term - by a choice that effectively puts others first, and if their domestic situation were to change they could be seriously impaired. And it could change - divorce, death, and disability don't just happen to other people.

As for me, I've always been pretty sure I wasn't temperamentally suited for stay-at-home motherhood, and I really admire my friends who have undertaken it. Given that, the fact that I've been employed for most of my son's life was at least partly a decision to count my own needs, but there's no denying my family benefited financially (and I would argue in other ways as well, since it was better for me personally). And then my domestic situation did change, and my years building my career experience allowed me to relocate and support myself on my own without much agony. Notwithstanding the fact that my stepkids are both school-age and only with their dad and me part-time, I wouldn't stop working now, and my employment helps my new family too.

Especially if we're even the slightest bit insecure about any of our choices - and who's not, in the big scheme of things and considering all the alternatives? - we do tend to feel comforted and validated by those who are going the same way we are, and may feel defensive about and challenged by those who aren't, and it seems to me that this underlies a lot of this "mommy wars" stuff (and yes, I won't argue that the media certainly underlies most of it.)

The Mommy War Machine - washingtonpost.com

The Feminine Mistake - Leslie Bennetts - Mommy Books - New York Times

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Just finished: "Julie and Julia"

Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously, Julie Powell (paperback)
original hardcover title: Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen
from Amazon.com:
From Publishers Weekly
Powell became an Internet celebrity with her 2004 blog chronicling her yearlong odyssey of cooking every recipe in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. A frustrated secretary in New York City, Powell embarked on "the Julie/Julia project" to find a sense of direction, and both the cooking and the writing quickly became all-consuming. Some passages in the book are taken verbatim from the blog, but Powell expands on her experience and gives generous background about her personal life: her doting husband, wacky friends, evil co-workers. She also includes some comments from her "bleaders" (blog readers), who formed an enthusiastic support base. Powell never met Julia Child (who died last year), but the venerable chef's spirit is present throughout, and Powell imaginatively reconstructs episodes from Child's life in the 1940s. Her writing is feisty and unrestrained, especially as she details killing lobsters, tackling marrowbones and cooking late into the night. Occasionally the diarist instinct overwhelms the generally tight structure and Powell goes on unrelated tangents, but her voice is endearing enough that readers will quickly forgive such lapses. Both home cooks and devotees of Bridget Jones–style dishing will be caught up in Powell's funny, sharp-tongued but generous writing.
This intrigued me in the original hardcover, but since I only buy books in paperback I've been waiting to read it. It's a lot of fun to read, more of a "memoir with food" than actual food writing...and I hadn't realized that a much of it came from a blog she was keeping during the course of the "Julie/Julia Project." That blog is now dormant, but I've added her current one on Blogspot to my Google Reader feeds, since I really liked her voice as a writer. Julie's decision to undertake her Project out of dissatisfaction with her job and frustration over the direction her life is (or isn't) going sounds a bit like an early midlife crisis, although it's hitting her at the eve of her 30th birthday rather than past her 40th. And while the outcome may not have been what she expected when she started the Project, she did end up finding some new direction through its process and actual completion - although I think she only did Volume One of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, so she may have a Volume Two of the Project some day. She doesn't include recipes, as I'm sure they are copyrighted, but describes many of her cooking adventures in enough detail that I don't think I have any real interest in mastering the art of French cooking myself.

Friday, April 27, 2007

The Festival of Books is here!

This weekend at UCLA, it's the LA Times Festival of Books!

No Rock Bottom Remainders this year, but we still enjoyed the browsing earlier today. The weather was sunnier and warmer this year than last, and seemed to bring the crowds out early. I had wanted to participate in the giant crossword puzzles again, but as it turned out we didn't see any.

The exhibitor whose booth is don't-miss for us is Pennyworth Books. (I would link here, but they're apparently rebuilding their website at pennyworthbooks.com - it's supposed to be launching very soon, though.) Every book $5! Paperbacks and hardcovers, everything new and many of pretty recent publication. I picked up four of them: The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier, I'll Take You There by Joyce Carol Oates, A Ship Made of Paper by Scott Spencer, and The Little Friend by Donna Tartt. All were books I've picked up and put down again in bookstores before, but for $5 each it was fine not to pass them up. I felt a little bad that TallGuy didn't find anything he wanted, but other than that it was a good stop.

We visited the booth for Every Picture Tells a Story, a really cool kids' bookstore and illustration-art gallery (they also had an art exhibit in one of the UCLA buildings), which was where I bought my pop-up edition of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz at last year's Festival, but this year I wasn't really tempted by anything. We also stopped in a couple of travel-bookstores booths, and I bought a travel memoir, Educating Alice by Alice Steinbach, at Distant Lands - Pasadena, which according to their website is a whole lot more than a travel bookstore.

Since we skipped the children's area this year and didn't stop for any shows or signings, our Festival visit was briefer than last year's, but it's always worth going (except for the parking charge, it's free to get in) and was still enjoyable. And hey, maybe the Rock Bottom Remainders will be back next year.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

On the changing times

One of the blogs I keep up with his Leslie Morgan Steiner's "On Balance" blog through the Washington Post's website http://blog.washingtonpost.com/onbalance. This recent post put me in mind of conversations I've had with friends, and my husband, about how it's not like it was when we were kids anymore. Every generation of parents has probably had that thought, but it means different things in different times.

On Balance blog post - Leslie Morgan Steiner

En route to a meeting of her book club in the Washington suburbs on a spring evening, Leslie noted the absence of children playing outdoors in the neighborhood, and wondered "where has childhood gone?"
I know where all the kids were. Same place as mine. Soccer practice. Piano lessons. Tutoring. Or in lock-down because the neighborhood was experiencing a wave of bombings, drive-by shootings and child abductions (not).

Once at book club, one mom insisted that all the neighborhood kids needed to be inside because our world has become very dangerous. That schools forbid kids from walking or biking to or from school. That kids' nonstop extracurricular activities are essential for them to thrive in our highly competitive world. I protested that our particular world -- for instance, my old neighborhood -- has not gotten any more dangerous or competitive in the past 30 years. Several of the moms argued that our world -- let me note that it is a largely white, largely middle class East Coast milieu -- is a far riskier, threatening place than it was in 1975.

Our world is very different -- because we've made it different. Today's parents have changed how we parent. If a majority of parents refuse to let their kids play outside their house, or go to a local park, or walk to school by themselves, then no kids can. Because one kid alone on the sidewalk or at the park is vulnerable (not to mention bored).

Can we agree that American parents -- especially middle- and upper middle-class parents -- have gone collectively crazy? Almost everyone today, myself included, falls into the "extreme parenting" category.

But what I cannot figure out is WHY. Exactly when, and how, did American parents become completely obsessed with making our children's childhoods perfect?

I'm at a different place in the parenting cycle than most people I know. Despite being in my early 40's, I'm about to become the mother of a college graduate (less than 2 weeks from today!), but I'm also a part-time stepmother to two younger kids (pre-teen and grade school). Except for brief intervals, I've been employed throughout my son's life, and to some extent I've believed that the increased structure in kids' lives now, and for the past 15-20 years or so, was partly driven by the needs of working parents to make sure their kids were occupied and supervised when the parents couldn't be around. At the same time, I'm one of only a few non-SAHMs in my book club, and the volume of scheduled activities many of their children are enrolled in staggers me at times. My perception is that this is also spurred more by the needs of the parents, which may be different from those I had as a working parent, but it's made me note that it can be difficult for kids whose time is so scheduled to occupy themselves on their own.

Another observation regarding why one doesn't see kids playing together outside so often these days is that many of them would rather, given the choice, be indoors on their computers or video game systems instead, since this does tend to be their preferred way of keeping themselves busy during their "downtime." Increasingly, and particularly as kids get older, it's also more and more becoming how they interact with each other, via online chat and the like.

While I was reflecting on this post, my family and I watched this week's American Idol "telethon" (and yes, we donated), and the scenes of poverty and struggle shown during the episodes did remind me that such questions as "where has childhood gone?" are asked in an affluent society that has the luxury of attempting to give their kids "perfect" childhoods.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

A change is coming

If I'm going to try to get in the habit of updating this blog regularly, I need to start posting more often, and shorter, so I need to stop doing my "reading" posts in a monthly-update format. Effective with my next one, when I finish Julie and Julia, each book review will get a post of its very own. Then I won't be playing catch-up all the time.

And I'm going on the record with this less than two weeks before I go out a town and will probably be out of computer/Internet range for a week. Yeah, that sounds like me.

I've got a short list of links posted now; I hope it will grow over time - and help me find more "random" things to write about.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Unpredictable

An unexpected substitute dog-sitter has emerged from a source we'd never have predicted. The stepkids' mom, TallGuy's ex, has offered to keep Princess Fuzzybutt during our trip, due to Mom-in-law's broken leg/foot...and we're thisclose to taking her up on it, although we haven't officially done so. SDKate is pretty excited about having her step-dog with her for the entire week - good thing, since she'll probably be doing most of the caretaking. We honestly never would have thought of asking The Ex for this sort of favor, given the frequently rocky nature of her and TallGuy's dealings with each other post-divorce (which are most likely related to pre-divorce, but anyway), and we can't help wondering where the offer comes from (and what sort of payback might be required down the road), but we definitely appreciate it.

The best laid plans

So here it is, two weeks before we leave for Tennessee, and I really should be working more than I am today. And as if there weren't enough things to worry about, we get to add one more - Mom-in-law took a fall and will have her leg in a cast for several weeks, so she can't drive and probably won't be walking so well either - and she's our designated dogsitter. Either TallGuy and the stepkids will be making the 2-hour-plus drive to her place and back to drop off Princess Fuzzybutt the day before he and I fly out, or she'll have to drive up with a friend and stay in a hotel for the weekend, and they can drive back home on Sunday with a four-legged passenger. Then we need to figure out how to get our critter back home. TallGuy was planning to call Mom-in-law back and advocate for Option #2, so I'll get an update later.

And then there are the things I had a head start on worrying about:
  • The Introduction of the Husbands - First to TallGuy
  • Seeing First Husband and his Mrs. for the first time in the nearly five years since I left Memphis. At least there's 20 lbs. less of me to be seen (give or take...we'll see how well my WW tracking goes between now and departure)
  • Whether TallGuy can handle the Southern heat and humidity, which is so different from the California heat and dryness that we already know he has trouble with
  • Hoping nothing derails the graduation at the last minute or anywhere near it
  • All the basic logistical stuff - making our flights, getting the car, not getting lost, what to pack...
Roseanne Rosannadanna was right, it's always something. And when it's not something you can actually do much about, it really needs to be something you spend less of your energy on. Let's see if I can actually manage that. I should start by getting some work done.

April's reading so far...

Waiting, Ha Jin
From Amazon.com:
From Publishers Weekly
Jin's quiet but absorbing second novel (after
In the Pond) captures the poignant dilemma of an ordinary man who misses the best opportunities in his life simply by trying to do his duty as defined first by his traditional Chinese parents and later by the Communist Party. Reflecting the changes in Chinese communism from the '60s to the '80s, the novel focuses on Lin Kong, a military doctor who agrees, as his mother is dying, to an arranged marriage. His bride, Shuyu, turns out to be a country woman who looks far older than her 26 years and who has, to Lin's great embarrassment, lotus (bound) feet. While Shuyu remains at Lin's family home in Goose Village, nursing first his mother and then his ailing father, and bearing Lin a daughter, Lin lives far away in an army hospital compound, visiting only once a year. Caught in a loveless marriage, Lin is attracted to a nurse, Manna Wu, an attachment forbidden by communist strictures. According to local Party rules, Lin cannot divorce his wife without her permission until they have been separated for 18 years. Although Jin infuses movement and some suspense into Lin's and Manna's sometimes resigned, sometimes impatient waiting - they will not consummate their relationship until Lin is free - it is only in the novel's third section, when Lin finally secures a divorce, that the story gathers real force. Though inaction is a risky subject and the thoughts of a cautious man make for a rather deliberate prose style (the first two sections describe the moments the characters choose not to act), the final chapters are moving and deeply ironic, proving again that this poet and award-winning short story writer can deliver powerful long fiction about a world alien to most Western readers.
I bought this several years back - I think it moved with me from Memphis five years ago - based on its good reviews and my long-standing interest in novels with Asian settings, and it's been sitting unread on my shelf ever since. The whole premise of a man waiting for years to get a divorce so he could be with the woman he really loves was just a bit too painful for me, and I was over-identifying with the wife that was going to be set aside. If it hadn't been the selection for Book Club this month, it would most likely still be sitting there.

I'm glad it's not, though, as the actual story turned out to be less tragically romantic and infused with drama than my preconceptions about it were. The writing was spare and at times sketchy, although"reserved" may be a more appropriate description; it felt like the reader had to fill things in for herself in places. While you could feel for the characters' predicament, they were sometimes frustrating as well, and overall the story was a bit sad. It was a pretty quick read, though, and now that I'm over the hurdle I'm glad I've read it, although it's not going to be an all-time favorite.

Autobiography of a Face, Lucy Grealy
From Amazon.com:
From Publishers Weekly
Diagnosed at age nine with Ewing's sarcoma, a cancer that severely disfigured her face, Grealy lost half her jaw, recovered after two and half years of chemotherapy and radiation, then underwent plastic surgery over the next 20 years to reconstruct her jaw. This harrowing, lyrical autobiographical memoir, which grew out of an award-winning article published in Harper's in 1993, is a striking meditation on the distorting effects of our culture's preoccupation with physical beauty. Extremely self-conscious and shy, Grealy endured insults and ostracism as a teenager in Spring Valley, N.Y. At Sarah Lawrence College in the mid-1980s, she discovered poetry as a vehicle for her pent-up emotions. During graduate school at the University of Iowa, she had a series of unsatisfying sexual affairs, hoping to prove she was lovable. No longer eligible for medical coverage, she moved to London to take advantage of Britain's socialized medicine, and underwent a 13-hour operation in Scotland. Grealy now lives in New York City. Her discovery that true beauty lies within makes this a wise and healing book.

One item from this review is no longer correct - Lucy Grealy died in 2004. This memoir of her childhood cancer and its effect on her life up through young adulthood is fast-moving, well-written, and affecting. I would recommend reading it in tandem with its "unofficial" sequel, Truth and Beauty: A Friendship by Ann Patchett. Lucy and Ann attended Sarah Lawrence College at the same time, but their friendship was cemented as roommates during graduate school and continued through the rest of Lucy's life.

A Most Uncommon Degree of Popularity, Kathleen Gilles Seidel
from Amazon.com:
From Publishers Weekly
Seidel catalogues the trials of upper-middle-class family life in a novel that will appeal primarily to the sort of people it aims to (gently) critique. Ex-lawyer Lydia Meadows is so busy bracing herself to deal with potential bullies that she's dazed to discover that her sixth grader, Erin, is—gasp—one of the popular girls at her posh Washington, D.C., private school. But when another girl knocks Erin from her pedestal, Lydia is shocked to find that Erin's fall from grace has reverberations in her own life. Four adult women, whom Lydia considered her best friends–cum– "professional associates... all in the business of raising children," adopt the petty behavior of their teenage daughters, which makes Lydia wonder where the line is between wanting the best for your children and being overly involved in their lives. Though there's the odd snippet of sharp social commentary, the story is bogged-down with minutiae (readers don't need to be walked through every car pool crisis to get the general idea), and Seidel beats some already-tired metaphors to death (the whole "it takes a village" concept, for example). This could have been a lively novel of manners, but dull prose and lackluster dramas (will the kids get into Sidwell Friends School?) flatten it.
This was a selection for the Dearreader.com book club last year, and I enjoyed that enough to seek out the book in paperback. I don't really agree with the review comments quoted above. I actually found this to be a quick and enjoyable read, and pretty relatable from the perspective of over-relating to our kids, as parents, and over-identifying with their issues due to the chords they strike, and memories they trigger, in us. (I had a conversation on that very topic with TallGuy last night...) I'll bring this one to the next Book Club for swap, definitely.




Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Not really "Marching" on...

March 2007
Love and Other Impossible Pursuits, Ayelet Waldman
From Amazon.com:
From Publishers Weekly How a five-year-old manages to make the adults in his life hew to the love he holds for them is the sweet treat in this honest, brutal, bitterly funny slice of life. When Emelia's day-old daughter, Isabel, succumbs to SIDS, her own life stalls. She can't work; she can't sleep; Central Park, once her personal secret garden, now is a minefield of happy mother-child dyads. Since Isabel's death, husband Jack's only solace for the guilt of breaking up his sexless marriage with Carolyn for Emelia's (now-absent) passion and love is joint custody of William, now five. What Emelia cannot bear most are Wednesdays, when she must cross the park to collect William at the 92nd Street Y preschool and take another shot at stepmotherhood. Carolyn, William's furious mother and a renowned Upper East Side OB/GYN, lives to nab Emelia for mistakes in handling him. Carolyn's indicting phone calls raise the already sky-high tension in Jack and Emelia's home, but they don't compare with Carolyn's announcement that, at age 42, she is pregnant. The news pushes Emelia to confess to Jack two things she shouldn't. William is charmingly realized, and Waldman (Daughter's Keeper) has upper bourgeois New York down cold. The result is a terrific adult story.
Funny and relatable, almost uncomfortably so at times as far as Emilia’s thorny relationship with her stepson. Some of the scenes where William “acts out” with her could come from my nightmares – but the facts that I have previous parenting experience and didn’t have a role in ending the marriage of my stepkids’ parents may have something to do with why they’ve never happened in my real life.

The Historian, Elizabeth Kostova
From Amazon.com:
From The New Yorker
In this smart retelling of the Dracula story, a young girl's discovery of a mysterious book, blank save for a sinister woodcut of a dragon, impels her father to divulge, reluctantly, details of his vampire-hunting days back in grad school. Halfway through his tale, which is told over several sessions in various atmospheric European locations, he vanishes. His daughter's quest to find him is interwoven with letters that reveal the past in full. Kostova's knowledge of occult arcana is impressive, and she packages her erudition in a graceful narrative that only occasionally lapses into melodrama. The structure—a story within a letter within a flashback—is an innovative complication, but it is soon shaken off by the swift-moving plot. Kostova never strays far from the conventions of the genre, and her historical thriller feels somewhat indebted to best-sellers of the recent past; there are Christian heresies, scholarly sleuths, and a malaprop-prone Eastern European guide.
Despite all the enthusiastic reviews, I've had trouble making my way through this one. I've actually put it on hold to start on Waiting for the April Book Club meeting, and while I fully intend to go back and finish it after that, I've left it at a not particularly compelling point where the backstory is getting more backstory. It's giving me a little more understanding about why people get impatient watching Lost.

Just to update that as of April 23, I still haven't returned to
The Historian, and since I'll be taking that vacation trip to Tennessee in a couple of weeks, I think it will be waiting a while longer. I had the book with me at Starbucks one day, and the barista asked me how I liked it. He said he had 100 pages left to go - since last year. I think I understand that better now.