Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Not Having It, At All

So, Helen Gurley Brown is dead at age 90. I'm torn about acknowledging it because all the other people I've eulogized on Watering Place were personally important influences. I've always been aware of Helen Gurley Brown, and I have read a few Cosmopolitans in my time, but I'm definitely not a fan and her heyday was arguably past before I hit anything like maturity. My husband is horrified by Michael Bloomberg's laudatory comment on her passing, and I tend to agree that she did more harm than good.

I had thought that my mother read Having It All when it came out in 1982 (and that seemed odd), but then I found this New York Magazine article which contains the particular piece of information that I remember my mother mentioning repeatedly: that David Brown was allowed to lunch with other women as much as he liked, but never at 21 because that was HGB's turf. As I remembered it, David Brown was actually allowed to have affairs but couldn't parade them at 21--the way it's described in the magazine is more innocent and I may just be remembering wrong. Speaking of innocence, in the same article HGB predicts that herpes--herpes--will drive everyone to be faithful.

So that's my salient memory of Helen Gurley Brown. I'm intrigued by the title of that book, since "having it all" has now morphed to include having children, as in the Anne-Marie Slaughter Atlantic piece I already referenced but will probably never organize my thoughts sufficiently to write about.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Time is a Goon, but Facebook is a Spirit Realm

I've been making a conscious effort lately to get away from screens and back to the realm of the books that were my first and are my greatest love. I've recently read and enjoyed The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, Shadow And Bone, The Night Circus, Something Fresh, and today I finished A Visit from the Goon Squad. I was aware of the buzz around this book even before it won the Pulitzer, because I knew the music business setting would appeal to me,* and that Jennifer Egan is close enough to my age that (despite the wide chronological range of the book) I would probably be able to relate to her viewpoint, the reflection of her personal experience, however refracted by fiction.

I was right. I love this book for the reasons I thought I would, but also because one of the themes--THE theme--is one that I've been thinking about a lot lately. "Time is a goon," two characters say, and time strong-arms everyone in the book, takes them on trips they didn't expect to take, ending up in places they didn't expect to be. Quite a few of them are happy, but not happy in the way they expected. I especially like Egan's subtle portrayal of the near future in the last two chapters--the consequences of climate change (although I think she may overplay that), national security concerns, economic woes, and above all, social media.

In an earlier chapter Egan has some of her characters, NYU students in the early 90s, out on the town. Bix, a grad student in electrical engineering, is often on his computer, sending messages to other people on computers to the mystification of his friends. One night--one of those crazy college nights when it gets really late and you end up in a group of people who are indirectly related because your direct connections have gone home or elsewhere (okay, in the book this is also fueled by Ecstasy with which I have no experience)--a character says "Let's remember this day, even when we don't know each other anymore."

"Oh, we'll know each other forever," Bix says. "The days of losing touch are almost gone."
"What does that mean?" Drew asks.
"We're going to meet again in a different place," Bix says. "Everyone we've lost, we'll find. Or they'll find us."
"Where? How?" Drew asks.
Bix hesitates, like he's held this secret so long he's afraid of what will happen when he releases it into the air. "I picture it like Judgment Day," he says finally, his eyes on the water. "We'll rise up out of our bodies and find each other again in spirit form. We'll meet in that new place, all of us together, and first it'll seem strange, and pretty soon it'll seem strange that you could ever lose someone, or get lost."

*I have a weird relationship to music. I like to sing and to play the piano, and I like to listen to music--sometimes to one song, obsessively--but I never really learned how to talk about it. Partly I don't seem to want to know how the sausage gets made. Mostly when I read reviews or music journalism I can't get what my brother-in-law calls "eye traction." I need a personal connection. That's why I can read CoolDad Music, and that's why--despite averting my eyes from the real music business--I always enjoy fiction set in the music business. I had a tiny bit of experience sitting in on rehearsals and going to shows and being on the fringiest fringy fringes of punk, too. That goon, time, dipped me there before he flung me here. And the people who were there with me are my Facebook friends and my IRL friends.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Arts August

This is the second year we've had it in our family: the month in which one child does intensive musical theater--appearing in a show after about 48 hours of rehearsal--and another does intensive art, commuting to the city to study Graphic Design six hours a day for two weeks. Last night we saw S.'s wonderful performance as Flounder in "The Little Mermaid, Jr."; today M. and I go to the city to see the Show of Work by the students of Parsons Pre-College Academy. After that M. and I will shop Soho and the East Village, at her request. Blogging has been light, but I'm doing a lot of living.

Thursday, August 09, 2012


I missed a day. And I've missed a few runs and food journals too. But I'm not giving up.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Bonus Link Post

As you may know, I am a devotee of Gretchen Rubin's Happiness Project. I eagerly await her new book, _Happier At Home_. In this post


Jessica Lahey blogs about bringing Gretchen's precepts into her classroom, and her mother-in-law's distillation of her five favorite happiness tips.

Alice Trillin's Policy, and Mine

"By now, my wife's policy on attending school plays (a policy that also covers pageants, talent shows, revues, recitals, and spring assemblies) is pretty well known: she believes that if your child is in a school play and you don't go to every performance, including the special Thursday matinee for the fourth grade, the county will come and take the child." Calvin Trillin

Luckily (but also sadly) for me, my daughter's next production is a one-night-only event. It's also the first time she's broken out of the two-generation typecast we've had going: Connie in "Good News," The Abbess in "The Comedy of Errors," Catherine in "Pippin,"  Glinda in "The Wizard of Oz," executive secretary Joyce Edwards in the little-known "Going...Going...Gone With The Breeze"--all women who serenely dominate the end of a play and tie up its loose ends.

On Thursday night, though, S. will be playing a ten-year-old boy, er...fish--Flounder in "The Little Mermaid." She'll have to actually act--and she's going to be on wheels. I can't wait to see it.

Monday, August 06, 2012

Why I Love August

It's the month in which I was born. When I see it approaching on the calendar, when I think about August, I have a feeling like coming home--like the last turn of a long drive, when you're on your own street.

It's the back-to-school month. I tried to hide it, because it wasn't cool, but I loved school. I was good at it, too--much better at school than I am at Life. I love school supplies. I love fall clothes. I love fall, and the fun of planning for fall when it's hot as blazes outside. I loved the August issue of "Seventeen," Bible-thick and full of promise: ads for clothes and shoes (lots of tartan and loafers and blazers and boots) and articles about organization. Reading about getting organized is even more fun than actually getting organized.

It's the month of my father's birthday and my grandfather's birthday, so my grandmother used to have one big Sunday dinner on the screen porch for all of us, and it was such a big celebration.

It's the month of my first daughter's birthday.

It's usually the best beach weather of the summer, but also the month of some big waves as hurricane season begins.

The Nineteenth Amendment became law on August 26, 1920, and my mother watched a commemorative parade out the window of her hospital room fifty years later. She told me when I was growing up that she never concerned herself much with feminism until that day, when she saw the parade and thought about her brand-new daughter and what she wanted her life to be like.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

I wrote this for Father's Day

Don't know how many years ago, and I don't know why I didn't post it. But it's a summer Sunday, and the father of my children has been in California for two days. As we eagerly await his return:

Five reasons I love my husband:
1) He thinks I'm a great writer.
2) He thinks I look sexy in my painting clothes.*
3) He looks sexy in his Scoutmaster uniform.
4) He let me paint our bedroom rose-beige, and only complained a little when it turned out considerably more rose than either of us expected.+
5) He never seems to lose sight of the goal of being a good person.

Five reasons I love my father:
1) He thinks I'm a great writer.
2) He makes me feel good about screwing up.
3) He introduced me to Twyla Tharp, J.D. Salinger, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, The Roches...
4) He considers it a treat to babysit my kids.
5) He's a good man, and when I went to find one of my own, I knew what to look for.

Five reasons I loved my grandfather (the only one I knew):
1) He had a great memory for poems and songs (and serial numbers)
2) He married my grandmother because she was smart and a good talker.
3) He thought it was significant and highly admirable (indicative of Irishness) that I loved mashed potatoes so much.
4) He considered it a treat to babysit me and my brother.
5) He was a good man, and he taught my father how to be one too.

*Can't remember the last time I painted anything, but he must have said that at some point.
+That was a whole house ago. This time our bedroom is painted a sort of mauve-beige. It had "sand" in the name. It's...mauver than expected, but pretty neutral really. Progress.

Why so much paint content? I don't know. Color is important to me?

Saturday, August 04, 2012


Here, off the top of my head, are the songs from my own era with which my children and their friends seem most familiar.

It's The End of the World As We Know It (REM)
Celebration (Kool and The Gang)
Hot Hot Hot (Buster Poindexter and his Banshees of Blue)
Iron Man (Black Sabbath)
Don't You Want Me (Human League)
Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now) (C+C Music Factory)

Note: This is a resurrected draft published almost untouched, except that originally I felt funny about claiming 1990 as part of my own era. Yes, a few years ago some part of me thought I had already been passé when still in college. Wow, a lot of temporal movement in that last sentence.

You can see how these drafts get left in the box.

Friday, August 03, 2012

They're Also Brave Who Work Inside the Gate

I don't often see movies in the theater anymore, but I made a point of seeing "Brave" shortly after it was released. After all, it was the much-heralded, long-awaited first Pixar movie with a female lead--and a quasi-Scottish medieval setting as a bonus. I enjoyed "Brave," but most people seem to have a vague sense that it lacks something: heart, or unity, or the courage of its convictions, or...convictions. There is a lot to like about a movie that focuses on a girl, explores the mother-daughter relationship, and doesn't end with a wedding or even the promise of one; but within those promising parameters a problem developed. It's a so-old-it's-new "problem without a name" that increasingly concerns me, and it happens to be the same problem I had with the Atlantic's most-read article ever, which came out at about the same time.


We first meet Merida, the heroine of "Brave," as a little girl enjoying a birthday picnic with her family, receiving her very own bow and arrow. When a bear threatens them, her mother escapes on horseback with Merida while her father stays and fights. So far, so good; everyone in this scenario is being brave. In the next scene, years have passed and Merida is a young woman with three little brothers who run wild while she is constantly exhorted to behave herself and learn the many skills and accomplishments expected from a young woman of noble birth and high position. Her mother is the bad cop in this scenario, and her precepts keep Merida from doing what she wants to do, which is run wild herself, i.e. ride her horse through the woods outside their castle walls and shoot arrows with pinpoint accuracy. Worse yet, Merida learns that three suitors from loosely allied clans will soon arrive and engage in a competition, and she is expected to marry the winner.

Side note: this post is about sex, not class, but I just want to mention that while Merida is pitching a fit about this situation, her family is being served at table by a woman who brings tons of food to the table which was presumably prepared by a substantial kitchen staff, and will be cleaned up by servants, etc. Leaving the anachronistic questions of arranged/political marriage and women as chattel aside for the moment, I kept hoping that Elinor would explain to her daughter that her extreme privilege came with a duty to all the people who work her father's land and fight in her armies, but that was silly of me.

When the suitors arrive, Merida chooses archery as the determining event, and then on the day of competition announces that she also will compete (shades of Atalanta); of course she wins and throws everything into chaos. When her mother yanks her inside to remonstrate, she picks up a sword and makes a cut through her mother's prized possession, a tapestry-in-progress depicting their family. Merida figuratively cuts herself out of the picture and then literally leaves the house for her beloved woods, where she meets a witch. Merida asks the witch for a spell that will change Elinor, which she believes will then change her own fate. I was terrified that Elinor would die, but instead she just got transformed into a bear. Then she did almost die because her husband, and the assembled representatives of four clans worth of crazy Scots, were determined to kill her: remember from the beginning, a bear represents THE threat to this society's security.

At this moment the story had a lot of promise, and a lot was squandered. Merida smuggles Bear-Elinor out of the castle and into the woods. They spend a night sleeping rough, and when Merida wakes up her mother has already, with her clumsy bear claws, prepared a foraged meal and set a table complete with makeshift twig forks. "GREAT!" I thought. "Changing Elinor's form doesn't change her, and she has standards that won't be compromised by misfortune or changing circumstances. She will create a home and maintain civilization wherever she is, because it is important." But, no: this was just an opportunity for some comedy, because outside is Merida's domain--dumb old Elinor picked poison berries, and the water is full of creepy-crawlies. Merida teaches Elinor to fish, because foraging is dumb old women's work anyhow, and hunting and fishing are cool.

So now I've tipped my hand. Why, for a woman to be a heroine, does she have to reject traditionally feminine values? Why are we so excited about Katniss, who is not only an accomplished archer/murderess but also, if you read the books, has an emotional IQ around 50?

Merida does meet her mother in the middle, somewhere. She ends up having to exercise some wisdom and diplomacy to fix the political disaster she herself engendered back at the castle, and in the process she learns that her mother's job is harder and more complicated than it looks, and that her father depends on her mother in many ways (although the hapless, hopeless dad is another problem trope, and luckily for me one that many others have already addressed). Elinor sees that her daughter is turning out okay, and agrees that they can indeed change her "fate" of early strategic marriage. That's all great, and I applaud the message that mothers and daughters should respect each other, listen to each other, and be flexible about the future and what life holds.

BUT in the last scene, Merida and Elinor are out together on horseback, which suggests to me that Merida is supposed to have, in some sense, "won." Elinor's domain is the castle, civilized society, the enclosure: Merida has rescued her, taken her out into the open air, away from that pesky tapestry project (which, I forgot to mention, Merida had to mend in order to break the spell, and despite what must have been at least 12 years of oppressive training had little clue how to do it) and into the wild. No matter that Elinor may enjoy creating--what's valuable is to shoot, which is (in however small a sense, as the arrow hits its precise mark) to destroy. And the HAIR!

Merida, of course, has the much-vaunted red, curly, untameable hair. For most of the movie Elinor's dark hair is in a long, sleek, thick braid. When Merida meets her suitors her hair is stuffed into a suffocating wimple attached to a tight white dress, which is stupid, by the way--my impression from my extensive reading of historical fiction, which I know is no substitute for historical research, is that young maidens in medieval times showed their hair and married women covered it up. At the end, Elinor's hair is loose, blowing in the wind. I bring some personal baggage to this image. I cannot stand having my hair touch my face--a sensory integration issue, no doubt. If I know my hair is going to be blown by the wind I take extra precautions--a braid and a headband, perhaps a hat. So seeing that just set my teeth on edge, because being forced to set your hair free is no better than being forced to keep it under control.

And one more thing: in the first scene, Merida sees will o' the wisps. Elinor tells her that some legends hold that the little lights lead travelers to their fate, and her father scoffs. It is the wisps that lead her to the witch. Women hold the magic in this movie, and that's because women's traditional domain is magical. Cooking is magic that turns ingredients into sustenance; babies are magic in so many ways; needlework turns fiber into art. Home is a repetitive, predictable place where we renew ourselves and from which we draw our power; but the theme drops, bounces and fades away.

I know that a feature-length movie about the adventures of creating a peaceful and beautiful home wouldn't make it even on the indie circuit. But we should all think about the consequences of privileging the world over the domestic sphere, public over private, action over contemplation, and destruction over creation in so many of our narratives.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Some Business

Turns out that BLAugust is actually NaBloPoMo. I had no idea, as my blogging has been so light in recent months...ahem, years...that I don't pay any attention to BlogHer. The last time I was aware of NaBloPoMo was four or five years ago, and the last time I even tried to participate was six years ago, and it was in November, and it was a grassroots thing started by Eden Kennedy. Now it's a big institutional thing with a theme and badges. So I put the badge on my page, and I listed myself at BlogHer, but I'm still calling it BLAugust, so ha!

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

A Day Late and a Dollar Short, on the First Day of BLAugust

 This isn't the post I wanted to write. I was going to start yesterday, and write a really good, long, literary, reflective post. But, hurdles, you know--I had to take T. for an EEG, which I must say gets easier and easier. When he was a baby and barely moved and basically slept through the whole thing, I used to dread future EEG's. He's still not very mobile, so that's a way in which my prayers were unexpectedly, and a tiny bit horribly, answered. However, what made it the easiest yet--in addition sheer experience--was the [warning, product plug:] SweetPea3 mp3 player loaded with music and stories. Also his sweet personality.

All that to say that while the EEG itself gets easier, the hours between the end of the EEG and bedtime, which reflected the fact that neither T. nor I had enjoyed his usual afternoon nap, were the opposite of easy. Also daughter S.'s pet rabbit died last week, and the hutch and equipment I listed on Craigslist were snapped up so quickly that I unexpectedly had to spend some time half-heartedly cleaning them before they get handed over this morning.

And, laziness, and tiredness, blah blah blah. Excuses.

So I'll go with one of my backup plans, which was to sift through the abandoned drafts of 7(!) years of blogging and finish one. I'll probably dig up all of them before the month is through but I'm not sure I can do anything with the post that reads: "Borges. Filling out forms Allentown. At bay. Stags At Bay."

I do know what "The Corncob Principle" means, though. That's the title. The text so far reads simply "Hi! I won't fill up space with a lot of apologies and explanations about my eight-month absence." Thanks, MomVee. You just did.

The Corncob Principle

My mother's friend S. has a daughter K. who is about six years younger than I. When she was in kindergarten her class did a group project at Thanksgiving: they created a cornucopia, with each member of the class making a different food item out of clay. K. made an ear of corn, and she described it to her mother while it was in process, eagerly and in great detail. She was forming, she reported, each kernel individually for maximum realism.

When the display was dispersed and the ear of corn came home, it proved to be a rather misshapen, vaguely cylindrical piece of clay into which some holes had been poked at one end with a toothpick. When S. told me and my mother this story we all burned with sympathy for K., although she--being five--was satisfied with her product. We all knew too well how hard it is to produce anything remotely like the ideal you had in your head when you began a project.

What is the age when you begin to realize it? It probably differs for different people. A more important question is, how do you go on? This isn't just about the impossibility of being perfect. It's the difficulty of realizing goals that you can visualize or define so precisely, even those far short of perfection. And then, once you're acquainted with the corncob principle, it can be hard to even get started on a project. Or, as my beloved Dorothy Parker put it:

If you're going to write, don't pretend to write down. It's going to be the best you can do, and it's the fact that it's the best you can do that kills you.

Any other readers have this problem? Any advice?