Thursday, July 23, 2009

file under: if you can't beat 'em, join 'em...almost literally.

Okay, not many things I read make me laugh out loud. In fact, I can think of only a few: some (most?) Roz Chast cartoons, Andy Borowitz, Dave Barry, Joe Queenan and selected Zits comics. But I read a story in the newspaper today - well, in the screen-paper today - and found this.

The Church of England has begun what can kindly be termed a two-for-one promotion: "Come to Church and with just one visit, we'll perform your marriage ceremony and baptize your children." I suppose that's making lemonade out of lemons, where the Church takes the rather unsavory state of an unmarried couple who is raising their child(ren) without the benefits of marriage and in the space of just one visit to their sanctuary, turns them into a whole new family: Wife, Husband and Children.

The part that made me laugh was the quote from John Broadhurst, the Bishop of Fulham, who sounds like someone I'd like to meet. His take on the Church's decision was somewhat less gracious than others: "It is a pity they have not put in a funeral for grandma as well," he said.

Apparently, many couples in the UK are opting for a civil ceremony and the Church wants them back. Through this program, they are simply trying to make it easier for people to enter (or re-enter) the Church to sanctify their union.

Turns out that 44% of the children born in Britain are to single moms. Forty-four percent!!! And 20% of couples who marry have one or more child together or from a previous relationship. I can see why the Church has opened its arms, that's a lot of people to risk losing, just because you want to hold onto archaic ideas like getting married before you have children.

Honestly, though, I don't know why this is even a news story. About a week ago, ran a story on the Top 10 celebrity "soulmate" couples. Two of these soulmate couples never bothered with anything as prosaic as a wedding ceremony, at least to each other. They had kids and never had any kind of "joining ceremony" for their families as far as I know. One of the couples (Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward) hit the fifty-year mark in their marriage before Newman's death.

Look, I know marriage isn't for the weak. And I also know that a failed marriage doesn't make you a failed person. But for God's sake, do we have to ignore the idea that making a marriage commitment is probably - probably! - a better choice for almost everyone who has children and raises them together?

And sure, religious tradition has us celebrating the return of one lost sheep to the fold. I get that. After all, where would religion be without sinners? Answer: Out of business.

It's just funny to me that in the space of about one generation, we've gone from one extreme to the other in terms of how we view co-habitation and children born to unmarried people. What used to be something of an embarrassment, something you coped with as best you could and then you moved on, and tried to do the right thing...has become something that gets celebrated, it gets headlines on the gossip shows and toasted by the masses.

I'm not saying that people who found themselves pregnant and unmarried in 1972 were pariahs who deserved to be scorned and abandoned. I'm not saying that couples who live together without being married aren't loving people who care about each other. But I am saying I don't think we're headed in the right direction if even a church has to develop a new ceremony that more or less negates some of their teachings, i.e. a religious marriage ceremony is a sacrament and a promise before God that publicly acknowledges a couple's committment. Better late than never, I guess, particularly when there are children involved.

But I think I agree with Reverend Broadhurst here. Bending your own rules to get more people to take the plunge feels disingenuous at best. And kind of sad, too.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

In praise of an author (and his first book) that proved this theory: life is copy.

In the mid-1990s, I had what may turn out to be one of the best jobs of my life. My official title was rights acquisitions editor. I didn't acquire books for original publication; instead I acquired the rights to sell already published or soon-to-be published books to our book club members.

Acquiring those rights involved visiting publishers - mostly in New York but in other areas of the country as well - to review their upcoming books (their pub lists) to determine what titles might make the best selections for our club members. We read galleys and proofs; we perused early pub lists to get a sense of what was coming in the next several months. We consulted Publisher's Weekly for reviews and deals made; anything that would give us a clue about the next big trends in publishing.

The coveted ancillary benefit to this job was being able to hear about up and coming authors from the editors who worked with them, hearing about the "big books" of the next season (publishers have three seasons or three "lists" a year), and, best of all, having wonderful books show up on my desk, courtesy of friends I had at various publishers.

My timing on the job was nearly perfect. Sometime during the fall of 1996, a good friend from Scribner called me at the office, during a break from a jury duty stint she was serving that week. She couldn't stop talking about this delightful new book she was reading, a surprising little memoir that came out of nowhere by an author no one ever heard of, titled Angela's Ashes. She couldn't recommend it highly enough and I couldn't wait to read it.

I bought it immediately upon publication and loved it. (I bought copies for practically everyone I knew that Christmas.) It took a little while to get into the rhythm and narrative nature of the writing but once I got there, it sounded - to my ears anyway - as beautiful as an Irish tenor. And I wasn't alone in my delight. The book went on to win the 1997 Pulitzer Prize in Biography / Autobiography.

Skip ahead about five years. In the spring of 2003, my family and I had the chance to hear the story of Angela's Ashes told to us, by the author himself, when McCourt appeared at Lafayette College with the Newman-Oltman Guitar Duo. At the time, my sons were 13, 11 and 11, and my oldest had read Angela's Ashes. [I'd made a deal with my boys as they grew up and began reading contemporary novels and other kinds of books: they could choose an author to read, as long as they also read a book by someone I recommended. Trevor wanted to read a Stephen King book - and I love Stephen King, have no quarrel at all with his work - and I told him he could pick out a King novel after he'd read Angela's Ashes.]

The music and readings that evening were lovely but the highlight had to be the book signing McCourt graciously held following the performance. Practically everyone in line had their own copies of the book; he wasn't sticking around just to sell a few more. He was approachable and charming. He looked humble and grateful for the kind words people shared with him about his work and the evening we'd all just spent together.

As we approached the author with our book in hand, McCourt asked Trevor if he'd read it. Trevor told him yes, and went on to explain my "deal" about books: that he could read a Stephen King book only after he'd read Angela's Ashes. Frank said something like, "Oh yeah, he's a popular guy; done quite well for himself, hasn't he? So who do you like better; that King fella or me?" [I could tell he was kidding around a bit, but it was an unexpected question.)

I was nervous, for about three seconds. My god, what would his answer be? Without missing a beat, Trevor told him he loved Angela's Ashes. It was the truth - he did love the book. And McCourt looked pleased that he'd met a 13-year-old who had been engaged and interested in his work, in a era of video games and electronic communication.

That short exchange has stayed with me. Watching my son connect with Frank McCourt, however briefly, remains a cherished moment.

McCourt's death last week diminishes the literary landscape. He emerged from almost no where and became the Cinderella story of publishing with his memoir. His unique narrative style and the moving story of his challenging childhood found an unlikely audience around the world, and bound us together as one, regardless of our religion, ethnic background or nationality.

The Broadway lights do not go dark when an author dies. Perhaps we should begin a tradition of lowering the lights in bookstores and libraries for one minute when we lose one of our national treasures, to remember and celebrate the contributions of authors who touch millions of readers with their words. As a book lover, I'd like that shared moment to think about the words that touched me, in the quiet dim light of remembrance. For me, Frank McCourt and his words will live on, on the page and in my mind, just as that brief moment we shared as a family at Lafayette College will remain with all of us forever.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Ten years and several thousand pages later...

I find myself anticipating the new Harry Potter movie, although in a quieter way than I have in the past.

In early 1999, we started reading the series. In 2001, our family enjoyed watching the premiere film, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, when it arrived in theaters that November, just a few years after we read the book aloud together. Somewhere along the line over the next several years, my reading every night gave way to each of the boys speeding through copies as quickly as they could, yet still savoring every adventure and every character.

There came a point in this activity where I was always the last to finish the new book, partly because I didn't stay up all night reading it as they did. Partly because they're just faster readers.

Harry was an extended moment of childhood for all of us, one we shared for years together. But Harry has grown up and my boys have, too.

Like our book solidarity, our movie togetherness seems to have reached a new stage. Tonight, my oldest son plans to join some friends to see the movie at midnight. I'm certain I'll be (very lightly) sleeping when he walks in very late tonight. My two younger sons have been spending time with friends in New York for the past few days, and will no doubt see the movie sometime this weekend.

A few days ago, I had a Facebook exchange with an old friend about her young boys, who are growing up to be avid readers. Good for her and good for them. Books were always the one "can we get this?" request we never turned down. Yes, we visited the library, too, but I could never come up with a reason to say no if one of my sons begged me to buy him a book. How could that be a bad decision?

I don't think it was. One of the best things I take away from this whole Harry experience is that fact that this series, along with dozens and dozens of other books and series of books we shared, seems to have encouraged the boys to love books. They like to read all kinds of books, by an eclectic group of authors, both fiction and non-fiction. They seem to appreciate good writing, especially good humor writing.

But the very best takeaway is, of course, my years of memories that conjure up images of three young boys, anxious and anticipating the next word, the next adventure. I'll always see a fuzzy image of them as two eight-year-olds and one nine-year-old, fresh from their baths, pajama-ed and under their covers, listening with enormous energy to that very first book. We lived through a lot of things - some nice and some quite miserable - in the intervening years between books. But regardless of what had been happening in the real world, we seemed to meet up again in a familiar place every time we started the new volume. And even once the reading aloud together was over, we shared that place again when we deconstructed each book and talked about it for hours.

I don't know exactly what they might conjure up when they think of us reading those first few books in particular. Maybe not much - maybe just the memory that they loved the stories and how the series unfolded. I'd like to think the connection we made over those characters and their story made it more fun and just a little more wonderful for each other.

And on this night especially, I find myself wondering where we'll all be in another ten years, knowing even more than ever how quickly they will pass, almost by magic.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

A year? A whole year?

I grant you that I may be well out of the demographic curve that contributed to this survey, but it's hard to believe I've hit the one year mark. Then again, maybe I have.

According to the Daily Telegraph, women spend about a year of their lives picking out what clothing to wear. Between the work clothes and parties and weddings and dates, the survey reports that we spend one year rifling through clothing and putting together outfits.

Newspapers love to report on studies like this one, surveys that sum up the various mundane activities that take up our lives. How many years we sleep, eat, pee...God knows what else. But two things are curious to me about this survey. The first is this: how could it take women a year to pick clothing when we all wear the same thing? If you don't believe me, you don't read Bill Cunningham every week in the NY Times.

It's not exactly like women are a pallet of eclectic tastes, colors, styles and fashion. We all read the same magazines, shop at the same stores and - surprise! - eventually come up with nearly exact replicas of each other's "looks." How could it take us a year to make those decisions?

My second thought is this: when will we ever hear about a comparable survey about men? I know when: never. And that's okay. But I wish we could just all agree that surveys like this pretty much invalidate little things we've all come to trust as absolutes. Things like, mmmm, the women's movement? Equal opportunity? Here's a quote from the report:

"What you wear has a direct impact on how you feel about yourself and it is important a woman feels exceptional in her outfit.

"Whatever the occasion your clothes portray an image and we understand this is fundamentally important to women."

I agree! You do feel better is a great outfit and sure, it's important to women! It's just not important to men and in spite of the quickly departed metrosexual man, it never will be. It's impossible for me to believe that what a man wears has to make him feel exceptional. Please. Men don't spend 52 minutes choosing holiday clothing. Men don't try on two things every morning before deciding what to wear.

So why? Is it all about our own confidence? Is it wanting to be attractive? Is it wanting to be envied by the women around us and desired by the men? We've come a long way, baby, from work boots and work shirts. True to our nature, we now admit out loud that clothing matters to us and spending time on what we wear is worthwhile.

The mistake the women's movement made all those years ago was positing that women are just like men and should get absolutely equal treatment in all ways, particularly in the workplace. The first part of that statement is ridiculous; the second part is admirable and there's no reason it can't happen. But articles and surveys like this set us back a good fifty years or so in terms of our fight for "equality." Good God, if something as simple as what to wear that day sets you back twenty minutes every day, how can you manage a multi-million dollar budget? I know those two tasks are incongruous but I guarantee you that some man, some where had that exact thought after reading this report.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Independence? Or selfishness? Hmmmm..

I just don't know quite what to think about this.

In summary, this first person essay describes the experience of Bridget Kevane, and what some people perceive as her poor choices as a mother. Very briefly, Ms. Kevane gave her daughter, and a friend of her daughter's (both age 12), permission to visit the local mall near their home in Bozeman, Montana, with one caveat: they had to take their younger siblings with them, ages 8, 7 and 3.

Yes, the older girls were seemingly responsible, trained babysitters. The kids all grew up around each other and were very familiar with each other. Everyone knew the mall and it was a "safe" place for them to hang out. Dad's office was only a few minutes away and they had Mom's cell phone number.

So what went wrong? The 12-year-olds decided to try on some clothing in Macy's and basically "parked" the younger kids in the purse / cosmetics area. (This kind of activity was strictly forbidden by Ms. Kevane when she laid down the rules but the allure of the mall and the clothing in it can be too much for a 12-year-old to ignore.) Macy's employees, no doubt trained to look for problem situations, particularly involving children, alerted mall security that three young children appeared to be unattended and they needed assistance.

Ms. Kevane and her husband reached the mall after receiving a call, whereupon Ms. Kevane was told she would be charged with endangering the welfare of her children.

The rest of the article gives the details on how she handled that charge and the outcome of her case.

Here's my take: two young girls, no matter how responsible or how much babysitting they've done, don't have nearly the skills required to keep track of three younger children at a mall, no matter how well the children know each other and even if one of the children in their care is strapped into a stroller. Watching three children as they wander around a mall is quite different than watching them in their own home or in their own backyard. Distractions - for all the kids - are just too numerous. Even adults sometimes lose track of their children while shopping. Expecting these girls to deal with any situation that came up - including the unlikely but no less frightening scenario of encountering an adult intent on doing one of them harm - is ridiculous.

I know we don't plan for emergencies; that's why they're called emergencies.

And I feel for Ms. Kevane. I do. I once wrote an essay about how my children were home alone (for about two hours one day after school until I got home from work.) They were 11, 10 and 10 at the time. I heard from all kinds of people who informed me that I should be ashamed or worried or arrested for neglect. And they were in their own home!!

But this situation is different in several ways. The idea of 12-year-olds "watching" three younger children in a mall environment is flawed. And, it turns out, there's good reason for that. Despite knowing the rules, these responsible young girls left the children alone and went off by themselves to do what young girls do: shop for clothes. It's doesn't really matter that they returned to the younger children in "less than five minutes." They left the kids alone. Who couldn't have predicted that was possible? Even probable?

The debate is this: what about personal responsibility? What about Independence? What about self-reliance? What about all the chores and responsibilities children used to take on by age 12? What about trusting your own instincts as a mother about what your children can handle?

One of Ms. Kevane's admitted reasons for approving this outing to the mall was her own need for some down time and some quiet at home. I get that. I do. I clearly remember spending a winter Sunday with the boys when my husband was working out of town. At 8 am, I looked at the clock and thought: "Twelve hours. Twelve hours and everyone will be asleep again." That was very long day. I felt tired from the moment I opened my eyes that day and simply had to hold it together and tend to their needs until the children had settled into their beds that night.

That doesn't mean I never tried to get a break when I felt the need. I usually turned to my husband (or my parents) for help. And speaking of husbands, Ms. Kevane's husband returned home "about an hour" after the kids departed for the mall. If she was so exhausted, why not just wait for him to get home and let him do the child care? Maybe his arrival was a surprise; I don't know.

For me, this isn't the story of an abusive, neglectful mother. It's the story of a tired woman who made a bad choice. In fact, Ms. Kevane admits to many of the not so admirable behaviors good mothers everywhere exhibit when trying to juggle hectic lives. But the fact that she refuses to own up to this particularly poor decision doesn't reflect well on her. She did put her children in harm's way. She should own that, thank God that everyone returned home safely, and give her daughter another couple of years before expecting her to handle this kind of responsibility.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

empty arms...sort of.

Okay, I may be a little slow about many things but honest to God, I never thought something like this – the almost inevitable conclusion of my sons’ childhoods - would find me this clueless.

Clueless because it was JUST yesterday I remember having this thought, and it’s as clear as freshly Windexed glass (well, as clear as what I imagine freshly Windexed glass looks like – it’s been a while): “Someday, I swear I’ll get out of this car at the end of the day and NOT have my arms full of ‘kid stuff.’ ” You remember what that is: the sippy cups, toys, books, extra little clothing, hats, gloves, a bag of groceries, and assorted plastic figures.

This seemed so very important to me, the idea that one day I would simply pull the car into the garage, open my door, and emerge, with nothing to show for myself but a purse and perhaps a magazine or two.

It wasn’t really the details of the “stuff” that was so exhausting. It was – and I mean this in the kindest way – the relentlessness of it all. I think it’s the year-on-year-on-year, day in, day out nature of motherhood that is the most surprising part. It’s the unnamed bit of being a mom that not one person acknowledges when they write their poetic, moving, charming little descriptions of motherhood.

Sure, you have a child and intellectually, you understand what that means: that barring tragedy, you’ll be a mother for a very long time. It also means you’ll be needed – in fact, demanded – for almost everything, for what feels like almost forever. And that becomes the new normal. You begin to anticipate the on-call nature of the position and respond accordingly. But I can admit this: that doesn’t mean it always comes naturally or with a smile.

Because for every day you carry stuff out of the car; you have a dozen days where you carry around things that are much heavier. Like the despair over how much your son hated playing baseball but you pushed the idea of “sticking it out” and not quitting. Like the horrible year your son spent enduring his ninth grade Science teacher - an experience you assured him will help build “character.” (Turns out the teacher was truly kind of insane and lost her job at the end of the school year.) Like the seven-thousandth time you wonder if this whole ‘career- daycare-whirlwind weekend’ life is the right path for all concerned.

But then, just like that, all of that relentlessness, all of that needfulness exhibited by your children on a daily basis for years disappears, in what feels like exactly one day. Yes, I know it’s more gradual than that but the signs are subtle, and sporadic and don’t really build to critical mass until it’s too late to turn back.

But even after the physical neediness dissipates, the “carrying around the stuff” doesn’t. Maybe it’s just me, but for years I was the primary owner of all paperwork, including permissions slips, medical forms, school supplies (including various pieces of poster board I was supposed to conjure up at a moment’s notice on Sunday night at approximately 9:30 pm, just in time to start the 3-d project due the next day during first period), and checks for various dues, purchases, and payments. I was also the person who could name exactly where someone’s backpack was or where he left his snow boots. I kept track of Tiger Cub meetings, orthodontist appointments, cello lessons and soccer practice. It wasn’t an armful of toys, but it felt pretty cumbersome from time to time.

And suddenly here I am. My “dreams” of freedom have come to life right in front of me and I wonder why the notion being so unencumbered felt so attractive all those years ago. The good news is that finally, yes, I do get out of the car with empty arms. That’s super. The bad news: I usually walk into an empty house.

I’m not one of those parents who claim they can’t wait to wave them off and begin really living!! My problem is I really like my kids and wish I could spend more time with them. I realize this exodus is the natural order of things. I watch the boys leave the house to go to work, to see friends, to attend to their very busy lives. I get it: they’re adults. Young adults yes; but still, adults.

I miss them. With each day that passes, each day that brings me one day closer to the day they have all moved out, spending time at college and never quite feeling the same about being “home” again, I’m trying to reconcile the feelings I have. Someone once said a successful parent is one who makes himself or herself obsolete. That sounds little too bleak, even for me, the Queen of Bleak.

I suppose we’ll all start a new way of interacting with each other. (I have a feeling this will be a bit easier for them.) I suppose I’ll even get used to the idea that they won’t be down the hall, or upstairs, or listening to the car door closing outside which signals a “relaxation” mechanism inside me. I suppose when they walk in the door – less frequently than they do these days but perhaps with a little more anticipation than they feel now – they’ll carry their own loads but maybe they’ll also carry home some memories of who we were, for all those years.

I’ll carry them forever. But what a difference eighteen years makes. Now, those same moments feel more precious and untouchable and very nearly perfect.