Pop Music: When the Label Says “Fresh”

It seems that bully-awareness is higher than ever, along with girl-power and a hyper-awareness of anything that might hurt our kids, from unkindness or an un-inclusive environment to refined sugar. We laugh at the decades before us, when kids didn’t have carseats and moms didn’t know where they were until dinner time. We have become mom-warriors more than any moms before us, with Gurkha-like protective instincts.

So it strikes me as shockingly odd that we have collectively decided to turn a blind eye to a darkness that’s sweeping across our nation like that windy, white, evil stuff that surrounds Voldemort; we’ve decided it’s fine, or it’s possibly not fine but hey, whadaya gonna do? And I know–I know some people will stop reading right here because here comes the part where I sound like a grandma in the fifties, complaining about Elvis and Bobby Darin, with their shooby-doo-wahs and their darn rock and roll that made all the youngsters want to dance too close and go necking after the sock hop. I know, but listen, because if you think this is anything like that, you’re living under a rock.

My twelve-year-old likes pop-music, more than her siblings ever did at her age. I didn’t let them listen to the radio station she wants to listen to because they didn’t ask to, and even if I had, my recollection is that pop-music wasn’t then what it is now; it’s come downhill a long way in a short time. When the older kids were young teens, I still had little kids in the house, and I was vigilant about what went in those little ears. But we all know that the younger kid is exposed to things the older ones never would have been at that age, and I confess that I’m a little less vigilant now. So when I noticed recently that my youngest seems to know all the words to pop-songs we hear in the mall or piped into fast food restaurants, it surprised me at first, then not so much. But when I asked her, “How do you know this song?” she said, “Mr. ____ plays it in gym class,” or “Mrs.___ played this station on the way home from carpool last year.”

These were adults in her life, playing pop-music for my child, and while most of the songs I heard in bits and pieces were not my cup of tea, some of them are catchy. I decided to let her put on her station, 94.7 Fresh FM, on the way home from school sometimes, and she likes to sing along right there in the passenger seat. I noticed she will sometimes stop singing, say something sort of random to me in a loudish voice, then start singing again. Twice last week her older brother turned the volume down for about ten seconds and then back up again; it all smacked of a cover-up. But when questioned, they assured me–assured me–that “everyone listens to this music,” even in carpools, even in stores, even in the waiting room at the chiropractor and the dentist.

So I did a little experiment. I started playing 94.7 Fresh FM  in my home office, and scribbled down the names of the songs I heard as I went in and out of the room. This is a radio station that calls itself family friendly, though it is geared toward young adults and adults who are still, you know, like, cool.

Here are the first five songs I heard, with segments of their lyrics:

1. Bruno Mars, Locked out of Heaven:

Never had much faith in love or miracles, never wanna put my heart on the line, but swimming in your water is something spiritual, I’m born again every time you spend the night, ‘cuz your sex takes me to paradise, your sex takes me to paradise…

(So subtle, Bruno, so complicated. You are truly a poet.)

2. Duo Lipa, New Rules:

One, don’t pick up the phone, you know he’s only calling cuz he’s drunk and alone. Two, don’t let him in, you have to kick him out again. Three, don’t be his friend, you’re gonna wake up in his bed in the morning, and if you’re under him, you’re never gonna get over him…

(Good advice, I guess, for the already-trashy girls we all know.)

3. DNCE, Cake by the Ocean

…Talk to me baby, I’m going blind from this sweet craving, let’s lose our minds and go f***ing crazy! I keep on hoping we’ll eat cake by the ocean. I’ll be Diddy you be Naomi. Let’s lose our minds and go f***ing crazy…

(Dude, pull yourself together. And also, you definitely sound like a guy to take home to meet the parents.)

4. Halsey, Bad at Love

Got a boy back home in Michigan, tastes like Jack when I’m kissing him, so I told him that I never really liked his friends, now he’s gone and he’s callin me a bitch again…

(To which I say: you must be one classy lady, to have dated such a man.)

5. Daft Punk, Get Lucky (do I really need to spell this one out? Ok, I will:)

We’re up all night with the sun, we’re up all night to get some, we’re up all night for good fun, we’re up all night to get lucky

(You almost gotta respect the honesty…)

That was just the five songs I wrote down the name of when I happened to walk in the room, all played between 11 am and 6:20 pm. The scary thing is, all of them were familiar to me, meaning I’d heard them on the radio or played in a public place and just never bothered to listen to the lyrics. But kids, especially young girls, have a remarkable ability to hear, digest, and remember song lyrics, and if your daughter tells you she doesn’t really listen to the words or doesn’t understand the words, she’s telling you what you want to hear. I promise. They get this stuff; they do. And yes, I’m sure in-between the explicit songs there were harmless ones about being strong and believing in yourself. As I was leaving the room I heard one I like by Ed Sheeran about remembering his childhood and a castle on the hill (though even in that one there is a line about missing how he and his friends used to get so drunk they’d throw up), but if this sampling of a random five is any indication, most of the music on this station has lyrics that would make us livid if our fourth-through-seventh were reading them in a book.

I recently learned I could create a playlist for free on Amazon Music, since I’m already a Prime member. Older teenage daughter told me that paying for songs on i-tunes was unnecessary when I could get them for free; plus, she said, there are playlists for jogging or meditating or studying on there–anything you want. So I got on the treadmill today and tapped the “teen playlist” on Amazon, whose thumbnail graphic sports pictures of Selena  Gomez, Justin Bieber and Ed Sheeran as the hook. Here are the first three songs I heard, in a row, with a snippet of lyrics:

1. Justin Timberlake, Filthy:

I said, put your filthy hands all over me, and no, this ain’t even the clean version, and what you gonna do with all that meat, Cookin up a mean servin…

(I don’t think this song is actually about cooking.)

2. 5th Harmony, Work From Home:

I ain’t worried ‘bout nothin, I ain’t wearin nada, I’m sittin pretty impatient, but I know you gotta put in them hours, so Imma make it hotter, sending pic after picture, Imma get you fired. You don’t gotta go to work, let my body do the work. We can work from home…

(Yes, this girl is “sexting,” and as a sad side note, Google Docs apparently thinks “Imma” is an actual word.)

3. Jason Derulo, Trumpets

Every time you get undressed I hear symphonies in my head…Is it weird that your ass remind me of a Kanye West song? Is it weird that your bra remind me of a Katy Perry song?

(Yes, Jason, it is weird, but it is even weirder that anyone thinks these are good song lyrics.)

So if you think a “teen play list” on Amazon music is songs about first crushes by the likes of the Jonas Brothers (remember them? They were adorable compared to what’s out there now) you are mistaken. Apparently Amazon Music isn’t out to create kid-friendly playlists, they want your kid’s business, shocker, and sexually-explicit lyrics is business. Again, shocker.

But what is more shocking is that we go along with it.

I remember standing in line to ride the new ferris wheel at National Harbor a couple years ago, when my youngest was ten and the next youngest was a very perceptive twelve. It was Saturday night and the line was long, with families and first dates, even babies in strollers. They play songs for the crowd in line, and a song came on by Rihanna (I asked the older kids who the singer was) called Pour it Up. I caught phrases about strippers on a pole and vomiting, and quickly engaged the kids in a game to distract them. Last week I heard a song by Beyonce in The Gap with lyrics so base I won’t even type them here, and I thought Am I the only one hearing this? Is this a mistake? And in the waiting room of my chiropractor, a mild-mannered guy in his fifties, I’ve heard songs by Selena Gomez and Ed Sheeran that have caused me to stop taking my kids with me and start looking for a new chiropractor. Selena Gomez, that adorable-faced kid who got her start on Barney and then the Wizards of Waverly Place now sings songs that make me blush/cringe, and Ed Sheeran, musical genius though he may be, has some songs that I don’t even want my 18-year-old to hear, though I’m sure he has.

Who is deciding this is the music of our time? Who is deciding this is what we all want, so often and with such vehemence that it has become what we want? And who on earth thinks that this garbage isn’t affecting our kids, perhaps especially our young girls?

Years ago when my oldest daughter was just seven years old, she was a flower girl in a wedding. The weekend before the big day, I’d taken her to get her hair done in an up-do at a salon as a trial-run, and then to the barber to wait for her brothers to get trims. With her blond hair up high in curls, she had kind of a Jonbenet Ramsey vibe going on, and I noticed a creepy older guy in the barber shop looking her up and down slowly as she played with the gumball machine in her sundress and flip flops. He had a look in his eye and a half-grin that I understood immediately and with everything in me was bad and gross and disordered; I shot him the dirtiest look I could muster and got my daughter the heck out of there. She was in no real danger, in a crowded shop in broad daylight with her mom and a gaggle of siblings with her, but every part of me knew that even though she was oblivious, she should not be exposed to something vulgar and even potentially harmful. Like any mom, I felt nearly dizzy with the desire to protect her. And that was just from the thoughts of a stranger who had said nothing to her.

But every day, we let our kids be exposed to music that corrupts what is pure and good in them. When they are ten or so, they are still oblivious to the sinful and disordered and trashy ways of our culture, but we feed it to them in spoonfuls with the music they listen to and the music we listen to in the name of being current and cool. Slowly and in small spoonfuls at first, but gradually by the cup-full, convinced it is harmless pop music. I listened to some pretty bad stuff in the 80s and this is no worse, we say, or the lyrics go right over my daughter’s head. But guess what, your music in the 80s wasn’t this explicit, and guess what, your daughter knows exactly what she’s hearing, and if she doesn’t yet, she will soon.

I know it’s all pretty catchy, for lack of a better word. I’d like to say it’s not real music and the “artists” are all no-talent losers, but it’s not true. (Well, the loser part may be true, but they are rich losers.) Pop music is “good” music, in it’s own way, with chord sequences and  the verse-verse-bridge-verse format that puts a little bounce in your step sometimes and makes you want more. Not to sound like the Church Lady here, but when did we forget that the Devil disguises evil with whatever the people want to see or hear, and sin goes down better when it’s sugar-coated?

I have no idea how to stop the doctor’s offices and ride-lines from playing “popular” music, and I shudder to even think what’s played at school dances now. (I asked older daughter, a high school senior, what was played at the last dance she went to, and she said, “You’d have hated it, and I’m pretty sure the lyrics were totally gross, but it’s mostly rap so you can’t understand it anyway.”) But I know my own kid won’t be listening to “Fresh FM” when I can help it, or the “teen” playlists on Amazon and Spotify. I’m like Harold against the Saxons at the Battle of Hastings, or Leonidas at Thermopylae: there’s an all-out war being waged against me and my kids, and I know I’m going to lose, but by God I’m going to go down fighting.

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The Library Gig

Oh T——, I’m happy for you that you found something conducive to caring for your mom in the afternoons, and I’m sure you’ll be great at it. Kids love you; you are pretty and you don’t yell and yet you don’t suffer fools. It’ll be fine. And yes, I do like it on the whole. I am happy with my books, and while left to my own devices I would rather read The Pilot’s Wife than Dinosaur Battle!, I just like being around books and reading about them, organizing them, etc. But, um, yes. There are some hard things, some weird things. You asked, so here:

When I took the job, In envisioned myself surrounded by dark wood, the smell of books and furniture polish and cinnamon (?). I thought I might get an attractive chain for my glasses and wear them around my neck just to look the part, and in my free periods I’d read and listen to Chopin. I thought I might even play Chopin in the classroom, while the students sat (with good posture) at their tables and read quietly, leaving me free to answer their well thought-out questions like Mrs. Johnson, do you feel that the sisters in The Penderwicks may have been created with Jane Austin or Louisa May Alcott characters in mind? And Mrs. Johnson, if I want to read an adventure book with a male protagonist, do you recommend My Side of the Mountain or Crash? Or even Do you think the sequels to The Indian in the Cupboard are as good as the first one? Sadly, the main question I get asked is, Do you have Diary of a Wimpy Kid? I am astonished at the kids’ lethargy about reading. The little ones loves stories, and there is a small window from about 2nd grade to 4th where they seem a little excited about reading because chapter books are still a novelty, but all they can handle at this age is Magic Treehouse books and Lord, don’t get me started on those. But just when the books get harder and really good, the kids don’t want to read anything unless it’s a graphic novel, involves underwear or farts or possibly bullying. Bullying still holds some fascination. So the theatrical lengths I have to go to to talk up the books enough to get the kids to want to read them is astonishing. I had to buy tap shoes and a baton.

Also: I may have been a little bit in denial about the fact that I’d also have to teach kids. Like, I had to learn 250 names. (When they come up to check out a book, you can only fake it for so many weeks, saying things like do you remember your number? They see right through that crap, and they know you don’t know their name, and there is something demoralizing about a teacher not knowing your name so you gotta learn it even if means studying last year’s yearbook three nights in a row instead of watching Poldark). And I may have sort of not realized that teaching the entire school meant lesson plans and classroom discipline etc. etc. and frankly I hate that stuff. I love children’s books and I think I got the job because the principal that year liked my knowledge of everything from Lily and her plastic purse to Lily’s Crossing, from Percy the creepy Brittish steam engine to Percy Jackson. It’s mostly just from having kids of my own, but I know a lot. But my job also seems to entail keeping a Kindergartener named O— from putting his hands down his pants while I read (it’s distracting to the others…), and this little gaggle of second grade girls to not use library time for talking smack about each other, and trying to inspire jaded sixth graders to read anything. Anything at all that we actually have in the library, but of course all they want is John Green,  and we can’t have The Fault in Our Stars in my library, what with the sex-scene and all. More on that later. The little kids are hardest: I have no aid and no parent-helpers in here; sometimes just me and 24 first graders who can’t read well yet, can’t alphabetize, can’t even sit still, etc. There are forty-five minutes in a class and I’m supposed to help each one find a book to check out, actually get it checked out, and do a lesson or “book talk.” When I help one student, two others start fighting about the Batman book, two need to pee and three decide to pretend to need to pee, and one wants to tell me for no reason about his dog, Pickles, who may or may not be dying. Jeesh.

Here are the things that went well and the things that “Present Challenges.” (Did you like my positive language?)

Stuff that Went Well:

1.) I play this game with the older kids I call Take it or Trade It!  where I get out as many books as there are kids in that class and lay them face down on the circulation desk. When class starts, I have one student time me and I give a summary of every book in under 25 seconds per book–a really fast summary–and then lay it face down again. They are to listen and decide which one(s) sounds like they might want to read it. Then I put a sticky note on each book with a number on it, one through whatever, written small so the kids can’t see the numbers from their seats. I call on each kid and he/she says a number between one and whatever, and I hand them that book. Of course sometimes they are psyched (“That’s one of the ones I wanted!”) and sometimes they are bummed, but they have the option to “Take it or Trade it.” The next person picks a number and gets their book, but then they can ask to trade with a previous students, who has the option to say no. If I really talked up Save Me a Seat  in the summaries, they might all be trying to get that one, and it becomes sort of a white elephant thing that gets them excited about reading.

2.) With fifth grade–better with comprehension than 4th and better behaved than 6th–I read aloud The Miraculous Journey of Edward Toulane. Ten to fifteen minutes every class, and they loved it. If you haven’t read this one, I think it is a classic on a par with The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, but simpler and more conducive to reading out loud. A protagonist who has to learn humility, Christian imagery, minor characters you can’t forget–this book astonishes me. We talked about each chapter–Edward’s growth and the Christian life– and it was actually rewarding the way that teaching was once in a very rare while back when I taught English. Highlight of their year, some of them said. (In the two weeks preceding Christmas, we sucked on butterscotch and peppermint and brought pillows, which made it more fun.)

3.) I had 3rd and 4th grade design their own book cover for their favorite book. It was a good way to talk about book covers and illustrations, the publishing industry, and get them re-excited about their favorite book. Unfortunately many of them picked Diary of a Wimpy Kid and The Dork Diaries, which we don’t even have in the library. But whatever. They were briefly inspired about books.

4. Sometimes I took out books based on a theme, like time-travel or adventure, and talked up several books at once that way. I find with a “book talk” (I’m not sure other schools call it this but our last principal liked this phrase) on one book, the downside is you probably only have one copy, so it’s like saying Hey, this book is wonderful! But many students might want it when I’m done talking, so you can’t have it right now or possibly ever! But with time travel, for example, you get out Running Out of Time by Margaret Peterson Haddix, A Wrinkle in Time, Playing Beatie Bow by Ruth Park (it’s Australian and kind of weird but kind of great), and Both Sides of Time by Caroline Cooney (there are probably more) and you do a little discussion of what makes time travel plots so fascinating. When I tried this with 7th we wound up talking about Captain America, and how the second movie is so cool when he wakes up 70 years after being frozen and he’s in the 21st century, how weird that would be, etc. Briefly, they were all excited about time travel novels. Like, for maybe fifteen minutes. But that’s pretty good for middle school. That’s epic, really.

5.  Some books I bought with my little PTO “gift-a-book” money that were big hits: Mandy by Julie Andrews Edwards, Wonder, The Unicorn’s Secret series by Kathleen Duey (AWESOME series for 3-5th if they like fantasy: a young girl in a vaguely medieval time rescues a mare who turns out to be a unicorn with a broken horn, and–spoiler alert–at the end of the series it turns out THE GIRL HERSELF IS A UNICORN but had a spell on her. Totally fascinating. Also with my kids who actually like reading The School for the Insanely Gifted was big, and The Seventh Wish by Kate Messner and No Talking by Andrew Clements. In fact, a general rule of thumb for 4th-6th grade when they ask you to recommend a book (because someone forced them to), if you can’t think of anything, just give them an Andrew Clements book. In non-fiction, I bought more of those Who’s Who books with those terrible huge heads, and I kind of hate those because they imprint an image on the kids’ brains forever and the end up picturing Theodore Roosevelt and Helen Keller looking like a SpongeBob character. But the kids like them. Also: a got a great biography of Louis Braille, a darling picture book about Carol Wojtyla that made me want to cry, and several David Macaulay books with cool pictures for the boys.

I can’t think of anything else that worked well so here is

Stuff That Didn’t Work Well

1. Organization of library: There will be a section for fiction and a section for junior fiction and a section for “Easy” (or whatever your library calls it.) Sometimes a book could go in more than one section, and even if it says Fiction on the spine, you might think it should be in junior fic. It’s obvious with the Ramona Quimby books (junior) but why is The Indian in the Cupboard in junior, but The Middle Moffatt in regular Fiction? Honestly why bother? Why not just have an Easy Fiction section for the little kids and then “All Other fiction” for everyone else? Writers like Patricia Reilly Giff could go in either. Has something to do with reading level, the vocab words contained therein, blah blah, but I swear half the time I don’t really see what makes it go in one section or the other. Sometimes it’s content: Number the Stars has to do with a young jewish girl during WWII and it’s a bit heavy and sad, so regular fiction, but the actual words aren’t any more difficult than The Great Gilly Hopkins (same author) which is in junior fiction and has to do with the foster care system and being an orphan, which is not exactly light either. And speaking of books about foster care, Pictures of Hollis Woods is a totally different reading level and section than Gilly Hopkins, but very similar in my mind, just not funny. I guess humor means it gets to be junior fiction.

To complicate matters, your new library might have something like a colored dot on the spine of the books to indicate what level it is. Color is dictated by Title Wave website and, I dunno, librarian’s discretion. Green is easiest, orange and blue follow, (Kinder books) and eventually there are books with a BLACK sticker indicating only appropriate for 7th or 8th. But oh my goodness, the arbitrary-ness (is that a word?) of this drives me nutz. For example, The Girl Who Drank the Moon gets a black sticker, I guess because it involves a fantasy universe with a “witch”. The witch is actually benevolent, nobody gets hurt, and there are baby dragons and super-powers obtained by drinking moonlight, so it’s a fairly benign fantasy story, but the witchcraft thing made it get a black sticker. BUT Holes, for example, by Louis Sachar (and that’s the first one that comes to mind–I could have used any number of other books as an example), gets a white sticker, less mature audience, can be checked out by 5th-6th grade, and Holes is about a summer camp where the directors are literally abusing children. The story involves deadly snake bites and homelessness and weight-shaming and all sorts of things that a modern audience would see as “bad,” but Holes gets the white sticker and the fantasy story about drinking moonlight gets the black, and the reading levels are comparable. Both won a Newberry Award, but Sachar also wrote the beloved Wayside School books so maybe somebody just thought Holes was a sweet story for kids and didn’t see it as the dark, troubling story I did. But whatever. Another example: From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler gets a white sticker, but Konisburg’s other book, The View From Saturday, has five uses of the word “ass” and two of “bitch,” but gets the more inclusive purple sticker.

2. This goes with number one, but the stickers in the “Easy” section for young kids are based on reading level as well as (and perhaps more so than) content, meaning two Curious George books might have different color sticker (because one included the word “necessary” or something) and be in different sections of “Easy.” Two Madeline books might have different colors, and don’t even get me started on books about Arthur the Aardvark, of which there are a million, some of which are picture books and some chapter books and some I Can Read! books, putting them in various places all over the library. So when some sweet first grade boy asks where to find a book about Arthur, and I’m standing there with a check-out line of fifteen and three kids who are waiting for help and one with his finger stuck in his zipper, I feel like saying “All over the damn place, kid. Just start walking around.” If you get to organize your library yourself, you might want to have sections of popular books, regardless of reading level. Arthur here, Curious George here, Amelia Bedelia here. Etc. Keep the colored dot or whatever, but put them in one place. I might do that if it wouldn’t take about a million hours I don’t have.

(As a side note, Mo Willems, the author of Knuffle Bunny, which I love, I mean who doesn’t, wrote these Elephant and Piggy books for very early readers with titles like I Broke My Trunk and There is a Bird On Your Head. Kids love these books. I hate these books. They make me want to kill myself. You know that scene in Despicable Me where Gru tries to read the kitten book and says “You call this literature? This is garbage!” That is how I feel about them. And I get kids who like them so much in first grade that in fourth they are still trying to check them out and I want to burn them. But my real point is that the Elephant and Piggy books sometimes have different colored stickers indicating different reading levels. Do not even get me started. Oh wait it’s too late.)

3. Classroom management: I’ll try to make this brief. Be strict at first. Oldest advice in the book for teachers, I know, but I somehow thought since I was the librarian, I’d be this benevolent character who just talked (in whispers) about the wonders of literature; the story lady; their book friend. Oh. My. Gosh. They are barbarians. They think “specials” are the place they can go nuts. Break time. Recess. You have to have very strict rules about noise and then you’ better enforce them, and when I started I really didn’t know what my options were. Like, after two warnings can I just send them out in the hallway until class is over? No, because we live in such a legalistic society that apparently being alone in the hallway of a really small school with locked front doors is on a par with, say, walking alone at night through the Southside of Chicago. The school could get sued if the kid sneezed and bonked his head on the edge of a display of somebody’s diorama of the rainforest. So KNOW YOUR OPTIONS when kids are loud or disrespectful. Have a system. You can do clips on a chart, marbles in a jar or whatever, but honestly I don’t have much patience for those things; bribing the kids to be good and punishing them with the loss of a marble or notch down on the chart if they’re bad. Sometimes it’s more fun to talk and play than it is painful to lose a marble. Plus with those systems, the teacher has to keep track of it all. I just can’t. Too much to keep track of already. But have some kind of system–names on the board and emails home or whatever. Personally, I’d like to hire a Marine Corps drill instructor with a scary name like Sergeant Steele to just stand in the back and look mean, preferably an African American dude with several tats, but they tell me we don’t have the budget for this.

Hope that helps. Jeez I went on forever. Maybe I should publish it.





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Books I’ve Read

I’m not sure if teenagers fall in love with books anymore, unless they are weird. The thirteen year old girls who are self-proclaimed Shakespeare lovers do (you know the type: they already pronounce theater with re at the end, they already dress like an aging librarian, their first love, at age twelve, was Mr. Darcy), but I don’t think the normal ones do. Plenty of normal kids loved Harry Potter so much they read it under the table in social studies and again–twice–over summer break, and sure, lots of millennials say Divergent and The Hunger Games changed their lives and made them want to read, but I’m talking about loving books, books written for grown ups, all books, even the ones they didn’t like.

But I did. It was the 80s, and I was a fairly normal kid; I pronounced theater normally and thought Mr. Darcy was overrated. But Lord, I loved books. I loved their look and smell and the weight of them, from the garish, brightly colored paperbacks that smelled like pharmaceuticals, to the old leather bound copies of Jane Eyre and The Count of Monte Cristo that smelled like dust and sour milk. They were my friends, my secret comrades. I loved all of them, even the ones I hated, like Catch 22 and Animal Farm. I’m not the first person to say books were my safe place, my escape from hurt feelings, boring teachers and long bus rides. They were also my way of stepping into the adult world to figure out people,  what made them love and hate and aspire, argue and despair and yearn and get married or decide not to.

I loved nonfiction too–any book really, especially if it looked old or the cover felt nice in my hands. Throughout most of ninth grade I carried around a copy of poetry by Byron (The only one I ever really read was She Walks in Beauty) and Selected Works of Galileo. I was fascinated by the stars, though not enough to actually learn about astronomy, and mainly I liked Galileo’s works because I liked the idea of being someone who carried around a book about stars. (I experimented with dark eye makeup that year, too, but it didn’t work out.) Fiction was my main obsession, though. I came home from school and went to my books (though not my school books) the way some kids in the eighties spent entire afternoons playing video games or listening to Duran Duran or talking on telephones for hours, the curly pea-green or golden cords tethering them to the wall.

I hesitate to write paragraphs about the books that moved and shaped me and taught me to think and write and be myself, because it seems a little precious. (It is not lost on me that using the word precious in this way–not as in valuable but as in affected and self-focused–is, in itself, precious. But I can’t think of another word that is right.) I was at a party last month, and I should say first that most of the guest were literary-types, and I heard someone say, “The other day while I was reading Proust…” and I thought, Lord, please let me never sound like that. But I have now had three or four friends ask me, plead with me in one case, to write about the books I have loved, as an adolescent and all the way up to now. Not in a list, but “more of an essay.”  Books that branded my brain enough that occasionally I still think of them or their main character, even if they were purchased from the checkout line of a grocery store. (I’m sure that guy who reads Proust for fun never bought a book in the checkout line at a grocery store.)

So here they are, in chronological order, meaning the order that I read them beginning at about age thirteen. What is missing are the books I loved as a very little girl, and almost any book I ever had to read for school. And of course of the ones that are here, some were deeply meaningful because I was going through something as small as a high school friend being unkind to something as large as the death of my mother. You never know with books; they are like strangers that walk across your path: sometimes you forget them immediately and sometimes you realize later that they came to save you.

I’ll begin with my Madeleine L’Engle phase, and I’m not talking about A Wrinkle in Time. I didn’t even like A Wrinkle in Time, except the parts where Meg and Calvin have kind of a moment and he takes her hand. I stumbled on Madeline L’Engle when I read Ilsa (see more on that here:) and a little paperback called And Both Were Young. It was your typical lonely-girl-in-a-boarding-school story; she was misunderstood, and a boy (who was both athletic and intellectual!) came along and taught her to ski and saw her real beauty, especially when she took off her glasses (surprise!). It was an artsy, intellectual book, in a middle-school kind of way.

That book got me searching for anything by L’Engle I could get my hands on, including the series about a big family called the Austins. They were boisterous and wicked smart, and the youngest–the pretty one–was selfish and vain but they loved her anyway. The main character in these books, Vicky Austin, grew up, traveled abroad, solved mysteries and fell in love, and made all the bad choices that sometimes come with falling in love very young, if you know what I mean. That was an eyeopener at age thirteen, I can tell you. But L’Engle, with her tesseracts and regenerating starfish arms, renewed my realization that that science could be beautiful and awe-inspiring and not incongruous to literature. I asked for a telescope for Christmas  that year (and a neon yellow sweater and a Wham album on cassette). If Dava Sobel had been writing then, I’d have been her biggest fan. I picked up the Austin Chronicles recently and skimmed them, and thought the 70s intellectual element was too heavy handed, but they were great stories.

Then there was my Victorian novel phase, around age fourteen, where I reveled not only in the descriptions of the English countryside and the desperately romantic plots, but in the fact that I could actually read and understand these very grown up literary books. I purposely dropped my copy of Wuthering Heights three times in front of a substitute math teacher I had a crush on, so that he might pick it up and say “Wow, you’re reading this?” and be impressed by my maturity and sophistication. Being a math teacher, he picked it up without looking and said, “Uh, you dropped this,” until the third time when he looked at me like I had a disability of some kind, and started speaking louder whenever addressing me.

I remember liking Jane Eyre and Middlemarch around the time my family moved to a new state and I knew no one. It took me over a year to make any real friends, so I figured I might as well be a girl who drank tea after school and read Jane Eyre. But my favorite was Tess of the D’Urbervilles, which taught me that the handsome men are sometimes scoundrels (this idea having not been introduced in Disney movies yet) and the nice men are sometimes weak, and basically a girl had better be smart and never fall asleep in the woods. (I had to read that part three times to make sure I understood correctly what Alec did to Tess. Could that be in a book this old?)

Then there was my southern fiction phase, beginning around age fifteen. It started with Pat Conroy, whose Prince of Tides I picked up at a bed and breakfast I stayed at with my parents. If you don’t know that book, it involves an abusive father, a suicide attempt, a rape and a tiger eating someone (at least it was the bad guy), yet it has all the lyrical language, nostalgia for the south and haunting beauty southern fiction is supposed to have. But holy cow. That one grew me up a bit.  I would not want my own daughter reading it at age fifteen, but my parents had gotten used to seeing the Victorian novels in my hand the year before and decided I had good judgement, and stopped paying any attention to what I was reading. I also read The Great Santini, which temporarily made me think all Marines were abusive jerks, until I realized that a few of my dad’s friends were Marine officers, all of them kind, funny family men. But that father character… wow. He made me think about husbands, and what to avoid. I don’t own a dog, but to this day I can’t look at a can of dog food without thinking of serving it to a person you loath and passing it off as dinner.

Thankfully, I moved on to Anne Rivers Siddons novels, still southern fiction but gentler, and with more complicated, less traumatized characters. I read every single one two or three times, beginning with either Sweetwater Creek or Nora, Nora. Siddons is famous for capturing southern, aristocratic society in the 1050s and 60s, but she’s just as good at capturing the confusion, angst and loneliness of being twelve or thirteen. Being from Colorado, I was baffled and captivated by her descriptions of the culture of Atlanta back then, and Siddons was the first to open my eyes to the civil rights movement, how that went down and what it meant to the “colored” people who lived it. I understood that her stories were fiction, and she was white, so maybe this part wasn’t quite right, or was hyperbolic or one-sided, but mostly she got it right, whereas my history textbook taught me facts, which amounted to absolutely nothing meaningful.

I still read Siddons’ older novels sometimes (the newer ones have an older-gal, chick-lit vibe I don’t care for) and they seem dated now, but they make me draw in a sharp breath of nostalgia for a time and place I never lived in. In retrospect, I see that her novels are a bit like paintings by Thomas Kinkade; real heavy handed with the brush–all those bright colors!–but your eye is sure drawn to them. They make me see all over again the bittersweet dichotomy of something–or someone–being very flawed and very beautiful. (Hey Proust-guy? I actually just said bittersweet dichotomy. But it’s not as bad as what you said.) Or even just problematic and beautiful, which pretty much sums up marriage and motherhood and parenting and parents and religion and growing old and death.

Also Southern fiction taught me it is never a good idea to fall in love with your first cousin.

Eventually I went to college and majored in history because I was afraid if I majored in English I would never get a job. I thought with history, at least I could work in a museum or go around to schools impersonating Eleanor Roosevelt or something. But I did minor in English, and I had to read a bunch of stuff I don’t remember. I think I read Homer, Milton, Donne and Goethe, and I have a vague recollection of a terrible group project wherein we acted out Brecht’s Mother Courage and her Children. (I can’t even remember which character I played, but I rang a bell and tried to look hungry, and there was a boy whose character, in my memory, was called Swiss Cheese. I just Googled that and it’s true, and the plot sounds horrendous.) This is to say that mostly I don’t remember the stuff I was made to read, except for the Shakespeare, which made it all worth it.

After college I found that I was a real live grown up with an apartment, and once again I could read anything I wanted. My friends were all reading John Grisham and Stephen King if they were reading at all, but by now I was an English teacher and I felt it unseemly for a teacher to walk around with a copy of The Firm or The Dead Zone. In my mind that would have been like walking around with a Danielle Steele novel. (Not walking around with a book at all wasn’t really an option. I took a book everywhere so that I could reward myself when I had to do boring things like grade papers. Three papers, one chapter. That’s how it went.) I was twenty-two and I’d had enough of old English stuff, so I picked up My Antonia, falling in love with poor Jim. Jim was good, and relatable and kind, like a pioneer version of Jim from The Office, so it was kind of like The Office meets Little House on the Prairie, though The Office wouldn’t be on TV for over a decade.

I loved Willa Cather’s descriptions; you can see the sun setting heathery-gold, and smell the wheat and sorghum fields. I was still pining for Colorado and the west in general, so after My Antonia I picked up some Edna Ferber. I will always have a deep affection for Giant and that time in the American west when everything started to change because oil was replacing cattle. Ferber’s characters, especially the father–Rock Hudson in the movie–are flawed and lovable and larger than life when they’re strong, painfully human when they’re weak, like real people. In fact if there was a Venn Diagram of books that teach you about families, fathers and daughters, America, bad boyfriends, prejudice, pride and love, Giant would hit all those marks.

Then my mom died suddenly, and I write that not to elicit pity but because when something like that happens, you can’t even go to the post office without every move you make to get there being over-drenched in meaning and pain and grief, much less read a novel. But I had to escape in novels, so I read the novel equivalent of chicken pot-pie: comforting stuff that was like a warm, fattening blanket. I read Rosamund Pilcher’s The Shell Seekers about five times because my mom liked it and I remember seeing the silver and pink paperback on her nightstand. What a lovely fluff novel. Penelope Keeling is a mother figure, which I needed, and I fancied myself similar to the lovely Antonia: smart and “different” and unhappy with my blond eyelashes. Then I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which was somehow comforting despite the poverty and despite all the sad, hard things that happen to Francie. She’s a fighter, and at the end when she decides to be a writer, I thought for the millionth time that’s what I would do, too (still working on it). I still think of Francie when we buy a Christmas tree every year, and when I save change in a hidden jar, and I feel like she’s still alive and out there somewhere, observing beauty.

The book that really saved me from my grief over my mom, or at least showed me that grief could actually be funny, in a way, was Lolly Winston’s Good Grief. The main character’s young husband has died of cancer and she is muddling her way through a support group with weirdos and a job she hates until she suddenly loves it. She’s an observant, sarcastic gal so I loved her and thought, “It’s okay to laugh.” By then we sort of had the internet, and some primitive Amazon search told me I might enjoy the novels of Elizabeth Berg. There has never, ever been a more spot-on suggestion to me on a shopping website; Elizabeth Berg is just amazing. She is not Willa Cather or Edna Ferber, and she doesn’t try to be, but she captures life and people in this way that is perfect and funny and heartbreaking and inspiring and comforting all at once. I guess a publisher would market it as chick-lit, but that is not being fair to the beautiful, funny writing. I can’t even write a paragraph about which one I liked best because that would be like writing about which one of my friends I like best; I can’t do it. (Wait, I totally can, but my point is they all have their strengths.) They are all so freaking readable, with characters that break  your heart while making you laugh. But if you’re going to start with one, start with We Are All Welcome Here or Dream When You’re Feeling Blue; you’ll see what I mean.

I went to graduate school and compromised slightly less than in college: I got an English degree, meaning I got to read a lot, but officially the degree was in “The Teaching of Writing and Literature,” so that I could teach again if I got desperate. I had to take a bunch of education and psych courses that I didn’t care for and don’t remember, but my English professors were marvelously accommodating. We could read whatever we wanted (!)  and then talk write about it. I remember wishing I could have gone to graduate school first, instead of college. So I read Shakespeare’s comedies, interspersed with whatever I felt like, from Catcher in the Rye to Harry Potter (the first one came out about then). (As a side note, I had two small kids by the time I was in graduate school and one professor told me to deconstruct Goodnight Moon when she noticed it fall out of my backpack, which was also my diaper bag. She was a humorless woman and I didn’t know if this was her idea of a fun challenge or a punishment for the indecency of dropping Goodnight Moon in her classroom. This was before you heard about professors saying cool things like, “Can’t find a sitter? Bring the baby to class!” I’d gotten so good at writing papers that I wrote sixteen pages on Goodnight Moon and got an A. I wish I knew where that paper was now.) But once again none of the books I read for my classes really stuck with me, because even though I chose them, it wasn’t the same; I wasn’t reading for pleasure.

In the years that I was a young mother (an identity I’m having a hard time letting go of, even though a couple of them are about to go to college), I read to get a break and go somewhere interesting, at least in my head. I read Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto when my oldest was eight; I remember this because it was so good that I snuck it into the second and third graders’ spring concert at school and tried to read during the boring section of “songs from other lands.” People were openly astonished that I would do this, including my husband who knows me, so I had to put it away. It’s a weird, wonderful story I never would have thought of in a million years, and at the end it’s basically a literary thriller you can’t put down. By now we really had the internet, and Ann Patchett led me to Jane Hamilton and A Map of the World. That’s a tough one to read when you have young children but it’s beautiful and hard and deep. For whatever reason, I didn’t read anymore of her books until recently, when The Excellent Lombards came out and I read in the space of ten hours, while taking care of work and home and life too. It’s an odd sort of page-turner and a tribute to farmers and family.

Which leads me to Jane Smiley. I can’t really say when I first read Jane Smiley, but I think it was A Thousand Acres, another book about farming and family, and this one won a Pulitzer so it’s no chick-lit fluff.  I’ve been reading and re-reading her novels ever since. They are my go-to when I have to grab something to read and I don’t want to spend money on the kindle app and have no time for the library; I just grab some Jane Smiley novel I haven’t read in awhile. There was a movie of A Thousand Acres with Sissy Spacek and Michelle Pfeiffer, and it was fine if you’d never read the book, but without the omniscient narrative of the main character it fell flat. It was just people acting out a script, which wasn’t at all the same. The book was a powerful look at fathers and farming and sisters and marriage. I think there was some infidelity in there too. But the books of Smiley’s that really leave me speechless are her  Last Hundred Years trilogy, starting with Some Luck. Here is a portrait of America as big and fascinating as Ferber’s Giant;, it begins in the 1920s and takes the reader through American history in novel form, reminding me of the time my grandparents were becoming adults, then my father, then me, then my children, with all the strong wills and personality conflicts and tensions and loyalties that would be in any big family, with a gorgeous backdrop. Seriously, this trilogy needs to be a movie–this one might work as a movie– except that I can’t think of a single actor who could do Frank justice; he’s so selfish and bad, but not entirely bad. Alec Baldwin is too old and too funny, so maybe Matt Bomer. But back to the books: if I was stranded on a desert island and had to read the same three books over and over, these would at least be in the running.

Then a few years ago I went through a Kingsolver/Quindlen/Shreve phase, alternating books by the three writers until I’d read mostly everything. I think I would disagree with these women on just about every issue in the world–they have such strong, independent voices as writers, but from what I have read, all three dutifully tote the party line and have the “correct” opinions on politics–but all of them are astonishing with words and plot. Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible is reminiscent of those Pat Conroy novels (the dysfunction, the childhood trauma and beauty all at once) but with dangerous African snakes and spiders, and a strong anti-Christian message, if I recall correctly. But the characters and plot hook you and suck you in and it’s useless to try to get out, and somehow it even makes you laugh sometimes. Kingsolver’s other novels, especially Flight Behavior and Prodigal Summer are like fingering some exotic and beautiful tapestry in a foreign marketplace: you don’t want to buy it, necessarily, but it’s so beautiful and you can’t stop looking at it.

Anna Quindlen has written some lovely novels; Blessings was the first one I ever read and it lived up to it’s name, so her Every Last One was a bit of a shock in terms of plot. I don’t want to give it away, but this one will make you want to keep your children home. The main character’s oldest daughter reminded me of mine, so I couldn’t shake this story for weeks after reading it, and I had trouble letting her out of my sight. But the writing is hypnotizing.

Anita Shreve captured everyone with her Oprah’s book club pick The Pilot’s Wife, but Stella Bain is wonderful (amnesia!) and my personal favorite is Light On Snow because it involves a grieving father and daughter–been there–and a baby and a young woman who isn’t what she seems. It isn’t a feel-good book, but it is. It’s redemptive somehow, and Shreve writes with an economy of words, which I have grown to admire. And after reading about Nicky Dillon and her dad, I had to go back and re-read Elizabeth Berg’s trilogy about Katie, starting with Durable Goods, one of my favorite books in the world. Yes. Read that one.

Somewhere around 2010 I was given a Kindle, and started reading anything it recommended, obeying it. I still love the feel of an actual book in my hands, but with a kindle or the app on an i-pad you can read free samples, which is a bit like going to a candy store without ever leaving home. If I had to say without thinking too much, what books I read in the last five years that I remember finishing and thinking, “Damn, that was amazing. I wish I had written it and I want to be that writer’s friend and I’ll probably read it again in a few years,” they would be, in no particular order, The Help by Kathryn Stockett, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures by Emma Straub, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards, Leaving Lucy Pear by Anna Solomon, And The Dark Sacred Night by Julia Glass, The End of Everything by Megan Abbott, The Arrivals by Meg Mitchell Moore, and The Girl Giant by Kristen den Hartog.

All of those above were amazing, beautiful books. But there are three that I cannot just put on a list; it just so happens I read these three in actual book format, with pages and a spine and what-not. We are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas is another one of those epic stories about America, and it is also about family and frailty and dreams you can’t quite reach but want so badly. I don’t know why this book isn’t more well known; it is important and rich and beautiful. The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert was astonishing; gorgeous historical fiction that leans toward mystery. Gilbert she wrote Eat, Pray, Love, though this is nothing like that. Signature is full of adventure and horticulture, abolitionists and sailors. Just amazing. Finally, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doer. It also won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and it disappointed me only in that I loved the characters and wanted total happiness for them, but of course Doer knew better. That was the thing about this book–the beauty of it, despite all that suffering. How did he do that?

And real quick, the non-fiction: David McCullough and William Manchester. I know scholarly people scoff at them for writing history books for regular people, but that’s just because they’re jealous. When I had small kids and felt like I needed to re-grow the brain cells I lost every time I watched Barney or had a long conversation about going potty, or why goats are goats, I’d read a history book or biography. I loved being a stay-home mom, and thought I had the cutest, funniest kids in the universe (and truthfully, I did), but I needed to keep alive some small part of my brain that enjoys learning. Fiction alone couldn’t quite do it, so I alternated Manchester and McCullough. My father, I knew, liked The Last Lion books and American Caesar (about Churchill and McArthur, respectively), but the middle ages was more my cup of tea so I tried A World Lit Only By Fire. Manchester made this “dark period in time” (that’s what text books always say–it was just darkness and plague and starvation with a little Church corruption thrown in) seem so alive and fascinating that I briefly (briefly!) considered going back to school to study medieval history, and The Glory and The Dream reminded me why I love American history more.

David McCullough’s John Adams makes this seemingly dull second president seem larger than life, and even–oh man I can’t believe I’m saying this–a little sexy. If you absolutely can’t read a huge book about him, watch the documentary with Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney. I also tried The Great Bridge (seriously, you ask? A huge history book about a bridge? Yes! It’s totally not boring!) and Mornings on Horseback, (Teddy Roosevelt–what a MAN that guy was!) and I’m about to start The Wright Brothers, having once again reached a point where I think my brain cells are dying. (The kids are older now and don’t talk about goats and going potty, but now I work in a school library where all anybody wants is Elephant and Piggy books. Makes me want to cry).

Last but not least, the three best books I’ve read in the last three months: Olive Kitteridge, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, and A Man Called Ove (yes, I KNOW, I read books for older people sometimes now! So what of it?) Elizabeth Straut’s Olive Kitteridge won a Pulitzer Prize too, and in about five pages you can tell why just from the voice of Olive. The book may be fiction but it says something profound about humans and families and getting older, and Olive is funny in the way of a difficult-to-love grandmother. The same goes for Ove, and if you ever tried to read that one and put it back on the shelf, try again and give it a few more pages. It’s actually a joyful little book. I owe a debt of gratitude to my dad for giving me a copy of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, which involves the English countryside I’m so fond of, a guy that reminds me of my dad, and a love story that is delicate in an age when love stories never are. It’s funny and light-hearted with a below-the-surface depth and profundity, and Helen Simonson didn’t get it published until her kids were grown and she was in her forties or something, which gives me hope.

So there it is. Everything I ever read, or at least the stuff I remember. And my original point about kids not loving books anymore except the weird kids could, I think, be remedied, if we…what? Took away their phones for three hours a day–that would be a start. But it’s unfeasible and unlikely, and they’d just find something else to do. (Where I live, kids don’t even have one hour a day of unstructured time, much less three.) I swear, kids are getting dumber every year. So the weird kids out there who are reading Bronte and Hardy or Manchester and McCullough for fun will, one day, rule the world. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing.



P.S. I never read Angela’s Ashes, I think Wally Lamb’s books are just too depressing, and The Goldfinch? I read it, it was amazing, but that part in the middle? What? And I forgot Galileo’s Daughter by Dava Sobel. Wow. I have to go look for my telescope.

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John Cusack and The Situation


It’s been months since the election and I keep hearing the same weird phrase on TV and at public events, and at work functions I attend with my husband. It goes something like this: “in light of the current situation we’re in as a country…” or “Our current situation means that…” Then there are polite, commiserating chuckles. The phrase always involves the situation, meaning Donald Trump is our president, so a whole slew of stuff is bad. Just name it: the arts, education, the state of the US in general; it’s bad right now, apparently. But the situation is not really about inflation or the environment or terrorism or the ridiculous cost of college, because if Hillary won the election, there would be no all-encompassing situation, just a discreet little litany of things we could improve on as a nation. So, the situation is that Trump is our president. Period.

I didn’t vote for Trump either, and I don’t like him. He’s a sleazy loose cannon and I don’t trust him, but I get it. Liberals and others who talk about the situation don’t. No matter how much political commentary they read or listen to, they’re still raking their brains about how he got elected and how people still like him (because most of them don’t actually know any people who do). They don’t get why lots of people seem willing to overlook that awful hair, that smug grin that is more of a grimace, that possibly shady past of his, the occasionally vulgar comments, his mannish wife, and that whole wall-thing. But if you ever watched movies made for teenagers in the 80s, is so obvious.

If John Hughes taught us anything, it’s that popular people are annoying, and the underdog really can win. No matter what name you call them by, high school always has and always will have the jocks and the preps, the geeks and the goths and greasers and maybe a few groups in-between. In my high school we had “grits,” (they wore jean jackets and graphic T’s, had big hair) and “grunges” (dark makeup, hair in the eyes, baggy clothes and Doc Martins) and “perks” (which stood for “perky.” Perks were often in student council, played a sport and did theater, as opposed to just plain “theater geeks”). The perks were usually popular, but there were levels of popularity, and the really popular ones were a little subset of the perks and were simply called “the popular kids.” They knew who they were and we all knew who they were and just like in any John Hughes movie, they had the trappings and accessories of popularity (the clothes, the cars) and wore their identity comfortably enough that it didn’t occur to them that it would ever be questioned or disrupted or overthrown.

And then it was.

I won’t go into details about my own high school, but let’s just say every now and then, along comes someone who doesn’t fit into any group. It’s usually a guy. He’s not popular, in fact he’s done time on the outer fringes of whatever group is the misfits, but he’s so okay with himself that by junior or senior year, he’s got friends in every group. He’s usually funny, in a jaded, dead-pan sort of way, and he’s observant. He knows all those groups, and knows he’s not really a part of any of them, so he’s a part of all of them. He’s a dark horse; he’s John Cusack, in a stupid trench coat and ratty Converse, and he doesn’t even have a car, but somehow it works because all of a sudden, he steps out somehow. He overthrows the administration, wins the pretty girl or even the student council election, becomes Prom King but shows up in jeans. The tables aren’t just turned, they’re upside-down and all over the place and nothing makes any sense anymore.

Only it does. John Cusack (you can substitute Andrew McCarthy here, or possibly Christian Slater, but John Cusack works best) rose to popularity because it turns out there were lots of people who didn’t fit into any group, or had been pegged a this or a that but didn’t identify with that group at all. They weren’t popular, and they didn’t stand out in any way, but they were the very foundation of the school, working hard, keeping to themselves, and feeling unrepresented until John Cusack came along. By then they’re just so sick of the popular crowd, so sick of the assumption that Stacy or Travis the popular kid has the answers, has the right opinions on everything and represents what people want, they’d do anything to upset the status quo. They’re sick of being told what they think and what they need and what’s the right opinion, and they want a hero of their own. A flawed, loose-cannon of a hero, with his trench coat blowing behind him like a cape, looking right into the camera with a screw you look in his eyes.

I don’t know why liberals can’t see that they are not everyone; that Hillary was Stacy the popular girl, and Trump was John Cusack. The current situation we find ourselves in is that the nobodies have spoken and Trump is president of the United States because more than half of the people who voted did so for him, on purpose, and the more Stacy and the popular crowd keep wringing their hands and hanging out at their lockers saying, “Oh my god, I can’t, like, even believe he won, he’s, like, a total nobody, and his hair? It’s like, the worst, everybody totally hates him…” the more popular he gets. It turns out John Cusack has some ideas about government, the reach of its power, and the extent to which it ought to get in people’s business, but if the people who think their ideas are the only possible correct ones keep ignoring him, the regular people will keep championing him, and it turns out they make up a good bit of the high school—or in this case, country.

In fact, the only way to make John Cusack go away is to take him seriously, as a person, as a president, because the second he becomes one of them is the second he’s begins to lose power. Legitimate disagreements with John Cusack, or a politician-turned-hero, make him lose some of his appeal. But so long as the rhetoric of the left is inflamed and incensed that Donald Trump is president—like the popular kids whining oh my god, this is so unfair, he will remain the unexpected and weirdly-appealing protagonist that he is. He’ll have fans in all the groups that aren’t the popular crowd; he will keep wearing that stupid trench coat even in summer (or, in Trump’s case, that stupid hair and pout), and he will represent the actual people, not just the popular crowd who told us what we ought to think. And Actual people, it turns out, think that if you don’t have tough immigration policies, you don’t have a country. Actual people think killing a baby that isn’t born yet is evil, even if you call it freedom or a choice, and even if letting it live is really inconvenient. Actual people think maybe it’s not such a huge deal that the earth has been warming and cooling for centuries, and it isn’t doing anything out of the ordinary now. Actual people think there was a reason for the second amendment, and that people ought to be able to purchase their own health care on an open market, and that open markets work pretty well, and Charlie Gard’s parents should have the right to try to save him, even if it doesn’t work. Etcetera.

I don’t know who the real John Cusack voted for, but it probably wasn’t Trump, because in real life he’s undoubtedly one of the popular kids and has all the opinions they told him to have. But I know what I learned from teen movies in the 80s: the regular kids eventually win, because there are a lot of them. Stacy and Travis just never noticed before. The regular kids are comfortable with their lives, their friends and families, and don’t care what people think. And not caring what anyone thinks might just be part of caring deeply about what is right.


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Stand Mixer and Prayer

Michael Giaetto, I’m putting this up for you because you liked it so much! 

Five years ago, I had more counter space. The counter wasn’t that big to begin with, and now roughly an eighth of it is taken up by a state of the art stand mixer in stainless steel, which is supposed to make me a better mother.

My friends call this thing a Kitchen aid, the way that a copier is called a X-rox machine even when it isn’t; the way a soda is a Coke, in some places, even when it is a Sprite. But my mixer is not a kitchen aid, because my husband got gift subscriptions to both Consumer Reports and Cook’s Illustrated years ago and now he’s hooked on both. And so, in an effort to please me and validate my role as a mother and nurturer, and because of his deep, deep belief that one cannot truly embrace an art without the right tools, he got me the mixer that is ranked the best overall by both publications; best for making breads and cakes of all kinds as well as mixed meat dishes.

I am not bothered by the nature of the gift. I like practical things. And this was something I had been wanting for roughly five years, while he wanted a food processor. Nearly every recipe in modern cook books—and by that I mean anything published after about 1990—begins with in the bowl of your stand mixer… or in the bowl of a food processor… because it is a given that anyone who really cares about cooking has these things. The budget and countertop precluded getting both. So when he surprised me with this Cuisinart mixer for our tenth anniversary, it was a good thing; romantic, even. A gesture of surrender. It said “Your cooking and baking needs are more important than my hobby.” I felt touched and victorious.

Roughly the size of a Buick in the 50s, this mixer can do it all. The bowl has a 5.5 quart capacity, it comes with four attachments, and the top flips open so you can add a meat grinding attachment. There are twelve speeds on the dial and a separate button for “fold,” and a digital clock and timer that supposedly can be pre-set to mix while I’m away.

I have now used the mixer to make two different kinds of sweet bread, a cake, meatloaf, wheat bread, and blueberry muffins. Here is the thing: it’s bugging me. The paddle doesn’t reach down to the bottom of the bowl, so you have to detach the bowl and use a spatula periodically anyway. If the batter is thick, it all gets stuck in the paddle. It’s loud, so I can’t use it when anyone is asleep, which is often when I want to use it. And I got to thinking: it may be ranked best in function, but it looks like an aircraft carrier. Plus, I’m not going to grind my own meat. And why on earth would I mix batter while I’m away?

I started thinking of metaphors. Writers like metaphors, and I still want to be a real writer someday. My prayer life is like this mixer. I keep looking for something that will make my prayer life better; some tool, albeit a spiritual one. I grew up Protestant, so I’m still more comfortable with free-form prayer. My Evangelical friends’ prayers are of the casual, me-and-God-are-pals variety, which start off something like “Hey, God? I just wanna thank you for this awesome day, Man, and for giving us Jesus for our friend and brother…” I like the familiarity, but I think the language of prayer ought to reflect the depth and richness of the faith; I’m not comfortable using the same banter with God as I do with Dave at the filling station, although I suppose God vastly prefers it to no communication at all.

On the other hand, many Catholics seem to think that prayer, or at least public prayer, is a quick Hail Mary, rattled off so quickly that fruit of thy womb sounds like fruit of the loom, and without much sincerity. Or that a “real” prayer has to include “thy” and “unto” and sound like St. Augustine himself thought of it. Which is intimidating. So I tried getting into contemplative prayer, because the name appealed to me. Maybe this was a solution, a sort of modern style, but sanctioned by the Church. It is similar to meditation, in that you empty out your mind of everything and repeat a word or phrase over and over in order to come closer to God. Turns out it is frowned on in some circles, and only recommended if you do it right, otherwise it can lead to a sort of new-age-ish emptiness. It’s fine if you don’t go nuts. Like yoga.

Finally, I gave up. I recently sat down to pray a little in the morning, because my day was not going so well, and I ended my little prayer with “oh, and God? Teach me to pray better.” The answer came loud and clear and instantly. God does not usually send me memos so quickly; usually he gives me a little time to search for the truth, wait for His will, come closer to Him, and figure things out in good time. But this time the answer was instant: I opened my eyes and the first thing I saw was a soccer cleat, muddy and left in the living room. A Nike soccer cleat. That little swish instantly triggered God’s truth in my head: Just Do It. (As a side note, I recently learned that the swish is supposed to be wings, as in Nike, the goddess of speed and victory, who is usually depicted with wings. Who knew?) I really believe it was God talking to me through a muddy cleat that was seriously bugging me. He was saying Stop thinking about it so much and just DO it. Pray more. Pray now. Pray again in a little while. Just do it. Do it the way you’ve always done it; you don’t need anything fancy or new to help. Just do it. And soon you will do it better.

I thought I would return the mixer. The store had a happiness guaranteed or your money back policy. I thought I’d use it a few times just to be able to say I gave it the old college try, and then take it back. So I made pumpkin bread; three loaves of pumpkin bread at the same time, and my arm didn’t get sore from all the mixing. In fact, I left the room at one point to edit somebody’s paper on Holden Caulfield’s angst and put a load of whites in, and it kept mixing, and turned itself off so as not to over-mix. I kept it, and in that time, everyone living in this house outgrew napping anyway. (Except me. I grew into it.) They’re teenagers now, and if my mixer is making noise while they sleep in on Saturday morning, so be it. Pick any apocalypse scene from a movie, and if it were really happening, my kids could sleep through it. Plus, I care about letting them sleep until eleven about as much as they care about putting away their cleats. And the mixer is really not that loud. It has been years now, and I can’t imagine not having a stand mixer. So no, you don’t need fancy machines to do what you can do yourself, and you certainly don’t need anything fancy to pray, but if it helps you get the job done, use it. Just do it now.

I never returned the mixer. The store had one of those happiness guaranteed or your money back policies, so at one point I asked if I could return a mixer I’d been using for two years. The the guy asked the reason for the return and I said, “I thought it would make my life better. I thought $300 would make me a better mother. Turns out only me and God can do that.” It was the perfect thing to say, because his eyes got slightly larger, indicating that he was secretly thinking uh-oh, this is one of those crazy religious people, you gotta let them have whatever they want… and of course he said yes. But I didn’t return the mixer, I’d grown used to it. Counter space is overrated, and there was a sale on food processors.


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Dear Safeway

Dear Safeway

We’ve been together for years, and I want you to know I treasure our time together. I treasure it because it represents my adult life; my marriage, and most of my years of being a mom. But Safeway, it’s time for us to part ways. I can’t take it anymore. And let me be clear: it’s you, it’s not me. Or maybe it’s a tiny bit me, but it’s mostly you, but since I am the one spending twenty-thousand dollars a year on groceries (I am not making this up), you need to listen.

Safeway, your produce is beautiful. Your meats are cut perfectly and packaged expertly, your dairy cases are full and every baguette and brioche is fresh. But why do you have the prices of a Whole Foods and the service of a K-Mart? Honey-crisp apples are a dollar-fifteen each, a gallon of milk is four dollars, and a package of chicken breasts is fifteen bucks, so why do you have two registers open and lines to the back of the store? Why are there enormous displays of plastic toy trucks or lawn chairs or leggings taking up already limited isle space so that I can’t navigate to where I want to go? And why, when I finally get up to the register, must I be asked to donate to charities I have never heard of, and then be handed a fistful of Monopoly tickets that that are difficult to open for an online game I don’t have time to play so that I may receive coupons for things I do not buy, or work toward a set of cookware I do not want? Why can’t you just charge me less than fifteen bucks for chicken?

And while I’m talking about stores where you must bag your own groceries, I have something to say to you, too, Giant: what the hell happened? Your produce is nice, too, and while there is more of a chance I’ll get meat goo on my fingers at your store than at Safeway, and despite that one time I found live bugs in an unopened bag of rice and filled out a complaint online and instead of offering me a coupon for some free groceries, you had an lawyer call me,  I was willing to cheat on Safeway and come to you for lower prices overall. And I actually like getting points off toward gas. But Giant, did you think I wouldn’t notice that there is only one bag boy (can we call them that anymore?) for six registers now, so the cashiers have to scan and bag my groceries themselves (which they do at a speed that can only be described as passive-aggressive), while the lines pile up behind their customers?

And Wegmans! Dear, dear Wegmans, you are like a glamorous new friend who is sensitive and funny and remembers my birthday, but who turns out to be manipulative and high maintenance. Your prices on eggs and milk are great, but you are trying to seduce me with your platters of pre-assembled prosciutto and melon, your pre-made dinners for two (of which I would need three or four) and your cases of cheeses and breads that cost more than my shoes. You prey on my vulnerability with your bistro, where I stand in line next to cookies the size of my head to pay for shawarma and masala that costs more per pound than coffee or caviar. I don’t need a restaurant in my grocery store; I don’t need a DIY body-scrub bar next to the canned goods, and I don’t want to feel guilty for not supporting women in the Himalayas by not buying bracelets and placemats when I don’t need bracelets or placemats. There may be a day, Wegmans, when I have the leisure time to look at bracelets and placemats while I shop for paper towels and lunch meat, but that day is not today.

Trader Joe’s, you’ve been good to me. I like your prices on bananas and bread, and I love that pizza with the caramelized onions that only costs five bucks, but you lose me every time we need toilet paper, tooth paste and 409, which, I admit, is every freaking week. Your produce is absolutely adequate, and sometimes more, but I would need four bags of broccoli crowns to feed my crowd at one meal, and your prices aren’t that good. And truth be told, Trader Joe’s—and this isn’t your fault, but still– I am weary of the patchouli-smelling thirty-somethings with their reusable bags of quinoa and tofu, sometimes with a screaming four-year-old in a baby-sling who is late to get home and take a nap in the family bed. And yeah, I realize how judgy that sounds, but if I’m being honest, it grates on me. Your stores are small, Trader Joe’s, and you are crowded. Good for you, but not for me.

So I am breaking up with you. All of you. We will have to start living off what I can procure from stores I can emotionally handle, like pork rinds and Pepsi from 7-11, where the lines are short and you get what you pay for. Samar knows my name and carries my ice to the car, and throws in a penny when I don’t have one. I may never again know the pleasure of a Honeycrisp apple or fresh chicken, but at least I won’t leave frustrated. We will be malnourished, but we’ll save a lot of that twenty grand. And actually, ramen noodles aren’t so bad if you only use half the powder.  Let’s try to remember the good times, and maybe someday I’ll come back to you. But for now, you gotta let me go.




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Crying Next to Pretty Mom at Soccer

I started crying at my son’s soccer game yesterday. Not rocking back and forth blubbering, and not silent-hiccup sobbing, just a sort of leaky-eyed thing in the second half. Only one other mom saw, and of course it had to be the really pretty one who probably looks great when she cries. The one that looks like Lauren Graham when she was skinny on The Gilmore Girls. Our sons’ team was losing, and I’d been perfectly fine a few minutes before, so of course she put her (perfectly manicured) hand on me gently and said, “Oh, don’t take it so hard! That penalty kick wasn’t even his fault, this ref is crazy!”

I didn’t even know there had been a penalty kick against my son, because I’m the mom who knows nothing about soccer except that you’re supposed to kick it into the net. I thought the ref blew his whistle to keep up morale, or to signal that they were all doing great and it was time for a five-second break. He seems to blow it all the time for no discernible reason, so this was a valid conclusion.

Seeing my confusion, and more tears go down my cheeks, pretty mom changed tactics and went with, “Or… is it allergies? Are you okay?” I could see it dawn on her that this was something deeper; maybe I had recently lost a friend. A friend who played soccer, perhaps, making it all just too painful. I saw the wheels turning in her mind and the thinly veiled look that said she’d just caught a whiff of my crazy, and, wanting to reassure her, I nodded at the field and said, “They’re just so great, aren’t they? These kids?”

I assumed she’d know what I meant. Sort of. She was a mom of a thirteen year-old, too, who is every bit as smart and handsome and awkward and darling and goofy as mine, and I thought she would get it. But I was, admittedly, sort of PMS-ey and she was probably at whatever time in a woman’s cycle makes you your most confident, capable and logical self, so she did what anyone would do: she said, “Um, yeah, they’re awesome!” And then she pretended to be doing something very important on her phone.

She doesn’t have older kids, though, so besides being very not PMS-ey, she also doesn’t know what I know about thirteen-year-olds: in a few short months, you can’t protect them from anything, and they are leaving soon. Right now they are all limbs and they leave stinky socks everywhere and have rather bad skin, but mostly their lives are okay. They may not be the popular kid, but they have friends and they do fine in school and you can buy them Clearasil. But by this time next year they will be in high school.

And here is the thing about high school: it’s real life, with just as many disappointments and figurative land-mines to navigate. There are teachers who will dislike your kid for no reason, and think they are lying when they say they are late because they stopped to help someone pick up their books–you want to call up the teacher, but you can’t. There are teachers who will yell at your kid for asking too many questions, and then tell them later, you should have asked–you want to intervene, but you can’t. There are friends who will suddenly be mean for no reason, for weeks, and break your kid’s heart–you want to call them up and say what the heck, but you can’t. There are assistant principals who will give your kid a uniform slip on Halloween for her Robin Hood costume when the tunic went all the way to her knees, but not write up the seniors being playboy bunnies in shorty skirts and fishnet tights–you want to slap them upside the head but you can’t.

There are pop-quizzes on material that hasn’t been covered, creepy boys who walk right up to the line of harassment but only cross it with their big toe, and bottom-lockers that force your kid to crouch beneath a much larger one under someone who has no intention of hurrying even a little–you want to fix these problems but you can’t, it’s high school. There are people who disagree with your kid’s views because they are not what theirs are, and then call your child intolerant–you want to enlighten them, but you can’t–it’s not your fight.

Despite all the John Hughes movies that taught my generation that high school is strange and surreal but it all works out in the end and the pretty girl falls for the nerdy guy or vice versa, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes all the hard work doesn’t pay off. Sometimes the teacher is just mean. Sometimes it doesn’t all make sense in the end; Molly Ringwald doesn’t get asked to prom and has to just go with that weird guy who was probably gay and not hot at all, but a good friend.

And there’s nothing you can do about it. You are Sampson without his hair; your hands are tied, you are rendered powerless, because it’s high school and you have to let go. Which is good and right: our job is to help them grow up from home, not jump into their lives at school. We pick them up and brush them off and send them back out there like Rocky Balboa’s coach, whose name I would know if I cared about sports at all.

Which brings me back to soccer, and the game that had nothing to do with the tears. It was about seeing my eighth grader out there laughing with his teammates as he played–and doing this weird floppy thing he does lately when he runs–and knowing it’s all ending soon. This darling awkward phase when he’s still a kid and I’m fairly involved in his life, even if I don’t know what a penalty kick is. (They seem to call penalties when any player falls down now? But isn’t that part of the game? Occasional falling?)

High school is around the corner and that goes in the blink of an eye. One minute you are wondering where to drop off your freshman and the very next second he is looking at colleges, talking about majoring in international relations. Boom. Childhood over. So of course I cried a little. It was like the time my daughter sent off for caterpillars, and we got to see them (Wanda, Trixie, Tracy and Glen) right on the cusp of turning into butterflies. The kids on that filed were short and tall and heavy and skinny and all kinds of awkward; one the size of a fourth-grader and one with a beard, but all of them wonderful. Mine in particular, as I’m sure all parents think. They’re all the kindest, funniest, smartest kid in the world, and pretty mom is just going to have to cut me some slack. “Hold on to this,” I want to tell her. “This is it. This moment, despite the dirty socks left on the floor and the forgotten social studies work sheet. It was boring anyway. But this, this is awesome. Don’t blink.”




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