Category: Essays (Page 1 of 2)

Christmas Mood Swings

In the magical weeks before Christmas, I seem to have the mood swings of a fourteen year-old girl, and I wonder if it is my own weird cross to bear or if it is common. Christmas is so freaking beautiful; white lights twinkling on trees that line the sidewalks, colored lights on the houses up and down my street, Christmas music in the stores, wreaths on the doors and anticipation in the air that is palpable. It is as exciting and wonderful as the songs say, and I still get a warm fuzzy, excited feeling in my chest like a kid.

But there’s a part of me that might, in the midst of all this happiness, think to myself: But the trees have no leaves! They’re just bare, and they look a little mournful! Or: Some of those houses on my street with lights on the roof have people in them who are SAD or have CANCER or are getting DIVORCED and it makes my heart ache to think of it! And sometimes the Christmas music in the stores is not the Bing Crosby and Andy Williams that I grew up with, but Ariana Grande or some awful group called 5th Harmony belting about having a sexy Christmas. (These may not be the actual lyrics of their songs but it is definitely the message.)  Instead of making me think of holly and sleigh rides, I suddenly think: How will my daughters’ generation ever reconcile the fact that we tell them they are not objects, but the pop music of their time tells them a woman’s role is to be both promiscuous and victimized? To demand both equal treatment and special treatment? To look and act provocative and be angry that it works?  Holly and sleigh rides would be a much easier thing to think about. 

Sometimes, right in the middle of making gingersnaps, (see recipe for life-changing gingersnaps here), I might hear Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, and I’m overcome with melancholy. Or, worse, I’ll Be Home For Christmas, the saddest Christmas song ever. I have to fight it like a soldier, strapping my apron strings tighter and switching the song to, say, Michael Buble’s version of  White Christmas, the catchiest Christmas song ever, and refusing to be overcome. I have to shake my head a little like a boxer between rounds and think like a winner: Okay, Christmas, BRING IT, we’ll see who’s boss.

My mother once said to me, “Oh, kid, you feel too much. It’s gonna be a rough road for you.” (She grew up in 1950s Hollywood, literally, and talked like it sometimes.) I wondered about that, and years later realized I must have gotten my over-sensitivity from her, but she’d toughened up a little. Motherhood’ll do that to you. I can’t help it any more than I can help having allergies; I just feel things too much. As I kid, stray dogs and homeless people and even trash on the street made me overcome with a wave of sadness, like nausea. When ET nearly died beside the creek, and when Luke Skywalker had to hide in the body of that dead yeti-thing called a Tauntaun, my sister had to carry me out of the movie theater and drag me back home, sobbing. (I didn’t really care about Luke but I cared deeply about that poor dead Taunton.) If I saw an old person eating dinner alone in a restaurant, I couldn’t eat my food. My mom once found me watching Bambi on a rented VHS tape and shouted at my sister like someone in an action scene, “Stop the movie! Stop the movie! SHE’S NEVER GONNA MAKE IT!”

I don’t know if other people feel this way. I know Christmas is hard for many people, that depression rates are higher than any other time of year. But I am not depressed, and “sad” isn’t even the right word because I’m also immensely happy; I’m just experiencing great joy and deep awareness of the painful beauty in this world. My teenage daughters call it having “the feels,” which is awkward and apt.

It occurs to me that God intended for us to feel all those pangs of joy and sadness, sometimes even at the same time. I probably do feel too much, and it is a bit of a rough road, but everything about Christmas is both ends of bitter and sweet: the king of the universe, highly anticipated with great joy and some fear, but also in danger from the moment of his birth, outranking every king and emperor in the world but born to peasants and raised to work with his hands, rising to some fame for his holiness but destined to die like a criminal, only to be raised from the dead in the most fabulous, glorious event in the history of the universe. You’d have to be made of stone to not feel an emotional roller-coaster just thinking about it.

I knew a poet once; a philosophical, brilliant, long-haired actually-published poet  who forgot to tie his shoes and carried around a pocket-sized works of Rilke. His name was Hansi, which he said was Sri Lankan, though he was not. He was whip-smart and odd, and he intimidated me because he spoke in riddles and threw around grad-school words before the rest of us had learned them: tautological and Proustian, hermeneutic and hegemonic, Derridian, dystopian, and dichotomy. One evening after class when it began to snow, another student remarked that the snow was really pretty, except that it just turned to gray slush in the streets. Hansi waved to us, walking in the direction of some other parking lot or place, and said over his shoulder, “Love the dichotomy, man! Love the dichotomy!”

The weird poet was right, all you can do is embrace it. Get the feels and love the ups and the downs for their particular beauty. It’s probably exactly what God intended when the King of the World was born in a stable and laid in a manger.  

 

If I Could Eat Anything for a Day

 

If I could eat anything–if calories didn’t matter and the normal laws that govern human  stomachs were revoked–I’d start my day with pie. I don’t know why Americans are so rigid about breakfast food. We seem to have acceptable breakfast foods, like eggs and toast, various meats and very specific starches, but not, say, a hamburger. A hamburger makes a very good breakfast, but it’s not acceptable to ask for one at seven in the morning. Pancakes, waffles, danishes and doughnuts are fattening but acceptable breakfast foods, but not, say, snickerdoodles and milk. Snickerdoodles and milk can’t possibly be as bad for you as some of the garbage at iHop and Taco Bell, but nobody ever serves cookies for breakfast. The thing is, my snickerdoodles are light, fluffy pillows with Madagascar cinnamon and just a dash of nutmeg; they are so lovely that they really ought to be given to people with clinical depression, just to help raise their endorphins. They would make a very encouraging breakfast, but not a culturally acceptable one. Lasagna is also taboo in the morning. Eat cold lasagna for breakfast and your husband, all smug with his greek yogurt and coffee, looks at you like he found you at the kitchen counter picking lint out of your toes.

Pie, though, seems to me to be a perfect breakfast food. Sweetened, baked fruit, cuddled by a buttery blanket and served warm! On a fantasy day, I’d start with pie and a cup of tea. Not a store-bought pie; this would be homemade pie I would eat when I woke, up, the peach pie I made the summer my husband built the playhouse. It was 2003, we had two small kids and a baby on the way and he spent several weekends in the heat, building a playhouse in the backyard, the kids fluttering around him and in his way every moment while they pretended to be Peter Pan and Wendy. I made a peach pie without using a recipe, crust and all, sprinkling in turbinado sugar and nutmeg on instinct. I sat outside and fanned myself while it baked, listening to them chatter (“Come on, Wendy!  We can fly to the lagoon and see mermaids and alligators!”), named it Peter Pan Peach Pie, and then served it to everyone with cold milk. It was the best peach pie in the history of the world, made even better by my fondness for my strong, clever husband and outrageously winsome children.

I’d follow up the pie and reading with protein: grilled salmon, the way my husband does it. He is not a “foodie,” though people sometimes call him that. He enjoys food and cooking but really dislikes name “foodie” because foodies are often people who class-signal by advertising their affinity for branzino or truffles or anything with the word “confit” in it. People who own cookware that costs as much as a mid-size Toyota, and have their dairy products delivered by an “organic” farm so that they can feel virtuous and slightly better than the rest of us without actually admitting they feel this way.

My husband buys groceries at Walmart so he can buy batteries and lighter fluid at the same time. His favorite pot is a cauldron in which to make jambalaya over a fire, and he named the pot Adalida, like the George Strait song. His grilled salmon is the best salmon in the world. He seasons it with salt and pepper and honey, then grills it on an old garage sale grill til it’s perfectly moist and golden, and I like to eat it a couple hours after pie. With a caesar salad. And a diet coke.

After the salmon I’d be temporarily full, and I’d do some things, like go parasailing. I went parasailing once, and it was one of the more memorable experiences of my life, up there with bringing home each of my babies, seeing the Pieta, and going on the To Fly! ride at Disneyland.

Then I’d take a short hike near a waterfall of some size, maybe read a little more of a great novel–I might re-read All the Light We Cannot See or Bel Canto or begin Jane Smiley’s Hundred Years Trilogy, and then it would be time for a snack. I’d snack on honeycrisp apples and potato chips. Potato chips are terrible for you, if you’re going to eat them you might as well start smoking and drinking too, so I would pair them with apples. I don’t normally buy honeycrisp apples, since they are roughly five bucks per apple, they spike your blood sugar as much as Skittles (it’s true) and are about as addictive as crack. But they are sweet and crunchy and beautiful. They are the pretty, popular, rich cheerleaders of apples, and I tend to buy the band geek apples that cost less, but honeycrisp are my fantasy apple; biting one is like taking a bite of happiness.

Then I would go see a Broadway musical.

I have a friend who thinks musicals are so weird they are surreal, what with the characters bursting into song and dance, and this friend is beautiful and cool and wears clothes from stores that aren’t a chain. She is witty and casually sophisticated, and if I’m honest, a little jaded about everything, and she cannot stand musicals. I think they pain her a little with their dorkiness. But I like the bursting into song, the goofy, unapologetic old-fashionedness of it all. And Broadway isn’t our parents’ Broadway anymore, they’ve modernized. Now there are musicals where famous colonists rap about the Declaration of Independence, and musicals where the plot revolves around a suicide, but somehow it’s funny and uplifting. But I would go see a classic, one where you laugh and cry and get transported back in time, like Carousel or Camelot. I want to cry a little when Julie Jordan’s ghost is singing You’ll Never Walk Alone to her daughter, or when King Arthur tells the little boy to go tell everyone that once there was a fleeting wisp of glory that was known as Camelot. And if I can’t see it on the actual Broadway, I want to at least be at a performing arts center where the soprano lead is so good that I can’t even be jealous.

Then it would be dinner time, and I would eat Vietnamese infusion food. American food is where my heart is–I’d be fine with a great burger, or chicken pot-pie made with herbs and white wine, or maybe a garlic-rubbed, roast pork loin with peach-rosemary gravy. But if I’m going to pay for dinner at a restaurant (which I probably will after seeing a Broadway show), I want to be wowed. I want to eat something I would never make myself, and that would be something like  “Bo Xao Vit,” or “flank steak and scallops with gingered haricot vert and cilantro-peanut sauce, served with coconut rice and caramelized onions,” which is served at a local restaurant called Sunday in Saigon. I like that name, and Vietnamese food is so yummy, I think if our soldiers and Marines had been introduced to it during Vietnam, it wouldn’t have been nearly as bad. I’m never going to make bo xao vit, but I would love to have it served to me with some not-too-minty green tea, in a restaurant with soft, pretty music, sitting on a cushion that is not under the air conditioning vent.

I’d be full at that point, so I’d go home, get into pajamas, and curl up with a movie about time travel or space travel or aging backwards; a movie that really grips you and takes you on an emotional journey and has you still thinking about it the next morning. Interstellar, or Benjamin Button, or A Beautiful Mind. Something like that, where I am completely sucked in, and I’d watch it with a warm homemade brownie (the things you make from a box are not as good, don’t fool yourself that they are) with a small scoop of vanilla bean ice cream and a cup of earl grey tea. Decaf, but black, not some herbal nonsense.

That’s it. That’s how I’d spend a day where I could eat anything. If there was time, I might squeeze in a couple more things: a bowl of gnocchi from a restaurant we discovered in Florence,  the “Duke of Windsor” sandwich like the one my aunt bought me at the mermaid bar in Neiman Marcus in Dallas when I was nine, or a cup of warm “vanilla milk” like my mom made me when I was thirteen and came home crying because John Lambert, the class heartthrob, did not want to go to the dance with me. I think it was just a mug of warm milk loaded with sugar and vanilla extract. It was comforting, and my lady-like mother served it to me on a saucer and said John Lambert was “kind of a butt-head anyway,” which was also comforting.

 Of course I can’t eat anything I want, I’d weigh three hundred pounds and I’d fall into a glutenous rut wherein I wouldn’t appreciate food anymore because I’d be eating whatever I wanted. But a girl can dream. People who think food is just fuel and should not be tied to emotions has never eaten Peter Pan Peach Pie for breakfast. 

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.

Love,

Paige

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.

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.

 

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.

Love,

Paige

 

If (for girls)

If you can do what others don’t do, and not do what they do,

and be confident that you did what’s best for you;

If you can be kind when it is difficult, and humble even when you’re proud,

and know when to stand up for yourself, too;

If you can love when you don’t like, and give when you are weary, but know when to  walk

away and not give anymore,

If you can be at peace with your whole self, and grateful for what God gave you,

and make His work a service and not a chore;

If you can be stylish and yet modest, light-hearted but not empty-headed,

not caring too much if others think you’re odd,

If you can see that beautiful people are the ones who smile and laugh,

and be fun-loving but in a way that pleases God;

If you can grieve when sadness is called for, but pick yourself up when it’s done,

not wallow in the sadness or despair,

If you can reach out a hand to others when they’re flailing or in pain, not being pulled in,

but showing that you care;

If you can win and be humble in winning, lose and be gracious in loss,

seek beauty and goodness when others seek darker things,

If you can hope when it seems hopeless, have faith when the path is unclear, and

go to sleep and see what tomorrow brings;

If you can recognize when hard work is the only route to take,

and do the work with tired and blistered hands,

and keep on working hard when you really want to quit,

and build your life on rocks instead of sand,

If you can turn away from the superficial, put aside temptation,

and see the difference between a pebble and a pearl,

Then yours is the world and all that is in it,

and what’s more, you’ll be a woman, my girl!

 

Darn Phone

I have teenagers. And I have discovered that when people wince and say “I have teenagers,” their voices full of resignation and bewilderment and pain, it is not because the teenagers are evil, or doing drugs, or slamming doors or sneaking out past curfew. It is because having teenagers is like wearing a big sandwich board on your body that says I AM OLD ENOUGH TO HAVE TEENAGERS on both sides. It is the betrayal of our youth that we resent, not the teens themselves. Because if childhood is any indication, our high-schoolers will be college students in the blink of an eye, and then they will be in their twenties, and at that point we might as well wear a Proud Grandma t-shirt and reading glasses around our necks and take up bird-watching.

My own teenagers, my two oldest children, are only fifteen and fourteen, and they were recently given cell phones for their birthdays. They were, I think, the last in their group of friends–possibly their entire class–to have a phone, and at some point during the summer before high school, we caved. They hadn’t actually been asking for phones, but in their not-asking was an implicit, desperate plea for a phone. They know that in our family, to ask for something as worldly and secular and expensive as a phone is certain assurance that you won’t get one, but to simply pine for one, in a quiet, stoic way that your mother can’t help noticing, and yet not actually ask for one, paves the way to owning it. It is in this way that my daughter acquired a winter jacket that says North Face on the label. We didn’t cave in to their begging or even asking, but rather to our (my) perception of their longing, and the fact that everyone else their age had one. North Face jacket notwithstanding, it was not like us at all.

Our thinking was that our firstborns were heading to high school, a huge new school where they would know no one, they would need to contact us more as their freedom began to increase, and that–even we, the parents could see this–it really was socially detrimental to have no phone at all. It would be like when I started middle school, and my home made lunches included tuna sandwiches on alfafa bread and recycled baby-food jars of home-made yogurt. Not impossible to overcome, but a formidable obstacle to making friends. Every kid they knew had a phone; we even had it on good authority that in high school they were expected to bring a phone or other wifi device to class. It seemed silly to buy them cumbersome tablets and some kind of shared, arcane flip phone. Plus, our phone provider which shall remain nameless but rhymes with ‘Horizon,’ had in place some kind of crazy loophole mandating that adding one or two flip phones to our plan would be significantly more expensive than adding two smart phones. My husband spent roughly ninety minutes on the phone with “Horizon,” talking in circles and finally arriving at the conclusion that we would need to pay more to have less, and his efforts to speak with someone with the authority to change this rule were reminiscent of Dorothy and the Wizard. What began as gathering information about the possibility of getting a phone or phones for our teenagers ended with the assurance that if we didn’t add two smart phones to our plan, STAT, we would be paying $60 per month more so fast it would make our heads spin.

I am not sure if it was something they heard in husband’s voice, some weakness they seized upon, but Horizon wore him down. They then convinced my shrewd, frugal husband that we not only needed to get two smart phones, but that they needed to be i-phones. With data plans. They preyed on the weakness all men below forty have, the technology-is-so-cool weakness that can assert its ugly head even where issues of frugality and parenting are involved. Added to it was my critical weakness, the weakness all moms have, the I-so-want-to-make-my-child-happy weakness, and the what-on-earth-do-you-get-a-teenager-for-their-birthday conundrum, and somehow the result was that my kids’ birthday present was an iPhone. Each.

In our defense, they only got an iPhone 4, which Horizon was practically giving away. Actually I think they paid us to take them, whereas if we’d have purchased flip phones with no data plan, it was going to cost us dearly. We are obviously not the only family to be suckered into this, because I don’t think I’ve ever seen a teenager whip out a flip phone to text a friend. (Maybe the teens with flip phones keep them hidden away, as I learned to do with the sandwiches of shame and home made yogurt.)

Still, an iPhone 4 is an iPhone, and if you hold it just-so, it can pass for an iPhone 5. An i-phone 4 can get you on the internet and send millions of texts and has apps. An iPhone 4 has a preliminary version of Seri, I.O.S. 7, and can store a mind-blowing amount of youtube videos and photos. It is a real i-phone, and I am stunned that we let two of them into our lives; looking back, it’s like a bad decision you make after too little sleep or too much alcohol, neither of which were a factor.

The family is now adjusting to the phones, the way you adjust to a new puppy who turns out to be a carpet-piddling, furniture chewing terror. And when I say “phones,” I really mean phone in the singular, because a son with a phone is a very different beast than a daughter with a phone. Son-with-a-phone keeps the phone on his dresser or in his pocket. He uses the phone to look up homework or directions, listen to music while he mows the lawn, or text his friends one-liners like do we have practice? Even when girls text the son: Hey there, what’s up? That was so funny in geometry when Casey was asleep! BTW, are you going to the game on Friday? his answers are not lengthy: Maybe. For the son, the phone is just an i-pod that can look up something or make calls, though I don’t think he’s ever received an actual call from anyone but me.

The daughter’s phone is the bane of my existence. For the daughter, the phone is her lifeline: a two-by-five miracle that supplies her with constant interaction with friends, youtube videos that can pull her malleable emotions in one direction or another, music to give shape and meaning to her day, and answers to the many questions of her curious mind. (The questions range from Seri, how many of Raphael’s frescos still survive? to Seri, does Luke Hemmings have a girl friend?)  Her phone is a life-preserver and an extension of herself–almost a prosthetic limb. She shows me youtube videos every day; cute things, like a kitten struggling to get out of a coffee mug, or Chris Evans eating soup on the set of The Avengers. She shows me Instagram postings of her actual friends and people she doesn’t know but follows (“Look, Momma, here’s a picture of my friend Caitlin’s cousin’s friend–he knows Idina Menzel and they’re balancing spoons on their noses!) Her texts to her friends are entire paragraphs of casual conversation about clothes and teachers and boys and feelings and even the weather, and she converses regularly with her Seri, whom she has made into an Australian male. She talks to him the way Iron Man talks to Jarvis, and it concerns me. I’ll be making dinner and she’s up there in her room with Hugh Jackman, “doing homework,” which means spreading books out while texting and listening to music.

There are benefits to the phone, I know. Daughter-with-a-phone is musically talented, and she uses her phone to watch instructional videos about playing various instruments. Now she can play virtually anything on a ukulele, and is moving on to other stringed instruments. The phone has assisted with math homework many times, thanks to Khan Academy, and the texting capabilities of the phone have been a hugely helpful in setting up logistics of her social life and rides home from everything she does. Also, daughter-with-a-phone texts me, her little ol’ mom, often enough that I feel our relationship has grown. (Example of text from daughter-with-a-phone: Hey Ma! Guess what? Mr. Hanson made me section leader of the sopranos! He was all like ‘you were born to do this’ and I was like ‘aw.’ Also, got a 89 on history test but Ms. Jennings said I can bring it up with extr. credit. I’m taking the late bus home. Love you! Example of text from son-with-a-phone: practice til 5.)

But on the whole, I hate the phone. Both of them, but especially my daughter’s. I feel she has lost something–some piece of innocence–we cannot ever get back.  She would be horrified at the thought that the phone has somehow destroyed her, even just in some teency way; she would deny it with tears in her eyes. And maybe I am overreacting, but here is the truth: I wish we’d never gotten the phone. It is an impediment to family time and sanity and peaceful, non-electronic down-time, so we have had to install rules about the phones: no phones at meals, no phones after nine o’clock, no phones anywhere near their grandfather or anyone else over seventy, and so forth. The kids understand and are happy to abide by the rules, but what I can’t control are all the times they (she) might have joined her little sister in a game instead of texting or watching something on the phone; all the times they (she) might be reading instead of texting or watching something. She still reads, but she used to read a 300 page book in two days and move on to another; now it takes over a week, because the phone provides so many other ways to spend time.

I guess I am disappointed with myself: I feel like I did so many things right when they were younger. I didn’t let them watch scary, trashy movies, I didn’t let them eat too much sugar, I didn’t let them play violent video games. We made sure, all these years, that we eat dinner as a family far more often than not, we discussed virtues like modesty and steered clear of outfits that make young girls look like night club waitresses. We prayed together and played together and said a gentle no to “dating” in seventh grade, for Pete’s sake, even though their friends were. But now that the phones are part of our life, I feel I have been demoted to the ranks of stupid parent: the ones who feed their kids Coco-Puffs and Hawaiian Punch; the ones whose daughters in crotch-skimming mini-skirts saw their first Lady Gaga concert at age six. I’m one of them now.

I don’t know how to go back, or even if it is the right thing to do. The kids pay for their portion of the phone plan by themselves, with money they earn babysitting and mowing lawns, so I feel they are earning the right to their irritating devices. We are trying to teach them to use the phones responsibly, but in our culture that just means not texting while driving. They are absolutely everywhere, and even adults don’t employ polite phone etiquette. To expect your child to keep the phone hidden in social situations or leave it alone for hours at a stretch is akin to expecting them to courtesy when meeting someone, or wear white gloves and a hat to go shopping. Phone etiquette is mostly a thing of the past; a charming novelty of yester-year.

But I will keep fighting my little battle. So help me, I will be that parent with the crazy expectation that phones–or whatever we are calling them in ten years–do not make an appearance at my dinner table, and some weekends are still phone-free except in the case of the one on the kitchen counter that my family still calls me on. The kids’ future fiancées will just have to understand that I am adamant about this, and my Stalinesque forbiddance of phones is part of what made my kids the grounded, wholesome people they love. Now, I’ll end this tirade: there’s a squirrel hanging from the birdfeeder outside and I need to take a picture with my phone and post it on Facebook.

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