Category: Essays Page 2 of 3

For the pieces that didn’t fit anywhere else, from my conversion story (coming soon) to what happens when you give a mom a marshmallow (written several years ago but still applicable).

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.

Job Hunting

Someone has to get married or die for me to make money, and it is not working out. I have spent the last fifteen years singing at weddings and funerals and church services, but it is time for me to get an actual job, and it turns out, no one wants to hire me. I am trying not to take it personally.

When I was in high school, my only sibling already away at college, my stay-at-home mother took a job as a secretary at a law firm. This was back in the ’80s, when law firms actually had secretaries, women whose duties were typing, filing (papers, in actual cabinets), taking messages and getting coffee. Most of the time, and despite how it looks on Mad Men, no one found this degrading, there was dignity in it. My mom, presumably, did these things and they loved her, because she was one of those classy, funny women who put others at ease. She was Mary Tyler Moore and Grace Kelly and Lucille Ball all in one. She hadn’t worked in twenty years, so this first sojourn into the working world was exciting and humbling — slightly humiliating, even — and scary. I am guessing: I didn’t know that then, because I was busy wondering if Johnny Perkins liked me and if there would be a test on “Julius Caesar” and if the coach would make me swim the 500 at the meet, but mainly if Johnny Perkins liked me. Or Todd Adams, he was cute, he’d be okay. Sixteen is a self-absorbed age.

Now I am forty-two, just a little younger than my mom was when she went back to work, and I am looking. Not very aggressively, but looking. I stayed home to raise my kids and I have no regrets that I did; if I have to take a job as a waitress because I have been out of the workforce so long, I will still have no regrets that I stayed home. None. The thing is, my feet would hurt so, so much.

Plus, I have a master’s degree, I can write well, and I can sing circles around most people I know, but none of these things have resulted in a job. Not one. Also, I have years of experience in communications and psychology, motivational speaking and project management. I can nurture and coax and heal, I can and keep track of multiple schedules, appointments, budgets and needs, and I can navigate educations systems and healthcare systems or any systems, and advocate for multiple people. I know when to be a sounding board and just listen, when to offer a gentle opinion, and when to insist. I know when to use some tough love and when to be a softy, and I can cook for two or for twenty. All this because, of course, I have been a mom.

Still, nobody wants to hire me.

True, I am looking for a job only three or four days a week (four children still live at home!) True I am looking for a job that is less than 25 minutes away (the minivan is really old!), and only from 9 until 2 (I have a life!). True, I am looking for a job in a pleasant, quiet place that smells good and has classical music playing in the background. Preferably Chopin or Paganini, with Vivaldi on Fridays. True, I am hoping to really like my boss and colleagues, and that we will discuss great books and philosophy, current events and recipes, parenting and politics (and they will all agree with me), theology and travel and funny movies. Or maybe I could be the boss. I’d make an awesome boss. I would bring homemade muffins.

Basically, I’m hoping to make money being engaged and happy. And wearing some really cute work clothes. Oh, and I would do some work, too. I know when to eat muffins and when to buckle down and get the work done.

Still, no one is beating down my door. The brides only want a singer on Saturdays, the deceased only want a singer when they are dead, and neither group is helping us save much. The years of teaching experience and the master’s and all those areas of expertise from fifteen years of parenting are not, so far, landing me a nine-to-two in a place of great thought that smells like snickerdoodles. (The trick is one egg, Tahitian vanilla, and Vietnamese cinnamon.)

I have perused the want ads and applied to smattering of them, only to be rejected, which fills me with both indignation and relief. One school, in need of a part-time literature teacher, told me they were looking for someone who was “more of a forward thinker.” I am not sure what they saw on my resume or read in my cover letter that led them to believe I am a backward thinker, and I’m not sure why a forward-thinking person is of utmost importance in a teacher of literature, since most great writers are dead, and many great books are old. But whatever.

Another place of employment told me my resume was wonderful but I am over-qualified for the job, which I think is maybe the equivalent of  “it’s not you, it’s me.” And another institution, advertising an opening for a writer, was only interested in my expertise at social networking; they were concerned with my lack of a Twitter account. I started laughing, which probably didn’t help.

And then there was the music conservatory that advertised for a voice teacher, something I did years ago when I had an accompanist, something I was good at and could be again. In this particular case, though, the music conservatory, a stout brick building in Falls Church, turned out to also be a dental laboratory and a dog kennel, where the tenor who taught voice and violin also manufactured crowns for a local dentist, and took care of the canine pets of his friends’ friends. I would get used to the drilling sound downstairs, he said, pausing as we walked by a wall on which hung a picture of him and Placido Domingo, turning ever-so-slightly to make sure I’d noticed. And I would be perfect for the job, especially if I didn’t mind occasionally cleaning up after the dogs, you know, in-between my lessons.  To make the offer even more appealing, he would let me keep fifty percent of my earnings (a raised eyebrow here, to emphasize the generosity of this offer), when the other instructors usually only got to keep forty. So in this case, I was actually offered a job. I said I would have to think about it, and I strung them along for two days before I called and said something else had come up. I used the nebulous line the forward-thinking people had used with me: I had decided, I said, to go in another direction.

So I confess that I am not looking terribly hard for a job now, because you can only handle so much rejection and weirdness at forty-two, and because I afraid my perfect job is not actually out there. No one wants to hire someone who will only come between nine and two; not schools and not music conservatories, unless you will clean up after dogs, and saying “I am a writer” is sort of like saying “I’m in a band…” I can’t force people to get married on weekdays, and I can’t in good conscience hope for more people to die and request me for their funeral. The employers of teachers and writers are not looking for someone for a few hours a day, and the old, traditional ideas about what should be read in the name of education are obsolete.

I could write about the differences between Bach and Handel, I know what makes Hardy more readable than Dickens, which of Shakespeare’s comedies is the funniest, and why Rogers and Hammerstein and Gilbert and Sullivan are in again. I could pontificate about the richness of Roman Catholicism and I could compile a soul-satisfying reading list for a child of five or fifteen. The thing is, no one cares. No one will pay me to teach or write about any of that, because they are reading The Fault In Our Stars and The Hunger Games in high school English classes now (read them both, hated them both), and because I do not have a Twitter account. My areas of expertise are irrelevant or unprofitable or both, and whatever merit they do have is overshadowed by the fifteen year gap on my resume that says M-O-M-M-Y in big, bold letters. Employers see that and they think unemployed. They think babysitter, only more smug.

It’s fine, really, because I look at my friends and neighbors who work and also have spouses who work, and I suspect their children are wearing dirty underwear. I know their houses are clean, because I see the Merry Maids come and go or I hear them say things like, “Rosita is only here on Wednesdays.” But even with help (shockingly, it is still within the bounds of political-correctness to call it help), I know those working moms are exhausted and scrambling. They are not driving a thirteen-year-old minivan with a gash in the door, but their weekends are spent running errands in crowds, they are worn out, and they haven’t made cookies in ages. Certainly not with Tahitian vanilla and Vietnamese cinnamon.

So I’ll just continue my job search, with the luxury of knowing we will eat regardless of its fruitfulness. I am aware of how lucky I am for that. And if, by chance, I can find something perfect, I’ll take it in a heartbeat. (I am considering the Exxon station down the street. They know me by name in there; they play soft country music, the good stuff, from Hank to Dirks, and the coffee is not bad. Sadly, I don’t know a thing about cars.) I am actually a hard worker, and there are braces, a new roof, and four college tuitions to pay for. Until then, I’ll take all this rejection in stride. All those people who didn’t hire me can just stuff it, as my dad says. They don’t even know me. They’ll never know my snickerdoodles are famous and I can still hit a high C. Their loss.

Fifth Harmony

Sometimes I have The Today Show on while I unload and reload the dishwasher in the morning, and in this way I stay abreast of critical happenings in the world, such as the fact that Israel and Palestine are in the middle of their worst military conflict in years, and that Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams were fighting during the filming of The Notebook. The Today Show has concerts on the plaza on Fridays in the summer, and once in a while there is a performer who actually makes me turn the sink off and listen for a minute. Billy Joel was on there once, reminding me of my youth and my own mortality but still managing to bring depth and a new vulnerability to his music, and Sara Bareilles was on there once, awing me with her vocal versatility and soul.

Today, the concert on the plaza featured a girl band called “Fifth Harmony,” whom I only know about because I have a fourteen-year-old daughter. Fortunately, she doesn’t like them, and fortunately, she shares everything with me (or as much as a mother can reasonably hope for), so I was already aware of this group and had some data points: they are pitchy, both individually and as a group, and their skirts are too short. But I had never given them much thought or seen them perform until this morning.

If you have never seen Fifth Harmony and can’t get a visual image of what they looked like on The Plaza, imagine going to the red light district of a major city and bringing home five of the youngest-yet-cheapest prostitutes you can find, dressing them all in white but in garments that show as much skin or underwear as possible, and then having them dance with Brittany Spears inspired choreography, but sexier, while singing lyrics such as

You say that you a baller an’ I see you tryna holla
But that ain’t how I was brought up: NEXT!
Working for my money cuz that’s what my momma taught me
So yo ass betta show me some respect

I had to Google that because I couldn’t actually tell what they were saying, but the crowd on the plaza mouthing the words obviously did. That crowd was mostly little white girls of various ages, with their moms and friends and au pairs and boyfriends. The crowd loved these girls, and even worse, the Today Show cast (is it a cast on a show like that, where they are playing themselves but surely acting?) seemed to love them, too, wearing necklaces that featured the name of the group’s new single (“Boss,” wouldn’tcha know), and in the case of Savannah Guthrie, genuinely gushing. Part of Savannah’s charm is that she gushes at everything, would probably gush at Stalin if she met him, but still. She said that the group’s message is “be confident, be strong, be yourself,” and the Fifth Harmony Wikipedia page quotes the singers as saying their music is “fun, positive, and inspiring,” plus “relatable” and “what teenage girls want to hear and say.” 

So I’m just trying to reconcile “positive” and “inspiring” and “be yourself” with the hookers-on-speed look and sound I saw on that stage on my tiny kitchen T.V. Because, truly, I’m not exaggerating, their main dance moves were spreading their legs wide and pumping their pelvises, both facing the crowd and facing their butts to the crowd, squishing their breasts between their upper arms and thrusting them to the music at the audience, and what I will call the “watch my Kegal exercise” move. These Disney-Radio girls are all about sex, being sexy, thrusting their sexuality at people and showing off their bodies. (Though I will say, several of them are kinda chunky and sporting teeny-tiny clothes. anyway, so I guess there’s some in-your-face confidence there, I’ll give them that.) All the while, they are singing lyrics such as “I was such a good girl, so fragile, but no more…my innocence is wearing thin but my heart is growing strong,” they are tousling their hair, pouting their lips and affixing a vacant, come-hither look in their eyes, while having air-sex in time to the music. That’s being positive and inspiring? That’s how they hope to send the message be yourself?

I guess it is. I guess it really is, because thanks to feminism and the pill and the media and television and movies and a general turning our back on things like manners and decorum, our culture values sexual freedom more than anything else. We bow at the altars of health, fitness, some lazy notion of “peace” that involves doing nothing and hoping it all works out, “being yourself” and sexual freedom, especially if you are female. Premarital everything is so normal now that my daughters’ pediatrician said to make sure I got them the Gardisil shot before their “sexual debut,” so best to do it before thirteen. Dubut! Thirteen! (Getting a new pediatrician.)

The dirty little secret here, or maybe it’s no secret, is that promiscuity is the one thing that hurts young women  more than anything else. Even when it doesn’t result in pregnancy and all the social and emotional baggage that accompanies that, promiscuity causes low self-esteem, lower grades in school,  and emotional problems; any counselor knows that. It rips and tears at the fabric of society and the soul of individual girls, and then we tell them Be Yourself! Be confident! Be positive! And then we (and by we I mean Savannah Guthrie on behalf of The Today Show) praise groups like Fifth Harmony, who say they are positive and inspiring for girls and assert the occasional lyric that relates to being “strong.”  But any parent will tell you that our example is not in what we say but what we do. Any teacher or psychologist or pastor or public figure will agree that the best way to influence young people is not with words but with how we live our lives. Our actions. This girl band and all the Katie Perrys and Bionces in the world do not set an example by their lyrics, even if every girl in the free world knows them by heart. They set an example by their clothes and dancing and how they comport themselves. It doesn’t matter what they are saying, their message is clearly sexsexsexsexsexsex… It isn’t strong, it is weak and beneath the dignity of girls and women. But somehow, our culture thinks this is okay. They’re being themselves! They’re strong! Yay girls!

So my own daughters, who don’t read my blog and don’t tend to like this kind of music anyway, will not be listening to Fifth Harmony, and I wish there was a vaccine that protected other little girls from this kind of music. And I won’t be one of those moms who wants to be cool and fun and goes to concerts with their girls and mouths the lyrics and says woo-hoo in-between songs. I will have to really be counter-cultural and tell them that a real lady doesn’t have to dance like that. That a girl who is really confident isn’t bossy and tacky and aggressively sexual. That having your “innocence wear thin” as a pre-teen or teenager isn’t a good thing, even if you get stronger, like scar tissue. (Which by the way sometimes aches for the rest of your life. It doesn’t matter if you are strong.) That you don’t get respect by acting like that, you get it by being kind and fair and discreet, by not gossiping, by surviving hardship with grace and having a good sense of humor. In fact, stay the heck away from any boy from whom you have to demand respect; you should command it by your strength of character. That it is possible to really be ‘yourself’ and also wears skirts that go to your knee and shirts that don’t show your bra. And that “fun” doesn’t mean trashy or vulgar–that trashy and vulgar do still exist, even if we don’t call them that. Even if we put them on a stage and praise them for their message. I will tell them skanky is skanky and I hope they tell their daughters–God only knows what they’ll see on The Plaza– that the Emperor and the girl band aren’t wearing any clothes.

 

Page 2 of 3

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén