And but so then things happen

I’m engaged in another group reading of Infinite Jest. I said I’d blog about it.

But I haven’t.

I’m reading, mostly along with the group, and should be commenting on the boards and the threads and the things.

But I’m not.

This weekend, Pretty in Pink is back in theaters for the 30th Anniversary. And I really want to see it.

But I won’t.

Last week I was enthralled by Beyonce’s video and performance, and by the Super Bowl ads, and the presumption of people who wanted to tell everyone what they didn’t like and didn’t understand. I’m annoyed by those people, and I wanted to write about it.

But I didn’t.

I’ve been meaning to exercise more, and to eat better.

But I haven’t.

I can’t decide if there are Shoulds that I’m just neglecting because I didn’t choose them and therefore actively (if unconsciously) reject them, or if life is subsuming my best attempts to live it.

I doubt that I’m consciously choosing, really, anything. Until five minutes ago, I was standing in front of the TV, which was on for the first time in a week. Standing. Eating popcorn from a bag. Watching previews, waiting for The End of the Tour to come on. I saw it in the theater, cried for an hour, and pre-ordered the DVD that night.

Standing and eating from a bag. Thinking: I should blog, I should read, I should exercise, I should…

I’m tired. I should go to bed.

I’m tired of navigating a divorce and shared custody. I’m tired of doing my absolute best, at 200 mph, at work. I’m tired of all the shit that’s involved in being an adult…watching dishes while feeling helpless about racism and sexism and poverty and hatred and ignorance and fear. And laundry. That, too. I’m tired of laundry. And I’m tired of being guilty for being tired of laundry, when there are real issues in the real world.

I’m horrified by the food choices in The End of the Tour. That’s wrong, I know. Two humans painfully uncomfortable with their existence, trying to make a connection, trying to be understood and to understand. But I focus on the Pop-Tarts and cigarettes. Because seriously? Red Vines while discussing technological ways to dissociate from humanity disturbs me in ways I can’t, articulate.

As I eat popcorn from a bag. Finally sitting.

Can’t find words, or won’t. Can’t make food, or won’t. Is this what failure looks like? Exhaustion? Modern life? Low-level psychic pain?

Popcorn someone else has popped feels like a gift. I’ve gotta be honest. It might ruin the world, processed food put in a bag and trucked across the state…but I’d rather have food someone else made for me. Or, rather, made for millions of people. I’m willing to be one of millions. Nondescript. Boring. Average.

I worried that rereading Wallace would make me untenably sad. It has made me both happy and lonely, which is exactly what I remember. The pages feel different, in the way that reading Calvin and Hobbes as a kid and then as a 40-year old disappoints because you’ve grown, without noticing, to someone who identifies with the parents rather than the protagonist. The prose, the characters, and the situations still grab me. Predictably, though, I’m already teetering. I want to wallow in the book and the movie and the articles written after his death. I’m pulled, increasingly, by nostalgia. And hope.

“I think that if there’s a sort of sadness for people under 45, it has something to do with pleasure and achievement and entertainment, like a sort of emptiness at the heart of what they thought was going on. And maybe I can hope that some parts of the book speak to their nerve endings a little bit.”

There’s a thing, in human existence, called understatement. Just saying. Speak to my nerve endings a little bit? Ah…yeah. It does that.

I’m feeling clingy, and it doesn’t much matter what I cling to. I don’t want to blame the book, but it’s hard not to. Set in Tucson and Boston—two of four of the biggest cities in my life—filled with tennis and intrigue and menacing specters of helplessness and entertainment and death and life’s meaninglessness. Also at least 50% of my life, right there.

So, like, good times, but with existential crisis.

I should totally never post this. There’s no photo, no point, no story. Breaks every rule of writing.

And it’s all I have to offer. It’s all I have.

 

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Books

It’s been a while since I wrote an update to the books I’m reading, and maybe thinking about a few aloud in a post will help…

I’ve read quite a few books this year, which is a remarkable shift from the years since Butterbean was born. While pregnant with him, I joined a group read of Bolano’s 2666. I gave up about 50 pages from the end, when having a newborn and reading skilled but arms-length-remove prose just wore me down. When Butter was two, I participated in the Infinite Zombies group read of Gravity’s Rainbow. But I gave up about 50 pages from the end again, after getting a week behind in that last month. I just ran out of caring. I’ll likely go back to both, some day, from the beginning. But there are too many books calling my name for me to bother with the ends of those novels. They captivated my attention. They’re well written. I’m impressed by the breadth and depth. I simply ran out of you-know-whats to give.

And that’s surprising, since I pushed all the way through Freedom, a book in which the author barely tolerates his characters. I’m surprised I could muster enough interest in their lives, when he couldn’t seem to.

Anyway, I didn’t read much during the first four years of Butter’s life. And this Spring I threw myself into reading, in every form I could: paper, ebook, and audiobook. I posted a bit about books I enjoyed in the first half of the year, when I succumbed to audiobooks and devoured texts weekly.  I listened to, and loved No Ordinary Time and Your Fathers, Where Are They? And The Prophets, Do They Live Forever? I listened to, and had mixed feelings, about A Prayer for Owen Meany. Over the summer I enjoyed (and genuinely recommend) The Martian The Namesake, The Goldfinch, Neverwhere, and The Bone Clocks. And a string of memoirs amused me slightly–Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Lina Dunham, in order of preference for their books–all kept me company on long runs. But I wouldn’t have read the books on paper. Autobiography narrated by the author, to me, is infinitely more interesting than reading the lives of performers.

I flat out didn’t like The Paying Guests or Go Set a Watchman. I felt that the former just lingered too damned long on every point and couldn’t decide whether it was plot driven or character driven, writhing languorously over both plot and character in such a way that I got tired of paying attention because I was being told that every moment mattered more than the last. The Harper Lee novel was as didactic as one by Franzen, with the added burden of having what felt like 400 pages of lecture posing as dialogue. Ugh. I’m still mad I wasted those hours.

I’m getting to the point in the year when I’m abandoning books left and right because they’re disappointing in comparison with books from the early 2015 months. I quit The Buried Giant last month. I sometimes enjoy Ishiguro and sometimes rankle at the pacing. This time, my impatience won. I quit Bel Canto two months ago. A pox on the unceasing, steady pace that lulled me like the rocking of an ocean liner. And I’m in the middle of, and considering quitting, Middlesex and A Visit from the Goon Squad. The latter is just boring me, in part because I’ve never cared about the music industry. And the Eugenides text is really annoying me. I have several friends who are, or who are close family with, transgendered, and the premise of Middlesex irritates me. It’s positing, I feel, that living in a space between genders, and navigating in a time of transition, can be blamed on a variety of ancestral errors. I feel in reading that the novel suggests that transgendered lives are mutations borne of unsavory history. And that angers me. I don’t know that Eugenides is arguing this point of view, but it’s what I’m inferring. So unless one or both books sways me soon, I’m dropping both.

A friend and mentor just sent me A Naked Singularity, and I’m going to start it soon. But it’s huge, and if I’m going to tackle a huge book this holiday season, it’s going to be Infinite Jest. Again. Because the nostalgia I feel for Wallace’s writing is increasing daily, and I just miss getting lost in the cadence and horror and familiarity and erudition and sadness of that book.

Any recommendations? I have a long list of what to read next, and am right now very happily ensconced in Reservation Blues by Sherman Alexie. I miss the world of the Rez and Alexie captures the magical and maddening in equal measure.

After I’m done, though, I wouldn’t mind a few books to stave off my Wallace magnet. I do believe there’s still talk of a February group read when the 25th anniversary edition of IJ comes out, so I might wait. We’ll see if I can.

What do you recommend I read to keep myself engaged until February?

Things I Don’t Recommend

So here’s the thing about excellent art…it disturbs the comfortable and comforts the disturbed. Right?

Nope. It disturbs and comforts those who are porous yet washes unchanged over those who have no capability for human feeling.

And since this month has broken pieces off my psyche, I’m feeling particularly porous.

Unfortunately, I’ve been reading exactly the wrong books this year. By the end of January I was hopping back and forth frequently between Neverwhere and The Bone Clocks.

Want to know what you should avoid when feeling a bit…off?

Novels whose primary effect on you might, perhaps, be

OH MY GOD THE WORLD IS A LIE AND SENTIENCE IS ILLUSION AND THE DARKEST, MOST SINISTER PARTS OF US WILL BE THE THREADS THAT RISE ABOVE AND DOMINATE OUR BETTER IMPULSES, FOR THIS IS THUNDERDOME!

are not the best choice.

Maybe.

Excellent books, though. Look into them when life is all sunshine and buttercups. Or if you’re not easily swayed by minor apocalypses.
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My love letter to audiobooks

I’d gotten to the point in my midlife when I thought I wouldn’t fall in love again. I’ve had my turns with relationships, and learned something glorious from each. My love for my children teaches me about infinity and about dark human frailties. My love for my friends dances about like dandelion seeds, unpredictable and lovely.

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And until I found you I thought nothing could surprise me.

Friends told me about you. I wasn’t ready, so I didn’t really hear them. Blah blah podcasts, blah blah library downloads. “No, thanks,” I thought. Audiobooks are what my parents listen to when they drive cross country. Books on tape we call them. You can’t hope to get a good story going in the 20 minutes on the way to the increasingly-too-freaking-far-away preschool. I can’t hear a story…really hear…on the way to the grocery store or a meeting.

The kids and I checked out audio CDs for long day trips. King Arthur legend stuff and The Hobbit. Things I didn’t want to read aloud at night. Because that reading is precious. First the back and forth of “little guy chooses a book, then big guy reads from his Just-Right chapter book, then little guy gets another, then big guy reads again…” until we brush teeth. Then the big story after lights out. Well, lights out except for the sea turtle who throws stars on the ceiling, a gift from their uncle that keeps us company all Fall and Winter. Turtle time is big story time…Peanut and I deliberate in the library and in front of our bookcases full of kids’ books. Charlotte’s Web, Phantom Tollbooth, Alice in Wonderland, Harry Potter. I save those marvelous books for “real” reading: my voice, our mismatched-but-once-inextricably-linked bodies cuddled in the big chair, focused on the spotlighted page that becomes, in the book light’s insistence, a stage on which our nightly story plays out.

Audiobooks were for the stuff I didn’t want to read. That we could finish on a trip to the beach and back, or that took too much work.

Crawling back to the river is too hard. Can't an audiobook do this for me?

Crawling back to the river is too hard. Can’t an audiobook do this for me?

But then I got an email. Two free books to try it out. Any titles you want.

Um…can’t hurt to try? Blind date with an audiobook. I’m not ready for something new, and I don’t foresee love in my future, but I can try. Whatever. Free is good. Novelty is sometimes okay, even for the change-averse.

Oh, good heaven how you bowled me over.

Our first date was in the car, after a client kick-off meeting when I needed to relax a bit. We connected. I laughed. At once I knew we were going to be friends. And when I got home, you came in with me. You followed me around as I set up my desk for the new project, as I planned dinner. You walked with me when it was time to pick up my son at school, and it just felt right. I wasn’t ashamed. I was having a good time.

I knew our relationship would be challenging for my children, and I knew they had to come first, no matter how I was falling for you. I believe very firmly that they shouldn’t meet anyone new in my life right now. They need to know they’re the most important voices in my life. So I hit pause on our new…whatever this is, I don’t dare label it yet because you’re too new and I’m too caught up to be objective…and walked home with my son. And we played and talked and did our family things. Without you. We picked up my younger son and we all went to soccer. Without you. On the pitch we had dinner, the one I had prepared while you were reading to me. And I smiled a silly schoolgirl grin. Because eating now reminded me of great books. And walking reminded me of great books. And the car, that dreaded convenience that gets me to and from the 10,000 places a day we should be? It reminds me of you and how happy you make me.

Predictably, I’ve gotten a bit lax about keeping you and my family separate. Now when I make breakfast you’re with me, reading to me and filling our hectic morning with measured, adult speech where was there was only shrieking and teasing and laughter and whining. And when the kids want something or I have to help them, you steel me for the less-savory of my tasks with your gentle 30-second rewind and your reassuring pause button. “I’ll wait for you,” you seem to say. “Go ahead. Take care of your family. You love them and they love you and I’ll just wait.”

And you do. And when I return, hours or days later, you know just where we left off. You’ve wooed me with humor and impressed me with heart-wrenching moments. You keep me company while I clean, cook, and write invoices. You make carpooling and grocery shopping engaging.

You make me love mindless tasks, something I haven’t felt since I was young and child-free and trying to discern the origins of the Universe while I vacuumed. Though I value what I do for my family as much as I do the tasks I complete for clients, somehow I don’t feel the family-work is enough. Before you, dishes were a necessary waste of time, and they kept me from what I love. Grocery runs were just stupid burdens. Making lunch? A chore.

And now, with you, I love the grocery store. And dishes. Lunches have become intricate and engaging because I can justify seeding a pomegranate and shaping sandwiches. I have to do these tasks with or without you. But you make them interesting. And productive. I know I could try the rest of my life to fight the need to make every waking moment productive, but why? It’s who I am.

And you get that. You love that. You understand me, and, I am here to say loudly and in front of the whole Internet, I love that about you. What I’ve missed most about my old life, my life before kids, is reading. Frequent, barely-pausing-to-blink, all-engrossing engagement in books.

I’m not going to get into semantics. I don’t know if our relationship is reading or if it’s listening or if it’s entertainment. I won’t slow down long enough to care. I don’t do the high-brow/low-brow arguments that graduate school pretty well beats out of readers. And I don’t want to examine yet…oh, heavens, not while our love is still new…what you’re doing to my relationship with music.

Thank you for the three wonderful books you’ve read me over the past two weeks. I hope my intense love continues to grow. I adore you so much I’m willing to share you with others, which is something I could only ever say about my children. You’re welcome to be as compelling as you want and to draw as many people to yourself as you want.

The more the merrier, dear love. Bring ’em on.

Descriptive linguistics FTW!

Last night after a Board meeting, I was talking with friends and one expressed shock bordering on horror that I text using abbreviations and conventions created and commonly accepted within that linguistic space.

“I’m rather surprised to find out you’re an LOL and OMG and emoticon person.”

Well, I’m a linguistically adaptable person, actually. I don’t use those conventions outside texts and social media, in which characters are constrained and, generally, keyboarding is limited. I don’t say “LOL” in conversation, nor when using a keyboard. I do, though, use LOL where it is a standard part of the lexicon, because I’m speaking in a colloquial language and don’t feel the need, surrounded by LOLers, to destroy my reputation and thumbs with “oh, wow, that is truly funny.”  Recall David Foster Wallace’s review of Bryan Gardner’s Modern American Usage (which review appears in the nonfiction essay collection Consider the Lobster, and which review reiterated the annoying grammatical tic in which Wallace uses “which” in ways that make me itch ), in which Wallace explains that, when talking with Midwestern friends he uses expressions like “where you at?” because conditional, situational lexical conformity performs significant social functions including masking an erudite prescriptivist snobbery amongst those who disdain such ridiculousness. You know the type…for instance, the raised eyebrow of disdain arched toward a friend who fully embraces emoticons in text messages.

My friend last night seemed to believe that my using LOL and winky emoticons made me shockingly deviant in my linguistic standards. But am I actually failing the language because I OMG when I reply to a text about how awful I am at karaoke? Of course not. (I am, however, failing both George Michael and Rick Springfield when I belt their songs in a key somewhere between those singers’ ranges and my own. Said performances deserved several horrified OMGs.)

The older I get, the more I tend toward descriptivist linguistics. I have been out of academia long enough to know we can’t stem the tide of language shifts, texting enough that I appreciate the culture’s willingness to embrace an abbreviated language parallel to government employees’ acronym dialect, and old enough to know that my pedantic “kids these days are ruining the language” tendencies unveil a knowledge that kids these days are actually going to rule the world. And I, for one, I don’t want to be railing against their language from my rocking chair, cane aloft, countering every miscast objective who with “it’s whom, you linguistic hoodlums!”

Okay, yes, I do.

But I am in my old age moving toward the point of linguistic early adoption, at least within technological theaters.  I gleefully read the Atlantic’s piece about the new preposition, used in online English. Though I was late to OMG and LOL and LMAO, I have jumped on the prepositional-because trend, thanks to my social-media bestie, Twitter.

I love Twitter. I don’t read my feed as much as I used to, for in the land of “may your days be merry and bright starting next week with a rare Thanksgivukkah,” I don’t have time to get my Twitter fix. But I’m quite fond of the prepositional-because.

I do plan, however, on shaking my cane from my rocking chair and bellowing, “it’s not a ‘because-noun!’ Because grammatical naming conventions!”

Go check out the article, whether you find my texts irritatingly colloquial or not. The Atlantic has posted as pleasant a read on descriptive-linguistic developments as possible, and that’s saying a lot.

Which language deviances do you commit in limited settings? Do you eschew LOL unless you’re actually laughing out loud? Will you text a “K” to avoid all those messy characters in “okay”? Do you reject all emoticons or employ them with reckless abandon? Have you crossed into “srsly” and “pls” to save characters or do you share Steve Martin’s insistence on proper spelling in Tweets?

How do you talk to a friend with cancer?

I’ve found in the past few weeks that the fastest way to kill a blog is to post long, depressing content about a challenging houseguest.

So now I’ll revive my blog with everyone’s favorite topic: cancer!

I’ve pointed readers over the past year to my friend Jay’s blog to read about his amazing perspective and approach to life. And to parenting with cancer.

He posted his answer to a question: How do you talk to a friend with cancer?

Please read it. It might help with people in your life who is struggling. I hope none of them have stage IV cancer, but if they do, maybe discussing this will give you another reason to connect.

And if someone is struggling with another type of crisis, maybe his post will help you connect with them, too.

Because heaven knows we all , genuinely, need reasons to be human with each other.

Go read his post.

Writing Tips from the conference: BlogHer’13 Writes

I posted yesterday the six pieces of advice I heard over and over at BlogHer ’13.

Today I’ve posted on my other site the highlights from writing and publishing panels and workshops from the conference.

Take a look at both for ideas to help your writing and publishing projects.

 

 

Top Six Takeaways from BlogHer ’13

Tomorrow I’m posting a longer summary of all the sessions I attended at BlogHer ’13, intending to offer fellow writers some of the ideas I heard during my 68-hour foray into the world’s largest blogging conference.

Today, I offer you the six pieces of advice I heard reiterated most often at BlogHer ’13. In the keynote, in discussions, from panels, in workshops, and during highlighted sessions, I noted the following over and over:

1. Find your difference. Write about it well, laugh at it, own it. What you have to offer is your perspective, experience, and knowledge. Nobody wants to hear (or read or see) the same voice with the same message. To be a successful brand you have to offer something different, sustainable, credible, and relevant. The only way to do that consistently is to sing the core of who you are. [Note: this year nobody seems pushedthe idea that an author must be a brand. Apparently we’ve all finally accepted that and moved on. You are a brand. Stipulated.]

2. Publish. Blog numbers mean very little if your goal is publishing. To ask publishers, editors, and readers to pay for your work you have to prove that other professionals think you’re worth publishing. Publish great pieces in books, magazines, newspapers, online spaces by finding the right audience for your message and selling the heck out of your words.

3. Someone aches for what you’re selling. Get it to them. Find the people who really need, want, or pay for exactly what you write or produce. Figure out what you’re really offering and bring it to those who need it. That goes for selling what you make, publishing what you write, or being elected for what you believe. Find the right customer and get your wares right in front of them.

4. Build your platform before you write your book. A lot of people must hear the announcement “I have something to sell!” If they don’t hear you, nobody will buy. And for them to hear you, they have to already know your work. People who don’t know you don’t care about you; they care about a compelling story impeccably told. So build a following of people who know that you’re compelling and can tell stories impeccably before the world hears that you’re selling/publishing/running for something.

5. Get used to feeling uncomfortable. I gleaned this from every writing seminar, keynote, editing workshop, advocacy panel, celebrity panel, and niche panel at BlogHer ’13. Five thousand attendees heard this over and over: Creatively and personally, if you’re going to do something that matters, get comfortable feeling uncomfortable. Lean in. Engage. Query. Take the leap. Incorporate the criticism. Face the music. Do the work. Take the heat. Feeling uneasy is your new normal. Embrace it. It means you’re doing something important.

6. Content is king. The quality of your ideas, writing, music, food, products, message simply must be outstanding, and must say something new about that which is important to your audience. Content. Is. King.

[Note: focusing on content is consistent with the editing phase in which I continually remind authors that the reader is king. Making your writing work for readers is producing good content. So perhaps the content is co-king with the reader? No… content is the crown for the royal reader? No… the reader is the palace in which the king lives. Or vice versa? Or monarchy is so last millennium and we need new metaphors. Maintain an unwavering focus on your reader’s need for great content. There. No more kings. Just robust writing, great content, and engaged readers.]

6. (revised) Maintain an unwavering focus on your audience’s need for great content. 

Did I miss any? Did you hear anything repeatedly at BlogHer ’13 that we must remember as we charge off into the world and create great content?

 

Overwhelmed

I keep meaning to write, but I’ll be damned if I can catch my breath.

We’ve been riding a wave of birthdays and visitors while I try to manage client deadlines and intense sibling yuckiness.

If I had written last week it would have been a whine about being in over my head and forgetting to breathe and wondering whether to do law school or a doctorate to avoid having to make career choices about creativity versus finances.

When I get caught up in maelstroms of bickering and negotiating and working and not sleeping, I forget what’s important and focus in on tasks instead of flow. And when I neglect the things I need, the whirlwind feels faster and faster and bigger and…

Stop.

So I bought a copy of The Secrets of Happy Families. I’m less than a quarter of the way through, but I’m intrigued at how much breathing room new thinking creates.

And lo and behold, being intrigued by a book means I pick it up as often as I can (granted, that means a pathetic 15 minutes a day). A pressing desire to read a compelling book reintroduces one pillar of my core: reading. And it means the boys see me reading. I can sit in the same room with them, supervise without helicoptering, learn a few things, and model strong reading behaviors.

Even more breathing, even more engagement. Family time spent on the person who has been viewing family as work rather than a situation or a reality or a backdrop or a network of humanity.

And boy was I tired of family being work. I even texted a friend that I love being a mother but freaking hate parenting.

From a few ideas in the book and my increased mood borne of reading, the sibling fiasco is getting better bit by bit.

And as the siblings chill, I chill. And as I chill I do client work faster, which means more sleep.

More sleep means more chill-tastic moments, more reading, more creative work.

I’m still barely making it each day. But now the water is to my neck instead of my eyebrows. (Or eyebrow, singular, really, because the post-surgery side is still way higher than the other one. Stupid cancer. I hate you and I hate what you do to families.)

I’m not yet recommending The Secrets of Happy Families. I’ll read more and let you know. But I am highly recommending a little touchstone work for those of us who feel we can’t quite make it through the day.

I kept making lists of the things I needed to reconnect with: sleep, reading, writing, blogging, exercising, healthy eating, socializing, creating.

Turns out I just needed to boost one and the others got a wee trickle down. Which means my all-or-nothing philosophy of how to forcefully cram balance into my life took a big hit this week.

Don’t worry. I’ll build my black-and-white world back up once I once again stumble out of balance.

For now, I have to go read a paragraph.

 

 

Quick poll

What do you value most in the books you read?

I started a discussion on my other blog about Cloud Atlas and the new film version, in which we’re talking about physical descriptions of characters.

And it got me thinking: what do you like best in your reading material? Great dialogue, stunning plot, relatable characters, poetic descriptions, societal importance, genre? Are you willing to forgive bad writing for a breathtaking plot? Will you endure laborious descriptions for magical fantasy? Do you wade through anything for romance? Do you hate fiction and value nonfiction?

What’s your thing in the books you consider great? And while we’re at it, what do you loathe above all else in fiction?

Tillie Olsen

I’ve been thinking about Tillie Olsen this week. So many of her stories move me, make me ache with truth and motherhood and disparity. When she died in 2007 Peanut was just over a year old and while I admired Olsen’s work, I didn’t really feel her as I do now.

Today I flipped through Tell Me A Riddle looking for a quote I vaguely remember, that I absolutely don’t deserve to use as a chapter epigraph, but that I wanted to revisit.

And I remembered I Stand Here Ironing.

Do you know it?

Read it. Tell me if it sears your very being.

Clearing through the clutter

Have you read some of the articles and books blooming in the online space lately? If so, tell me what you think below. If not, here are summaries so we can discuss.

In Defense of Single Motherhood,” Katie Roiphe, New York Times. Roiphe argues that Americans live in a fantasy world that trumpets heteronormative two-parent families despite the statistical reality that two-parent families are increasingly rare and that they often produce screwed up kids. She suggests we focus on social policies that help families raise good citizens instead of worrying so much about the logistics of their household.

I feel her argument that happy kids come from happy households are a welcome reminder that each person has to find the right household for them and that we, as a society, owe our fellow humans more than empty aphorisms and entreaties. We need public policy that makes sure workers are paid a liveable wage, child care is safer and more affordable for all parents, and so-called “different” family structures (including the child-free, whom Roiphe doesn’t mention) are honored just as highly as conventional households.

Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” Anne Marie Slaughter, The Atlantic. She explains how hard it is for even highly educated, financially blessed families to raise children and how women are forced to make untenable choices in the face of a mythology that says we can have it all. She flatly refutes this outdated and harmful claim. She offers helpful perspective on phases in which we focus more on career or children and helps readers rethink the career arc (a later peak for women who raise children at any point in their career) and children’s needs (teenagers need as much time and energy as infants even though the parenting focus is different).

Her article rocked my world because it allowed me to reframe the career-family balance I seek, cheer for the recent honesty of third-wave feminism, and hope we can frame new basic work policies that allow all people to do their best work on their terms whenever possible.

Raising Successful Children,” Margaret Levine, The New York Times (based on her book of the same title). Levine argues that raising people means letting them be people. They need the respect and space to make mistakes and learn. They need support to learn good habits and character. But other than that we need to do for our children less, listen to our children more, and praise our children rarely, and then only for effort not results or innate talents. I found her reminders about building children’s confidence by standing back more and about modeling  by doing more in for ourselves in our own, adult world welcome entreaties to keep doing better for my kids and myself. They learn about themselves by doing and they learn about adults by watching. So choose your activities and values well, then let them do the same.

So. Have you read any or all of these? What do you think?

If You Give an Serial Killer a Cookie

We all have books we’d like to secretly remove from our kids’ shelves. In the middle of the night. And go all Office Space on them. Nicole over at Ninja Mom Blog started a delightful tradition of giving bloggers the weapon of their choice with which to decimate the creepy, annoying, and ungrateful children…er…children’s literature characters that stick in their craw during bedtime reading. Thus was born Character Assassination Carousel, a whirling extravaganza of literary bloodshed and wicked laughter.

The last assassins, Sisterhood of the Sensible Moms, showed us how to read the truly freaky Fox and Hen Together as the hillbilly dysfunctional fustercluck Fried Kentucky Shore. Go read along with their firing squad approach to that dreadful tale.

And when we’re done here, hover around the Character Assassination Carousel to see what children’s classic Farrah at The Three Under will revile next.

Today it’s my turn. I am honored and grateful to be able to warn you the hell away from If You Give a Mouse a Cookie written by Laura Joffe Numeroff and illustrated by Felicia Bond.

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Every time the conversation turns to If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, parents spring to their Ultimate Fighting corners. “It’s sooooo precious,” some coo, “I just love how tired the poor boy gets allowing the mouse to explore.” Others open their eyes wide with horror. “But it sets a bad example, don’t you think, of kids getting everything they want and demanding more,” they shudder, stutter, and reach for their high-fiber, food-like bar.

I’m here, ladies and gentlemen, as a public servant on the Character Assassination Carousel, to show you the darker side of the mouse. And the cookie.

We all need to understand the murderous dangers of letting your child see anyone giving a mouse a cookie. (Aside from the perils inherent in eating a calorie source larger than one’s torso, of course. But that goes without saying for parents who would *never* compulsively eat cookies the minute their children’s backs are turned. Right? Ahem…right? Yeah, me, too.)

I’m talking about the very tangible danger that your child, after enough mouse-and-cookie indoctrination, will become a serial killer.

“Oh, please,” you might laugh. “Stop the cable-news teasers. I happen to know that my child will only become a serial killer if I go back to work or don’t, sleep train or don’t, use sunscreen or don’t, and allow fast food or not. The stakes aren’t so high with this. This is just a book. About a mouse.”

WRONG. It’s a book about a nefarious leader who rewires a cult member’s moral compass and points him toward murderous deeds. It’s about mind-control drugs and hit lists and diabolical rages. And it’s a reminder to never, never trust children or mice.

Don’t believe me? Of course not. Some of you know about my precarious grasp on reality. And my distant memory of sanity. But that’s immaterial here. I am finally coming out of my fog, the one in which I was lulled into a false sense of security by my willingness to read this terrible text at the end of the day when I generally think it reasonable to do anything my children ask as long as they Just. Go. To. Sleep.

Looks innocuous enough, right? Wearing his unassumingly rolled-up overalls and clasping his big-as-a-sibling cookie, he’s cheering for his early-reader success of writing the title and drawing realistic cookies with crayon. Yay for mice who can read and write! (I guess. Except how creepy. What if they can read and write and have a wicked sense of humor and switch your candy for vitamins and vitamins for antidepressants? Then where will we be?)

That cover illustration’s smile is a ruse, dear readers. For on the very first page of the story, you see the scenario we all fear from 1970s propaganda films…Stranger Danger!


Now, I’m willing to admit that we’ve failed our rodent population. Due in part to budget constraints and fiscal politics, mice these days don’t have judgmental police officers like those in the Stranger Danger video to tell them to avoid creepy guys handing out cookies. As a result, our intrepid hero falls for the oldest trick in the book: “Come inside and I’ll give you some more cookies.”

Once locked away from prying eyes and moralistic neighbors, the boy drugs the mouse with a glass of milk laced with mind-control chemicals.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” you interrupt. “That’s ludicrous. It’s a snack! Cookies and milk after school is a time-honored tradition. Maybe they’re friends. Maybe the mouse lives there.”

Um, first of all, do you give your kids cookies and milk after school? No. You try to cram them full of protein and fruit so they have enough energy to leave you the hell alone while you make dinner. And if you did give them cookies and milk? There’s a good chance they’re actually your children. Or the children of parents whose insistence on gluten-free, sugar-free, dairy-free snacks has driven you to revenge. But we know the mouse is a stranger to this boy.

The plotting boy has captured the eldest son of a delightfully happy mouse family, the lot of whom will be devastated by the loss of their sweet son. They’ll probably be heartbroken, as well, by his subsequent life of crime. Maybe. I don’t know them and can’t judge their lives, especially since all their children refuse to wear shirts. If that’s been going for more than a few years with three kids, I couldn’t blame them for being fed up enough to not file the Missing Persons report right away.

So how does the young mouse go from kidnap victim to life of crime, you ask? Don’t forget for a moment the results of that cocktail of brain-altering chemicals the boy pretended was milk.

What follows is not what we’d predict from a contentedly full and sleepy mouse.
We know this was not just milk because moments after eating twice his body weight in cookie and drinking three times his volume in some sort of odorless, tasteless stimulant, the drug takes effect.

He’s wired and falling apart. I’m not an expert, but it seems like a hefty dose of meth would get a mouse to do this

And this

[Can we talk for a moment about living in squalor? My dear, predator child, serial killer or no, you have to sweep a bit more regularly. You clearly keep the ashes of your victims strewn about on the floor of an otherwise tidy house. That’s just weird. If you’re compelled to tidiness and intricate body disposal schemes, you can find a way to care about the human-ash dust-blanket that fills your house. Evil is no excuse for being gross.]

Now that the mouse is in the grip of the sense-dulling drugs, the true cost of accepting that stranger’s cookie is revealed.

tweaking mouse + chloroform = you’re next!

That mouse is totally coming to get you; and if he doesn’t, your child will!

Once the poor captive mouse is transformed into a bloodthirsty maniac, he takes a moment to gloss the boy’s killing manual.

Then takes off to make his own hit list. Does he choose an abrasive celebrity? A rotten politician? The local bully?

Hold up. His own family?! [Cue the portentous music. Duhn Duhn DUUUHN.]

The boy has successfully turned the mouse into a killing machine and completes the indoctrination by reminding the little guy to always carry tools for cleaning up after the crime spree.

The mouse methodically plots his family’s murder

Meanwhile, the boy, content that his plan is working, pauses to rest

…a fatal mistake any parent would know avoid at all costs. For once you cease vigilance, they will pour the olive oil on the floor, practice throwing knives, and paint the kitchen with the fire extinguisher. (Can’t make that stuff up, people. Each one has happened the few times I dare to pee by myself.)

Note that as the boy sleeps, his student stands pondering, ominously, his unsuspecting teacher. The predator is about to become prey.

Mischievously, the mouse awakens the boy with a request for another lesson in mind-control and chemical subservience. The boy follows willingly, led by an insatiable ego.

But he has been fooled. In the final panel, we witness a gleeful mouse in the middle of a murder scene in which we can surmise he has granted himself unfettered access to cookies by mixing the nearby bleach, powdered cleanser, and milk potion to kill his mentor.

Of course, the newly evil mouse will save a few cookies as bait for the next unsuspecting creature who wanders by the house unsupervised.

Don’t let that someone be your child. Just say no to If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.

And to be safe, teach your children to give all their cookies to you.

Thwarted. Again.

It was looking dicey, even from the first line, but I found the perfect plan. To avoid crying through the last few pages of Charlotte’s Web, I realized I had to distract brain while my read-aloud muscles did their job on autopilot. So as I pronounced the words of Charlotte’s death and motherhood, I let my eyes scan the line from initial consonant to initial consonant, noting the relative frequency of each letter. I made myself count and calculate rather than falling into the words.

“My, how often Cs and Bs appear. Wow, there are a lot of Ts this line.” Never mind lessons about mortality, enduring love, generational connections, and children who grow up and fly away. There are surprisingly few initial vowels at the end of the book.

Oh, my trick worked beautifully. I read Peanut the whole last two chapters without losing it. Charlotte died, and I was calm and reassuring as I smoothly glossed over each word, my eyes silently grabbing for the consonants further down the line. Her babies were born and I rejoiced, at least in my voice, but maintained control by counting Ss. Her three daughters set up their webs above Wilbur—three distinct personalities, all of whom evidenced something of their mother. And White wrapped the whole story in a warm blanket of friendship and enduring love, yet I sweetly and breezily narrated it with my best reading voice. And I didn’t cry once.

Until I said “The End.” Because there wasn’t anywhere to go after those words. No more consonants. Damned End even ends in an E. I wasn’t prepared for a vowel. Or for my trick to run smack onto a blank page.

And I bawled. Talking through pathetic little sobs, I told a surprised Peanut that “it’s just my favorite story and I love how gentle the friends are with each other, how sweet and true and friendly.”

That book gets me every time. Damnit.

Inconceivable

We’ve been playing along with an overwhelmed Absence of Alternatives, who bid us post Prince Humperdink’s quote on having too much to do.

The film version is:
“I’ve got my country’s five hundredth anniversary to plan, my wedding to arrange, my wife to murder, and Guilder to frame for it. I’m swamped.”

The book version is:
“I can’t keep my head above water one minute to the next: it’s not just the parties and the goo-gooing with what’s-her-name, I’ve got to decide how long the Five Hundredth Anniversary Parade is going to be and where does it start and when does it start and which nobleman gets to march in front of which other nobleman so that everyone’s still speaking to me at the end of it, plus I’ve got a wife to murder and a country to frame for it, plus I’ve got to get the war going once that’s all happened, and all this is stuff I’ve got to do myself. Here’s what it all comes down to: I’m just swamped, Ty.”

Some of you have added lovely quotes to the list of favorites. Somewhat like Top Gun, The Princess Bride‘s a film rich with quotable moments (that is watched often enough that people can quote and recognize it easily.)

So now I’ll ignore obligations to write another Princess Bride post. Because I suck at priorities. Because I like not thinking much. And because I’m a whore for movie and book quotes. Why think my own thoughts when someone else’s are so clever?

In my previous post I listed as a favorite, “It’s possible, Pig, I might be bluffing. It’s conceivable, you miserable, vomitous mass, that I’m only lying here because I lack the strength to stand. But, then again… perhaps I have the strength after all. Drop. Your. Sword.”

Here are the rest in my top ten:

“Let me ‘splain. No there is too much. Let me sum up.”

“Wrong!” Westley’s voice rang across the room. “Your ears you keep, so that every shriek of every child shall be yours to cherish—every babe that weeps in fear at your approach, every woman that cries ‘Dear God, what is that thing?’ will reverberate forever with your perfect ears. That is what ‘to the pain’ means. It means that I leave you in anguish, in humiliation, in freakish misery until you can stand it no more”

“No more rhymes now, I mean it. Anybody want a peanut?”

“When I was your age, television was called books.”

“Murdered by pirates is good.”

“And that’s when she put her book down. And looked at me. And said it: “Life isn’t fair, Bill. We tell our children that it is, but it’s a terrible thing to do. It’s not only a lie, it’s a cruel lie. Life is not fair, and it never has been, and it’s never going to be.”

“The beef-witted featherbrained rattledskulled clodpated dim-domed noodle-noggined sapheaded lunk-knobbed BOYS.”

“It was only when the giant got halfway down the incline that he suddenly, happily, burst into flame and continued his trip saying, ‘NO SURVIVORS, NO SURVIVORS!’ in a manner that could only indicate deadly sincerity.

It was seeing him happily burning and advancing that startled the Brute Squad to screaming. And once that happened, why, everybody panicked and ran…”

“He had written to her just before he sailed for America. The Queen’s Pride was his ship, and he loved her. (That was the way his sentences always went: It is raining today and I love you. My cold is better and I love you. Say hello to Horse and I love you. Like that.)”

and my favorite of all…

“Writing is finally about one thing: going into a room alone and doing it. Putting words on paper that have never been there in quite that way before. And although you are physically by yourself, the haunting Demon never leaves you, that Demon being the knowledge of your own terrible limitations, your hopeless inadequacy, the impossibility of ever getting it right. No matter how diamond-bright your ideas are dancing in your brain, on paper they are earthbound.”

I know. It’s not funny or cute or Princess Bride-ish at all. But I goddamned love writing quotes.