Pubs, Spring 2016 Edition

Shenny-Logo-2-red-birds

The new issue of Shenandoah, which includes my story “The Fossil Record,” has just gone live.

The working title for “The Fossil Record” was “The Nanny’s Tale,” and I guess that just about covers it:

The Davenport’s beautiful house is filled with beautiful art.  Art Molly loves to look on. So for a while, the stage before this stage, she supposes, she tried to convince herself that was reason enough to stay with the job, reason enough to be happy — the slant of light on the gleaming wooden floors and the quiet, and the milky bubble at the corner of Odette’s mouth whenever she falls asleep clutching a bottle.  Which she is not supposed to do, or Molly to allow, because it’ll be bad for the teeth Odette doesn’t actually have yet.  The fact is that there are bold still-lifes hung everywhere, even the kitchen, oil paint on canvas, such an orgy of art that Molly can hardly comprehend it.  She begins to run a sponge over the marble countertop.   How much longer can she rationalize what she’s doing?  She needs to go back to school, so she can get her education certificate, so she can teach art to preschoolers, at least until the next downturn, when such positions will once again be cut.

Read it and Weep, or What Have We Wrought?

“The Overprotected Kid: A preoccupation with safety has stripped childhood of independence, risk taking, and discovery—without making it safer…”  (The Atlantic, April 2014)

The gap between what people fear (abduction by a stranger) and what’s actually happening (family turmoil and custody battles) is revealing. What has changed since the 1970s is the nature of the American family, and the broader sense of community. For a variety of reasons—divorce, more single-parent families, more mothers working—both families and neighborhoods have lost some of their cohesion. It is perhaps natural that trust in general has eroded, and that parents have sought to control more closely what they can—most of all, their children.

Slice of Life

I haven’t read the book yet (it comes out today), but this is from Sunday’s  NY Times Q & A with Debora Spar, President of Barnard and author of Wonder Women:  Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection:

“….I raced home from work, I was putting dinner on the table, and I was racing out the door to go to a PTA meeting. My son, who was all of 8 at the time, said, “Why are you doing this?” I looked at him and said, “It’s very important to me that I go to your school.” He said, “Why?” I said, “Well, I’m part of the community and this is about you and your school.” And he said, “I want you home.” It was one of those moments. I realized I was trying to be a perfect community member on top of being a professional and a mother, and I couldn’t do it all. I stopped going to PTA meetings after that.”

The Times says that in her book, Ms. Spar argues

 that at every stage of life, from childhood to old age, women are straining to reach impossible standards.

“My generation made a mistake,” Ms. Spar writes. “We took the struggles and the victories of feminism and interpreted them somehow as a pathway to personal perfection. We privatized feminism and focused only on our dreams and our own inevitable frustrations.”

Is Ms. Spar’s generation my generation?  A 40-year-old’s?  Not sure.  But as the mother of two daughters, I’m interested in the possible ramifications of what Spar calls the “privatization of feminism.”

Elemental: Water

As far as this blog goes, I’ve written about the swimming pool, that staple of summer life, here and here and here and here.

In Eggs for Young America, my collection of stories, life required (among other things) fraught swimming-tests for twelve-year-old girls (“Deadman’s Float”), pilgrimages to Lake Michigan (“Grand Portage”), and nests of water moccasins encountered while waterskiing Lake Lanier (“The Gulf”).  In stories since, college students covertly eye their teaching assistants as they swim laps at the university pool (“The Shoals”), people realize they’d “always preferred land to water” (“The Sailor’s Horn-book for the Law of Storms”), and teen-aged girls step out on frozen lakes with random strangers (“The Snow Queen”).

On the one hand, you could look out at all this water and mainly just see evidence of the location where much of my writing takes place.  It gets hot down here in the summertime; what else are we supposed to do but head to the pool or the lake?

But on the other — what gives? I took swimming lessons as a child; I loathed them. I don’t think of myself as a particularly strong swimmer.  What on earth is this feeling of love that suffuses me whenever I herd  children away from the oblong shimmer of water that is our local pool after swim team practice?  The pool itself has seen better days. Like so much else, swim team turns out to be no parental cake-walk.

(*Swim Team!  The meets that last until 10 p.m.!  The clamor of two hundred kids required to spend five hours in an enclosed space much too small in order to get the pay-off of a grand total of three or four minutes in the water!  The grids Sharpie’d onto their tan forearms and shoulders so events to be swum will be remembered!  The waiting! The nights spent eating concession stand crud!  The waiting! The parents who scream themselves hoarse!  The waiting!)

At the pool, our children are (we are)  brave and cowardly by turns. At the pool, I have observed  the slow, slow, one flip-flopped foot in front of the other perp-walk to the dressing room during the middle of practice an eight-year-old uses to avoid swimming 50 yards of butterfly stroke.

I have seen spent ten-year-olds gamely tackle distance you can tell they believe is insurmountable.

I have seen college-kid instructors kicked in the face over and over and over again by flailing toddlers while three of that toddler’s peers sit on the edge of the pool engaged in the low-level, I-can-do-this-with-one-hand-tied-behind-my-back-and-forever, fretful crying that finds every chink in a watching parent’s armor.

I have seen (I have been) the parent who relents and wraps a kid in a towel and takes them home early; I have seen (I have been) the parent who turns their face away so as to not see the pleading look of the kid who wants to be rescued from a lesson.

I have sat on the lounge chairs purchased with neighborhood donations because the city can’t (too poor?  too mismanaged?)  afford them and languidly discussed swimming holes in the Great Smoky Mountains and how to make peach preserves and inexpensive house painters and neighborhood crime.

At the pool I have been the sort of snappish, harried parent I hate.  I have also — for  brief tiny seconds — been the generous inverse of that.

At the swimming pool, the water, acrid with chlorine, sluices away our defenses.

At the swimming pool, we all are naked, and that is always a beautiful thing.

The Recital (Part One)

I started this blog six years ago, when Elder Girleen went off to elementary school.

Last night, she “graduated” from fifth grade.

I could attempt to wax eloquent about the passage of time, because that’s what we parents do, but to paraphrase Benny, a character in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad —

nostalgia is the end — everybody knows that.  

Even so, this whirlwind of culminating moments — final recitals, final exhibitions, graduations — is tailor-made,  not just for nostalgia (and oh how they milk that,  with the kids marching into the auditorium two-by-two to the first few bars of The Verve’s Bittersweet Symphony*  and a slide show of their baby pics) but for a sort of regrouping.   These rituals carve out emotional space, and in that space we take stock, we  take, as they call it in yoga, a deep centering breath.  

I don’t say as much as I used to here about the personal, about the daily.  Part of that’s because — let’s face it —  blogs as a medium died a flash-in-the-pan death eons (a couple of years) ago.  The world has since migrated to Twitter and Facebook. Part of that’s because when your children are themselves surfing the ‘net, you’re fielding a lot of hard questions about what’s private, what’s personal, and what should be offered up for public consumption.

But above all, there’s only so much time.   I write more stories these days.

But last weekend, I sat on yet-another  uncomfortable folding chair.  Took one of those deep, centering breaths and in doing so took a second to parse things out,  to mark this particular moment.

*Just the sweeping strings of the instrumental intro; lyrics like

‘Cause it’s a bittersweet symphony, this life
Try to make ends meet
You’re a slave to money then you die

are kinda a downer, particularly at a 5th grade graduation ceremony.

Fall, Once More

Surely I didn’t let this much time go by since I wrote anything down here — I must, between June and now, have written down something!

Be that as it may — it does little good  to worry at my words, or at their absence.  It is a new school year, a blank slate.  My oldest daughter is long and lean and tan and gimlet-eyed, she swings a leg over her blue bike (brand-named Moxie)  and pedals into her  future.

My work is practically done!  I feel both proud and sorry.  First I had no children, and then — it seemed like suddenly but it actually was not — I did.  Tiny newborns who demanded attention from me that I hadn’t, up until that minute, known how to give another human being.

And now, it feels like seconds later — my job has become the inverse of that.  To step back. To ignore the maternal clutch I can’t help but feel as the spokes of the bicycle wheels flash in the sun and my firstborn rides off without looking back, standing up on the pedals, her back straight.

Things, Pressed into Service

If you classify yourself as a “reader” in the simplest sense of the word (ie, one who reads), and probably even if you don’t, sooner or later it happens — you find yourself on the tour of the House of the Famous Writer.  More specifically, you find yourself peering over a velvet rope into a particular room that long ago was pressed into service to become a famous writer’s workspace.  What transformed it from a dining room or a bedroom or a hall closet into a space where genius burned?  A typewriter, of course, and the desk on which that typewriter sits.  Books, stacked in teetering piles on every surface, or tucked into bookcases, floor to ceiling.

I have to admit that I’ve never found the rooms where writers worked (even famous ones)  extraordinarily interesting; such tours have never been something I planned a vacation around —what sort of sick pup would do that? The Houses of Famous Writers are, instead, places I’ve ended up paying good money to walk through  because

  1. I’ve found myself with free time in a place where the Writer’s House has been promoted as a tourist attraction since time began  (ie, Hemingway’s House, in Key West, of which I remember little except that the gardens surrounding it reeked of cat piss).  Or,
  2. I see a sign for the Writer’s House as I’m on my way from Here to There, and anything has become a great excuse to get out of the car (ie, Carl Sandburg’s House, where I was most impressed by the fact that he raised goats, which seems in many ways a more sensible (and lucrative) profession than writing)*.

For many many years the rooms where I wrote had once been dining rooms in rental houses that had seen better days.  Who on earth in modern America needs a dining room, particularly if they live alone or with roommates or a significant other but sans children and eat dinner every night with a plate balanced on their knees and the television on?**

Now, I write in a room that was once a porch and was glassed-in by previous owners, nominally at least. The aluminum casement windows that prove just how long ago it was glassed in were like some red carpet for tiny spiders — man, the bugs just sauntered in. The space is cold in winter, hot in summer — or at least it was until recently, when an “incident” that caused an apple from our front yard tree to fly out of an older sibling’s hand and miss the intended younger sibling target***) spurred us to go ahead and get “real” windows to replace the “fake” ones.

Now my writing room is, in fact, a room.  It’s a room that also contains a bicycle and crayons scattered across the floor like so much tinder, but it’s a room, all the same.  The windows perform as intended, and in an added, unexpected benefit, also serve as a lovely frame, now and then transforming the everyday into a form of artwork.

Would it be too tired a cliché to say — maybe sometimes you notice more when your view has been just a bit constrained?

We are on the cusp of fall.  Four days ago we were still wrestling with the draggling tag-end of a long hot summer, but the temperature has finally, mercifully, just in the nick of time dropped.  The leaves of the hickory tree to be noticed through the windows are still green, drought-limp and still, and waiting, waiting.  Drowsy, and they dream of falling.

Soon.

We have passed into a new season.  Two children in elementary school!  This transition might contain one of parenthood’s great secrets:  once all your children are in school, you get some of your life back.  And this secret is so secret exactly why?  Because admitting you might have once had some sort of life you long to regain marks you as  —what? — a dreadful, dreadful traitor?

Our mornings are different than they used to be.  By third grade, clothes matter, at least to girls.  Hair sometimes refuses to do what it should!  Things are misplaced; schoolwork left undone!  Let us bow our heads, engage in torrents of loud weeping!  Last night I dreamed one of Elder Girleen’s peers arrived at school in three-inch heels and c-cups.  It’s that non-organic milk, I tried to assure myself and woke up in a cold sweat.

The corollary  to the fact that I am regaining something of my old life is that I also have new work to do:  to give my daughters, who no longer need me quite the same way, their lives.

We have passed into a new season.  The childless on the neighborhood e-list are stewing over Halloween.  So many children!  They knock on the door uncostumed!  They’re van-loaded in from Henry County!  Sometimes they hit the same houses twice! They’ve been raised wrong!

We have passed into a new season.  Early mornings, the middle-schoolers bike to their school in the center of this neighborhood, toiling up the hills and coasting down, in a scarfed and bundled pack.  Today, a straggler was pedally madly, desperately, to catch up. Around the corner behind her, one last cyclist.  The straggler’s dad.  He’s hanging back, but oh, he’s there.

I was walking by; I saw it.  I fiddled with the ipod tucked into one jacket pocket, turned the volume way  way up, loud enough to drown out the voices on the neighborhood e-list who’ve deemed such behavior an unsafe, subversive act.

Oh brave new world!  O brave new season!  Miraculously, my children are changing. I pray — to what? To whom?  Unknown —for the wisdom to change with them, and walk on.

*The second thing I was impressed by was the “napping couch” beside Sandburg’s desk — what rosy times there were then!

** Given how often dining rooms are pressed into service as writer’s workplaces, I suppose a conclusion could be drawn about the ability of words to serve as nourishment, but I’d really rather wax eloquent about goat-farming.

***Most recent spin regarding the apple-tree/broken window mishap:  “She should have to pay for the window too because she WANTED me to hit her.”

Treading Water: or, The Deep End

This is it, then.  The lovely nutmeat of the summer.  The musty smell of tomatoes pulled from the vine; the scent of sun-baked dirt before the afternoon’s rain storm.  Sweat that teases the hair at the nape of Elder Girleen’s neck into tendrils; the beautiful, enveloping ache of refrigerated air when we finally get the front door unlocked after a morning spent running errands.

It’s just a second’s work:  from heat dense enough to weigh it in your hands to its inverse — such coolness!  Our work-a-day world’s attempt to imitate nature’s best, most magical decanting of summer: that knife-sharp plunge from land into water on the hottest July afternoon.

Lacking large, natural bodies of water around here, our pursuit of that leap, that head-clearing, breath-taking instant leads us to — where else? — the swimming pool.

Which I have written about here, and elsewhere.

The rest of this post could be spent lamenting the fact that Younger Girleen doesn’t seem to have advanced much beyond the class she took two years ago (the evidence, it seems, is right here). Could be spent divulging that if Motherhood were, in fact, a board game, I might’ve earned two points for the lunch packed for the girleens to eat today pool side (perfect isosceles triangles cut from a watermelon so ripe it split itself before the pressure of the knife blade reached it; last night’s left0ver, handmade California rolls) and then lost three more points due to the sad fact that not only had I just plain forgotten to bring with us clothes to change into, I’d gotten us to the pool ten minutes late for a thirty minute lesson.

This post could be all that, but instead, let us examine —

Happiness.

For that topic, subgenre  parents, in particular, has once again hit news stands in a recent New York magazine article titled “All Joy and No Fun:  Why Parents Hate Parenting”.

The article’s entertaining, and brings up many valid points, and in the end says about the same thing we all probably would’ve said before we read it, which is —

Yes, it defies logic, yes, by the standards by which we judge happiness these days it shouldn’t be the case, but all the same, us parents wouldn’t change a thing.

I read the article yesterday, and discussed it with The Husband this morning, and today, as I sat at the side of the pool during the twenty minutes respite swimming lessons gives me (just think — I would have had thirty if I hadn’t been late!) my thoughts kept idly circling back to it.

The pool is such a perfect rectangle; I adore its shimmer, its precise angles, the way that, in order to experience it, we all — always — have to strip down. I was not the only parent who brought their offspring to the lesson late.  All around me, mothers were frantically spritzing their children with sunscreen before sending them off to the side of the pool.  All around me, mothers were conducting business, on their cell phones.

We’re all so earnest these days, aren’t we?  We work — at everything — so hard.

The Summer Fiction issue of the New Yorker was open on my lap — because  I tell myself that as a fiction writer it’s part of my job to know exactly who the 20 writers under 40 are this year that will blow me away.

I am no longer under forty.

I have probably not lived up to my potential.

I don’t necessarily mean I haven’t lived up to my potential professionally, though that might or might not be true.  I suppose what I mean is this:  Wisdom, and possibly the idea of happiness (or unhappiness, as the case may be), might in some part, however glancingly, hinge on the realization that none of us live up to our potential.

Recently, I read a blog post that began:  I’m a great mom, even though I don’t…

And just as recently, someone turned to me and said:  I’m a bad mom, but…

Both these statements, arbitrarily thrown into this topic as they might be, contain within them  the same thing. An ideal, and the recognition that we can’t live up to that ideal (because I can’t help but believe that any woman who says in print I’m a great mom harbors the secret fear that she’s actually not).  Ever.  We have none of us lived up to our potential.

But over there, in the swimming pool, in all those kids awkwardly churning around?

Pure potential.

How can parenthood not be complicated?  How can we not be ambivalent?  Seeing — and experiencing, second hand — our children’s potential gives us such an undeserved second chance.  But at the same time it reminds us each and every day, every single second, of what we — because we have to, that’s what growing up is — no longer have.

I was particularly struck by the following paragraph in that New York article:

More generous government policies, a sounder economy, a less pressured culture that values good rather than perfect kids—all of these would certainly make parents happier. But even under the most favorable circumstances, parenting is an extraordinary activity, in both senses of the word extra: beyond ordinary and especially ordinary. While children deepen your emotional life, they shrink your outer world to the size of a teacup, at least for a while. (“All joy and no fun,” as an old friend with two young kids likes to say.) Lori Leibovich, the executive editor of Babble and the anthologyMaybe Baby, a collection of 28 essays by writers debating whether to have children, says she was particularly struck by the female contributors who’d made the deliberate choice to remain childless. It enabled them to travel or live abroad for their work; to take physical risks; to, in the case of a novelist, inhabit her fictional characters without being pulled away by the demands of a real one. “There was a richness and texture to their work lives that was so, so enviable,” she says. (Leibovich has two children.)

The ability to travel, to live abroad, to take physical risks, to inhabit fictional characters — golly gee, those things sound fun, don’t they? Those things are fun. And guess what,  experiencing them doesn’t often remind us of our inabilities, our lacks, our failure to live up to our potential, because if they do, we just stop doing them.

Parenthood, on the other hand, is with us always.  We can’t decide to quit doing it, the way one might conceivably decide to quit travelling and settle down.

Maybe the next generation will  get it better than we do — that we waste far far too much of our time weighing entirely dissimilar things on a single scale.

The End of the World as We Know It?

So… Elder Girleen’s elementary school is holding a Walk to School Day next month.

Because…

Well, you know.  Kids don’t.  Walk to school.

We don’t.  Our excuse:  we live 2.14 miles from school, and there’s no bus (another story).  I tell myself that if we lived only a tenth of a mile  from school, we would, but it’s probably best not to make judgements until I’ve walked a tenth of a mile in other folks’ moccasins.

In any case, in the service of Walk to School Day, I’ve volunteered to chaperone a Walking School Bus from a designated drop-off spot, so that kids who live too far away can experience walking to school.

Ah, modern life, that peculiar country!  Where homework is called “Home Enrichment.” Where playing at a friend’s house is called a “Play Date.” Where all those  things that used to just happen are now capitalized, and a parent walking a group of kids to school is called a “Walking School Bus.”

Around here, Walk to School Days are organized, in part, by a local nonprofit group, and in their organizational capacity, that group has sent us chaperones  “Consent Forms” we can have  parents to sign  (at our discretion) should they choose  to have their child walk to school.

Just to make sure we all know what’s what:

Potential Risks

Through the requirement of parental, legal guardian, or other adult supervision along each student participant’s entire route to and from school, the Walking School Bus program hopes to reduce the risk of injury to children. However, there are risks associated with child pedestrians.  The typical risks for child pedestrians include injuries caused by falls, overexertion, carelessness, contact with other participants, or, in some cases, motor vehicles.

That about sums things up, doesn’t it?


The Future

So yesterday I was at Elder Girleen’s second-grade classroom for the monthly birthday commemoration, which consisted of a cheer and a song for the three kids with January birthdays.*  

On the surface, that was all that was taking place.  But because I just spent almost two weeks away from the usual routines of my life,**  thinking about writing and what makes it work to the exclusion of almost all else, I haven’t completely lost the ability —yet — to hold  two thoughts*** in my mind simultaneously.

Elder Girleen’s school was built in 1929, which is comforting to us geezer parents, because it feels a lot like the schools we attended ourselves.  This is a good thing because what goes on inside it— how multiplication is taught these days, for instance, is a completely puzzlement — can be completely unfamiliar to us, and you know how parents react to things that are different.  

These were two of the spelling words written on the board:

Discombobulate

Ghastly

 Another section of the board was devoted to what had clearly been a discussion about writing, and included — God love us all! — the words narrative arc and dramatic tension.  

Did I say that this was a second grade classroom?  Don’t know about you but I didn’t hear those terms bandied about much until I was in graduate school.  

Much is being made these days about the death of print journalism — and possibly of professional writing in general.  Having just spent a full day in an airport waiting for my flight home to ultimately be cancelled, I can tell you that if you want to kill time with a magazine these days you’re pretty much shit out of luck.  

Will Apple’s new tablet computer save us?  The pundits seem doubtful.  And all you have to do is read last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine feature about the author James Patterson  and learn that one out of every 17 novels sold in the U.S. was written by a marketing-savvy former ad-exec to harbor some doubts yourself.  

But even as we’re busily killing off the idea of the writer as a professional who can make a living by his/her pen, we apparently are just as busily attempting to teach our children to write at increasingly sophisticated levels.  

What to make of this?  I’m certainly not complaining; I want my children to be good writers and readers.  And I know such skills transfer, and will be useful to them, whether or not they pick up a pencil or a book in their adult lives.  

But meantime, the publishing industry wallows.  It flounders helplessly, it continually bemoans its fate. Opportunities are squandered, right and left, and a person is hard pressed to find a book in the airport that isn’t by James Patterson.  

  
*Then they ate some sweet stuff, which is how all important events are recognized in elementary school.  

**We all can read between the lines here:  what I really mean is there was no one under four feet tall strapped in the backseat of the car crying Mommy, mommy, you’re REALLY not listening to me! when my attention wandered from their recitation of the plot of the movie The Tooth Fairy for a second or two.

***However inane they might be.