There are these things that make me happy.
Archive for May, 2010
Other than the Harry Potter series, I’ve never paid any attention to when or how a new book was released. As a matter of fact, I don’t think I realized that books outside the Harry Potter series even had release dates. And until I struck up an online friendship with Aidan Donnelley Rowley last fall (which was recently and deliciously consummated in person over white wine and guacamole) I knew not a thing about the process of publishing a book. Now, several months, blog posts, and e-mails later my knowledge has grown from just North of nothing to just South of something. On her blog, Ivy League Insecurities, Aidan has generously taken us along for the ride as she journeyed toward publication. And on May 18th her book was born.
I felt awkward pestering the staff at Border’s to unbox this new release a mere two hours after they opened on May 18th. And I felt awkward blabbering on about how the author is a friend of mine and I wanted to make sure her new title was properly displayed. But no amount of clumsy conversation could have stopped me from completing my literary mission of the day.
I plowed through Life After Yes in about a week, gobbling it up in small chunks during IEP’s naps, before bed, and one last push to the end over lunch yesterday. After months and months of anticipation I had developed some sense of what LAY’s pages might hold, but for the most part my list of expectations was short.
Life After Yes tells the story of young Manhattan attorney Quinn, affianced but afflicted about whether or not her life can withstand the structure of marriage. Hers are the problems of privilege, but no less real or distressing to Quinn because of it. Rattled after losing her father on September 11th she lives her life on the third rail, full of destructive habits that she’s forced to confront as she considers bringing another person into her life for good.
I was happy to discover within the first few pages that the strong narrative voice I’ve grown to love on Aidan’s blog comes through clearly in her fiction writing as well. She works clever metaphors into tiny places, and her hallmark affection for alliteration (and assonance?) is subtle but ever-present. In addition to quick and flitting nature of her writing, the plot had much to offer as well.
It was the glimpse into experiences I never had myself that brought me the most enjoyment from this book. I have long understood at an academic level that for many brides the foray into marriage is fraught with fear. But my own experience was quite different. In a long-term, steady, and decidedly non-dramatic relationship, GAP’s and my decision to marry was a slow one. By the time we finally married the fear had subsided, the questions had been answered, and we were confident about our path together. So walking in Quinn’s shoes for 340 pages gave me insight into an experience about which I’d previously known very little. Her story may be fiction, but her story is also true.
Quinn’s losses became mine. Her fears became mine. Her mistakes caused me to feel shame and her success caused me to feel pride. Aidan lifts the outer layers of external perfection from her heroine and carefully reveals a creature who is initially less – but ultimately more – enviable than you thought she was based on her exterior.
If the novel deserves any criticism at all it would be that it left me wanting more. Aidan’s deft descriptions paint rich and colorful pictures. In several scenes I wished for longer, uninterrupted passages that would allow me to really soak up the settings before commencing with the next plot point. The narrative didn’t feel rushed, necessarily, but there is an eagerness to it that in some ways augments the agitation Quinn feels, but also occasionally left me needing to pause for a breath. I hope that in her sophomore effort (which I understand is in the works!) Aidan takes her time and allows the characters and readers just a bit more space to get settled in before being ushered through the story.
I’ve recommended Life After Yes to several friends and colleagues already. And this weekend I’ll be giving away my extra copy to a dear friend for whom the characters of Quinn and Avery will hold special significance.
It was a treat to read this book; to flip through its pages feeling a special connection to the woman in the story via the woman behind the story. It’s not many of us who can count published authors among our friends. I’m happy to be in the minority.
Most of the hubbub has died down by now, but a couple of weeks ago President Obama drew some negative press for making the following statement during his commencement address at Hampton University. He said:
With iPods and iPads and Xboxes and PlayStations–none of which I know how to work–information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment, rather than the means of emancipation.
I read about the kerfuffle over his statement and didn’t make too much of it. Then GAP directed me to these posts (here and here – the second one in particular) by Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic (whom GAP would want me to tell you is the best writer you’re not reading). Coates tackled this topic from a few angles in his posts, but there’s one in particular that interested me. He writes:
Obama is essentially espousing prejudice. I don’t know what else to call the simple solution of boastful ignorance and judgement [sic]. That it is prejudice against the ways of the young, as opposed to prejudice against, say gay people, while obviously a lesser evil, isn’t comforting.
In essence, Obama is saying that he can’t be bothered by the technology that so many of us obsess over. He is focused on bigger issues, not entertainment. It’s going to take more than Steve Jobs’ latest shiny object to capture his attention. Techno-gadgets are not for him. Fine. Fair enough. But he said all of this without offering Jerry Seinfeld’s all-encompassing caveat: “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” Quite the contrary, he seems to believe that we all spend some time in a dunce cap every time we fire up an iPad or a Wii.
So I am prone to wonder, should we ever be so proud to say that something is beneath us? Or conversely, any time we presume to be above something (romance novels, NASCAR, tabloid magazines, or reality television – just to name a few examples that I had to dig for and have absolutely no connection to me…) are we implicitly perpetrating a prejudice against those for whom it is of value?
If I believe that something is a cheap, value-less aspect of our popular culture then at some level I assume that those people who consume it share some of those qualities. But as Coates insightfully points out, we all walk away from things with different experiences. I may view romance novels a smutty and brainless. Someone else may find that they help her escape momentarily from a difficult or lonely life. You may think that video games serve only to increase violence among teenagers. Someone else may be using Wii Fit to explore yoga for the first time. We all walk into and out of our culture with different baggage.
President Obama’s upbringing was far from textbook. Somewhere along the way I’m sure he reaped value and lessons from unconventional places. I suspect he could look back on moments from his childhood and adolescence and point to aspects of his life that may have seemed shallow or worthless to an outsider, but which carried greater significance for him. Further still, I imagine it is in part because he drew more value from the commonplace things in his life that he was able to rise above his humble roots and achieve what he has.
During the campaign he spoke often of being “the kid with the funny name.” At some point people looked past the exterior and found value inside. It’s funny to me that, at least in this instance, he was so disinclined to do the same. (Especially given his BlackBerry addiction…)
IEP has had a thing for pacifiers since the very beginning. As a NICU baby he wasn’t allowed to nurse for the first few days of his life and a pacifier was the only acceptable stand-in. He attached quickly. Since then, it has been a wonderful tool. In the early days it was priceless for long car rides, naps, and general fussiness. More recently it has been helpful keeping him quiet during church, and for the funny and guilty smile he makes when he finds a stray one that he knows is off limits except for sleep time.
I asked our pediatrician at his 15-month appointment what the drop-dead age is for pacifiers. She told us we were fine as long as he was weaned from it by two years. I decided right then that 18 months would be our cutoff. (That was after deciding, and then rescinding my decision, that nine months and twelve months would be our cutoffs.) And this weekend we did the deed. After a grandparent visit including a big zoo trip and lunch out, he was exhausted by the time his nap rolled around on Saturday. For the first time, we put him down sans pacifier. He cried for about three minutes and then crashed. We repeated the routine for Sunday’s nap. Then last night he went down for the night without it. Again, he cried for about three minutes and then went right to sleep.
I have been both surprised and not surprised at how easily this transition has gone. (“Is going” – don’t want to count the proverbial chickens quite yet…) For a baby who’s never had to fall asleep with an empty mouth, this change hasn’t been altogether a non-event. But it hasn’t been much of an event either. He’s an adaptable kid and takes to new situations with relative ease. But despite his flexibility, I know that at some level this change is hard for him.
Last night as I laid him down crying (after having declined his pacifier request) I started thinking about what pacifies me. Thankfully, it’s not a silicone nipple tethered to a clip on my shirt. But I – we all – have things in my life that soothe me. I have things in my life that are familiar, on which I lean and rely, and which could be considered crutches in moments when I reach for them out of fear.
A cell phone. Internet access. My mother on the other end of the telephone. Leather handbags in a rainbow of colors. Sloppy kisses from giant furry dogs. A squeeze of my husband’s strong hand. All these things, in various moments of stress or insecurity bolster me against my fears.
So how would I feel if, over the course of a weekend, someone decided it was high time I was weaned off any of these things? I wondered about this and tried to distinguish for myself what the difference is between IEP’s pacifier and any of my own soothing vices. I drew the line in a shade of grey. I can handle most any situation without my own creature comforts. Naturally, strife-filled moments are easier with them. But I can rise to the occasion on my own when called upon.
What I didn’t want for IEP was for his pacifier habit to become so ingrained that it was a prerequisite for sleep – or any other brand of satiety. It’s not so much that I don’t want him to have it, it’s that I don’t want him to need it. With toddlers such nuances are difficult to convey, which is why it plays out in shades of black and white. But ultimately it’s the coping skill that I want to develop, more than the crutch that I want to eliminate.
But yet we all have such needs. We can never truly eliminate our need for the objects and attachments that aid us in trying times. And just as surely as his attachment to his pacifier fades, his attachment to something else (something more toddler-esque, something more socially acceptable for a boy his age?) will develop. So why such a big deal about the pacifer? (Aside from the fear of massive orthodontia?) I’m not sure. But I know that the experience he’s having in giving up something now will be repeated many times throughout his life. Giving up our nanny someday. Giving up his preschool. Giving up his favorite pajamas. Giving up a girlfriend (in the dim and distant future!). So perhaps it is the experience of sacrifice and change that we’re fostering, as much as a shift to new objects of comfort.
These little moments of parenting sneak up on me from time to time. I watch my son traverse a poignant moment in life and extrapolate its significance out to an adult level. There is much to be gained in considering our challenges from a child’s perspective. It takes the muddied waters of adulthood and clarifies them with concision. As I’ve watched him relinquish his pacifier so easily, I am prone to wonder what it is that I hang onto but could just as easily dismiss.
I am tired. Five for Ten (with a 4-day vacation to New York in the middle) wore me out. Not to mention that in the past couple of weeks my company has heightened its internet security settings, making it more difficult for me to steal away quiet moments of my day, here and there, to escape into the thoughts and words of my favorite bloggers. So I try to catch up on your worlds early in the morning and late at night. And that, too, wears me out.
I tell you this because I was going to take today off. I was going to post some interesting links to tide you over until Monday, wherein I planned to resume my regular thrice-weekly musings on the various and sundry topics that interest me. But then I read this article in the New York Times Magazine by Lisa Belkin and was riveted.
At a glance this seems to be a heyday for women in the law. Provided that Elena Kagan is confirmed for the first time in history the Supreme Court will seat three women. Such unprecedented moments come rarely, and should be celebrated. Or should they? That is the question asked in this article. And I’m thoroughly perplexed by it.
The exception that some people are taking to Kagan’s nomination is that she is not married or a mother (as is also the case with Sotomayor, but was not the case with O’Connor or Ginsberg). Apparently to some it implies that to ascend to the highest heights of her profession (or at least of the legal profession) a woman must sacrifice her opportunity to have a family. Belkin puts it this way:
But as women’s paths ascended, they also narrowed. Expectation brings obligation, and Sotomayor and Kagan were of the generation facing new tradeoffs. Pursue the career and sacrifice the family. Have the family and ratchet back the career. True, the stigma of not marrying or having children waned for this younger generation, making it more of a deliberate choice for some. But still, roads had to be chosen.
The Daily Beast writer, Peter Beinart even went so far as to pen an entire piece entitled “Put a Mom on the Court” and state within it that he wished that mother and stepmother Diane Wood had been nominated in place of Kagan. While I can concede some merits of this position, I struggle with it nonetheless.
I am not an attorney, a legal scholar, or a politician of any stripe. But I am a smart person with a curious mind and I follow the current events of our government in a reasonable amount of detail. And here’s my beef with the Kagan-isn’t-a-mother naysayers:
It was her choice. For years women didn’t have the choice to pursue career over family. But generations of women fought for the right to do so. Kagan made that decision and for all appearances it has served her well. She should not be punished professionally for having chosen not to have children any more than any other woman should be punished professionally because she did. Can you imagine the backlash that would be going on in this country if the converse had come to pass? What if Kagan – all other qualifications being equal – had been passed over for this opportunity merely because she had a spouse and children in her life? Working mothers everywhere would be in a state of revolt.
Furthermore, it isn’t the job of the Supreme Court to serve as a barometer for work-life balance. It is the job of the Supreme Court to apply the Constitution thoughtfully in cases that aren’t readily decided by existing legislation or case law. That’s it. And that’s plenty! Suggesting that her spot on the bench could be better filled by someone who is a parent because of the message it sends is demeaning to an accomplished and qualified nominee.
I’ll step down off of my soapbox now, before I get too comfortable up there. Moments like this really try my patience. We women have worked so hard for our professional opportunities. To discriminate someone who made the (very personal) choice to avail herself of them completely hits my funny bone.
We women have come a long way, but it’s still not a cakewalk. Women who have careers judge women who decide to stay home. Women who stay home judge women who decide to have careers (at the exclusion or inclusion of a family). The whole point in all these struggles is that we all get to choose. No two of us are alike. We finally get the latitude to pursue lives that suit us. Why on earth should our choices ever be held against us by someone who chose differently? We’re on the same team here. I chose what was right for me. Elena Kagan chose what was right for her. And as long as you chose what was right for you then we’re still in this boat together. Right?
Yes is the frightening answer to so many questions:
Do I want to learn a new language?
Do I want to live overseas again?
Do I want to have more children?
Do I want to work for myself someday?
Do I want to travel extensively?
Yes is also the comforting answer to many other questions:
Do I have a family I love and adore?
Am I happy in my life?
Do I have hobbies I enjoy?
Am I in good health?
Is my marriage sturdy?
Yes is a word that simultaneously feels like a warm blanket and a cold breeze. I wrap myself in it, and brace myself against it. I fear it and yearn for it in the same moment. It takes me to new places in my life, some of which are beloved, and some of which are mistakes. It teaches me to embrace my fumbles and falters. It rewards me with unexpected blessings. It hovers over me like a guardian and haunts me like a ghost.
I answer yes in my life because I am better for it.
There is the life I have. And there is the life I want. Much of the time they look a lot alike. But there are times when real life takes a back seat to dream life and I spend a handful of days contemplating something I wish I had. This happens every time I go to New York.
On Thursday morning GAP and I loaded up into a cab, said goodbye to IEP (who was much more interested in the presence of said cab than in the fact that Mama and Dada were leaving in it), and motored to the airport. Leaving my baby behind was difficult, but was eased by thoughts of a weekend of sleeping in, dinners with friends, shows, baseball games, and drooling over my favorite city in the world.
It’s not the bright lights that get to me. It’s the aggregated experience of a thousand little things that I love: The smell of street food, the brownstones, the pre-theatre menus, the way the park fills up on a sunny afternoon, the strollers everywhere, hearing more foreign languages than English being spoken around me, and the normalizing effects in being in a place where you are almost always in the middle of any demographic continuum.
When I’m in New York I feel like a child with her face pressed up against the glass of a beautiful window display. I want what I see, but it doesn’t (at least right now) belong to me. I imagine myself there, not as a vacationer, but as a resident. I dream up scenarios about what kind of life I would have. And I contemplate how serious I am about all of these daydreams.
And then I come home. I come home to my sturdy house, my affectionate dogs, and my perfect son. I come home to a city that is comfortable and familiar. I come home to a place that knows me as well as I know it. I come home to a life that is good and happy and satisfying. And I wonder if I’m being unreasonable. All this lusting after a life I’ve invented in my head, is it innocent or not? Living a life that wants for nothing, am I an utter ingrate to think about a life that might offer more?
I’d like to find some tidy conclusion to these questions. I’d like to say that I’ve thought them through, arrived and an answer and say The End. But I haven’t, and so I will end this post honestly by saying that I don’t know. I know what I think I want. I don’t know if it will meet my expectations if I someday have it. And I don’t know if I have any business wanting anything more than the life I already have. Wanting more is a tricky thing. It helps us strive. But it also suggests that the here and now aren’t good enough. And, at least for me, that isn’t completely true.
This post was inspired by the topic of “lust” as a part of Momalom’s Five for Ten week. I was a little late in getting my link for Friday’s topic of “Memory” posted, so if you missed it, scroll down or click here.
I was almost two-and-a-half years old. Daddy came home and picked me up to take me to the hospital. As we walked down the hallway we had to stop and wash my hands. We washed them in a water fountain. Why in a water fountain, I’m not sure.
The soap was pink and antibacterial. The water was cool and dripped down my wrists. After we washed my hands I had to put on a tiny gown over my clothes. I noticed that the pattern on the gown was the same as the pattern on my blanky at home. That made the gown not so scary.
As we walked down the hallway I noticed a yellow chair rail and a banister. I reached up over my head and dragged my fingers along the banister, which probably made the thorough hand washing pointless. It didn’t matter at the time.
Eventually we turned left and walked into a room. I saw a little crib, but it was empty. Then I heard my mother’s voice from the other direction. She was sitting in a rocking chair and holding a baby.
It was my sister, Anne.
There are other stories from that day. Candidly, my parents’ memories make better stories. I’ve been told countless times about how I looked at my sister and said in a squeaky voice, “little bitty fingers.” I think I remember it, but I don’t. It is a memory I have created from having heard the story so many times.
But the hallway, the fountain, the soap, and the gown – those memories are real.
About twelve years later I told this story to my dad. He confirmed the particulars of my story, but confessed that he hadn’t thought about those things since the day they happened. These things register differently in the mind of a toddler.
It is my earliest memory. I remember nothing else from my life until the age of five. Apparently I understood, even then, that it was something worth remembering.
Perhaps it is contrived significance. But I’ve always enjoyed knowing that my life – at least as I can remember it – began on the day I met my sister.
This theme of this post is “Memory”, as part of Momalom’s “Five for Ten”.
In case you missed it, I wrote an extra post yesterday to get me back on schedule with Momalom’s Five for Ten week. Every now and then I like to post on days other than MWF just to keep you on your toes. Or because I forgot my homework assignment and had to turn it in late. Take your pick.
Lately my attention span in church is comparable to that of an 18-month-old. This is probably because I spend about half of each service entertaining an 18-month-old. This past Sunday in between Cheerios, sippy cups, and Dr. Seuss books I managed to catch a few bits and pieces of the actual sermon. Victory!
Our priest spoke about peace. He spoke about how Christ’s peace differs so completely from the way we refer to peace today. He explained that to Jesus, peace was something comprehensive. We, on the other hand tend to think of peace as something momentary and fleeting. Peace is what we have when all the housework is done, or after the kids have gone to bed, or after the holidays are over. Peace, for us, is highly circumstantial. Peace, for Jesus, was all-encompassing, despite His external circumstances.
I bring this up not to get all up in your face about Christianity. (I absolutely do not care what your faith life looks like. That’s your business. In fact I hardly ever talk about my faith, but I figure since this is Five for Ten week, maybe you’re still with me…) I bring this up because I’m curious about how the same theory would apply to happiness.
When we say that we’re happy, what does it mean? Does it mean something different when spoken from the lounge chair of a beach vacation than it does when spoken from the sofa of your cluttered living room at the end of a chaotic weekend? If I take a bite of the most delicious thing ever and say, “I’m so happy,” does that cheapen the sentiment? Should the bar for happiness be set higher? Should it be reserved for statements that reflect a life that is harmoniously balanced?
I didn’t have to think about it very long to decide that this theory (which I’m still struggling with as it relates to peace – I disagree with our priest a lot…) makes a mockery of the very essence of happiness. Happiness is entitled to be fleeting. Happiness can be momentary and temporary and finite. And quite frankly, maybe it should be.
For starters, my life will never be harmoniously balanced – partly because that’s unrealistic, and partly because it would be fantastically boring. My life is busy. I have a husband to love, a son to raise, a career to manage, friends to see, hobbies to do, books to read, recipes to try, trips to take, and Bravo’s West Wing marathons to watch. If I’m shooting for harmonious balance some of those things will almost certainly get chucked. And that would make me decidedly unhappy.
Its ability to sneak into small moments is what makes happiness so powerful. It can be small. It is changeable. It can find you wherever you are. It doesn’t need to be big or sweeping. It doesn’t need for everything around it to fit inside its structure. It is wily and scrappy and creative. Like a droplet of water it can seep into a tiny crack and soften you when you most need it.
I am happy every time I kiss IEP. I am happy every time I make GAP laugh. I am happy every time I eat an oyster grinder at my favorite Cajun dive bar. I am happy when Albert Pujols hits a home run. I am happy when I get to sleep past 7:00. And I am happy when the Bradford Pear trees bloom every spring.
I am happy in bigger, broader, ways too. But isn’t it ultimately the accumulation of tiny happy moments that make a happy life? Balance and harmony are all well and good. But if all the little things in my life bring me happiness, if haphazardly, then that’s enough for me.
In the fall of 1997 I was 20 years old and a sophomore in college. I had a fun roommate, a good group of girlfriends, and a boyfriend who made my post-adolescent heart go pitter-patter. I also had the hair-brained idea of spending the spring semester of that year abroad in Spain. I had no idea what I was doing. It was the best mistake I ever made.
If I could talk with my twenty-year-old self today I would tell her that going abroad will unequivocally wreck everything in her life that she thinks matters. I would tell her: While you are gone your friends will bond in meaningful ways without you, and when you return you will be decidedly out of the loop. While you are gone the boyfriend that you’re so in love with will decide that he doesn’t really miss you all that much, and he will break up with you after you get back (while you’re in the middle of a solo cross-country road trip to Wyoming, no less). While you are away you will be mind-numbingly and heart-breakingly lonely. You will feel isolated and alienated and sad. You will call your friends’ dorm rooms when you know they’re in class, just to hear the bubbly voices on their answering machines without having to talk about how you wish you were back there. You will have moments when you won’t admit even to yourself how unhappy you are.
And… you should absolutely go!
The caveat to all of those statements is that they will only be true for the first half of the semester. Here are the other things that are true: You will rediscover your love of reading and devour some of the best fiction of your life. You will master another language and feel a kinship to it that you never expected. You will learn how to be alone, in moments that are lonely and moments that are not. You will find the joys of traveling on your own. You will eventually make friends who enrich your experiences and make you laugh. You will spend a weekend on the beaches at Nerja and sunbathe topless. You will stop caring about what the cool kids think. You will spend three days in Barcelona chatting up waiters and eating dinner at bar tables while reading. You will find out-of-the-way restaurants and order local specialties. You will drink red wine from a glass bong and ask your waiter to take a photo of you doing it. You will take hold of this experience and mold it into something you want it to be.
Because you have no other option, you will be brave.
Courage is a funny thing. Sometimes we look for it and we know just what we’re doing when we step toward it. Other times we aren’t looking for it, but it taps us on the shoulder and calls on us, and we answer with the understanding that what we are about to do may be hard. And other times still we are stupid. We don’t know what we’re getting ourselves into. We have no foresight, no inkling, no foggy idea that we’re walking blindly into something big and hairy.
But those are the moments, I think, when courage can be the most transforming; when we are caught unawares and must call up something from within ourselves that we didn’t expect to need.
My semester abroad was perhaps the single biggest transformational experience of my life. It was that semester that saw me evolve from a vulnerable and insecure girl into a confident and savvy young woman. Were it not for those six months (the first three in particular) I would not be the person I am today.
Sometimes we know that we must be brave. Other times we are just stupid and back ourselves into corners that call for courage. Nevertheless, it is courage that emerges. And the fact that we arrived at a place of courage via a place of stupidity does nothing to dilute the courage itself.
This post is a part of Momalom’s Five for Ten week. For the rest of this week, and part of next, I will be following along with their suggested topics. For some great reads on the topics of Courage, Happiness, Memory, Lust, and Yes, be sure to check out the links to other participating bloggers’ sites on their home page.