Tuesday, January 29, 2013


I spend a large portion of my musing time imagining alternate scenarios to the way we live now. Not just us, our nuclear unit, but us in the community sense. My mind tends to run toward idealistic strategies. (As a counterbalance, much of the rest of my musing time is spent in arguing the merits of my own personal beliefs to imaginary companions.)

I try to imagine my world, more-or-less just as it is, but with certain intractable problems no longer so intractable. The ability to work, make money, have colleagues...and still be able to meet the school bus, or volunteer in class. The ability to live in a place that is pleasant and friendly and reasonably convenient to the places we need to go, yet isn't mostly surfaced in asphalt, shingles, and bluegrass turf.

One of the things I've been imagining lately is how to live once a person's mobility has been compromised, specifically, the mobility afforded by the personal car (a development that often dovetails with a loss of physical mobility). According to what I've read recently, the best place to live as an older, mobility-compromised person is the walking-friendly village or dense urban neighborhood you grew old in, or on an estate with servants, a driver, and a legion of loving relatives with their own separate quarters. I've been wondering about ways those of us who missed the train on (a) or (b) can create their benefits with the materials at hand.

As I muse, I've been using the specific example of an older relative who can see the end of her driving days in her rear-view mirror. How to recreate the village in the suburbs, at a price that's affordable for a person on a limited budget? I will leave aside the issue that one of the sacred tenets of this particular person's personal identity has been her ability to spend all day out and about in her car. That's separate, I think. The basic problem here is systemic.

For example, this person lives in a 55-and-older neighborhood, which is not, as it happens, well-designed to accommodate people who can no longer drive. For one thing, the nearest grocery store is two miles away. For another, the very 55-and-older-ness of the community has bred a certain vicious paranoia about infirmity: the residents here are too close to the age of immobility to brook any suggestion of weakness in that quarter. You drive or you leave, seems to be the consensus. Finally, the 55-and-older-ness has shut off other avenues of community engagement, such as having younger relatives (like us) living nearby. I think such a community could foster ways to gracefully accommodate the gradual loss of mobility and increase in isolation; I just don't think this one has. So I imagine ways this could change: daily dinners at the clubhouse, for example. A mobile pharmacy. A bus service. An errand service.

Even better, I think, would be a community that was closer to us. As suburbs go, we're pretty walkable: we have a nearby grocery store, restaurants, and library (what more does a person want? if a person is me, anyway.) With a little tweaking - such as extending the sidewalks surrounding the grocery store so that they actually extend into the surrounding neighborhoods, instead of dumping pedestrians into traffic in random places - this could be a suburb friendly to unsteady older adults on foot. Oh, and also we'd have to do something about that big road, the one with all the cars. This tends to be a theme in my alternate scenarios. It's not exactly that's I'm anticar, it's just I'd rather there were many, many more places where cars were not. (Am I willing to give up my car to achieve this scenario? No! I mean, not yet.)

So. I'm really not any closer to figuring this one out (and there's the added intractability of the fact that this is a real person with a real problem that we really need to address, sooner than later, and it needs to be affordable and also needs to not involve anyone moving into our basement) (which would be imperfect anyway, because of all the stairs) (notice how I'm not even mentioning the personality problems.)

 And now, for something completely different: it's Western Wear week, and I totally caved.

Not-pink boots were so completely not an option.

Friday, January 25, 2013

What I'm reading this week

The artist's life, communes, tribal history and a Mumbai slum: that's what I'm reading about this week.

Since I prefer it when my books harmonize a little in my mind, here's how I link them together: if you start with the first book, which asks How Should a Person Be?

the rest of the books kind of answer it, only with less emphasis on "should" than "could."

How could a person be?

A person could be in a hippie commune in upstate New York, overworked, hungry, subject to the tyranny of the collective but enriched by it, too: Arcadia.

Similarly at mercy of the elements, but still buoyed by an ancient tradition and an rich religious foundation, a person could be a member of the People: People of the Sacred Mountain, Vol. 1.

Or a person could be hot, wet, hungry and eking out an unbearably crowded life among toxic trash at the edge of a lake of sewage on the grounds of the Mumbai airport: Beyond the Beautiful Forevers.

Lots of harmonizing, so much so that my mind would be one deafening roar of exaltation, were it not for some picky details:

1. The Sheila Heti book, asking How Should a Person Be? (always a useful question), answers it from the point of view of a twenty-something artist, someone without the complicating burdens of children and work and obligation: someone who can do what she wants. It is interesting to read about her struggles to define herself and respond to her friendships, but there's not a whole lot I can bring to my own life. And I consider such take homes my reward for reading this kind of novel (i.e. not escapist. Though it was very easy and enjoyable to read, with short chapters and sentences. I appreciate this kind of book.)

2. I have a scab-picky fascination with hippies commune novels, but I wonder if they don't tend to...blur together, a little. Drop City was great. I like Arcadia even more. They are both rich, unique, original novels...and yet the ground feels trodden, somehow. Perhaps it doesn't matter. But it does feel like a trope. However, [SPOILER ALERT] when I accidentally read a summary of Arcadia, I see that it actually moves beyond the commune and into the dystopian future...so maybe it's less trodden than I thought.

3. People of the Sacred Mountain: a huge, heavy, two-volume history of the Cheyenne people, as told by a chief of the tribe. Who was also - this is confusing to me, and I feel like it shouldn't be, like it's none of my business - not actually Cheyenne himself, I think. He is - was - a Roman Catholic priest who was adopted into the tribe as an adult. I.e., as white as me. And obviously this doesn't matter, except that I worry that I am being presented with a history of the Cheyenne people as told by the People themselves - only it's actually not being told by the People themselves, it's being told by an outsider who thinks he's an insider, who maybe romanticizes and misrepresents. But maybe he is an insider? And in any case, since I am most definitely an outsider and will never claim any sort of authority on the subject, why would it matter? But it does matter. I'm pretty sure that it does. So I enjoy this history, which is rich and beautiful and seamlessly merges the mythic with the historic, yet I hold it at arm's length.

4. I have a similar nagging doubt about Beyond the Beautiful Forevers. I love it, for its intelligent and sympathetic portrayal of these people so different from me (who, it should not surprise me but it does, are motivated by very similar things as the families in my own community); yet it is told in novelistic style in the POV of the inhabitants of the slum, and I keep wondering where the tall, elegantly dressed white woman was standing when these events were occurring, and how her presence affected the unfolding story. So far she's been entirely invisible, but unless the events related were told to her after the fact, and I can't help but think that just by being there she changed how things turned out. Actually, since I've gotten totally invested in the fortunes of these people, I am really hoping that her invisible presence will affect how things turn out for them.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013


After a weekend filled with the usual struggles over electronic devices, it was delightful - and disorienting? - to have the kids read out loud to each other after dinner, as they took turns doing dishes. Then we all played a few rounds of their sudden new favorite, charades. I half expected someone to demand I fry up some apples 'n' onions and roast some potatoes over the open fire. (Instead, the two minors retreated to play a little Minecraft before bed, so all was right with the world once again).

Anyhow. I say this so that tomorrow or next week when I feel like shipping Silas off to military school I will remember that he is at heart a good kid, and capable of behaving with kindness and generosity toward others, even his sister. Despite any momentary evidence that he is not.

This weekend, as we were driving up into the mountains to go skiing, Si was in one of his testier moods. Not at all in a bad way - just determined to marshal the argument against us. " 'An idler is not somebody who is lazy. An idler is someone who wants to enjoy their life and enjoy lots of freedom in their life. Idlers raise children who are more independent and do more for themselves,' " he read to us in an instructional tone from his new book, Unbored. "I'm an Idler. That's what I am. See?"

"That's really good that you're able to be aware of yourself like that," I said. "But it's also good to look around and pay attention to what you give up if that's how you really want to live life."

And I wish I could have been a more Zen parent and left it at that, but of course we got into a pointed discussion about how idle hands are a Devil's workshop, et cetera et cetera, and how b) we're the most idle parents of anyone in your acquaintance, and 3) that's great if you want to be idle but don't expect to have a big nice house in the Preserve or be taking any fancy vacations with that lifestyle.

"But if that's who you are and what you want to be," I finished with a panting return to cheerfulness, "Then that's great! It's good to know that. But also understand what you'll have to give up."

Pant pant pant.

A rare moment of togetherness on the slopes.
Skiing was fine. The snow is terrible. I came straight home and apologized to all the trees and perennials in my care: looks like it's going to be a water-restricted summer, friends. Meanwhile, it was at least freakishly warm and brilliantly sunny. Lately I've been skiing with Silas and his cousin while Mike does Helen duty (which isn't the exercise in gritted-teeth patience that it once was, either), so for the first time since the nineties I've actually been having the sort of ski day that people mean when they say they want to go skiing. Every now and then I get left behind, and Silas did say something about boring it is to ski with me because he always has to stop and wait - but, you know, wind in my hair (or streaming over my helmet), aching legs. exhilaration, etc. It was nice.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

What I'm reading this week

I'm trying to make this a weekly thing. A feature, if you will. A way of bringing you, my blog readership, into the world I (occasionally) care about most: my reading life. Also a way of bringing my reading life out of the deep untalked-of basement where it currently resides.

It's a bit of a slow week to start off on: I have been desultorily reading a biography of Robespierre, the infamous career guillotiner of the French Revolution, and a paperback mystery, Thus Was Adonis Murdered, which is so deliciously snarky and clever that it took me five nights of bedtime reading to get through the first chapter, after which I sighed, dithered, and decided to save it for a time when I can really get a foothold in it. Oh, and also the Reference Grammar of the Cheyenne Language, which I have on loan from a university library and which I will have to send back in a body bag. It's a typewritten manuscript "bound" with two facing sets of staples, which unstapled themselves the other day when I was trying my honest best to understand what fourth person is (first, second, third person I get; fourth person is...I think...a person or object not connected in any way to the speaker or the listener. I can repeat this til I'm blue in the face but I will never get it.) (So: I am trying to learn Cheyenne, or learn about it. This endeavor and my ambivalence about it are the subject of another post.)

It's the kind of bedside reading pile that I heft onto myself during that glorious end-of-the-day reading period and then march through dutifully, one page of each, like I'm eating raw celery. I do rather enjoy this, but after a while I get weary of watery crunch.

So yesterday I sat down with the library website and requested five novels.

They're from the upcoming March Tournament of Books and unfortunately they were all on hold, which not only means I still don't have a good juicy chunk of reading material to look forward to all day, it also means I'm in on-hold limbo and can't properly start anything, because the minute I do I'm going to get a notice from the library that I have five books sitting on the hold shelf and they're all on hold to someone else besides, so I can't even renew.

(This just in: I checked my hold list, and I have five books waiting for me at the library. Sweeeeet!)

I'm also listening to Blue Nights as I drive back and forth to work. Blue Nights is by Joan Didion. Blue Nights is the memoir centered on the death of her daughter at age 39. Blue Nights is the book that is often said to be about the death of her daughter but is really about mortality, about aging, about what we do with what we've done in the world when we come to the end of everything and are still hanging on. It's also, disconcertingly, about celebrity, or, perhaps, Celebrities Joan Didion has Known. Names Joan Didion can drop.

Sorry; that was a piss-poor Joan Didion imitation (although well within the spirit of the book, which felt in places like a just passable Joan Didion imitation. In other places it was harrowingly beautiful.)

At first the celebrity stuff irritated me. Does she really think the lunch she packs for her kindergartener is so much better than every other lunch packed ever, just because she's famous and had a house just down the beach from Dick Wood? Okay, fine; she didn't say that; she just quoted her husband saying that, and he's entitled to think that, because he's married to her. Still. Irrrritating. The only two non-celebrities named in the book are relatives of hers. Everyone else, if they are anointed with a name, it is because they are Famous.

Later I decided it was just part of her style: celebrities are like brand names, which she also uses a lot. To set the scene? To make a point? And if to make a point, is a point about...existence? Or just that her crowd was a crowd that could afford to wear Coco Chanel suits?

Later still I wondered if it wasn't a sort of demonstration of how little it all means in the end: all of these famous, beautiful people, wearing expensive, beautiful clothes, doing beautiful, legendary things - and they all still get old and die and are forgotten. Except that an awful lot of them skip the getting old part, which seems to possibly be hinting at something more: all this precocity, all this devoted attention, all this sass and vim, and still they are unbearably unhappy.

Anyhow. It was very beautiful, it didn't make me cry very much, and I'm rather glad to be done with it.

Monday, January 14, 2013


Sunday morning I took Helen to get her ears pierced. This is a desire that came on her suddenly: Tuesday morning at 11:32, apparently. I got home from work and she had the computer on, open to the webpage for Claire's, which is apparently where everybody gets their ears pierced. I'd never actually heard of Claire's.

"It's right in the mall," she said. "By JC Penny. You go up the escalator, Maddie says. Angelina says it doesn't hurt at all."

No one really likes the paparazzi in the morning
"I'll need to do a little research," I said, buying some time so I could take off my coat. Also because while I am fine with her getting her ears pierced - this was clearly an event that would be coming, as we have a girl, and particularly as we have Helen - I needed to consider the bribery possibilities of the event before I let it disappear over the waterfall of missed opportunity. Did ear piercing need to be a Reward Event?

I ultimately decided no. Helen is not really my need-to-be-bribed child, anyway. So bright and early  Sunday morning we put on our nice clothes and drove to the mall. As we got ready, I was a tiny bit reminded of a former colleague who said that she understood the fairy tale archetypes of replacement and obsolescence when she had a teenage daughter. "They're blossoming just as you're hitting menopause," she said. "It really feels like you're being replaced." Not that Helen or I are doing either of these, just yet. But they are on the horizon.

Originally, for example, I was going to wear my "not actually pajamas" clothes, but then I started imagining myself standing in the overlit mall shop next to some pretty young thing wearing her work outfit and Helen in her coordinated "I'm getting my ears pierced FINALLY" outfit, so I put on a non-pilly sweater and newer slacks and my boots and a necklace and makeup (makeup!).

"You look tired," Helen said in the spirit of helpfulness. "You have those black things under your eyes."

"Bags," I said. "Those are called bags."

So Helen, me and my eye bags headed off to the mall. We got there about ten minutes before anything opened and wandered around looking at the puppies, smelling the cookies, looking at the goods. I tried my best not to be actively hating the mall. It helped that it was early morning and the sun was streaming in the windows; it didn't feel like the day the shooter would come bursting out of the food court firing on everyone. I could imagine that the other people there were just, like us, running a few routine and irritating errands, instead of living their fullest and best lives under the artificial lights of the House of Mammon.

I still offered up a little prayer that neither of my children will grow up to be teenagers whose favorite hangout is the mall.

Finally our store opened and I followed Helen in. The pretty young thing was very sweet and encouraging. "Have you been waiting for this a long time?" she asked Helen, who nodded happily. I signed the waivers, we picked out the earrings, Helen held the comfort bear and the deed was done. A person who occasionally gets hysterical in doctor's offices about potential shots sat calmly and happily through two ear piercings.

It made me realize, or maybe remember, that kids can bring themselves to do just about anything, so long as it's their idea. If it's something I impose, or that I'm taking too much charge of, they're much more likely to fall apart. This might actually be something of a Parenting Truth, one which I'd better pay attention to.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Cheers to the New Year

The kids are back in school; the schedule has filled up like a bucket under a leak: life is back in session. So, without further ado:

1. I'm going to post weekly here, and on Facebook; I'm going to learn how to network.
2. This will probably involve improving my reach out and follow through skills;
3. Which will benefit from working with more calmness and focus and not getting distracted by every yahoo news story that flits across my screen. Not having yahoo news on my screen as much will also help.
4. Also it would help if I polish my game just a smidge: you know, think of stimulating questions to ask people. And then ask them.
5. I'll also reach out formally: I got a gift certificate to the Lighthouse Writing Workshop. I'm going to use it.
6. Related: we ended up with three museum memberships after the craziness of the holidays. I'm going to make sure we use them.
7. But I don't want to only do city outings: I'm going to get myself and the kids into nature at least once a month.
8. I'm also going to be stronger, or at least not so piddly. More work with the free weights! And also squat lifts. These only hurt my brain a little bit.
9. Since the body is only as strong as the spirit within, I'm going to nourish my spirit by making at least as much effort to see my friends as I make to have my kids see theirs.
10. Finally, words to live by: Be kind. Reach out. Listen. 

All of these resolutions depend on a certain level of stability and status quo. 
Finally, my TBR* list for 2013:

Mean Spirit, Linda Hogan
The Ambassadors, Henry James
Shell Shaker, LeAnne Howe
Portable Houses, Irene Rawlings & Mary Abel
Sleight of Hand, Peter S. Beagle
Middlemarch, George Eliot

Backup: St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, Karen Russell

Six books. Twelve months. Can she do it?

*the TBR Challenge is where I pledge (to myself) to read these unread books from my own shelf. The rules are that I have to have had the book on my shelf for over a year - and, well, that's the rule. Most people pledge to read 12 books, but that cramps my reading habits too much and makes me panicky. My former TBR challenges can be found here and here. I will try to post about my books on the third Wednesday of every month, though, as the Super Librarian suggests.