Wednesday, December 31, 2014

end-of-year review

(This is a majorly rambling and disjointed post, for which I and my head cold apologize. I also apologize for the stupid things Blogger is doing re: comments; either making sure you're logged into your Google account before commenting, or commenting anonymously, seems to work, but upgrading the comments section is on my 2015 to-do list for sure.) 

To say 2014 was intense would be putting it very mildly.

The first three months were a blur of worry, spending, and heartbreak around Darcy's paw, and then saying good-bye far too soon. The next month passed like a year; I was numb with grief, physically miserable, monstrously overworked, and not sleeping (I averaged three or four hours a night, and every two a.m. found me downstairs crying hysterically), while the baby took her sweet time until I had to be induced. The birth was kind of dreadful and the ensuing breast-feeding debacle totally dreadful, but from her arrival this really has been one of the most cheerful and easy-going babies you could imagine.

The rest of the year was about Perdita, naturally. Not about being a "mommy" - I've decided, in my own personal lexicon, that "motherhood" means a woman who is just as much herself as before, with ambitions and intelligence and bodily autonomy, who also has a child, while "mommyhood" is the infantilized and minimized version of that woman who is no longer allowed to have any interests or focus beyond her baby - but about living as myself with this new amazing person in my life.

Parenting an eight-month-old, by the way, is incredibly fun. The learning happens practically faster than real time - you can watch her master using a toy, or pulling herself up to standing, or pointing to a body part when it is named, in the space of an afternoon. It blows my mind.

We had a lovely Christmas vacation with my family, including all three of 2014's babies and a five-year-old whose energy could power a small city, and the red-eye flight back was absolutely great for the baby but the sleep deficit I have been running on since then is not my favorite thing ever, especially when combined with a nasty cold. Nothing to make you feel all kinds of dim like a head full of snot and exhaustion.

The last books of the year:

Goddess of Light, by P.C. Cast. She writes trashy romance novels about modern women falling in love with Greek gods, and this one was very trashy and pretty stupid. Neither our heroine nor Apollo is interesting or sympathetic, there's a whole section which is solely an advertisement for a Cirque de Soleil production, and the casual homophobia is a nightmare. I finished it just because I wanted to see how Cast was going to get these two together, and it turned out she does so by killing off our heroine and then reincarnating her (and having Apollo have a mortal incarnation for one lifetime). Because for a grown independent woman with a career (and a lot of time is given to that career and how good at it she is) to know true love, she has to DIE and then in her next life meet her soul mate at THIRTEEN, presumably so she won't waste any time with a career or possibly even an education before having his babies. Good thing she got a second chance at correcting her priorities, huh, ladies? OH MY GOD.

Navajo Autumn, by R. Allen Chappell. A slight mystery and very much a first novel, with all the attendant flaws, but I found it comforting.

Blue Lightning, by Ann Cleeves. The next in her Shetland mysteries. Pretty dark, and you can guess the murderer almost immediately, even if you don't know the motive. But I do like reading her stuff. 

Re-read The Dark is Rising series, by Susan Cooper, as seemed appropriate for the season. I've always known Greenwitch is the best, but now I think it's the best by a larger margin than I wish was the case. In all the others, female characters only exist to be helpless and rescued, or evil (or stupid enough to be easily possessed by evil), and it gets really old really fast. Also I had TOTALLY forgotten the horrible dog fatality in The Grey King! WHAT. And I barely made it through Silver on the Tree - the middle section with Will and Bran wandering around the Lost City of Celtic Symbolism is dull beyond words, and only knowing that we eventually get back to Jane kept me reading. Disappointing. 

(Since having a daughter, I have become hyper-aware of how many children's / young adult books are All About the Boys. Talk about disappointing.)

Ragtime in Simla, by Barbara Cleverly. Mystery set in post-WWI India. I quite liked it, even if it was heavy on the exclamation points and the femmes fatales. Very enjoyable on a long plane trip.

The Coffin Trail, by Martin Edwards. I read this? Obviously not as useful for wiling away travel time.

Your Voice in My Head, by Emma Forrest. So, I would never suggest that grief and mental illness are somehow easier to bear if everything you write gets optioned by Hollywood and you only date celebrities, but I am saying that you clearly get plenty of attention without needing mine.

Crocodile on the Sandbank, by Elizabeth Peters. Oh, the utter delight of discovering a shamelessly old-fashioned and charming series of which I had never before heard. Especially at the beginning of winter, so that you may devour all the others the library has over the coming cold months! Delicious.

True Grit, by Charles Portis. I'd seen the recent movie remake, which is awesome, and have no intention of bothering with the John Wayne version. I had no idea what I expected from the book, but it was great fun.

What I have been thinking about / hoping for regarding 2015:

2014 lacked music. When I lived alone, I had music on in the background any time I was home, but since Berowne moved in I've been self-conscious about that. Much of my music is, well, in lieu of an adjective let's just say that I sometimes still listen to mix tapes I made in high school, and I like to sing along even though I cannot sing at all, and living with a musician makes it hard to not become a little shy about these things. So the house stays quiet, and in the car we listen to NPR, and there was a whole tech snafu around my Christmas music come December, and so when I started thinking about what I want more of in 2015 music was the first thing that came to mind.

I also want more ritual, and more time in and for my body. Things like exercising and meditating every day fell by the wayside once I went back to work and the limits of twenty-four hours and my own strength became very apparent. (Do I know mothers whose answer to chronological limits is to just not sleep? Of course I do. They have high-powered careers and spotless houses and sixteen crafty hobbies, and they are frequently also lovely people [which is the most annoying part], but I cannot be one of them. Beatrice not function sleep well without.) I know that I have to remain willing to adapt, but I do want to make time for myself, even if it's a different time each day. The real trick will be in finding that time but then not using it to do the dishes.

I want less envy, less interior competition, less judgement; more walks, more writing. Less guilt. More trust. More stars. 

Fewer colds would be ideal, but given the realities of daycare crud, that's probably beyond my control. Getting back into some kind of shape will help with my overall health, though. 

It's not just the new baby schedule that has thrown me, this past year. I feel lost in myself in many ways since Darcy's death, reduced to my own strength and it very faint indeed. Embarking on your first year of parenting when you have just had your loved ones' mortality, and your inability to make them immortal by sheer force of will, thrown in your face, is a thorn-tangled road indeed. And who can imagine the fairy-tale forest without the wolf? Where in the story are we now? 

We'll never stop missing him, but our lives certainly don't lack for love, and that's what matters. And the aforementioned rituals will help get my feet back under me, I think: just for starters, if Bingley and I bundle up and stubbornly take the frigid walks that Darcy would have loved, we will both feel better for it. (There has not been a good long walk in ages, just quick jaunts up to the nearest hill and back.) 

We may be in the forest without a wolf, but we have a little bear and an always-determined brindle hound, and a love that, unlike that of most fairy tales, has been accumulating far longer than summers seventeen. With enough sunrises, enough laughter, and enough patience, I think we will be all right. At any rate I'll toast to that, in a mug of honeyed tea, and toast to all of you as well. Much love and hope for the coming year.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

a little post

So this week the family all had an astonishing stomach bug (Berowne suggested I title this post "Love in the Time of Cholera"). Berowne and I took our turns staying home from work rapidly becoming dehydrated, while Perdita's diapers overflowed like a slightly smaller but far more pungent Vesuvius. One morning she also projectile vomited. While sitting on Berowne's lap, facing him. He did have his mouth shut at the time but the poor man has a beard, which took the brunt of the explosion. Good times.

Read lately:

Bury Me Deep, by Megan Abbott. A Nick Hornby recommendation (well, the author; the book of hers he actually recommends in his column is, according to him, all about how universally lust-worthy teenage girls are, and having been a teenage girl once upon a time I have no patience with that middle-aged male fantasy). Anyway, this book is pretty amazing, with its dialogue that no one would ever really speak but that somehow works and its creepy depiction of people descending to scary places. 

A Death in Summer, by Benjamin Black. It would seem John Banville writes mysteries set in 1950's Dublin. It would also seem that I don't like them any more than I like his novels under his own name.

The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut's Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt, by Kara Cooney. My Early Reviewers book, and pretty good. I feel like I learned a good deal, and Cooney is quite interesting on the topic of Hatshepsut's iconography becoming male, as opposed to portraying herself as a female king, which is what she was doing at first. 

Re-read Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier. Reading it as an adult was fascinating. As a preteen I remember thinking that while I myself would not have been perfectly happy with Max de Winter, this was probably due to some failing on my part. As an adult of course I can see that the man is an abusive douchebag, and thoroughly intended to be so (though du Maurier might not have used quite that word), and that we have only his account of Rebecca's "depravities" and death to go on. (The scene he relates in which she tells him how utterly perverse she really is and laughs about how she fooled him, after which she presumably flies back on her broom to her den of iniquity in London where Black Masses and women discussing politics take place, is so, so unlikely that only someone as inexperienced and desperate for love as our narrator could ever believe it.) It's a very different book now, and deeply disturbing, and still incredibly good. 

Without a Summer, by Mary Robinette Kowal. I was told to avoid the second book in this series, and did, but perversely thought the third might be okay. It wasn't. 

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee. Fascinating and comprehensive and, for me, as terrifying as any late-night Google-symptom foray. I need to just not read about cancer. 

The Five Red Herrings, by Dorothy L. Sayers. I thought that I would indulge in some winter comfort reading with old British mysteries. Unfortunately, this book was not only completely dull and confusing but contained a casual use of the n-word that had me reeling. And at first I thought, "Oh jeez, completely unnecessary, if I were an editor of the modern version of this book I would take that RIGHT the hell out," and then I started thinking that it's important that modern readers see just how acceptable the word's usage was. I mean, throughout the rest of the book, "bloody" and "bastard" are written as "b_____"; at the time you couldn't print those words, but you could print the n-word in its entirety and with no apology. And that's important, because from my perspective of white privilege it's too easy for me to think that racism is always violent and overtly hateful, that the only use of that word would be from shouting ignorant mobs, even back then. To be reminded that it was a matter-of-fact thing for an educated upper-class hero to say, "We've been working like n*gg*rs," is something I needed. Especially now, when I was recently asking Berowne, "Where are they FINDING the people for these grand juries??" What a privilege it is to not know where they found those people. 

I don't write about current events here, because that's not the purpose of this blog and because often (as now) I am too sputtering and helpless to articulate anything well. I will make editorial comments about abortion rights and such, sure, but generally I leave the news alone. And I am very self-conscious about how badly I'm expressing myself here. Also a bit defensive: it's not like I just wasn't thinking about the news until Dorothy Sayers reminded me, heaven knows. And it is perhaps the whitest most privileged thing ever to have one's white privilege checked by a passage in a British 1930's mystery novel. I guess I'm just saying that this book did check my privilege, and these are the thoughts I had about that. 

So today we end on a sad and frustrated note, because we live in a sad and frustrating world. But it's also an exquisitely beautiful world, which I will try to keep in mind.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

baby FAQ, month 7

Q: So how good are you at putting helpful reading into practice?

A: Har. I read Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, by Judith Warner, which is a slightly dated (she wrote it in 2004, before the organic / natural / Pinterest-driven craze among the mainstream really took off) but excellently-done book about the insanity which is modern motherhood. She was the first writer I've encountered to explicitly make the connection between the huge wealth disparities in our society and how that has driven the frantic piano / French / soccer lessons for three-year-olds, because if you don't get into the right preschool and so on down to the Ivy League college, you cannot succeed as an adult. These days, being in the middle class is increasingly synonymous with drowning in debt and living paycheck to paycheck, and people want more for their children, so they try to give them every advantage even when it means draining their own already-desperate coffers and going crazy. Warner talks about the rise in children who cannot play by themselves because they have never been left unstimulated - mom's been in their face drilling them with flash cards and educational toys since they emerged from the womb, and they grow up with no imagination. (Perdita should have an excellent imagination, by this standard. As a matter of fact, I'm ignoring her right now! [Not really. She's sitting next to me at the table happily eating her Mum-Mums (non-organic) off the tray that we let the dog lick after her meals.]) Warner also waxes eloquent and appropriately-angry about the impossibilities of daycare costs and the way every mother - working full-time, working part-time, stay-at-home - is made to feel guilty and inadequate about her situation, and how the insistence that that situation was a "choice" rather than an occasionally heartbreaking necessity doesn't help anything. It's a really good book. 

Anyway, so after a day reading this book on my breaks, and agreeing wholeheartedly with it, and feeling so much calmer about being an under-achieving mom, I came home to find that Perdita had received her first "report card" from daycare. AND FAILED MANY THINGS. And the degree to which I absolutely lost my shit was both hilarious and tragic. 

She does not play with two objects at the same time. She failed completely drinking from a cup. She can't pull the cover off a hidden toy (isn't that also how you test dogs?), and got a big fat ZERO on "shows interest in discovering the consequences of own behavior" (how on earth do you tell if a seven-month-old has that interest?). 

As we went down the list, Berowne and I protested to each other that she does SO "babble more than two sounds" and say "dada" (she says it non-stop!) and "sit without support". So then we theorized that she only does all that stuff at home, and is clearly spending her time at daycare supine on the rocking swing staring silently at the wall like a Romanian orphan. 

I also said, "Okay, these measures are for 0-9 months, so she still has two months to catch up! She's not a total failure yet!" The words tasted like ashes in my mouth.

Then we got to the very bottom of the spreadsheet, and the comments section, where it said that Perdita has just discovered she can get around by rolling and is just beginning with solid food. And we were like, hey, this is literally a month out of date. And everything was okay - until I realized that the next quarter she will be ten months old, and will therefore be tested on the 10-18 month measures, which involve things like walking and speaking four-word sentences. OH MY GOD SHE WILL FAIL EVERYTHING. Time to break out the flash cards! Because the daycare assessment is presumably part of her permanent record, and the Princeton admissions office will snort with laughter at it over their brandy and cigars! 

Q: Is she at least crawling?

A: Full-on! Imagine if the only thing holding back the Flash was a bulky diaper. She's like the wind if there's a nasty nylabone in her line of sight, and faster than that if there are plugged-in power tools in the room. (Berowne was finishing some bookshelves yesterday.) Don't worry; she didn't reach the tools; my book wasn't that good. 

Q: What have you read?

A: Stone Cold, by C. J. Box. This series is getting too much about a secondary character in whom I'm not interested at all and also too gory. But I'll keep checking out the new ones, I'm sure.

I also muddled through a Val McDermid (The Vanishing Point) which wasn't any good and re-read Strong Poison by Dorothy Sayers. Yesterday we got our first snow of the season and it was bitter cold, and it was the perfect day to re-read British mysteries and drink lots of tea and eat Thanksgiving leftovers. 

Q: Does she say "mama" yet?

A: No. Someone tries to convince me that she does, but if so then she's saying it in a surprisingly deep voice. 

Q: How's her signing?

A: She signs for milk, happily does high-fives for hours, and makes the "daddy" sign at the dog. So I'd say excellent. 

Q: I'm not sure the high-five counts as sign language.

A: Who are you, the Princeton admissions office? Shut up!

Next time: more between-wars British mysteries and mommy failures, I imagine. Now off to buy more Mum-Mums, although I could achieve the same long-term effect by just putting glue directly into her hair.  

Thursday, November 20, 2014

age and the siren call of the perfect

Last Friday I turned thirty-eight years old, which is roughly one million in literary terms. I'm as old as Mr. Rochester! I'm older than Mr. Knightley. And it is of course telling that a) I cannot even think of any prominent female characters who are thirty-eight and b) Messrs. Rochester and Knightley are both considered perfectly legitimate love interests for eighteen-year-old girls, while two years ago I already had "elderly" slapped onto my medical record.

I don't feel old, but that has less to do with the "forty is the new thirty!" or whatever and more to do with the fact that when it comes to adulthood I'm still pretty sure I have no idea what I'm doing. More gray hairs show up on my head every week, and sometimes I wonder if my skinny jeans and motorcycle boots are a bit of mutton dressed as lamb, but for the most part my age can still surprise me. (I do have Clint Eastwood-level crows' feet, but that's been the case for years. Due to greasy skin, I'm wrinkle-free everywhere else, but when I smile it's a total "why is that Muppet made out of leather" moment.) I also resumed my pre-pregnancy weight last week, although I used to be quite toned and now I sport the fungous flabbiness of a Lovecraftian horror, so there's work to be done.

For the most part, my late thirties are treating me exceedingly well. So of course my brain frequently turns to bemoaning all the time I wasted (and still do waste, alas) on perfectionism, because there's no better way to waste your time than to spend it beating yourself up for the time you already wasted. That's some high-level ouroboros-ing; don't try it at home. Seriously, don't. 

But that's perfectionism for you. People who are not plagued by perfectionism think that it means doing everything perfectly, which it doesn't. That friend or relative you have who does everything perfectly is, I guarantee you, not a perfectionist. Perfectionism means that you abandon writing projects halfway through because you can't get that one scene (or even that one sentence) right on the first three tries; that you sit there night after night journaling about how random undignified human moments make you permanently unlovable; that you sabotage good relationships because a known outcome which is a disaster is still safer, in your mind, than an unknown outcome which could be amazing.

(It took all I had not to self-sabotage with Berowne, because going forward into what was almost certainly a really really really good thing was, for me, less appealing than being able to predict exactly the sorrow and solitude which would result from me shutting down and pulling away. The phrase "Why don't we just see where things go?" sends literal chills down my spine, and is one part of why I could never be the Cool Girlfriend [the other part: I am not cool]. I HAVE TO HAVE THE ANSWERS. I CANNOT RISK FAILING THE TEST. Better to know that the answer is "crazy dog lady, alone forever" than to be the person who raised her hand all eager and said, "Maybe he's the one!" and WAS WRONG. WRONG IN PUBLIC. There is no worse fate.)

Perfection, most of the time, means not doing anything. Which is why I'm working really hard on not wasting any more of my time on it. In my personal life, anyway: the irony is that in my computer-oriented-role at work I say, all the time, "Perfect is the enemy of good," and mean it. I can forgive software its limitations, but not myself mine. Maybe try to think of myself as charmingly buggy? Requiring workarounds? We'll see. 

What I've read since last posting:

American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee, by Karen Abbott. Abbott's such a good writer, but I didn't like this nearly as much as Sin in the Second City. She made the choice in this to jump back and forth chronologically rather than do a straightforward timeline of Gypsy's life, and that choice didn't work for me. It was harder to feel connected to the story, I thought. Looking forward to her Civil War book. 

Grave Peril, by Jim Butcher. I wasn't in the right mood for this. There was nothing wrong with it, but I have to be in a specific mood for fantasy, otherwise I just get bored. So I found this a bit tedious.

Once Upon a Winter's Eve, by Tessa Dare. Forgettable romance novella, notable only for the fact that apparently breaking a dude's nose is all it takes to render him unrecognizable to a woman who's, by her own admission, been in love with him her whole life. I've only been in love with my strapping hero for a couple years, but I'm pretty sure that if you covered him in dirt and broke his nose I'd still be like, "Oh geez, Berowne, we totally could have come up with a better excuse to leave this party early than you stumbling through the door covered in seaweed and passing out on my shoes*, and WTF happened to your nose," instead of thinking, Why does this mysterious stranger with his dreamy lips act like he knows me? When a plot strains even romance-novel credulity, it's not good. 

The Outcast Dead, by Elly Griffiths. The latest in Griffiths' shamelessly enjoyable "archaeologist fights crime" series. Although this one was about baby kidnapping AAAIIIIEEE. 

The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry, by Jon Ronson. A fairly disjointed piece of reportage on the psychopath diagnosis and some of the history of mental health treatment in America. Ronson's a good writer, but this felt like a bunch of New Yorker articles that he tried to jam together into a coherent narrative. Which it may have been. 

Arms of Nemesis, by Steven Saylor. I always give ancient-Rome mysteries a try whenever I run across them, now that Lindsey Davis is just hitting copy-and-paste between Wikipedia sites and her manuscripts, but this was terribly dull and the dialogue-infodumping was agonizing. Won't be checking out any more of the series.  

May you all be free of perfectionism as much as possible. (Next time: will Beatrice become a self-flagellating perfectionist about not being a perfectionist? Almost certainly!) 

*Actually, I'd be very surprised if Berowne's social group hasn't experienced a party at which someone stumbled through the door covered in seaweed and passed out on someone's shoes (and someone else promptly said, "Now it's a party!"). 

Sunday, November 9, 2014

a rushed post on an autumn afternoon

I am turning into such a slacker around this blog. I find time to read but not to write about it, for the most part, and then I end up cramming all these books into one entry. Well, I could be doing worse things.

Read since last posting:

Human Croquet, by Kate Atkinson. Fabulous, because Atkinson is always fabulous. This has some weird metaphysical stuff, and the opening section worried me with its pretentiousness, but it gets past that and kicks ass. And the dog doesn't even die. 

The Book of My Lives, by Aleksander Hemon. Hemon is an amazing writer. But if you have children, don't read the last essay. Don't. Don't. DO NOT. And no, this isn't a "now I have to see what she's talking about!" situation, this is a "Hemon's nine-month-old daughter died of a brain tumor and he writes about it more viscerally than you can possibly imagine" situation. I read that one on my lunch break at work, even though any reader smarter than your average sheep knows that an essay which starts, "Our daughter was nine months old when we took her for a routine checkup" is going to go bad, fast, and then it was all I could do to a) not sob at my desk all afternoon or b) leave the office, pick Perdita up from daycare, take her to the hospital, and demand that they scan her brain THAT SECOND. As things stand, I will probably be measuring her head daily for about three weeks. Spare yourselves, people.

Drop Dead Healthy: One Man's Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection, by A. J. Jacobs. What it sounds like: Jacobs gets a book deal to try every exercise and diet craze around for two years. He does end up healthier at the conclusion, and it's mildly amusing along the way, but I didn't love it. 

Borderlands, by Brian McGilloway. Very uninteresting police procedural. One of those mysteries whose solution you don't even recall a couple days after finishing it, because you had zero investment in it.

Quiet Dell, by Jayne Anne Phillips. A novel about a real-life murder in the 1930s. Very stylized - no one ever speaks a line of dialogue which an actual human would say, and people make declarations of eternal love after ten minutes' interaction - and I could really have done without the ghost, but it was quite beautiful and compelling. 

The Wordy Shipmates, by Sarah Vowell. Short and very funny history of the Pilgrims. Nick Hornby sold me on Vowell in Ten Years in the Tub, and I'll be checking out her other stuff. 

And now back to my Sunday afternoon, with posole in the slow cooker and hot cider rapidly cooling next to me while I keep one eye on the screen and the other on the child motoring all around the room (it's still a military crawl, with her stomach on the ground, but she gets where she wants to go). Soon Berowne will be home from his band rehearsal, and tomorrow is our first wedding anniversary. We will of course be very fancy and romantic, by which I mean we will maybe eat at the table instead of on the couch. Everyday life has always been our romance, home-bound and full of undignified laughter, the kind that begins over something like a fart and ends with helpless whooping. I couldn't ask anything better for an anniversary evening than leftover posole (always better the second day) and our little bear falling asleep on Berowne's chest. Lovers for the working-day. 

May you all find the love in the everyday and the routine, and the beauty in November afternoons. And may you laugh to the point of helpless whooping as often as possible.

Monday, October 27, 2014

baby FAQ, month 6

Q: How can it possibly have been six months already?

A: You're asking me? It feels like just yesterday that I was up at midnight and then again at four. Oh, wait, that's because I was. She's occasionally reverting to an old-school sleeping schedule, lucky us.

Q: Relatedly, what was the doctor's recommendation for you in terms of getting over your bronchitis?

A: Eight to ten hours of sleep a night. I was like, yeah, sure, I'll just go do that.

Q: How goes the introduction of "solid" (i.e., pureed) food?

A: Feeding takes four times as long, is ten times as messy, and the subsequent diapers would make a musk ox proud. Also I experienced a little heartbreak around it because she is growing up so fast. And she does not like squash.

Q: What is your advice for Losing the Baby Weight?

A: Develop some flaws before you have a baby. If I'd had a flat stomach before getting pregnant, then this stubborn little belly pudge would be a source of much frustration and self-consciousness, and people would be saying things like, "You're almost there! Good job!" But since I've had a rounded stomach ever since I stopped being twenty-one and started eating actual food again, my clothes fit almost as they did before and I hear, "You look like you never had a baby!" It's called managing expectations. (And I cut myself slack for my physical imperfections now, even though they are virtually identical to the imperfections I had before. So that's good, although it shouldn't take gaining and losing forty-five pounds for a woman to be okay with the body she has, but what can you do.)

Q: What was your Halloween costume?

A: Three Wolf Moon family. Because it comes in a onesie as well. And yes, we did take her to the Halloween party, and she was the belle of the ball, but oh my was she cranky the next day. A little discontented Cinderella.

Q: How is your first Halloween without Darcy going?

A: Very sad. I haven't planned any costume for Bingley; he wouldn't have been able to come to this past weekend's party anyway, but for the past four years there were dog costumes documented heavily on Facebook (Red Riding Hood and the wolf; Sherlock Holmes and the Hound of the Baskervilles; St. Francis and the wolf of Gubbio; hipster Red Riding Hood and hipster wolf). Bingley has a red hoodie which (obviously) has been utilized extensively, and Perdita has a white fuzzy suit with ears, so perhaps he shall be Red Riding Hood yet again and Perdita will step into the wolf's role. 

Q: Hipster wolf?

He is concerned that his kibble is not local.

Q: How are you finding time to read with a six-month-old?

A: Honestly, I am not sure. I feel like I just snatch a page here and there and somehow it adds up to books. I know that sounds like humblebragging, or like protesting that you can find time for anything if it matters to you!! but that's not my intention. And I am careful about my intention when saying things like that, because I was one of those horrid judgy people pre-baby, thinking, "There is no way I won't find time for working out every day; it's simply a matter of priorities; mothers who say there's no time are just making excuses," and then of course on days when she goes to daycare my priorities come up solidly against the chronological limitations of twenty-four hours and my own physical limitations in terms of needing more than five hours of sleep in that twenty-four. Ah well. Pride goeth before a saggy butt. 

Q: What have you read in the snatched intervals when you should be un-sagging your butt?

A: Friday Night Lights: A Town, A Team, And A Dream, by H.G. Bissinger. Pretty intense and good. While on maternity leave, I tried watching the show because everyone raves about it, and after eight episodes during which I got more and more grudging about this self-assignment, I thought, Okay, well, we must be nearing the end of this season, I can probably get that far, and then I discovered there are TWENTY-TWO episodes in that first season and the experiment ended. So I figured I'd read the book instead. I should have just done that in the first place. 

American Thighs: The Sweet Potato Queens' Guide to Preserving Your Assets, by Jill Conner Browne. Mildly amusing but only rarely laugh-out-loud funny.

Marie Antoinette: The Journey, by Antonia Fraser. Fraser is such a good writer. This was a fantastic biography.

Blood on the Water, by Anne Perry. My Early Reviewers book: the latest in Perry's William Monk series. The characters grow increasingly two-dimensional and more representative than human, which is an unfortunate trend I note in many long-running serials. And Perry does go a bit heavy on the coincidental "hero meets old friend for tea, old friend happens to have crucial information which breaks the case" endings, and this book was no exception. But they are cozy bathtime reads nonetheless. 

May you all have someone to step into the wolf role this Halloween, in memory of the big dog who needed no costume.  

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

farmhouse in autumn

I've mentioned before that my family has a farmhouse up in Vermont. We spent time there most summers when I was a kid, and this time introduced us little desert rats to humidity, mosquitoes, black flies, the concept of it not cooling down at night, and the outhouse in the barn which was clearly the origin point for all the earwigs in the world. Although the forests were excellent for games of Robin Hood, everything else about the place was ill-suited to a child whose idea of heaven was her other grandparents' house, at which children were encouraged - nay, expected - to sit silently in the giant soft armchairs and read all day.

As an adult, I mostly put up with going there because it was where extended family congregated, and because the bathroom finally functioned. I started to have some fondness for the ancient wooden floors, and to worry less that the ceiling was going to fall on me in my sleep (ironic, given that the ceiling is probably more likely to fall on someone now than it was thirty years ago), but my visits there were always about the people, not the place.

Berowne fell in love with the property the moment he set eyes on it. The house is his idea of perfection: enough work to keep him busy for quite a while, but with solid and charmingly shabby bones. And the land! The opportunities for gardens! The barns full of ancient tools! He probably married me for the place. (Kidding! He married me because I got pregnant.)

We started talking about spending some time up there in the fall, and this year managed to make it happen, getting in just under the wire before it was shut up for the winter. We piled as much of our household as would fit into a small car and headed north (if you ever find that merely adding a baby to a road trip doesn't slow you down enough, I can recommend including a dog too neurotic to be left alone in the car at rest areas), and eventually arrived at a cold dark house possibly full of bats and I freaked out and started calculating how much coffee I'd need to get my child and dog back safely to Boston that night. Then Berowne got a fire going in the kitchen stove and all was well. If he had to evict multiple bat squatters, he didn't tell me.

The weekend that followed was utterly lovely. Nights were cold, but Berowne got up every few hours to feed the stove, and having Perdita snuggled into bed with us was fine except for my realization that co-sleeping past the age when babies are helpless swaddled potatoes is for parents with the ability to sleep through being punched in the face. But since we didn't have to do anything with our days but sit in a cozy kitchen, wander around the gorgeous property, hang out with our Vermont friends who were able to come visit, and nap occasionally, pugilistic nights were acceptable. I got a fair amount of reading done, and Perdita wore some seriously adorable hats. Monday morning, packing up under an overcast sky with the leaves suddenly falling fast and hard, we both wished we could batten down for the winter and stay.

Never mind that a lot of work would have to go into the house to make it habitable through winter. Never mind things like finding jobs up there and the state requirement that we buy a Subaru. You have to admit that if I, who am definitely a suburban mouse used to a certain amount of comfort and not-bats, was suddenly living in rural Vermont restoring an old farmhouse, that it would make a hell of a blog. And I probably wouldn't even die, because Berowne knows what he's doing! Together we could make it through anything, barring the bathroom plumbing failing. Shudder.

Ah well. These are the dreams that drive you out to whatever version of Walden Pond you can find, when the commute from day care to work feels longer every day* and your neighbors are building a giant house on your already-cramped little street. Almost everyone in my family has dreamed about living there at some point: my brother and his partner make it their summer retreat for about six weeks every year. It's a good spot, and I'm glad I can finally see that.

The reading I've done lately:

Riveted, by Maljean Brook. The third, and the one I liked best by far, in her romance steampunk series. Set in Iceland, with mechanical contraptions that don't feel gratuitous, and a likable hero and heroine who are, remarkably for romance novels, emphatically non-white. (Although Brook features characters of color and mixed race a lot, which I like.)

Any Duchess Will Do, by Tessa Dare. Slight romance novel in a Pygmalion vein. I like Dare in general, but couldn't warm to this one's heroine, who loses her rustic accent in something like half an hour of tutoring and goes on impossibly from there.

The Cuckoo's Calling, by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling). Mystery with no characters I really liked. I have no way to compare this to Rowling's other writings, because I never got farther than a quarter into the first Harry Potter book. The pre-Hogwarts stuff I liked, because it's very Roald Dahl, but once he got to Hogwarts I became bored to tears. Anyway, won't be checking out the rest of Rowling's books for adults either. 

Haunted Ground, by Erin Hart. This gets an emphatic meh. So much clumsy infodumping about archaeology that would insult any listener who ever watched "In Search of the Trojan War", let alone one who's supposed to be a brilliant fellow academic, but of course when our hero does it it's supposed to be all kinds of sexy and our heroine (the aforementioned brilliant academic) sits there wide-eyed instead of being like, "Dude, keep up the mansplaining and you're getting a trowel to the balls." 

The Claverings, by Anthony Trollope. Didn't like it. Our hero just doesn't deserve any of his good fortune, including the two nasty people between him and an inheritance going on a conveniently doomed yachting trip (though I laughed and laughed when it became apparent that's what was going to happen - very Kind Hearts and Coronets).

May you all have bright autumn weather and places to batten down in when the leaves fall.

*It IS longer every day, because it goes through Salem, which becomes impassable during the month of October. It will ease up a little come November.

Monday, September 29, 2014

baby FAQ, month five

Q: What is your sense of self as a mother?

A: I was going to be a cool mother. I was going to rumble up to daycare in the Mustang Bullitt and unload a baby wearing the hippest of outfits and have a rule that the staff was not allowed to call her "princess" and so on. Of course it turned out that the realities of a car seat in the back of a two-door muscle car, and the ludicrousness of not getting use out of the fifty-some pieces of clothing we were given as gifts, overrode any investment in coolness I have. So I make a subdued entrance in my Focus, and hand over a baby who, when she's not dressed in pink head to toe, might well be wearing a shamrock-festooned onesie reading "Daddy's Lucky Charm" (it has long sleeves! fall wardrobe!). I don't even attempt to convince anyone that she's dressed that way ironically.

Like I've said before, I never thought of myself as a "natural mother", which term I think I defined as someone warm and hospitable and nurturing, who keeps a welcoming home and loves other people's children. Me, not so much. And so I fell back on the idea that I could be a cool mother, which was always ludicrous because I have never been cool at anything. Fortunately I produced an incredibly cool baby who wears the shamrock onesies and pink frilly jackets with aplomb. And I'm gradually figuring out that I don't need to be a generic ideal of motherhood: I need to be a mother to this very specific child, in our very specific family, while keeping myself happy and sane in my own specific way. YOU DON'T SAY.

It also occurred to me, because I write down lots of deep thoughts when I should be doing the dishes, that part of my struggling with a sense of me-as-mother is due to what we are led to believe about our bodies post-children. For me, it started with the breast-feeding debacle, when - setting aside my poor milk production and my need for screenings - the way my breasts were treated by the lactation consultants and nurses made me angrier than I have previously admitted to anyone. I've had breast cancer treatment, for crying out loud; you don't get more handsy towards the boobs than that. But no one involved in my cancer treatment or my post-treatment care ever just grabbed my boob and hauled it about without a by-your-leave or even a warning, the way the nurses and lactation consultants did. I only went to one breast-feeding support group, despite the enormous struggles we were having, and I only went to that one because Berowne was worried about me, and I made some excuse about how I couldn't try to feed her then and fled after fifteen minutes. I could not stand the thought of ever having someone treat my boobs like that again, and I knew seeing a lactation consultant meant just that. There really was an attitude that my breasts were not part of me-the-human at all: that they were merely tools which I was too stupid to use correctly and they had to be taken out of my hands. The very people waxing the most rhapsodic about how this was a beautiful natural bonding thing were treating my breasts like they were not connected to a human at all and were nothing but milk production machines (in my case, very faulty ones). I immediately wanted nothing to do with this. 

I didn't even tell Berowne this, because - tellingly - it didn't seem like a good enough reason to stop. Wanting my body to belong to me again seemed equivalent to wishing that I hadn't had a baby. I don't at all support the Fit Mom brand of shaming, but I also refuse to accept that if you choose to have a baby then you forfeit all right to your body as your own. That it becomes just a tool and you should only be aware of or invested in the nurturing things it can do for your child, not anything it can do for your own health or pleasure. 

Clearly, I'm cheating. I honestly feel that way sometimes, and that I must be merely watching this child until her real mother, who is willing to give up all bodily autonomy for her, comes back from building yurts for orphans and sweeps Perdita away to raise her in Brooklyn and Tibet with the money from her MacArthur genius grant and assistance from the rest of her interpretive dance troupe.

Yes, I know that the idea of a mother who gives up everything for her child also not being present during the child's first five months doesn't make any sense. This is not about logic. This is about feeling like I can't deserve something this joyful because I'm not miserable enough (which is not about logic either, obviously), and about being defensive regarding my fiercely drawn boundaries and my insistence on retaining them, and about having been one of those kids who's supposed to set the world on fire and never did. 

And I think I hit some sort of nail near the head with the concept that you only deserve joy if you're miserable at the same time. We are, after all, endlessly fed the claim that motherhood is suffering, sacrifice, Profound Love, and no fun. During my pregnancy I only heard that it would be a) the hardest thing ever and b) the most rewarding thing ever. Sounded solemn as hell, either way. In the event it's been utterly farcical on so many levels, and I laugh so much. Far more a Marx Brothers movie than a Pinter play, thank god. 

Of course, maybe motherhood is fun for me because I abandon my precious infant in dingo territory at daycare. I love her madly, and I miss her every moment we're apart, and come Monday morning there's the bit of me which can't wait to get back to my desk and my data. Plus she's learning the ways of the dingo getting all sorts of socialization and access to a Jumperoo. It's all good.

Q: She's sleeping through the night?

A: Most of the time! Although every time I brag about it she's up at two a.m., which serves me right. Some weekend mornings she even consents to go back to sleep after her five o'clock bottle! The first time this happened, though, it wasn't restful because I kept turning over in bed towards my bedside table, frustrated and thinking I must have left my lamp on. Eventually I realized that the irritating light was, in fact, coming from that thing called "the sun", which had not risen before I in five months.

Q: How is her separation anxiety?

A: Right, "hers", har har. Actually, she has developed the desire to always have me in eyesight when we're home: though she's perfectly happy to be left at daycare or with Berowne (who works from home two days a week, the lucky dog!), if I am home with her I have to tote her or drag her swing with me wherever I go or there is screaming. It being a very, very small house, this isn't any real hardship, although it does make taking the dog out or fetching the laundry from the line challenging. But we have nice conversations in the kitchen while I'm cleaning her bottles.

Q: Still in the swing? How long will that last?

A: Well, she can't quite sit unassisted yet; after a few seconds she tends to tip sideways. But she's so invested in crawling that her tummy time has become a constant Training Montage, complete with appropriate musical accompaniment (because, as established, I am having entirely too much fun with this whole thing). Who knows what sort of Pavlovian reaction she may have, down the road, to the opening chords of "Eye of the Tiger". 

Q: What have you read in between this silliness?

The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World's Largest Unsolved Art Theft, by Ulrich Boser. Intriguing, although at times it just turns into a long list of the con men and otherwise sketchy people Boser meets during his research, which gets a little tedious. 

Boy, Snow, Bird, by Helen Oyeyemi. Amazing. The Snow White story, updated to the 1950s and about race, and just astonishing. I was so mad when it ended, not just because the end is crazy-abrupt and without closure (my one quibble about its narrative structure) but because I didn't want to stop reading. 

Stella Bain, by Anita Shreve. Meh. Woman loses memory during WWI; is amazing at everything; all men are obsessed with her; best mother ever. Sorry, but I find that kind of protagonist more and more boring all the time. And I lost patience entirely when our amnesiac heroine discovers she has children, after a scene in which she, whom we are told is a brilliant nurse whose brilliant nursing has all come back to her, examines her own body and can't even be sure whether she's a virgin or not. THE FACE I MADE WHEN I READ THAT. Sure, her youngest is eight or so, and I know they say stretch marks fade (the ones puberty gave me sure as hell never did, but hey), but it still wasn't a successful choice on Shreve's part to go the "my heroine is so physically flawless that a trained nurse can't tell she's had children" route. "I so identify with this woman! I am invested in her success!" said no reader ever.  

Wait, says this reader, I thought you were just all up in arms about women being allowed to get their bodies back post-baby. In the sense of being allowed to feel ownership over one's body, yes. In the sense of completely unrealistic expectations of getting said body to look like it never grew a human, no. Even if I lose these tenacious last four pounds, and get close to being as toned as I was before (actually, my arms are better than they've ever been, because my child is huge), I'll probably always have the stretch marks and the linea negra. And I'm okay with that. I do look different: I look like I had a baby. Fancy that. 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

obnoxious heroines, and on not being the wolf's human any more

Last weekend, our little family made an outing to a local Puppy Mill Awareness event (for the record, it was anti-puppy mills). There were some booths and a police dog demonstration, and Perdita slept through almost everything. Then we walked around town, and behaved badly at the local chocolate shop (you'd think $27 worth of chocolate would last longer than two days, wouldn't you?), and generally had a lovely time.

Bingley got lots of attention, which he never used to, being completely overshadowed by the Great White Rockstar. It was wonderful to see him receiving lots of scritches and praise, and hearing people comment on his beautiful brindle coat, and having little kids refer to him as "a BIG dog!" which, again, is something that would never have happened before. As I waited for Berowne outside a shop, a gang of late-teens-early-twenties girls came down the street, one of them complaining loudly about her awful day, and when she saw Bingley she broke off mid-sentence to ask, "May I pet your dog?" and, after much ear-rubbing and wagging, told me that her day was now 100% better.

Wonderful, like I said. He's a glorious dog and I've never felt he got enough attention or admiration. But that night, home and consuming chocolate, I confessed to Berowne that being out at a dog event without Darcy-Bear had hurt far more than I expected it to. For all the attention that Bingley got, we were still pretty much just a couple with a stroller and a dog. I grew accustomed to a lot more than that, in my five years with Darcy. I was used to jaws hitting the ground when we walked up, to being surrounded by a dozen or more awe-struck people at once, to know that absolutely everyone within a two-block radius is staring amazed at your beautiful giant wolfy companion. I never got tired of telling his story over and over, or of saying, "Shepherd-malamute mix" until the words stopped sounding like anything.

Not only did I love him for himself, because he was wonderful beyond words, but I was so proud to be his human, and I loved taking him places. I loved the attention we got. And oh, how he would have looked next to the stroller! His head would have been level with Perdita's gaze as we walked along, and she would doubtless have laughed with joy at this, as she laughs at Bingley's antics now.

I know that the only thing worse than dealing with his illness and death while hugely pregnant would have been dealing with it while also dealing with a newborn baby, or having the final moment come when we were in the hospital. But it was so hard to accept that he would never see the baby, nor she him. And after being part of something so special, realizing we're now just another couple with a stroller and a dog makes me feel his loss with a very sharp edge.

He was supposed to live long enough for Perdita to remember him (though I knew even before he got sick that that was a long shot). There were supposed to be Little Red Riding Hood photo shoots, damn it. He was supposed to live forever, because I loved him, and now I'm about to get into Auden territory about a dog, but it's how I feel. Every day I miss the big dog and it hurts like hell.

Well! That cheerfulness aside, there's a lot of reading, because I've slacked on writing about that:

Now You See Me, by S.J. Bolton. I wanted to finish this, even though it was total hate-reading from about page five, but it defeated me. Our heroine and narrator is ridiculous: so gorgeous that she has to wear fake glasses and baggy clothes at work to be taken seriously, got the highest marks ever at police academy but behaves like a twelve-year-old on speed when it comes to common sense or impulse control (she's supposed to be "rebellious", I think), and as a teenager lived on the streets for eight months and did tons of drugs because she is SO cool and badass (and magically immune to the effects of such a period on one's looks or career prospects). I learned all this by page three, though; page five is when it became apparent that the sleeveless-T-shirt-wearing, "turquoise-eyed", hyper-misogynist superior officer is her love interest, and that Bolton's idea of a love interest means having her heroine think, "I hate him SO MUCH but I lose all my breathtaking intelligence around him, and the incredibly offensive way he takes charge of my life and makes inappropriate comments about my fabulous body makes me all tingly, so I'm going to make inappropriate comments right back because that's how two adults who work together handle these things, right?" Also the fact that the serial killer is obsessed with her is presented as further proof of how awesome she is.

But still I trundled on, until our heroine is almost killed by a suspect, and when she wakes up in the hospital, her reaction is zero percent thankfulness that she's alive and one hundred percent screaming sobbing meltdown because her nose was broken and she might not be quite as beautiful any more. She's far too cool and jaded and sexy for emotions; people getting killed in front of and for her doesn't phase her in the least; but when she thinks her nose might become slightly crooked she throws a temper tantrum. (Wouldn't crying hysterically with a broken nose hurt like crazy?) And this is the cue for DCI What'sBestForYou to take her in his arms and declare his love, because nothing says "relationship material" like "cares more about her appearance than about the victims whose murders she's supposed to be solving". Nothing says "heroine with whom we're supposed to sympathize" like that, either, to the extent that I sent this book back to the library tout suite.

I've lost all tolerance, if I ever had any, for the female character who is a total asshole (because she knows how impossibly gorgeous, impossibly successful, and impossibly brilliant she is) but whom the author repeatedly tells us is the most generous and giving person in the world. These heroines are especially awful because they're always narrators, and so you have to spend a whole book in their head while they talk about how annoying it is to have men walking into walls around them, and how disgusting that fat woman over there is, and how pathetic and slutty this other woman trying to get a man's attention is, and how tedious other people are when you're the smartest person in the world, BLAH BLAH BLAH, and then there's ALWAYS some other character piping up with, "You have the kindest heart / most generous nature / best personality ever," as if the reader's just going to nod along with that after a couple hundred pages of flat-out mean narration towards everyone the heroine has ever met. A very good example of this: Diana Gabaldon's Claire, who spends thousands of pages thinking the nastiest things imaginable about gay men and all other women (because they are all after her man, don't you know), and also being casually racist, and when leaving her daughter forever (as in: will never see her again, never hear from her again, will be separated from her by a magical two hundred years, FOREVER), tells her, "Try not to get fat." To which the daughter's father replies, not sarcastically, that she is the best mother ever, the same way that all the other characters are constantly extolling her to the skies as the kindest person ever to walk the planet even as she's thinking vile things about them based on their race or sexual orientation or bodice size.

I just can't deal with that shit. I was floored by the "try not to get fat" thing years before having a daughter of my own, and now it makes me break out in a cold sweat. I mean, when I decide that the present has entirely too much hygiene and medical science to be sexy, and I must journey into the past for my sexy times, I don't think leaving my daughter a legacy of body hatred will be my first instinct. (Of course, taking said journey would not be my first instinct either, as my turn-ons include owning property and not dying in childbirth.)


Red Bones, by Ann Cleeves. Another in her Shetland mystery series, which I like very much. Makes me want to live on a Scottish island SO BAD (although, to be fair, waking up in the morning can also make me want that). 

Frog Music, by Emma Donoghue. Oh, Emma. She's such an amazing writer, and it's just all historical prostitutes, all the time. This one also had horrifying stuff about historical child neglect and illness which had me blubbering like a walrus (and briefly not wanting to live on a Scottish island unless I can find one with a state-of-the-art pediatric medical facility). 

A Dying Fall, by Elly Griffiths. The latest in her archaeologist-sucked-into-police-investigations series. Around the second book the premise got strained, but I'm willing to go with it because I like the characters and the writing. However, I grow weary of how the protagonist's single motherhood is presented: as not nearly wearing enough. It's just a sort of tossed-off, "Ruth is often tired these days," when, as someone five months into fully-partnered parenthood, I am quite certain that after two years of completely solo parenting, being described as "often tired" would make you go into Blanche DuBois levels of hysteria if only you could remain conscious long enough. Ruth also occasionally feels guilty about being late for pick-up at the "childminder", but never does she have trouble finding childcare or worry about the money involved. Hrrrm.

Orphan Train, by Christina Baker Klein. To say that this is a book-club book is not to say anything negative about it - book clubs are awesome - but it does describe a certain type of book in a way that I hope you understand. It was a good book, and made me cry, and I hustled through it. 

I left unfinished Marisha Pessl's Night Film. All the reviews said it was pretty god-awful, but I wanted to give it a try anyway. The reviews were right.

Eugene Onegin, by Alexander Pushkin. I... did not know this was in verse.

Fetch the Devil: The Sierra Diablo Murders and Nazi Espionage in America, by Clint Richmond. This was my Early Reviewers book, about the murder of a mother and daughter in the Southwest in the 1930s, and how Richmond believes that it was related to espionage. He makes a good case, but the reporting was a bit dry and too heavy on portraying the law enforcement involved as rugged cool dudes. There is a way, I know, to write about an unsolved mystery without making the reader feel that their time has been wasting in reading about it. I can't quite articulate how it works, when it does, but it didn't in this case. 

The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn, by Alison Weir. Very interesting after my last reading about the misinformation around Anne Boleyn; Bordo had some scathing things to say about Weir. There were indeed moments when Weir assigned motives (often spiteful) to Anne that the historical record doesn't support, but she was mostly good about admitting where the holes in our knowledge are. I got the feeling that Weir didn't like Anne, but was trying to be fair. 

Next time: adventures in chocolate budgeting! Ha, that will never happen. 

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

baby FAQ, month four

Q. What have you read lately?

A: The Creation of Anne Boleyn: A New Look at England's Most Notorious Queen, by Susan Bordo. Fun, intelligent popular history / pop culture exploration of what we actually know about Anne Boleyn (a very small amount, given the lack of source material and the propaganda around her in all directions) and what we as a culture think we know about her. The first half of the book is about the historical record and the contemporary depictions of Anne; the second half is about depictions of her in literature and film since and how those change to reflect the times. Bordo does come off as scolding other writers quite a bit, and at the very end gets a little weird about feminism (pro? con? trying to claim we're all too postmodern for the label? I couldn't tell), but it's a smart and enjoyable book. 

Re-read In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote. Still pretty impressive, though the true-crime tendency (which I believe Capote started) towards printing long letters or manifestos written by angry, often racist, almost always misogynist, uneducated criminals, is something with which I have no patience. Didn't want to be in Gary Gilmore's head; don't want to be in Perry Smith's either. Skipped right over those parts without even skimming.

Winter's Tale, by Mark Helprin. Was this (enormous) book amazing and beautiful and an awesome display of Helprin's imaginative powers? You bet it was! Did I skim the hell out of the last 300 pages? You know I did! At a certain point I simply could not spend another twenty minutes of my life reading a description of an aggressively whimsical building or a bizarre philosophical conversation between two hobos (I've seen "Waiting for Godot" something like six times, so I'm good, thanks), and once animal cruelty and infant death came into the picture, I was just like, "LA LA LA," and whisked through to the end.

Q: How is Perdita?

A: So awesome. I am absolutely obsessed with her babbling and cooing, not to mention her laughter.

Q: Any screaming?

A: If I try to listen to anything but NPR in the car, yes. She is not into music while driving these days, but will sit wide-eyed and thoughtful-looking while terrible things are reported in soothing voices and Mama says choice words in a less soothing voice.

Q: As you travel more and for longer periods of time with her, how is bottle-feeding in public going?

A: I never would have thought that not whipping a boob out in public could, on occasion, make me so self-conscious. But fortunately no one has yet given me overt shit about it (one dude did tell me I had her "facing the wrong way", but I couldn't tell whether he was concerned for my child's nutritional needs or just wished my shirt was open).

Q: A mother feeding her baby in public is fair game either way, no? Either she has to have a boob out in public, and risk skeeviness or hostility, or someone's going to comment on the bottle.   

A: Far better someone comment on the bottle than that a public space not be nursing-friendly, though. After all, barring someone actually knocking the bottle out of my hand, which even the most ardent member of the Breastapo is unlikely to do, Perdita's not going to go hungry because a space is pro-breast-feeding. And being a mother in public generally means someone's going to give you unsolicited advice no matter what you do. 

Q: Is it still hard to feel supported and validated in your bottle-feeding? 

A: Alas, yes. I'm so, so happy with our lives as they are. Perdita's growing like a weed (she's in six-month onesies because she's so tall) and sleeping through the night; since we weaned I've lost all but seven pounds of the pregnancy weight (I know, they all tell you it only works the other way around, but I didn't lose an ounce while breast-feeding, because it made me hungrier than I'd been while pregnant and chained me to the couch and the pumping chair); and I'm able to get the cancer screenings I need. I am so much happier since I put that pump away, and I know that I made the right choice for my health and my family. But. 

The exclusion I feel from the maternal inner circle, from this perfect ideal of What Motherhood Should Be, is pretty severe. I know that that ideal exists mostly in my own head, and that all parents have their struggles and doubts, no matter how healthy and organic-cotton-scented their lives appear from the outside. But breast-feeding has such potency as a symbolic act, and for me it took on the weight of Motherhood Visibly Done Right. I've never thought of myself as the warm maternal sort, or as a natural mother. I felt like I did pregnancy completely wrong by hating almost every minute of the nine-month experience (perhaps someday I'll post about my wicked antepartum depression, which I didn't even know was a thing but which made my last trimester one of the hardest periods of my life), and that I would be doing a major part of motherhood wrong by going back to work full-time and early, and so I already felt excluded from the inner circle of good happy natural mothers well before the baby came along. Nursing was pretty much my only chance at redeeming myself, and when it turned out to be such a disaster - and when it became apparent that the choice to stop completely was going to be something I would have to fight for - I felt so, so alone. I've not quite gotten over that feeling yet. 

I suspect that almost every parent has something which makes them feel excluded from the inner circle of perfect parenthood, whether it be an economic situation, a child's special needs, a non-traditional family structure, or the fact that the kid hates the Moby Wrap*. I know I'm not alone in feeling alone, and that if I were exclusively breast-feeding I'd just find something else about which to feel inadequate and isolated. I don't regret my decision, but some days I still feel like the clubhouse sign says ONLY BOOBS ALLOWED.

Okay, I really will try to stop being defensive about it. Getting to be a little bit of a broken record around here.

Q: Speaking of music, what is your husband's idea of making a Johnny Cash song baby-appropriate?

A: "Early one morning while making the rounds / I took a shot of cocaine and I rented a clown."

Q: And you wonder why she sometimes shrieks in her sleep.

*While I was still technically on leave, Perdita and I went into work for two trainings; for one I snuggled her into the Moby Wrap like a good nurturing mama, and for the other I left her strapped into her heartless, head-flattening car seat. Guess which training she slumbered through angel-fashion and which training I missed nine-tenths of because I was out in the hall with an inconsolable screamer. Since then the Moby has lain in the car's back seat absorbing spills. 

Thursday, August 14, 2014

poop stories, dog books, and stressed moms

The latest in working-mother-adjustment:

I have now been back at my job a month and so far (knock on wood) everyone has survived. But I've had to do a lot of personal work around my loss of control and the intense anxiety that causes me (anyone who's ever been unfortunate enough to have me as a passenger in their car knows my issues around not having control).

The loss of control, of course, started as soon as the pregnancy did. First I couldn't control the physical changes in my body; then I couldn't control my dog's illness; then I couldn't control going into labor and had to be induced; then I couldn't control labor sufficiently to get through it unmedicated; then I couldn't control my milk production... heavens! After the first six weeks or so, Perdita and I got into a rhythm and I felt okay about things again, but then I returned to work, and went straight from our days being our own to having no direct control over her days at all and very little control over mine. Suddenly, with no gradual transition, for forty-plus hours a week my child is with someone else and my time is at someone else's disposal. No wonder I refused to move Perdita to her big crib in the other room, even though she'd completely outgrown the little co-sleeper crib in our room. No wonder I cried a whole, whole lot.

Things are better now: she's sleeping through the night in the other room and I only cry when there's a dog. Like, anywhere. I decided that reading about Rin Tin Tin was a good idea despite this, which resulted in me sobbing to Berowne, "They buried him with his squeaky toy!" (The jaded reply of a man who has seen a dozen squeakers ripped from plush bosoms: "They must have made squeaky toys tougher back then.")

Not unrelatedly, I have decided (based on a control group consisting of me and a couple funny British writers) that the "stress during pregnancy causes lower IQ / mental illness / general ruined-baby-syndrome" stuff being pushed on us these days is almost entirely bullshit. I spent my entire pregnancy with my anxiety turned up to eleven (see: loss of control, above), and hearing at every turn that my cortisol levels were so bad for the baby that I might as well be mainlining heroin didn't, oddly enough, make me less stressed. For nine months I was basically one trigger away from being hauled off in a strait-waistcoat.   

The result of that pregnancy is the most easy-going, cheerful baby anyone has ever seen, and she has met every developmental milestone early. Of course she may turn out to be intensely stupid, in which case I'll just have to live with knowing that my terrible negligence in allowing my dog to get cancer is to blame, but so far I'm not impressed with the no-stress rule. Frankly, I think that it's yet another ploy to guilt women into leaving the workforce when they have children. Regardless of what your job is or how much you love it, it's going to have an element of stress, and as the "wisdom" becomes more and more that you must be happy and relaxed every second of your pregnancy unless you want your fetus to be irreparably damaged, any stress in your life starts to seem too dangerous to be worth it. And so women get guilted and pressured out of the workforce even before the baby comes along.

Naturally, if a woman leaves the workforce while about to add a huge number of new expenses to her life, she'd better have a seriously-well-employed spouse or well-off parents or a trust fund to facilitate this. Which is the worst aspect of the "good mothers stop working" nonsense: the idea that if you don't have one of those three safety nets, you can't be a good mother. This is not only classist but requires the belief that a woman cannot have had an independent life prior to becoming a mother, because if she did, and was participating in the economy for over a decade before even meeting her spouse.... well, basically the question is whether it would have been morally acceptable for me to say to Berowne last summer: "Now that you've knocked me up, my car payment, my dogs' expenses, and the mortgage on the house I bought with my ex-husband are all your responsibility. Good luck!" 

Sorry to be cranky about it. I just got so mad about people instructing me constantly that I needed to not be stressed, while making the utterly insane assumption that the loss (or severe decrease: I got lots of advice to go part-time) of my income would lessen the stress in our household. I'm never going to say flippantly, "Nice work if you can get it!" of stay-at-home parenting, because my suspicions that it's exhausting have been emphatically proven, but I'm tired of our society acting like it's an option - or a priority - for all women. 

ALSO, because I have not posted in a while and I have too much to say, what happens in the workplaces of those countries which give women paid maternity leaves of a year or more? How do you arrange a year's worth of coverage for a valued employee? Does everyone move up a rung but then get demoted when the mother returns? Is there a massive temp worker industry in Scandinavia? How does this not create a hugely disproportionate burden on the childless employees? (And if it does, do they ever move to America in disgust?) I was gone for under three months and spent my last two months training people non-stop to cover me and it was STILL a hot mess. Everyone talks about the amazing maternity leave policies in these countries (oddly, everyone talks constantly about them to the woman who had to come back to work after three months, as if it's not salt in the wound), but no one talks about how the workplace handles a female employee saying, "Okay, see you in a year and a half." I wonder about these things!  

Ah well. Saying that I have to work makes it sound much more grudging than it is. I miss Perdita every moment we're apart, but I can see how much she loves daycare; and, let's face it, I am not the type to join mommy play groups, so if I were a stay-at-home mom she'd never see anyone but me and the dog, and I would never talk to other adults. (A typical conversation since Berowne moved in: "Who were you talking to in the yard?" "So-and-so." "Who's that?" "Um... the guy you've lived next door to for eight years." "He has a name?") In retrospect, if I'd been able to arrange a more gradual return to work that would have been better for my own mental health, but like I said, we're okay.

The latest in monster blowouts:

Location: I-89, on our way to Vermont. Cruising along the highway, I sniffed and said, "Do you think she pooped?" Berowne sniffed as well, and said, "No, I think that was a moose." At the next rest stop, we discovered that the moose had apparently managed to get into the backseat and poop all over the baby without us noticing. Thankfully there was a spare bathroom we could commandeer together, or we would have stood between the two restrooms saying, "You take her," "No, you take her," for about fifteen minutes, and the person who ended up with her would still be mad about it. And we managed to salvage the car seat.

Location: the local tiki restaurant. When the dining room at Fantasy Island echoed with a rumble like a tractor-trailer driving by, I had the sinking feeling that the diaper bag was entirely too light for the situation. And indeed, it turned out that at some point in the past three weeks I had taken a now-too-small spare outfit out of the diaper bag and neglected to replace it. You don't know proud parenting until your baby is wearing a toga made out of a swaddle blanket in public.

Location: a wedding dinner in Vermont (different weekend). She hadn't pooped in about thirty-six hours, so all day at the wedding and the party we were bracing ourselves for a big one. When it was Berowne's turn to change her, and he headed off to the little bathroom, I had my fingers crossed. After a long time passed, I knew that it had been as I hoped. But then more time passed. And more. The speeches were finished, the food was arriving, and still nothing. I started to think that maybe I should gather up extra diapers and clothes and go knock on the door, but because with a baby you have to eat in shifts, I knew I had to eat my food so that I could take the baby when Berowne returned to the table. Also I'm kind of a jerk. When Berowne finally did emerge, he looked like he'd been to Vietnam: the bathroom, apparently, had been a somewhat jungle-like environment even before adding the destructive humidity of an overdue pants-load. Fortunately we had a dozen back-up outfits (I may have gone a little overboard in the buying of wedding clothes) and the only lasting harm was Berowne's insistence that it is my turn for the next month or so.  

The latest in reading:

The Wrong Mother, by Sophie Hannah. A nasty little thriller, which is what Hannah does. So freakin' creepy! And effective about the grim side of motherhood.

I finished Ten Years in the Tub, by Nick Hornby. No sooner, of course, had I written in the last post that I enjoyed Hornby despite our differing views, than he devoted an entire column to how Cheryl Strayed's Wild was one of his favorite books of the last ten years. Well, I suppose if you never were a self-obsessed, self-pitying, twenty-something woman, the travails of one might be more interesting to you than they were to me. But really? In ten years a voracious reader reads roughly a thousand books, if not more; and you think this was better than, say, nine hundred of the other books you sought out deliberately during that decade? A decade is a LOT of reading. I don't think Hornby realized the height of the podium he's erecting for Strayed there, is all I'm saying. But I did enjoy this collection despite that.

Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, by Susan Orlean. I avoided this book for a while because I knew it would make me cry, which it did (as previously noted). I may not have been quite ready for it as it was, but I'm glad I read it. Orlean's writing style is the kind of reportage I really like - direct and friendly, imparting lots of information without ever seeming cluttered - and of course how could I not love the story of a dog rescued from a WWI battlefield who became fiercely bonded to his owner and beloved by millions? Replace "WWI battlefield" with "bad owners in Baltimore", and you have the life and legend of Darcy-Bear, who totally could have become a film star if a) there been an open casting call for "Game of Thrones" in our area and b) he had responded to most commands with anything other than a skeptical look and the occasional fart of disrespect. (He could have been the equivalent of Rin Tin Tin IV, a very sweet but rather dense dog who never actually acted in the 1950s television show bearing his name, but did the publicity bits.) Anyway, this book was fascinating and melancholy and I cried and cried at this bit:

Rin Tin Tin did not need to be remembered in order to be happy; for him, it was always enough to have that instant when the sun was soft, when the ball was tossed and caught, when the beloved rubber doll was squeaked. Such a moment was complete in itself, pure and sufficient.

I miss his pricked shepherd ears and his giant fluffy tail so, so much. But I know that he was a very happy dog in the little cottage by the sea, and I will try to let that be pure and sufficient. 

Monday, August 4, 2014

too much waiting room time, not enough yetis


False Mermaid, by Erin Hart. I've seen raves about another book by her, so I checked out one which the library had available, and was really unimpressed. I'll probably still read the raved-about book when it becomes free, but this one was boring.

The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri. Tells the story of an Indian family, in India and America, in the aftermath of tragedy. It took me a little while to get into it, but its understated beauty became hypnotic, even when I didn't necessarily think that the characters were behaving in believable ways. Eventually I didn't want it to end. 

Little Failure: A Memoir, by Gary Shteyngart. I've never read any of Shteyngart's novels, but this memoir got such good reviews that I checked it out. It was quite excellent: one of those books that makes you (almost) wish away your (mostly) calm happy upbringing so that you could also write something hilarious about your bizarre family. And Shteyngart's descriptions of attending a liberal arts college in the 90s were so, so perfect that I had to put my head down and weep with joy while reading them. Oh, Russian-speaking friends: does the phrase really translate as "go to the dick"? I hope so, because Berowne and I have already started using it. 

I left unfinished The Abominable, by Dan Simmons. The premise was "horror on Mt. Everest", so naturally I had very high hopes. But dear heavens, this was dull and disappointing. It's 300 pages of possibly the most boring and clunky exposition I have ever read before they even get to Mt. Everest. Entire chapters, endless in their tedium, about the history and design of oxygen cylinders. Passages listing mountaineers' names and dates that are like the catalog of ships. And then it's another 150 pages before yetis even kill anyone, which happens off-stage; and then it turns out that they were actually Nazis disguised as yetis (yes, that hoary literary trope). Given the promises this book made, I should not have had to skim 450 pages of a mountain-climbing manual before even a faint and ultimately false waft of yeti drifted out of the text. I struggled onward to almost the last eighty or so pages, but once it became apparent that real yetis were not going to arrive and eat the Nazis, I gave up.

I'm deep into, and enjoying very much, Nick Hornby's Ten Years in the Tub: A Decade of Soaking in Great Books, which is a collection of columns he wrote for the magazine The Believer in which he, well, did this blog first and much better. Where we have read the same books, Hornby and I agree perhaps one time out of ten. He adores books that I barely made it through, and vice versa. And yet his delight in reading is so infectious, so genuine, that after every essay I had another book to add to my to-read list. That's some sort of magic: that after three pages of disagreeing with his opinions, I would still react to a paragraph about a book he loved with the sense that I must find that book immediately. Magic or perpetual hope. Hard to say. Although I don't at all know what to do with Hornby's conflicting statements that Dickens is his favorite author and that he barely got through Our Mutual Friend even when he had been hired to write an introduction for a new edition. What? (He also claims that his kids aren't interested in reading because they're boys, which statement is proved a lie by almost every man I know and is shorthand for the loathsome "boys will be boys" lazy parenting [i.e., "my kid can punch other kids without fear of punishment"]. No, Nick, your kids aren't interested in reading. Full stop. It has nothing to do with gender.)

So, there's been a mighty saga around arranging my first post-baby cancer screening. Back in May my oncologist recommended an MRI, which you can have while breastfeeding (I was still pumping then), and sent off the request to my insurance company. The company replied with what was clearly a form letter saying I have no risk factors for breast cancer because I don't have the BRCA2 mutation, and I should get a mammogram like everyone else.

Yeah. Note to insurance companies: if you're not even going to pretend to review a patient's medical history before denying her services, you should make sure she a) didn't spend her adolescence arguing with a lawyer and b) hasn't been dealing with medical insurance companies as part of her job for ten years. My response letter was a masterpiece of controlled rage, after which the MRI was swiftly approved (though they're dragging their feet on sending the authorization number). But, in the interim, I decided that I needed to at least be able to get a mammogram, and that the tiny trickle of breast milk I was able to produce over four or five miserable pumping sessions wasn't worth going un-screened. And so I put the pump away, and weaned fully, and we were able to schedule a mammogram. (Worst Mother Ever! Putting my own health needs above those of my child! I'm pretty sure that, y'know, a mastectomy and chemo would also necessitate weaning.)

I had the mammo last week, and it was not exactly arranged to ease my massive worry. The tech called me in, took four pictures, and told me to go back to the waiting room.

What I should have said, because this is not my first rodeo: "Um, are you sure? You didn't get all of the breast tissue in those, and usually they want to see more angles, and... I really don't think we're done."

What I said: "Um, okay." And went back to the waiting room, which was populated by a family with two small screeching children, about which I tried to be understanding because it was obviously a situation where Grandma, who was getting the mammogram, didn't speak English, and her daughter came along to translate and didn't have child care available; but once the kids started screaming about how they didn't WANNA go to the LIBRARY after the appointment, my patience fled down the same path as my ability to be logical about being called back in for more pictures four times.

Logically, I knew that the radiologist wasn't seeing alarming things which warranted further investigation. He just wasn't seeing the whole breast, and kept telling the tech to get pictures which included the whole breast. But the logical voice in one's head can be drowned out by a fly's footfall under the circumstances of "my cancer might be back and I have a three-month-old", and so I sat there just trying not to cry. And I know it is possible to take, like, sixteen pictures the first time you have me in the room! Why she was only willing to take one or two at a time, before sending me back to the waiting room while saying, "I'll come get you for the next round in a bit," and then shuffling off at a glacial pace to show the radiologist the pictures she did take, I'll never know. The process dragged on for over an hour, and I was terrified the whole time. When my next one comes due, no matter how much sooner a slot is available at this location, I will request one at the location where I usually have it done.

Finally, however, the radiologist called me in and told me that all is well, and recommended a year's wait before another screening. We shall see what my oncologist says; both she and I prefer the MRI for its extra detail, however little I enjoy the actual event (though it says a lot about being a new parent that my absolute first thought about a procedure which has previously induced panic attacks was, "Oh man, half-hour nap, awesome"), so we will keep pushing for one of those soon. But for now I have been given an all-clear, and that's huge.