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.