A Purposeful Summer

School is ending for the year. Our graduates have walked, and only a couple days of cleaning and tying up loose ends remain. The end of May is always a time for teachers to take a big sigh of relief and finally give in to the exhaustion that has been accumulating for the past ten months. Summer break makes people think teachers have it easy, but I always remind them that 1) it’s only two months now, not the three most of us remember from our own childhoods, 2) it’s unpaid, and 3) we still have a lot of school-related work that needs to get done during this time. Not to mention, I teach summer school, so I’m still working anyway. Summer school’s not a bad deal though. My school can only afford to pay me for half the day, so I have my afternoons free, and there’s only one five-week session, so I still have almost a month off in July.

Like many teachers and students, I always have great illusions about all the amazing things I’m going to get done with my extra free time during the summer. And then in August I wonder where the time went and why I didn’t get all that stuff done. My life has always been run on the academic calendar, so you’d think by now I’d know how much I can actually accomplish in this time and be able to make some realistic goals.

I don’t claim to be great at time management. I’ve written before about struggling with it (and even more so, about messages blaming women in particular for poor time management). When my toddler takes his afternoon naps on the weekends, I feel listless rather than purposeful. I feel like there are so many things I have to do that I don’t know where to start, and then I feel bad about wasting any of this little bit of time dithering rather than being productive.

Summer has the potential to multiply that procrastination. I figure there are two ways I know of to combat that listless feeling and the resultant dithering: 1) scheduling things, and 2) routines. I need to take my own decision-making out of the equation by making appointments I have to keep and committing to them by spending money. Summer means a new daily routine, and if I don’t take the time to think that new routine through, I’ll end up not knowing what to do with myself and wasting all this awesome summer time. Living by a routine might seem boring, but if you’re thoughtful about setting the routine and building in flexibility, it can allow you to be really purposeful about the way you spend your time, which is the ultimate regret-buster.

This summer I wanted to recapture some of the things that made me feel bold, beautiful, confident, and vital when I was younger. In high school, I participated in almost all of the drama productions we did. My favorite plays we did were The Diary of Anne Frank and The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. So, inspired by my high school drama memories and Amy Poehler’s memoir Yes Please, I signed up for improv classes this summer. I liked the way Poehler described how improv taught her to trust her instincts and sparked her creativity. It would be awesome if the classes had that effect on me, but I’ll be happy if I don’t end up feeling like I made a fool of myself every night. I’m a little nervous about the classes, a good kind of nervous that tells me I’m stepping out of my comfort zone.

I also need to focus more on my physical fitness, and I don’t like working out for the sake of looking good (no matter how much that’s the real motivation). A workout powered by self-loathing makes me feel worse than I felt before I started, no matter how much stronger my muscles are. It seems more healthy to exercise for the sheer joy of it, and there are not many forms of exercise that make me feel joyful. However, I took dance classes from ages 4-16 and really enjoyed them. I could barely notice how much I was sweating when I was focused on executing complicated steps in time. So I bought a pass for several classes at the summer dance program at Vanderbilt. I can take a variety of types of dance classes, depending on which ones fit my schedule and preference each day. I’m most excited to try tap-dancing again. I hope some muscle memory lingers from half my lifetime ago.

One other big thing happening this summer: we’re going to try to put our house on the market soon. So de-cluttering, putting things in storage, and making this place look as if no one lived here, are going to take a lot of work. The last time we bought a house, it was easy because it was our first time. Being a seller is a whole new ball game. I’m also feeling nostalgic about leaving the home I came to as a newlywed, the place that sheltered our baby in his first two years. So this huge project is going to take some grieving and emotional work as well as physical labor.

As if classes and real estate weren’t enough to keep me busy for two months, I would like to post more frequently on this blog this summer. And my almost-two-year-old is at a particularly adorable stage right now, and I want to simply enjoy him with some of this extra time. He deserves some visits to the playground and the splash park and a few play dates. And I’m finally going to take the plunge and get a smartphone, so I’ll be that much more distracted as I try to accomplish all these goals.

So here’s to a deliberately planned summer of personal growth and necessary, if bittersweet, change. Let’s hope that in August I can look back and say I made the most of it.

The New Jim Crow

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

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This book makes a gigantic joke out of education reformers’ claim that the achievement gap is the greatest civil rights issue of our time. Every time I hear that claim, I want to throw this book at the person who makes it. Low test scores pale in comparison to the devastating effects of the war on drugs. (And in fact, the war on drugs creates much of the poverty that causes those low test scores.) The book is a few years old, but in light of Ferguson and Baltimore, it’s more relevant than ever.

It may seem like an exaggeration to compare the current state of race relations to Jim Crow and slavery, but Alexander backs up her arguments incredibly well. I was persuaded by her. She enumerates lots of stories of atrocities committed by police in the course of the drug war, as well as tons of statistics that demonstrate bias and inequality. Her argument is extremely well-organized, explaining how the appearance of colorblindness is exactly what allows our justice system to mete out unequal sentences.

If you believe what this book is saying, it will make you angry. I think of one of my students, detained for two days under charges of attempted murder, because he looked like the victims’ description. He had the best alibi in the world: he was walking in his high school graduation ceremony when the crime was committed. But he spent two nights in jail because no one took the time to ask him about his alibi or verify it. He had made good choices and focused on his education, but that didn’t matter. People see that he is African-American, young, tall, and heavyset, and they assume the worst about him, and even feel afraid of him, not knowing that he is gentle and polite, with a silly sense of humor. I can only imagine how discouraging and spiritually debilitating that must feel for this former student of mine, and many of my other students. Sometimes when reading The New Jim Crow, I felt overwhelmed by how entrenched our racial caste system is. The problem is so big it feels hopeless. But maybe eyes are beginning to open up and there are reasons to believe change is on the way. Alexander calls for a mass movement, and #BlackLivesMatter might be the start of one.

Mind-benders

I’ve decided to start grouping books and writing reviews of more than one book at once occasionally. The main reason for this new format is that my backlog of books to review is out of control. But I also realized that grouping books allows for interesting comparisons and categorizations.

These two books turn the truth on its head several times and make you wonder repeatedly what’s going on.

The Uses of Enchantment by Heidi Julavits

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A teenage girl disappears and mysteriously returns claiming she had been abducted. She begins psychiatric counseling, where she finally recants her story and admits she ran away. The revelation tears apart her family, while her psychiatrist writes a book inspired by her case. Years later, Mary’s mother dies without reconciling with her, and she comes back to her hometown for the funeral.

Lots of books alternate between two narratives (past and present, two characters’ points of view, etc), but this is the only one I can think of that alternates between three narratives, from three different points in time and three different perspectives. Mary’s story in the present as she endures her mother’s funeral and confronts her past, her psychiatrist’s notes of his sessions with her,and most mysteriously, “what might have happened” when Mary disappeared. This format really amplifies the mystery and left me with tons of questions–in a good way.

A major question of the novel is about how much we can trust psychiatrists, who sometimes interpret our stories in ways that can be self-serving, and call us crazy or ‘difficult’ if we don’t agree with them. There were a lot of gender politics at play here. Mary’s doctor is compared to Freud, who pathologized his female patients’ sexuality, and Mary’s mother preferred to believe her daughter was a liar than that she had been raped.

The Magus by John Fowles

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This gigantic book is about a guy who goes to Greece to teach at a school on a remote island in the 1950’s. He meets this old rich dude who proceeds to fuck with his head in every way possible. They have lots of philosophical discussions about God, mythology, trust. About 5 times, the young teacher catches the rich old dude in a lie of some kind, each bigger than the last, until the lie is a conspiracy that encompasses both their entire lives. It was impressive how many times the truth turned in on itself in this book. The protagonist is a major asshole in his relationships with women. He acts like he expects sympathy anyway, but it’s not clear to me how much we readers are supposed to empathize with him or judge him. I guess he mostly gets his just deserts, but still, it’s all kinds of messed up. The ending is about as open and closure-free as they come, the kind you could call happy if you read it in a good mood and bitter if you read it when depressed.

They Should Have Warned Me Not to Read that Viral Mom Essay

I guess it’s become a tradition for me to write a kind of rant for Mother’s Day. Here’s this year’s tirade.

A few months ago, I saw this viral mom essay that made me sick. A new mom named Jensy goes on about how while she was pregnant people kept telling her she was going to be miserable when the baby arrived, but really they should have warned her instead about how happy she’d be. Everything went perfectly for her, and she should have been warned that that would happen, because the love and joy she’s currently experiencing is just so overwhelming it’s scary.

Jezebel has done a thorough take-down, and I appreciate that. As Tracy Moore aptly points out, “Absolutely no one is hiding the fact that parenting is great. No one is suppressing that story.” People have baby showers for the sole purpose of telling expecting moms how happy they’re going to be when the baby arrives. The fact that we’re talking about PPD and the difficulties of early parenting now is good because there are women who need to hear those messages. But that life-saving discourse doesn’t begin to drown out the rose-colored messages we also receive about how mothers of babies “must be over the moon” and need to “enjoy every moment.” Jensy seems to have this backwards, and that means she’s fighting on the side of people telling depressed moms everything is wonderful and they just need to cheer up.

But my objections are somewhat different than Moore’s: they’re aesthetic as well. I read this essay and wanted to barf. It’s saccharine. It’s fake. It’s boring. It’s smug. It’s bad writing. There’s a good reason Jensy hadn’t heard any women saying things like this before: because no one wants to read boring saccharine smug fake tripe about motherhood.

She’s mostly just bragging. She can’t resist shooting down all of the naysayers’ warnings one by one: she found breastfeeding easy, she lost the baby weight without trying. Because she is convinced that she is so superior to women who struggled with these problems. I understand feeling proud of yourself, and wanting to celebrate, but when you toot your own horn on the internet in full hearing of people you know are struggling with these issues, you come off as smug and oblivious. My first writing on this blog after giving birth was about straddling this fine line–searching for a way to express gratitude and pride without implying that I somehow ‘earned’ my uncomplicated birth and easy recovery, and therefore women who were less lucky than me ‘deserved’ their emergency C-sections. My conclusion was that the important thing is humility, and Jensy is anything but humble here.

The essay’s other problem is false equivalence. She says she needed to be warned about how happy she’d be. As if being warned about happiness is equivalent to being warned about PPD or breastfeeding or marriage issues. As if a lack of warning about happiness would have the same effect as a lack of warning for any of those other problems.

She makes “They should have warned me…” into a chorus or a framing device as she lists all the good things that have happened to her since her baby’s birth, but in the process the phrase becomes meaningless because she uses it in a way that has no relationship with the way anyone has ever used these words. Jensy ignores the fact that no one uses the word “warning” to talk about advance notice of something good. That’s because everyone knows that it’s worse to be blindsided by misery than by happiness. “Warnings” are for bad things. If you’re going to be surprised–and surprises are inevitable in parenting–a happy surprise doesn’t hurt you the way a nasty one does. This is all so obvious to me, I feel silly writing it out, which makes it amazing to me that Jensy didn’t take any of it into account when she wrote her essay. I think she meant this reversal of reader expectations to catch attention, and if that was the only goal I guess it accomplished that, but in the process she made the entire thing nonsensical and repetitive.

I understand an expectant or new mother being overwhelmed with negative messages and warnings about how hard parenting is. I got those messages too. They’re no fun to hear, and they don’t tell the full story any more than Jensy does. But Jensy seems to be reacting against these messages by going to the opposite extreme, which is just as idiotic. It’s one thing to say that the joy of a new child far outweighs the struggle, but to say that there is no struggle, that nothing about this is hard, that life with a newborn is sunshine and rainbows and that’s it–I call bullshit. When someone says their entire parenting experience is 100% positive or 100% negative, with zero twinge of ambivalence, I don’t believe them. Without that authenticity, a blog like this one becomes mere self-aggrandizement, a thousand times worse than a carefully curated facebook page that makes you look awesome by omitting everything bad. Jensy’s stepping onto a pedestal she built for herself, rubbing her heels in the noses of less fortunate mothers on the way.

I say all this as someone who totally understands the feeling of being in love with a soft, cuddly baby and a hilarious, affectionate toddler. And I have indeed written my share of sentimental, heartfelt stuff about my little boy. In many ways, I’m the intended audience for pieces like this. If it backfired this badly for me, imagine how much worse reading this would be for someone who struggled with real postpartum depression or had trouble bonding with a child.

In fact, becoming the person who would be so over-the-top in love with my child to the exclusion of all else that I would write something like Jensy’s essay was exactly what I was most afraid of when I was pregnant. Becoming one-dimensional the way that Jensy presents herself here, even if happily one-dimensional, seemed like a kind of brainwashing to me. Thankfully, it’s not an inevitable consequence of motherhood, comparable to lost sleep and stretch marks. I don’t even believe that Jensy herself is this one-dimensional. It’s just that she thinks presenting herself this way is somehow edgy and will win her some online followers. Maybe she more than halfway believes her own story. I bet the truth is that there have been some hard moments, but they have been so vastly overshadowed by happy ones that she’s already forgotten them. It’s just a speeded-up effect of what happens to all parents as the newborn days recede into memory (a phenomenon thoroughly discussed in All Joy and No Fun).

That doesn’t mean that this level of boasting is tolerable. Jensy’s oblivious gloats are not victimless. She’s making things harder for other mothers who love their children just as much as she does, but are having a harder time for whatever reason. When she chooses inauthenticity and vanity over honesty and humility, and then publishes her bluster online, Jensy contributes to a culture that says mothers who struggle have only themselves to blame. That culture, more than anything else, is what I wish I’d been warned about.

Smoking Cigarettes, Eating Glass

Smoking Cigarettes, Eating Glass: A Psychologist’s Memoir by Annita Perez Sawyer

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A teenage mental patient endures dozens of shock treatments that cause her to lose all her memories. Years later, as a psychologist herself, she uncovers her medical records, which leads her to rediscover the traumatic memories that triggered her collapse as a young adult.

One of the fascinating things about memoirs is the idea of reading a true story, of connecting not with a character, but a real person whose experience you can share. Sawyer takes us into the depths of the disturbed thinking caused by her illness and trauma. The beginning of the book is kind of hard to read because it’s so upsetting to see someone treated this way by doctors and by her own mind. Later in the book, it’s great to see Sawyer triumph over her illness and win professional and personal success. She makes a narrator who’s easy to root for and care about.

In this kind of writing, the writer always has to make tough choices about which events to emphasize and which to leave out entirely, and those choices can never exactly meet up with the interests of all readers. I was interested in Sawyer’s family life and her relationships with her patients, but the focus of the book was on her own journey of understanding her past.

Despite the intense subject matter, this story feels less raw than other memoirs I’ve read, almost sanitized at times. I think that difference is partly generational. Sawyer is a little older than the Baby Boomers, so she doesn’t share that generation’s extravagant personality. For example, Boomer Jeanette Walls also writes about her family’s dysfunction, but the alcoholics in her family were a lot more flamboyant than the secretive ones in Sawyer’s. Also, Sawyer’s particular issues have to do with repression and dissociation, which naturally don’t lead to wild tales of acting out a la Cheryl Strayed (a Gen-Xer).

This story is about the courage it took for Sawyer to analyze herself, to look at her former self the way she looks at her patients, with empathy and kindness. One message of the book is for those who work in mental health, to be wary of misdiagnosis and projection. But beyond that, Sawyer writes with compassion about a lesson many of us need to learn at some point: how to forgive ourselves for what happened to us as kids. The ending of the book, as Sawyer begins to remember the truth about her childhood, is absorbing and disquieting.

The Happiest People in the World

The Happiest People in the World by Brock Clarke

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When a Danish cartoonist’s house is bombed by terrorists, a rogue CIA agent decides to fake his death and stash him in Nowhere, USA. The title refers to Denmark, the country that tops many international measures of well-being, which is contrasted with the setting of the majority of the book, a claustrophobically small town in upstate New York. The plot is driven by an inept spy making overly emotional decisions and the various marital problems caused by the cartoonist’s arrival. Much of the action takes place in and around the high school where the cartoonist finds a job as a counselor; the principal (and ex affair partner of the CIA agent) is one of the main characters. It’s a globally important topic explored in a provincial setting that encourages the ridiculousness of the characters to bloom.

The subject and Brock’s madcap style fit very well together, perhaps more exactly than in any other book of his I’ve read. The characters usually act in the most awkward way possible, which leads to some really hilarious moments. I identified what I think of as Brock’s ‘signature move’ here: An inner monologue that takes place in an instant, but on the page goes on a bit longer than expected, as the character’s thoughts become increasingly absurd and anxious. Usually the character decides not to say anything, even though he has just revealed a startling tenderness and sharp desire for connection. Often, the monologue is a single very long sentence. These passages deliver a significant emotional punch, while also showing insight and psychological astuteness.

The ending surprised me in its violence and bleakness, but was not entirely without hope. This book was tons of fun to read. I was happy to reunite with Brock when he came to the Southern Festival of Books, but I was even more thrilled to see that he’s still writing like this: with biting humor that alternately hides and exposes a great big heart.

The Savage Detectives

The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano

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This novel is about two Latin American writers traveling the world in the late seventies and eighties. They’re the supposed founders of a movement in Mexican poetry that never really got off the ground, visceral realism, and they’ve disappeared. Much of the book is about the mystery of where they’ve gone and why.

The novel begins with young Garcia Madero narrating as he discovers the visceral realist poets and has his sexual awakening. After about a hundred pages with him, the narration splinters as many different characters give their accounts of their dealings with Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano. Each character’s story reads like an interview or monologue, which gives the reader the effect of feeling like she’s the detective herself, tracking Lima and Belano through Spain, Paris, and Africa, but constantly returning to where it all began in Mexico City. Then at the end, Garcia Madero finishes his narrative and the mystery of the first visceral realist poet Cesarea Tinajero, and the cause of Lima and Belano’s flight is revealed.

I didn’t really like the character of Garcia Madero, and I especially didn’t like reading about his raunchy sexual exploits, but since the book’s long middle section had so many female characters giving their own perspectives on sex and literature, I won’t call the book sexist. The most interesting aspects for me were the different characters’ opinions of Lima and Belano, and the various ideas about literature, Hispanic culture, and relationships that were expressed. The effect that Bolano achieve through his formal innovation was also quite impressive. I’m not sure that it needed to be this long, though.