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Lean In, Loser.

September 23, 2013 1 comment

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I took an entire day off of work to host my book club last week (I work from home on small contracts, so no work means no pay). Since the book was Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, in which the COO of Facebook encourages women to go for gold in their careers, and stop settling for less, this was ironic.

Two things occurred to me while I was stashing shoes under beds and spearing mini bocconcini with toothpicks: There’s no way Sheryl Sandberg could be in a book club, let alone host one. And secondly, the Cyndi Lauper anthem that I grew up with, girls just want to have fun, does not apply all women. So we have our differences.

But I digress. Back to the book.

I was prepared to love Lean In. Feminism just happens to be my thing, don’t let my SAHM status fool you. I’m quick to support anything that advocates more women in power positions and equally represented everywhere (I’m looking at you, government). But before you think I’m just another jaded housewife, jealous of successful women like Sandberg and her ilk, let’s get a few things straight:

1. I am a jaded housewife.

2. I am jealous of successful women like Sandberg and her ilk.

3. I would feel differently about this book if I was twenty-one year-old graduate of Barnard College, and about to start my MBA at Harvard (naturally).

Because unlike Betty Friedan‘s The Feminine Mystique, which was more universal in nature, Sandberg’s book is most applicable to women in privileged positions. Take, for example, her advice for women to take risks with their careers, like she did when she left Google to work for the then little known start up, Facebook. Perhaps that’s easier for someone who counts Arianna Huffington and Oprah Winfrey among her friends.

While it’s not Sheryl’s fault that she had the highest grades in her Harvard business class (and felt she had to hide them). Or that Larry Summers, the white house economic advisor, kept jobs open for her, in the hopes she would move back to Washington. Or that she rubbed elbows with (or was patted on the head by) people like Tip O’Neill. This was her experience, and it’s the only place she can write from. But her advice would have a softer and broader landing if her life wasn’t so charmed.

Yes, the woman is brilliant. Yes, she has worked hard for every inch of progress. But for those of us with resume’s that don’t read like a who’s who of Silicon Valley or People magazine, it seems full of unobtainable goals. If there’s one thing women don’t need, it’s yet another brass ring, dangling out of reach.

I love that she wants to improve the world. I agree it would be better with more input by women. She gives great advice about sitting at the table and encourages women to be more assertive. She advises women to ask for raises and recognition when warranted. And most importantly, she encourages women to continue with their careers after having children, even when the cost of childcare seems to override the decision. Ahem. All valid points. All great advice.

Where were you when I needed you, ten years ago?

Her many good points aside, those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. Sandberg’s shiny house is more like the diamond variety, consisting of Ivy League schools, complete with Gloria Steinem on speed dial. Comparatively, straw and mud huts require constant attention.

I wish I could tell you what my book club thought about Lean In, but I was outside barbecuing salmon when they had the discussion. So really, my book club is like the advice Sandberg dishes out: good in theory, but at the end of the day, we all need to eat. Sometimes, real life gets in the way.

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Stay Gold, Ponyboy

April 12, 2013 5 comments

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As a parent, there is nothing better than introducing your children to things that you loved as a child, and watching the amazement on their face as they likewise are enamored by that same thing.

Or not, as may be the case. In fact, as always seems to be the case. That is to say, if I loved something as a child, it is almost a certainty that my children will abhor it.

Now, in both my and their defense, things like technology have come a long way in my thirty or so years (#liar!). With movies, for instance, special effects have evolved to the point where it is almost impossible for my kids to enjoy the same movies I loved. When I staged a screening of Pete’s Dragon for my children, my hopeful enthusiasm that they would cherish Eliot and Pete’s friendship as much as I did quickly went south when they started laughing in all the wrong places. Same thing with Bedknobs and Broomsticks and The Shaggy D.A.

But they are vintage, I explained. It was a simpler time, you have to ignore the grainy picture, the poor acting, and the strange voice-overs.

They choose their movies now.

I moved on to books, and enjoyed a small window of success. I introduced my charges to The Paper Bag Princess and Where the Wild Things Are, with huge fanfare. When they asked me to reread these at night, my confidence in my tiny self was restored. Oh yeah, who’s your momma now?

As a fan of books, my kids are used to me shoveling them down their throats. I know, I know, I should back off, let them come to titles on their own terms, but I can’t help myself. YOU. MUST. LOVE. THIS. My enthusiasm gets the best of me. I can’t be tamed.

Yet with certain things I truly obsessed over loved, I tried to take a more delicate path, in order to ensure success. Since I know from past experience, when I return from the library with an armload of books for my kids, I’m met with three eye rolls, I have purposefully kept my lips sealed about the best book ever written for adolescents. The Outsiders, duh.

I speak for the generation of teenagers who listened to Kool and the Gang when I explain what The Outsiders meant to me. Despite never knowing how to properly pronounce The Socs, this book, about a family of orphaned boys and their peers, the Greasers, stole my heart and my imagination and made me pine for chocolate cake for breakfast. I went on to read every book S.E. Hinton ever wrote and wore out our Betamax machine replaying Francis Ford Coppola’s movie adaptation. Ponyboy, Sodapop, and Dally, ripped from Teen Beat magazine, adorned my walls. I committed half of the screenplay, including Robert Frost’s poem that Johnny reads, to memory, and in times of trouble I quietly utter, ‘stay gold, Ponyboy,’ which has been met with quizzical looks.

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This gem of a book I’ve been saving, wanting to offer it to my own flesh and blood at just the right moment. Several times I held it in my trembling hands in the library, only to kiss it and replace it on the shelf. It’s not time, said a voice in my head, similar to Darth Vader’s.

Then, goddammit, the school system stole my thunder, and my daughter brought it home for required reading – required reading being the kiss of death for any novel. (Note that the school telling you to read a novel and your own mother telling you to read a novel are radically different.) It took me years to come around to Charles Dickens after being force fed Great Expectations, so I can relate.

But surely, reading a book with your mother hanging over your shoulder, you know, just in case you had any questions about the context, or a need to expand and discuss on the themes presented, would only help someone enjoy it more. There is nothing worse than ambiguity, after all. I made myself available.

So, I asked her once or twenty times, what do you think? She looked at me with one of those looks. I backed off, but noted her progress, and when she neared the end I begged suggested we read it together. Savour the moment. Surely, this would be her ‘aha’ moment.

We snuggled in bed with the book between us. I bawled openly. She looked at me with a new strangeness. Through my tears I tried to bestow the magic that the book itself failed to reveal. S.E. Hinton couldn’t make her love it, but surely I could.

Yeah, that didn’t work.

It’s a hard lesson for me to learn, but I’m taking ownership. Thou shalt not expect my children to love what I loved as a child, ever again. I do, however, have my very own copies of Jane Eyre and The Catcher in the Rye, underlined in all the poignant places, should she ever want to take them for a spin. #HopeSpringsEternal

My 2012 Time Capsule

January 9, 2013 6 comments

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Before I look forward, I need to do a shoulder check.

Life as a parent means primarily a life of never ending errands, punctuated by making meals and driving to after school activities, so I like to look back to prove to myself my life isn’t one long grocery list. There are other things that move me forward as a human being; a growing and learning and therefore interesting human being – it’s just hard to remember them. Although my life revolves, irrevocably, around my children, I still want to have a little orbit of my own. A part that is separate from my mothering role, so that when they fly the coop I won’t streak out of the Milky Way altogether.

Normally, when I reflect on a year, I figure out what ages and grades my children were in, and go from there. So 2009 was the year of grades 5, 3 and kindergarten. From there I recall the teachers, who largely made up my social circle that year, and then recall the activities they were involved with, the coaches of whom completed my social circle, and so on.

Exciting stuff. I will inevitably do this with 2012. But of course, there was more to my year than how much homework my children did or didn’t have. Fantastic moments that were sandwiched in between orthodontic appointments and marinating pork tenderloin. Some of them involved amazing friends and family members, while others were found in quieter times within the pages of a book or in the stillness of the forest. It’s not an exhaustive list, but here are a few highlights of my 2012:

  • It was a year of real estate: I didn’t move mountains, but I moved our family to a new neighborhood. A simple sentence that explains six months of headaches. Not so much a highlight as much as an achievement, but let’s not quibble over details.
  • I found wisdom, epiphanies, and triumphs in stories – too many books to list, but The Dovekeepers, When God Was a Rabbit, The History of Love, and Cloudstreet were a few of my favorite reads.
  • The wise powers at Lululemon advise me to do something everyday that scares you. I did one thing in 2012: I sent my rough draft of my novel to an editor. It took 364 days to work up to it, in my defense.
  • What’s a year without a soundtrack? If using the stereo of my youth, I’d have worn out the needle playing Bon Iver, Hey Rosetta, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes, and Kathleen Edwards over and over again, but luckily the digital versions are showing no signs of wear. The concert of the year easily goes to The Lumineers, who lit up the Vogue theater like no band I’ve seen.
  • I started swimming with a masters group. In my first week I swam more lengths of the pool than I had my entire life. And I’m old, so you do the math.
  • We vacationed in beautiful paradises, both near and far, but 2012 will go down as the year that I finally went to the city that Frank Sinatra crooned about. The one that is the setting for so many movies, books, and reality television shows that I felt like I knew it like the freckles on my daughters nose. I had to resist the urge to tell my cabbie to take Atlantic Avenue rather than the Long Island Expressway to get to JFK. It was weird.

There. It’s recorded for posterity – moments of magic amongst the mundane – these assorted flickers of joy help to distinguish my 2012 from the thousands of carrots I’ve peeled. They may pale in comparison to watching my children grow into astonishingly astute beings, but these moments, purely mine, help me to appreciate my little shooting stars even more.

A Little Slice of Heaven Hidden in a Summer Reading List

June 13, 2012 5 comments

A good reading list should be as balanced as our diet: filled with nutritious niblets of several genres, with some servings of pure alcohol, caffeine and chocolate in good measure (or mainlined, whatever.) Biographies, sagas, mysteries, and classics are the food groups of literature, with romance at the top of the pyramid to provide those sugar highs we occasionally crave. A little of everything for any diet is on this list. What these books have in common is they are all beautifully written, with characters so real you expect to look up and find them in your bedroom (or car, or kitchen, wherever you happen to be reading). For the most part, they’re not even new books; but books that I happened to love this year.

What is not on this list is Fifty Shades of Grey (or Fifty Shades of Awful, by my estimation.) Don’t get me started on that trilogy of tragedy.

Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides

This book takes you into the mind and struggles of a hermaphrodite, Callie. When was the last time you were there? Ya huh. It’s a family saga that spans three generations, beginning in Smyma in the early 1900’s, and their harrowing emigration to Detroit. It’s filled with colourful characters and poignant moments, and made me ponder the strong relationship between sexuality and identity. It kept me reading into the wee hours; Eugenides deserves his reputation for being a master storyteller.

When God Was a Rabbit, by Sarah Winman

Life rarely makes sense. And so it goes for Elly, the heroine of this book. A traumatic event shapes her early years, and as the book unfolds its repercussions are felt, again and again. The book is as quirky as Elly herself. It’s beautifully written, charming and funny in spite of itself.

State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett

She’s best known for her award winning Bel Canto, but my personal favorite of Patchett’s is still The Magician’s Assistant, by the by. A hint of mystery kept me turning the pages of her latest novel, set in the jungle of the Amazon, as the protagonist, Marina, discovers the wonders of the Lakashi people deep in the heart of the rain forest.

The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton

A story before its time, Wharton depicts societal norm as the joke that it really is. Ellen, the protagonist, challenges standards by leaving her loveless marriage. When she meets Newland Archer, who is newly engaged, Ellen and Newland begin a lifelong game of cat and mouse, and a love for all time. If you read one classic this summer, or ever, choose this.

Your Voice in My Head, by Emma Forrest

This memoir by Forrest reminds us that life is filled with ups and downs, and that no relationships are easy. As she spirals into sadness, Forrest finds a light in her therapist; when he dies from cancer she is left wandering in the dark once again. Her hostile and lonely world make for beautiful passages, and a wonderful memoir leaking with truth and life.

Here are the books that are burning a hole in my bedside table, and I’m excited to devour them this July, come sun or what may:

The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick deWitt (Back to my tomboy days with some country and western. And the author happens to be too chilled for words, great non-vibe from this guy.)

Half Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan (Oooh so excited for this one.)

A Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway (Why have I not read this book?!)

The Dovekeepers, by Alice Hoffman (When my tenth friend told me to read this, I put my hands up in surrender. I surrender!)

I’m hungry just looking at them. Read ’em and weep. Or read ’em and eat. Whatever you do, fold yourself into the pages of a delicious dessert this summer. Happy summer reading.

Lessons in Life (and Self-Publishing an E-Book)

May 4, 2012 12 comments

Not everything in life is fraught with difficulty, and littered with obstacles, like the garbage can I had to hurdle this morning while walking the kids to school. For instance, did you know any idiot can string a few sentences together and self-publish an e-book?

I’ve tested it. It’s true, and fairly easy. If you have all of your ducks in order, it takes about five minutes. By ducks, I mean a written manuscript, cover artwork, and a marketing description.

I thought it would be fun and fancy to put together a book of essays on motherhood in time for Mother’s Day. I found a graphic artist on Craigslist, Ed, who deftly assembled a cover for a miniscule amount of money. While Ed was creating his masterpiece, I cut and pasted essays I have written over the years into a Word document, and voilá, my main ducks were assembled. I planned on winging the marketing description duck. (In fact, I more than winged it, I wrote it in one minute when I heard my children coming up the driveway from school. In a bid to get something accomplished that day, I panicked and hit ‘publish’. I’m not sure what I said, but am hoping it can be changed if it’s as cheesy as the hamburger I’m about to eat.)

Since I have a Kindle, Amazon seemed the like the most natural recipient for my prose. They offer their own publishing service, Kindle Direct Publishing, and it’s simple to navigate the process. There were a few things I had to investigate further: ISBN numbers, Digital Rights Management, and the issue of dealing with an American company as a Canadian citizen, but nothing critical. It wasn’t brain surgery, or as difficult as getting my kids to eat vegetables.

I was hoping to publish it as a Kindle Single, but it turns out you have to apply for that special status. I am waiting for the Gods of Kindle Singles to get back to me on that one, fingers crossed.

But in the meantime, my status has changed from in review to publishing, so that has to be a good sign. I’m not trying to sell myself short here, but if I can do this, anyone can. Getting my children to eat vegetables, on the other hand, takes true genius.

A Mother’s Tonic: Tales from a Real Housewife of Vancouver, is available for $2.99 in the Kindle Store on Amazon, I think.

Fifty Shades of Awful

April 20, 2012 13 comments

I heard about it on Twitter, which should have given me pause. But since I had an hour to kill and a handy new e-reader on which to burn money, I thought I would flaunt 2012 technology in my face, and download Fifty Shades of Grey, by E.L. James, right away, to see what all the fuss was about.

It’s a hot mess, that’s for sure, but not the kind I was hoping for.

This novel, which women are gushing about and apparently buying since it’s on the New York Times Best Seller list, is best described as a poorly written Harlequin romance that tousled with sadomasochism in a back alley (or in Christian Grey’s red room, whichever.) It’s Danielle Steele’s alter ego. It’s Twilight gone wrong. It does for literature what porn does for the film industry – which is to say, extremely little.

Taken at that level, if that’s all you’re looking for, it has its fair share of sex scenes. My greatest disappointment was that the characters having the terrific, “mind-blowing” orgasms – as they are often described (does that mean anything to you?) are, how can I put this delicately; dumb. Thus, the dialogue, and the email correspondence that we must endure is more painful than the positions Christian puts Anastasia through.

I love being taken new places in literature, and within the confines of an S&M relationship is definitely new to me. I thought I might learn something. Stop snickering. Not just a few new moves; I was hoping to get a glimpse into why people get off on getting whipped. It’s the inflicting pain thing that I stumble with, the line (or, in my case, the mile between) where agony becomes pleasure. The protagonist (I can’t use the word heroine, I just can’t), Anastasia, is as perplexed as I am about this, but is so desperate to keep Christian that she bends over backwards (and sideways, and stays on her knees, and gets tied up, etc.) in order to keep him.

Here is the very likely, believable scenario: Christian Grey is a young, enigmatic, billionaire, who meets and is bedazzled by Anastasia Steele, despite her being a clumsy, virginal, poor, insecure college student. She has a habit of biting her lip, which drives Christian mad with desire. This either leads to his eyes darkening, or alternatively causes him to look at her with hooded eyes.

A small aside here: have you ever been driven mad with desire by someone chewing on their lip? Have you ever noticed someone’s eyes changing color simply because they are turned on? And by hooded eyes, does the author mean half-closed? If the answer is yes, and you don’t have a problem with eyes being hooded, you might in fact enjoy this book. But beware, it happens repeatedly.

The kicker, the most unforgivable aspect, is that James tries to use Anastasia’s favorite book, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, as a metaphor for her twisted relationship with Christian. As though Tess and Anastasia can have anything in common, besides youth and breath. If Anastasia were to be dragged dramatically to the guillotine, she would likely grace us with her usual eloquent answer to everything, “Oh, crap.” Or might it call for her more earnest reaction of “Double crap?”

I can only wonder. I certainly won’t read the other books in the trilogy to find out.

Alzheimer’s or Not, She’s Still Alice

May 18, 2011 6 comments

Alice is a fit and healthy fifty year-old Harvard professor when she is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

Still Alice is a first hand account of someone diagnosed with this disease far too young, and like any first hand account it educates us about perspectives. Smart and instantly likeable, as Alice goes through the stages of her disease so does the reader. Her loss of lucidity is evident as you are treated to the inner workings of her mind.

As Alice says in a lecture at an Alzheimer’s convention in one scene, just because they are living with this disease doesn’t mean the rest of the world should write them off.

“My yesterdays are disappearing, and my tomorrows are uncertain, so what do I live for? I live for each day. I live in the moment. Some tomorrow soon, I’ll forget that I stood before you and gave this speech. But just because I’ll forget it some tomorrow doesn’t mean that I didn’t live every second of it today. I will forget today, but that doesn’t mean that today didn’t matter.”

And so this book is not only a great read, a personal journey of a beautiful character and her family, it also educates us about a terribly shattering dementia. I love learning as I read, it’s my favorite form of multi-tasking.

Life is no fairytale, and if diagnosed with this disease, it would be almost impossible to see any light. Yet the author manages to bring a touch of grace to a tragic situation. Relationships can evolve in curious ways, as happens to Alice. Without sugar-coating, this story illuminates that Alzheimer’s is not an ending, but rather a challenge which forces you to live your life differently.

In her first novel, incidentally written at Starbucks while her child was at school, Lisa Genova has created a touching story about a woman who endures this hurdle with dignity. She fights to hold on to the person she is, and lives in the moment as best she can.

I couldn’t put this book down, and when I did I was in a hurry to get back to it. The best books leave us with lessons learned in life, albeit through someone else’s experience. From Alice we learn to persevere, to enjoy the good, and to love hard.

And of course that lesson that never gets old – to live in the moment and for the moment.