Saturday, April 30, 2011

March/April 2011 reading report

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress- Rhoda Janzen.  First of all, let me say that I love the name Rhoda, even though (or maybe because) I have a vague recollection of a song about a Rhoda from grade school.  OK, that's out of the way.  I enjoyed her book.  It was laugh out loud funny at times.  It's a memoir sort of along the lines of Eat Pray Love, except way snarkier, less spiritual, and she doesn't travel to exotic locales.  (But other than that, it's just the same!)  Her husband leaves her for a man he met on, and not long after that she is in a very serious car accident.  So she goes back to live with her Mennonite parents to recuperate after many years of not being a Mennonite.  There are obvious parallels with my past, although we weren't Mennonites.  But my dad's family is German and Baptist, and there are plenty of similarities.  Enough that some of her descriptions of her youth made me smile and get a little misty-eyed.  But good lord, is she snarky.  Sometimes it's really funny.  But other times it borders on being cruel.  Oddly, her nearly-cruel moments are reserved not for the Mennonites, but for the sartorially challenged.  God forbid you should have the temerity to wear a fleece vest in her presence.  I'm not sure I would want to be her friend, I don't think I'd measure up.  I own four fleece vests. -smirk-  But I did enjoy her book.  Recommended.

The Fortune Quilt- Lani Diane Rich.  I'm slowly working my way through Lani/Lucy's books, savoring them.  She's a terrific writer.  The three I've read were alike in at least one respect:  once I got into them, it was impossible to put them down.  I read the first chapter of this one before bed one night, then sat down with it about 10:30 the next night intending to read for half an hour or so.  At 1:30 I finished it.  I could not stop.  It's very compelling.  It's about a young woman in her late twenties who loses her job and her (male) best friend all in the same week. And then her mother, who disappeared 17 years earlier, shows up.  The plotline where she is trying to find resolution with her mother is also a major theme of one of the others of Lani's I've read, Little Ray of Sunshine.  About the only complaint I have about this book is that Sunshine does it better. (Well, and that I liked the best friend better than the hero, but taste in heroes is always subjective--there have been other romances I've liked where I didn't particularly care for the hero--so she gets a pass on that.  And Will was growing on me by the end, anyway.)  If I'd read Fortune Quilt first I'd have no complaints.  But after reading Little Ray of Sunshine, this one just doesn't have the same complexity/depth of resolution.  Good book, though.  I'm definitely taking one of Lani/Lucy's books with me on my next plane flight.  The flight would fly by.  (ark, ark)

For school:  Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion.  Yup, still working my way through Jane Austen.  Emma, I think, is my favorite of all of them.  The main character, surprisingly enough named Emma, is so perfectly drawn, and the resolution of all her little schemes is so beautifully done, it's hard not to just gape in awe at the writing.  There's one argument (discussion) between Emma and Mr. Knightley, where they are discussing Knightley's judgment of another person's character, and Emma's judgment of Knightley, that we ended up discussing for over an hour in class--just because there was so much packed into that two-page section.  Another reason I love it is because of the movie Clueless, which has to be one of the best-ever adaptations of a classical work to modern times.  And another reason I love it is because in at least one way-- her arrogant, youthful assumption that she knows everything she needs to know, and way more than anyone else around her-- Emma reminds me of me at that age.  And yet even though she's such a horrible snob, you can't help but love her.  It's such a great book.  And even though she learns the error of her ways by the end of the book, Knightley makes the most touching declaration of having loved her through the whole thing.  *sigh* *gush*

Mansfield Park is, I think, the least likable of all of JA's work.  Fanny, the heroine, is not a woman to interest a contemporary reader.  She's sickly, shy, retiring, and easily embarrassed; but even worse, she seems-- at least on first reading-- to be a priggish, moralistic prude.  But you know, this was my second time reading it, and I found her to be a much more sympathetic character this time.  She is so thoroughly herself.  She has a very clear and consistently-drawn character that makes her bearable, even when you're rolling your eyes at her timidity.  A closer reading reveals her to be not so much a prude as completely loyal to the people whose opinion she values.  If you could divest the word "pure" of its overtones of moral perfectionism, I think you could say she is 'pure in heart.'  Not because her heart is faultless, but because reading about her is like looking into a pool of clear, still water.  I think. But maybe I'm over-reading.  Anyway.  If you're not an Austen fan, this one is definitely not going to change your mind.

Persuasion.  This one is quite different than JA's others-- or at least, as different as one romance novel can be from another. Anne, the heroine, is older-- in her late twenties.  She has loved the same man all along.  She fell in love early but turned him down on the advice of her mentor because he was a young, penniless, unproven naval officer.  When he comes back eight years later, he must get over his hurt, and she must figure out how to reach through all the social barriers that separate them to let him know how she feels.  And another major difference--she doesn't end up with the big house, as the heroine of all her other novels do.  It's a great story, in some ways far more modern than any of her other work.

UlyssesI read it (click on the link for the long, tortured tale of my progress).  The whole dang thing, and since I'm taking an independent study on it, I'm reading it again.  It's difficult and brilliant, bawdy and sublime, but mostly it's long.  the first time reading it is a 650-page exercise in delayed gratification.  You just don't know what is happening much of the time.  But the second time through (and I'm less than halfway at the moment) is an entirely different matter.  Since you know what's going to happen later, you can see how everything fits together.  Is it a great novel?  yes. absolutely. Is it the best novel of the twentieth century, as so many have claimed?  Well, I'd have to say no, because I don't see how you can claim that a novel that only a very few have actually read is the greatest novel of the 20th century.  Gatsby or The Sun Also Rises or The Color Purple or To Kill a Mockingbird or or or.  Recommended?  yes, if you enjoy a challenge, and if you take it on, I'd add:  read it twice.  It's an entirely different (and better) experience the second time through.

Audiobooks-- I'll make this quick since I've already gone on and on here.

Cotillion- Georgette Heyer.  I love Heyer.  I've read or listened to three now (so I can tell you its pronounced "hay-er"), and I'm working my way through a fourth when I'm in the car.  She's terrific.  Here's the thing about Cotillion.  If you've read many romance novels, you know their main drawback:  you know the ending almost before you start.  You know that the heroine and the male protagonist are going to end up together.  The interest lies in how that is accomplished.  But in Cotillion, honest to Pete, about halfway through you're not sure how it's going to end.  She has several little twists up her sleeve that put the whole thing in question.  I'm not giving it away, and if you think you might want to read it, don't read the back cover or the reviews on Amazon, just plunge in.  Another thing to get used to with Heyer is all the exclamation points.  They're wearisome, and that's one of the best reasons to listen to her stuff as an audiobook.  But well worth it.  Highly recommended.  I loved this one.

and you're thinking, I thought she was going to make it short.  sorry.

Bet Me- Jennifer Crusie.  I've read it at least half a dozen times, but it was on sale on Audible a couple of weeks ago, so I thought it would be fun to hear it.  And it was.  I'm a skimmer, so I often miss details.  With an audiobook, you hear every word, and you realize how brilliant Crusie is at dialogue and amusing little details.  It is a tribute to her skill that I can say I love this book, even though it has my least favorite plotline-- the whole thing would be resolved if the hero and heroine just sat down and talked.  And it's especially irritating because they do sit down and talk, many times, but just never about the right thing.  But I still really enjoyed listening to this and was many times driving down the road laughing hysterically all by myself in the car.  Great book.  If you haven't read it, go straight out and get either the print or audio version right now.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

mental health day

I started a tradition with Nell that I sometimes regret, but mostly not.  Each kid gets one mental health day per semester.  They can't miss a test or a big project that's due, but they can take a break for a day.  This is definitely not a universally popular idea.  The kids love it, of course.  But dh is not a fan.  They're supposed to be in school.  They're not supposed to be at home.

But I figure, it's one day.  MadMax hardly even has any makeup work-- he is a demon about getting his homework done at school, he hates to bring it home, so he usually doesn't even make it home with makeup work.  Mental health days are a real sanity-saver for both of us, because I get sick of dragging his butt out of bed every day, too.  Neither of us is a morning person, and it is an ordeal.  every. single. day.

There are problems associated, of course.  Since I was just talking about using words responsibly, I have to say that the phone call to the school makes me a little uncomfortable.  I usually say he's not feeling very good this morning-- which is true every morning, but I leave that part out.  He is miserable in the morning.  It's not quite a lie, and it's in a good cause.

And then there's what he tells his friends.  He has one friend whose parents allow more mental health days than we do, but the rest of them don't do this.  We've had several conversations about how he should talk about it to his friends.  Which is mostly:  don't gloat about it, don't even mention it unless someone asks.  And then just say you didn't feel up to going to school.

With Nell, the whole thing was pretty straightforward.  She didn't hate school, so she didn't even always use her day(s).  But MadMax would stay home from school every single day if I let him.  Almost as soon as the semester begins, he starts strategizing about when he should take his day, or asking me for strategies.  I push him to save it for the end of the semester, not to use it up first thing, which I think he would always do.  He took one today.  (gb, don't tell your wife).  I wasn't sure it was a good idea last night.  But he's been really dragging the last couple of weeks, and he is noticeably more cheerful this afternoon than he has been in quite awhile.  Maybe sleeping until ten was what he needed.

But dh was not happy with either of us.  And I can't blame him, since he faithfully drags his tired self to work every day so that we can sleep under a roof and eat and minor stuff like that.  He can't take a mental health day because too many people depend on him being at work.  I had a hard time taking mental health days when I was working, too.  But somehow I just think it's a good idea for the kids.

What do you think?  Effective strategy for managing school stress?  or cop-out?

Monday, April 25, 2011

Monday Riffday, the not complaining edition

Enough of the serious posts.  I'm boring myself.

The weather was gorgeous this weekend.  It reminded us all why we love living here, because after last week, I don't think there was anyone in a 100-mile radius that wasn't thinking about moving.  It snowed (heavily), it hailed, it sleeted, it rained; it was foggy, and then there were low-hanging clouds, and it was generally gray and miserable.  The temperature didn't come above 45.  Of course, this time of year, the snow doesn't last more than an hour or two, but still it is depressing to see it coming down in APRIL.

But Saturday and Sunday it was sunny and (relatively) warm and utterly perfect.  We went out to our favorite lake and enjoyed it.  It's not warm enough to get in the water, of course, but it was warm enough to be outside.  We'll take it.

The end of the semester fast approaches.  I have a 15-20 page paper on Jane Austen due by the end of next week, which will be something about Christian Virtue in Persuasion (the Christian virtue part was assigned--is Austen's understanding of virtue on a continuum with Christian thinking, or an example of early modernism?-- but we could pick which book(s) we wanted to work with).  And a week from Tuesday I have to turn in a 20 or more page paper for my feminist literary theory class, which is on needlework as gender performance in Alias Grace.  Then for my independent study, I have to write something about the possibilities of the cybernovel, which is a topic that interests me.

In fact, they all interest me.  I just don't want to write them.  I have to keep a positive attitude, so I'm not going to say that I hate writing papers, even though I do. I'm concentrating on this:  two weeks from now, I'll be done.  I'm not complaining.  I'm feeling much better about this than I was two weeks before the end of last semester-- the papers are do-able.

Then I get to start planning our trip to visit Nell, who is having so much fun in Europe that she can't be bothered to say Happy Easter to her parents.  kidding.  She is (or was) in Krakow for the weekend, and they may not even have access to computers.  So I won't complain.  Not me.

MadMax had his first track meet last Thursday.  I was in UTown for classes so I missed it, but the rest of them are on Friday, so I hope that will be the only one I have to miss.  Sounds like it wasn't much to miss, though-- another mom told me that it drizzled the whole afternoon, and with temps in the mid-40s, don't you know that was a nice outing.  MadMax is (for some reason) all excited about the throwing events.  This meet was just his school, but he threw a discus 83 feet.  Good Lord.  Maybe I'm remembering wrong.  That sounds impossible.

Well, maybe not.  I just googled the world record and it is 74 meters.  Or metres, as your spelling may be.  AB3, the blog where you learn something new every time you look.  But it may not be something you wanted to know.

MadMax is also in a Michael Crichton phase.  I don't know exactly what caused it.  Nell read Jurassic Park while she was home for Christmas, maybe that got him interested.  He is now reading his fourth Crichton.  We watched the original Jurassic Park movie on Saturday.  It terrified me when we saw it in the theater way back when.  But you know, it's not nearly so scary on the small screen, and it's not a bad movie. Laura Dern is terrific, and I always like Sam Neill.

And that's all I can think of.  No complaints.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

easter redux

I’ve said it before, but I guess there’s nothing wrong with repetition.  Easter is a difficult time for me.  I found myself getting vaguely irritated at the world on Friday, Good Friday, for no apparent reason, until it occurred to me what was going on.  Listening to the heart-felt words of people I love and respect as they talked or blogged about what Easter weekend means to them reminded me of what it once meant to me, and how difficult it was to leave that behind, and how unsure I am at times if I’m doing the right thing.  And of course I’m not doing The Right Thing, the thing that everyone should do, as if there were one right thing, or even a dozen right things. 

So eventually it occurred to me to pray about it.  I pray, as in connecting with "what I think of as God" in a sort of shorthand way, pretty frequently.  Usually wordlessly, either asking for blessing or renewed energy for someone else, or acknowledging a sense of gratitude or wonder.  There are also moments where I (metaphorically) sit down before something much larger than my ego-bound definition of myself and “lay my burdens down”—a momentary respite from stress, from feeling responsible for everything around me.  All of those I think of as prayer.

But I don’t very often pray in the way I used to mean the word back when I was an Evangelical:  as in using distinct words to directly address a being or Being who exists separately from myself—in fact, I can’t even remember the last time I prayed that way.  I'm not even sure that I believe that it works. But I did it Friday afternoon, and although it would sound silly if I repeated the experience, it was re-affirming for me.  I’m on my path.  I’m OK with this.  Maybe I was just talking to myself, to my own unconscious, but it worked for me.

But that doesn’t stop the yearning I feel to connect with the many people I love who believe in the literal meaning of this most momentous of Christian holidays (holy days), and who find a great deal of spiritual renewal specifically in the literal interpretation of the Easter story.  I do find a great deal of metaphoric meaning in the Easter story, but I’m no longer capable of finding meaning in the literal-ness.  I went on and on about this a few years ago—it’s not that I don’t believe in the literal Resurrection.  I’ve seen too many nonrational things happen to do that.  It’s just that the literal meaning of the event, the literal interpretation of any Scripture, is no longer what motivates me. And that very literal-ness is exactly what motivates an Evangelical Christian.

But there's no going back.  I don't even want to.  I just feel this .... sadness every year on Easter.

Friday, April 22, 2011

impeccable words, part 2

In the comments, Delia hit on the main thing that was bugging me about that post, which is the moral perfectionism involved in setting up some kind of ideal of being "impeccable" with my words, or with anything for that matter.  We're human beings, we're not gonna achieve perfection of any kind, unless it is of the "being perfectly ourselves" kind.  Striving for moral perfection leads to holier-than-thou-ness, which leads to all kinds of problems.

But there's a tension here, too.  Because even if  we're not going to achieve it, I think there is some use in thinking about this, especially this particular issue.  Probably everybody has their own list of what is important to them in terms of ethical standards, and "using words responsibly" is high on my list.  Off the top of my head, I think I would even say it is #1.  I will never do it perfectly, but I already do it better than I used to just because I'm more aware of it.  And I would like to continue to improve.  Honesty and integrity are important. 

Maybe where I got off was in using the phrase from The Four Agreements (which is not religious, in case you didn't click on the link to find out).  Maybe I should have just used that as my jumping off point and come up with my own phrase, because "impeccable" does bother me.  It's just a little too .... high-minded, maybe.  Chilly.  Good-goody.  I almost re-wrote the post, because after thinking about it more, I understand it differently. But I ended up leaving it as is. It still stands as an impetus to think about how I use my words.  I feel like a toddler, using my words.  "Use your words, sweetie," is something I must have said a thousand times to my kids.

But the other thing that happened with that post-- as with many of my posts-- is something that is just my own neurosis. I post something, and then I feel like I've set myself up as someone with "Something to Say" on an issue.  Who am I to think that I can set myself up as someone whose opinion matters? would be the most blunt way to state it, although that is overstating the case to make the point, because of course technically I believe everyone's opinion matters, and the religion of my past does, too.  Technically.  So making a statement like some of these blog posts do, even when it's pretty mild, triggers a reaction from my past.  I absorbed all kinds of ambivalence about having my own opinions.  I would have laughed at you if you said that to me, because of course I had chosen my opinions!  No one forced me to believe the things I believed!  Or so I thought, until I began realize how much pressure there was in the air that you breathe in that kind of environment.

So not to get off on that again... just explaining a bit of what happens when I post these things, and then panic a couple of hours later and want to immediately delete them.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

just a link

I'm passing on this link Parents don't dress your girls like tramps because I really appreciated it, and also because by the time I got halfway through and he said, "Which raises the question: What in the hell is wrong with us?" I wanted to applaud--because he said it, and because he said "us."  So I'm passing it on.

and plus I'm feeling dicey about that last post, and if it's not the one at the top of the pile, I'll sleep better. My mouse has been twitching over the delete button, but I'm being brave and leaving it there.  See, Julie, I listen (sometimes).

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Use your words

What I'm thinking about today comes out of The Four Agreements.  If you haven't read it, here is the website --the agreements are listed right there on the front page.  I read the book years ago, and I remember thinking I could have just stood in the bookstore and read the four agreements off the book jacket, because all the book does is elaborate and elaborate and elaborate. Since that kind of repetition makes me a little crazy, when I closed the book, I thought I'd forget about them.  But two of them, the first two, keep coming up.  I think about them pretty often. I couldn't even remember the other two until I Googled to see if there was a website for them somewhere, and of course there is. The third and fourth ones sound fine, but they're not the ones I think about.

The first agreement is "Be impeccable with your word."  When I first read it, it made me a little uncomfortable, I have to admit.  First of all because the word "impeccable" sounded like some kind of moral perfectionism, and that irritated me.  But also because it struck a little too close to home.  I can think fast.  I can process a lot of information quickly (although that doesn't keep me from being brick-wall-obtuse at times).  And I sometimes use that knack of thinking quickly to manipulate people, to get them to do something or just to make my own life easier. I'm not proud of it, especially not now that I am so much more aware of it.

An example.  Back in the day, before it became de rigueur to offer no-questions-asked returns, you had to have a good reason if you wanted to return something to a store: it had to be defective, or you'd bought it for a gift and it didn't fit, or whatever.  So on occasion when returning something, I would spin a plausible story and tell it without batting an eye.  I figured, what difference did it make if it wasn't the truth?  I didn't know the salesclerk, s/he didn't know me, there was no real reason I shouldn't be able to return the item, so big deal.  But now that makes me uncomfortable.  I don't do it anymore.  (Although, to be impeccable with my word here, I have to add:  now you can return stuff without much hassle, too.)

It was fairly harmless stuff.  I almost never straight out lie, but I'm owning this: I am capable of dancing around with words to mold what people think.  but you know what?  I've come to see that once you've said "I almost never straight out lie," you're already in trouble, if you ask me.  If the Agreement had said, "Don't ever lie," it wouldn't have hit me as hard, because it didn't really seem like lying since Lying is Bad and this kind of stuff didn't seem that bad.  I didn't do it in situations where it would make a difference.  But be impeccable with your word is a different thing than don't lie, a harder thing. It has to do with using words responsibly, with saying just exactly what you mean, no more and no less.  It means using your words to accurately reflect what's going on in your head or your heart or your body.  It's not easy.  I've been working on it ever since.

I also think wording it that way ("Be impeccable with your word") completely subverts any arguments about whether or not it's OK to lie sometimes.  Because of course it is. I don't even have to give any examples.  We've all told social lies, white lies, the kinds of fictions that spare people's feelings when your true opinion couldn't possibly do any good.  Being impeccable with your word isn't about slicing people open with your opinions, it's about being aware of what you're saying, and not either over- or under- stating your case to get what you want.

I can't claim success, because sometimes I'm spineless or afraid, and sometimes I'm lazy or indifferent.  and sometimes I'm just not a very good person.  More recently I've come to realize that it's not just when you speak that's important, it's also when you remain silent.  Do I not speak up when I should?  Do I let my silence imply agreement when really I disagree?  Do I stay silent when I long to be heard?  And if you include that, I probably can't even claim 60% success.  But as I've worked on it, being impeccable with my word has become more and more important to me.

Next time (or sometime soon), on to Agreement #2:  Don't take anything personally.

And can I also add, for the record, do you think they could have warned us that they were going to completely change the blogger website?  Hmmmm.  Maybe they did and I just missed it.  It's not too bad, but I did have to hunt around a bit to figure out how to do what I wanted to do.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

short one

Sorry I've been incommunicado. (is that the right use of that word?)  Things are going fine, I just don't have much to say at the moment.  Back soon.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

and there's no one to blame but me

I am such an idiot sometimes.  It was March when we left for vacation, and April 12th seemed so far away.  Then we got back, but it was still spring break, and I'd more or less lost track of what day it was.  And then at midnight last night, I figured out that I have to turn in an 8-10 page first draft of a paper on Tuesday.  I am so screwed.  I haven't written a word of it.  I have the idea, and it's sort of outlined in my head, but I haven't done any research or written any of it.

All I can do at this point is just the best I can, because there's not enough time left for anything else.  Thank goodness it's just a draft.  I don't think it is graded, but I wasn't there the day she talked about it, so I'm not sure.  It will be workshopped, though, which means three other students and I will read each other's drafts and comment, and it is going to be highly embarrassing to have such a lame effort.  But at this point it's spilt milk, you know?  And to add insult to injury, I have 200 pages of Emma left to read for Tuesday, too.  I was purposely putting that off because if I read it too far before classtime, I can't remember it.  Which, in hindsight, was a major mistake. 

So I need to get back to the grind (I've been working on it all day), but I did just want to let you know that our trip South went really well.  My dad is frail and obviously not in good health, but he is doing better than I expected.  We went out to eat both nights I was at their house, and he is alert and seems to be dealing well with all that's happening.  My mom moved into a new place last summer, but this is the first time I'd seen it.  It is great, and is perfect for her needs, although she's still getting used to it since it's smaller than what she had.  Had a blast with my sister and all her gazillion children (there's only six, really, but sometimes it seems like more).  It was a great trip, and the weather was perfect.  If only I hadn't let my brain go completely to mush while I was there.

So-- I'm way behind on blog-reading and probably won't be able to catch up for awhile.  Hope you're all doing well and if you can spare some paper-writing vibes for me, I will be grateful.