Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Curious Autodidact Recommends: Crash Course

I was never a great student, but I was always curious.  When I was struggling with formal education in young adulthood, a good friend recommended I read Kendall Hailey's autobiography The Day I Became an Autodidact.  I'm glad she did.  I had never heard of such a thing, teaching yourself what you want to know when you want to know it, taking control of your own learning.  This book gave me the courage to embrace my nonconformist educational preference.  I got a job at the public library, the best place to feed a curious mind. 

I like to joke that my goal is to get a PhD by the time I'm 80.  But I don't know.  I might end up extending that deadline even closer to death.  Right now, busy with motherhood, spousehood, librarianship, and blogging, I don't have time to go back to school and get a formal degree.  For now my Associate's degree from the community college and my obsession with John and Hank Green will get me by. 

Enjoy with me, John Green's Crash Course World History:

Enjoy with me, Hank Green's Crash Course Biology:

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

J.K. Rowling: Famous Outcast

Now that J.K. Rowling's adult novel The Casual Vacancy is coming out Thursday, I finally want to read Harry Potter.  I normally loathe bestsellers.  I get claustrophobic on bandwagons.  I saw the movies because I love my husband, i.e. my husband blinded me with his adorable grin, and bound my hand in his as we glided across the parking lot so I could witness something that brings him so much pleasure.  Good wifey aside, I prided myself on being the only librarian on the planet who had never cracked open a Harry Potter book.  I knew enough about the plot and the characters to get by at my job, but no one could persuade me to read the stupid series.  

Until now.  If I'd have known the famous author actually feels weird and awkward, I would have read Rowling's books years ago.  Outcasts are my thing.  And what's more outcast than a famous outcast?  I had avoided Rowling's work because I assumed she was another rich, famous diva.  I am such an incorrigible snob I can only read popular stuff if the author feels uncomfortable in her popularity.

So, thank you Salon, for your nice tribute to a regular human being who happens to have lots of people's attention.  I have much more respect for her now.  Funny, my warm feeling towards Rowling's impenetrability makes me want to pay more attention to her. 

Here are my favorite quotes from Mary Elizabeth William's critique of The New Yorker's profile of Rowling

"If you can attempt to read the New Yorker story with a modicum of empathy for a very rich, famous woman with legions of obsessive fans and a British press that’s hacked her phone and camped outside her door, Rowling comes across as a human being who happens to be just as shy and vulnerable as, say, a writer." 

"Maurice Sendak was notoriously cranky. Harper Lee has spent the vast majority of her life as a famous recluse. And L. Frank Baum, a man who created one of literature’s other great wizards, was in favor of exterminating the Native American population. He was not great and powerful. He was a flawed individual..."

"J. K. Rowling is not Hermione Granger or Minerva McGonagall or even Bellatrix Lestrange. She never said she was. She never promised to stay at Hogwarts forever. She is, behind the curtain, just a person, one who happens to have created a fantastic world but who remains stubbornly life-size."
How dare a famous fantasy writer act like a real human being.
I'd put a hold on The Casual Vacancy, but I'm afraid it might ruin my reputation as a bestsellerphobic librarian.  I better wait a decade or so for that bandwagon to clear.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Critical Questions

"As President of our country, and Commander-in-Chief of our military, I accept that people are going to call me awful things every day, and I will always defend their right to do so." --President Barack Obama at the United Nations

I like that quote from the video above.  It chokes me up with patriotic feelings of idealism.  But I like it in the way I like any great work of fiction.  I know it sounds better than reality is.  President Obama is eloquently exaggerating his magnanimity.   

Just look at this article from HuffPo a month ago.  If Obama "always" defends the right to call him awful things, why isn't he defending the rights of Bradley Manning and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange?  When WikiLeaks slung awful allegations at our military when it exposed video "showing a U.S. helicopter massacring people on a Baghdad street, among them civilians, Reuters journalists, and a child" I don't recall the President defending Manning's and Assange's  rights to do so.  Please correct me if I'm wrong.  I'm all about information sharing.  Perhaps I don't have all the information to form a valid opinion.

Also, please know that my criticism of President Obama's pronouncement above doesn't mean I no longer support his second term.  I'll still vote for him in November.  Idealism gets me in the gut, but at heart I'm a pragmatist.  I know an Obama administration will be a stronger defender of intellectual freedom than a Romney administration would, even if neither administration would be ideal.     

It's important to fight for freedom.  Asking critical questions doesn't make a person a traitor.  I wish the mainstream media would have the guts to ask more questions, as Wasserman, the author of the HuffPo piece does so well:

"Finally, and most important, isn't it time for a dispassionate assessment of WikiLeaks' impact? It has been two years since the massive leaks of military and diplomatic data. The moment is ripe for an accounting. Did the leaks do harm or do good? Did WikiLeaks demoralize dedicated officials and expose trusting intelligence assets to risk and reprisal? Or did it blow whistles that needed to be heard, embolden dissidents worldwide, fuel the Arab Spring, encourage lackluster news media to defy official controls, help chase despots from power?"

Wouldn't the world be a better place if we promoted more sharing and tolerated less secrecy?  I say yes, probably, but give me more information. 

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Made-for-TV Jesus

Most of what I know about Jesus comes from Mom's stories and a made-for-TV movie.  We weren't regular church goers when I was kid.  Mom had left the Catholic church when she divorced her first husband, but she read the Bible every day, paraphrased stories for me, and answered all my questions.

My older siblings had all been baptized in the Church as infants.  I was not.  When I complained to my Mom about feeling left out, she told me that she baptized me in our kitchen sink when I was a baby.  I honored my mother too much to argue, "Mom, I think that's called taking a bath," and anyway, she reminded me that Jesus himself was not baptized inside a church, but in a river.

We rarely sat next to each other in a pew, but I remember crying on the couch with Mom as we watched Zeffirelli's miniseries "Jesus of Nazareth" like 1977 was last year.

I grew up loving Jesus, but I would hardly say I'm a Biblical scholar.  I realize now Mom censored much of her stories.  And I'm thankful.  She didn't want to scare me.  So I grew up pretty ignorant about things like the Anti-Christ, and Biblically-condoned slavery, rape, and war.  Mom gave me the GL version.  She taught me God is Love.

So when I read this article about Ralph Reed's political comeback, my first thought was, I remember Mom's version of the story of Jesus walking out into the wilderness, but I don't recall the one where he walked on any campaign trails.  Jesus was apolitical.  So it confuses me when people mix politics and religion.

I'll give Ralph Reed credit, though.  His new group's got mad scholarly skillz:

"To identify religious voters most likely to vote Republican, the group used 171 data points.  It acquired megachurch membership lists. It mined public records for holders of hunting or boating licenses, and warranty surveys for people who answered yes to the question “Do you read the Bible?” It determined who had downloaded conservative-themed books, like “Going Rogue” by Sarah Palin, onto their e-readers, and whether those people also drove pickup trucks. It drilled down further, looking for married voters with children, preferably owners of homes worth more than $100,000.  Finally, names that overlapped at least a dozen or so data points were overlaid with voting records to yield a database with the addresses and, in many cases, e-mail addresses and cellphone numbers of the more than 17 million faith-centric registered voters — not just evangelical Protestants but also Mass-attending Catholics. The group is also reaching out to nearly two million more people who have never registered to vote."

Because that's what Jesus would do?

Friday, September 21, 2012

Progressive Confession: My Teenage Fling with Ronnie

This morning I had a sixth grader inform me that, "Obama is the worst president ever."  It's OK.  I forgive his ignorance.  He'll outgrow it.  I did.

I once had a poster of President Ronald Reagan on my bedroom wall.  Considering Jimmy Carter is my favorite president and I'm such a pinko commie I complain that President Obama is too conservative, most of my friends are surprised when they find out this little secret from my youth.

It wasn't up for long, and it was rightfully replaced by a poster of The Smiths, but still, it was up there.  I swear.

I can't remember if my mom or my dad brought it home, or even where they got it.  I found it on our kitchen table.  I snagged it and tacked it to my bedroom wall.  I was in eighth grade.  Still feeling like the new kid at school even though we had moved there a year before.  The year I discovered New Wave music, bleached blonde bangs, and black eyeliner.  

As my school picture shows, I began the school year looking like most of the other kids in my affluent suburban school, wearing a sporty mullet, short and slightly feathered on the sides.  I wore a pink striped polo shirt.  I'm smiling big, happy to have finally gotten my braces off.  

A few months later, looking like we'd gleaned our beauty tips from the pages of Star Hits magazine, my one friend left from my old school and I had our photos taken in one of those booths at the arcade.  I put a copy next to my school picture in my photo album to show the drastic transition of my outward identity that year.  In the arcade photo, my hair is longer and moussed and dyed black to match my black eyeliner.  Total Robert Smith Wannabe.  Actually, Siouxsie Sioux.  

It wasn't just my hair and clothes: I began practicing my signature for when I became a famous British pop star, Rebekah Sioux, an homage to my imaginary Aunt Siouxsie.  Never mind I was actually Rebecca Sue Burton, a fourteen-year-old Kansas girl.  Too shy to sing.  I'd recently discovered a way to get snotty preps at school off my back.  I stuck a photo of the band Siouxsie and the Banshees I'd clipped from Star Hits in the front of my 3-ring binder.  I carried it everywhere I went.  That way when they'd make fun of my look, I'd point to the picture and tell them my aunt is Siouxsie Sioux.  "That's why my middle name is Sioux.  My mom named me after her sister Siouxsie.  Would you like my autograph?"

Blank stare.  I could tell they knew I was a total liar, but they also didn't know what to say, and I wanted to be left alone more than I wanted them to like me.

I have no idea why I didn't have more friends in eighth grade.

But the Ronnie poster, I didn't even mean anything political by it.  I was trying out civics geek chic.  I also had a poster of the United States Constitution on my wall.  I was just starting to pay attention to the world outside my bedroom, trying on different political identities like I was changing my hair color monthly.  The reason it hung on my wall is as simple as this: I knew it was 1984, and I knew Ronald Reagan was our president.  Concuss me and I'd prove it to you.  

That was about it.  I knew nothing of Reaganomics and the Iran-Contra affair wasn't in the news yet.  It wasn't so much that I was on my way to becoming Alexis P. Keaton.  I just felt like I should try on some patriotism and so I did.

But my burgeoning love of Morrissey meant I'd eventually acquire more posters of The Smiths than I had available wall space.  Something had to go.  Ronnie went into the trash.  

In hindsight, I wish I had recycled him.  That would be better karmic retribution to the poster of such an anti-environmentalist president.  But by 1984, I had not yet convinced my parents that we needed to start recycling.  It was still a few years before I would wash off the eyeliner, ditch the mousse, and play peekaboo with my hairy legs beneath my long, handmade skirts as I'd walk to work at Greenpeace with The Indigo Girls playing on my Walkman.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Fully Engaged with John Green

"[Ray Bradbury's novel Fahrenheit 451] is about what happens when people choose distraction over engagement..."  -- John Green

I've never read Fahrenheit 451 despite the fact that every cool person I've ever known loves this book.  I guess I've just been too busy being engaged in other obsessions.  Like John Green videos.

It's as if Mr. Green is inside my head.  It's both freaky and comforting.  Just yesterday morning, before I had seen this Vlogbrothers video, I was contemplating this very subject on my own, at my kitchen table.

I sat alone, eating a sandwich.  The house was quiet.  Will was at work.  Katie was at school.  I had the windows open and I could hear birds singing outside.  I sat and chewed my sandwich and listened to the birds in peace.  I thought to myself, because I could hear myself think, "I love a quiet home."

I grew up in a noisy home.  Not just because I had so many siblings, but because my mom is a TV junkie.  She's the kind of person who walks into the house and turns on the TV.  Not because she has any intention to sit and watch it, but for the background noise.  She grew up in a quiet home.  They didn't get a TV until Mom was a teenager.  She did listen to her favorite radio programs.  But for the most part, Mom was expected to be still.  Her mother had an abundance of health problems and demanded quiet in their home.  Mom was often lonely.  So I can understand why Mom likes the constant company of the voices on TV.

I, on the other hand, sought out quiet.  Since quiet was a rarity in our house, I discovered something similar: the constant hum of the attic fan.  My favorite place to nap, not even to sleep but to lie around and think as a young child was in the middle of the hallway under the noise of the attic fan.  Lying there, I found peace.  I couldn't hear the TV blaring in the living room.  I couldn't hear my dad yelling at my brother.  I couldn't hear our lonely dog barking in the back yard because Dad refused to let him inside with the family.  I could just lie there, my thoughts to myself.  A luxury for the youngest child of a big, boisterous family.

Mom was always great at multitasking.  My favorite story to illustrate this point is the one where she scored two points higher than I did on an IQ test I found in a book at the library.  I sat in a quiet room, completely focused on the test when I took it.  Mom was busy watching her show on TV and embroidering a pillow project she had been working on, so she agreed to take the test only if I'd just ask her the questions and score it for her.  I did.  And I got confirmation that, yes, my mom is an amazing multitasker, as well as a genius.  I somehow did not inherit her abilities.  I can only focus on one thing at a time, and all my IQ score shows is that I should have done much better in school than I did.

After watching John Green's video above, I feel less self-conscious about my need for quiet so I can focus.  It's not that I'm too much of a spaz to do more than one thing at a time.  I just prefer to fully engage in one thing, rather than dabble in activities that consume less of my attention.  When I watch TV, I watch TV.  When I eat, I eat.  When I take tests, I take tests.  When I have a conversation with Will, I have a conversation with Will.  When I write, I write.  When I play with my kid, I play with my kid.

Warning: extreme parental judgment approaching:  You won't find me at the playground with a phone on my ear while my kid is growing up before my inattentive eyes.  Life is too short to ignore our kids.

Unless I'm watching a John Green video.  Then Katie must leave me alone for a few minutes.  And if she must interrupt, at least the on-demand feature of YouTube videos allows me to be a more attentive parent.  It's not that parents are becoming more compassionate these days.  We just have better technology than our parents did.  The best advice I can give parents today: Hit the pause button.  It's a gift from the technology gods so we can fully engage with our kids.

Stephen Colbert: Christian Hero

This is the best commentary I've seen on the whole Romney-Thinks-47%-of-Americans-Are-Moochers video:

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Mitt Romney's Secret Video
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogVideo Archive

Stephen Colbert is a hero among progressive Christians.  Here's one of my favorite episodes, "Jesus Is a Liberal Democrat" in which Colbert delivers this beautiful statement: 

“If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn't help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we've got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don't want to do it.”  --Stephen Colbert

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Camp Empathy

The Kansas City Star, September 9, 2012, front page

For days I've skipped over Cameron Larkins' story by Joe Robertson from the September 9, 2012 edition of The Kansas City Star on my list of things to write about, focusing on easier topics.  But this sweet kid's story, like so many other fat kids' stories, cannot go ignored.  

The Kansas City Star, September 9, 2012, front page

This eleven year old boy from Independence, Missouri is being shipped off to fat camp because he's bullied for his size.  This bike-riding, president of his elementary school, straight A student.  Why is he the one who has to leave behind his mother for an entire semester?  Why does this eleven year old boy have to be separated from his dog for four months?  Because he's bullied?  That's insane.  The bullies should be the ones shipped off to Camp Empathy.

The Kansas City Star, September 9, 2012, page A16

So should Independence Superintendent Jim Hinson.  He needs to pull his head out of his ass and try seeing things from the perspective of fat kids before allowing his students to participate in such a potentially psychologically unhealthy program.  He needs to read the book Health at Every Size by Dr. Linda Bacon.  He needs to take the advice of medical doctors, such as Dr. Andrew Weil, who advocate people of all sizes eat more fresh foods, and perhaps make significant changes to the school district's lunch program.  He needs to pay attention to news stories that report the widely used chemical BPA is scientifically linked to childhood obesity and understand that sometimes it's a child's environment that is harmful and not his appetite.

Cameron's story infuriates me, no doubt because it hits home.  I was never sent off to fat camp, although I was threatened to be hospitalized against my will when I was an anorexic eleven year old.  Cameron's age.

My parents sent me to Weight Watchers when I was in third grade. Never mind that both of them are fat, as were their parents before them. I suppose they thought they were too addicted to their bad habits to make changes in their own lives, but if I could be educated and encouraged to diet, there might be hope for me. 

I dutifully went to the weekly weigh-ins. Easily fifteen to fifty years younger than everyone else in line, I self-consciously stood on the scale as the check-in person announced my weight to the group. If I had lost weight, I felt proud.  If I had gained weight, I felt defeated in front of grownups I barely knew.  I became uber-competitive, thinking “I bet if I'm good and work harder this next week I can lose the most weight in the whole group.”

Instead of hanging out with my family in the living room, eating popcorn, drinking Pepsi, and watching TV, I’d hide in my bedroom, drinking Tab, poring over my food diary, counting calories to see how I could lower the daily total.  If I met my goal of just 500 calories a day, I felt exhilarated.  Empowered. I’d run up and down our basement stairs for forty-five minutes without stopping. I’d ignore my friends playing Barbies so I could go on hours-long walks by myself.  I'd gone from being a friendly, sociable kid to being an awkward introvert. 

Mom took me to the doctor in fifth grade when I passed out at school. As I sat in the examining room, freezing cold under my thin smock, I stared at the floor as I listened to the doctor chide my mother for not bringing me in sooner.  I was 5'3" and weighed 79 pounds.  His diagnosis: anorexia nervosa. I was sent to a therapist. After a few rough patches—being threatened with hospitalization and force-fed by my rage-filled father—I began eating again. And eating and eating and eating. I quit running up and down the stairs and going for long, solitary walks because I knew my dad would yell at me and my mom would start crying. By seventh grade, yet another doctor I was taken to when I began experiencing severe menstrual pain, pointed to a chart and admonished me for being twenty pounds overweight.  My weight was no longer my mom's fault.  It was mine.

Fast forward twenty-three years, when Katie is six months old, and I’m visiting a fertility specialist because I want to conceive another child. The doctor breaks it to me that he can’t fill another prescription for Clomid and Estrace until I lose weight. I argue that two of my “normal” weight sisters also had fertility problems, possibly because our mom took DES when she was pregnant with us. He shrugs off the effects of DES as scientifically inconclusive. I point out that the medication he prescribed me just over a year earlier had helped me conceive Katie, despite my polycystic ovary syndrome. He tries to tell me I’ve gained fifty pounds since then. I inspect the chart and see the nurse has transposed two numbers.  I'm only twenty pounds heavier than I had been the first go round, and since I had just had a baby a few months before, I figured he’d cut me some slack. He didn’t and told me to come back when I lost weight. I joined a gym. I followed a low-glycemic index diet. I became healthier.  I did not lose weight.

I was able to conceive without medical intervention, but I miscarried just a couple days after the pee stick showed two faint lines.  I've never conceived again.  Try explaining that to my six year old when she begs for a little brother or a little sister.

A few months later I took a health-risk assessment at work. The BMI chart categorizes me as obese, but my blood pressure, glucose, and cholesterol have always been normal, and this time, my good cholesterol elevated eleven points from the previous year and was now in the “excellent” range. But I weighed the same.  No weight loss.  Weird.  How could I be so healthy and so fat at the same time?

Then I stumbled upon the book Heath at Every Size by Dr. Linda Bacon and broke my twisted thinking about fat.  In twelve chapters, written for a layperson but including 419 references to scientific studies, Dr. Bacon disproves the myth that fat and health are mutually exclusive.  She shows us that a big chunk of weight loss research, which doctors and the media refer to when they start lecturing us to lose weight, is funded by people who work for the diet industry. 

“At least seven of the nine members on the National Institutes of Health’s Obesity Task Force were directors of weight-loss clinics, and most had multiple financial relationships with private industry.” Bacon points out that from 1970-2004, during the so called “obesity epidemic” the average lifespan rose from 70.8 to 77.8. She addresses the issue that many diseases such as high blood pressure and heart disease associated with "obesity" are found in thin people too. She raises our awareness of the vast diversity of size among the human population, and proves that good health can be achieved for people of all sizes.
Got Bacon?  Here's her advice: give up trying to lose weight.  “Enjoy a variety of real food, primarily plants” no matter where your body falls on the size spectrum.  Engage in "active living".  Move your body in pleasurable ways.  And most of all, love yourself. 

This health book is not designed to raise profits for the multi-billion dollar diet industry. It raises awareness that health comes in all sizes, and it has raised my self-worth immeasurably.  Now if only we can get people in power to pay attention.  Let's ship 'em off to Camp Empathy with the other bullies and have them study this book for a semester.

What do you say, Cameron Larkins of the World?  If I could tell you one thing it is this: I understand how you feel.  You are not alone.  

The Embryogenesis of a Scientist

The other day Katie told me she wants to be a scientist when she grows up.  When asked what is her favorite subject at school, lately she's been saying, "Science!"  Now I see where she's getting the idea. 

Notice the teacher has "scientist" under the line where it usually says "name." Niiiiice.

As we looked over this worksheet, I told Katie she used to be an embryo too. I said, "You started out as a blastocyst.  Then you became an embryo.  Then you were a fetus.  Then you were a baby, and now you're a big girl." 

Katie cleared her throat and said, "No, Mom. I started out as an EGG."

When she argues with me, I like to think of my six year old not as bossy or disrespectful toward her mother, but as a detail-oriented, critical thinker.  Good thing we don't live in Texas, where Stephen Colbert reports some GOP leaders recently wanted teaching critical thinking skills stricken from the curriculum of public schools:

"Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority."

I guess I like my parental authority undermined, especially when my child's point is valid.  As far as I'm concerned, the only two rules my daughter must strictly follow are these: 

1.  Think for yourself.

2.  Love everyone.

Watch here:

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Buddy Christ Is My Culinary Guide

"This is actually really good, Babe," Will assured me after taking a bite.  

"Even though I nearly burnt the kitchen down making it?" 

Evidently I missed seventh grade Home Ec the day my teacher went over this rule: never add water to hot oil in a skillet.  Also, make sure and follow the instructions on the package in numerical order.  Do not, for example, mix up steps 2 and 3 if the steps are as follows:

step 1: add oil to skillet
step 2: add potstickers to the skillet
step 3: add water to the skillet

Otherwise your normally superhumanly calm husband might shout louder than you were aware he was capable, "YOU'RE NOT SUPPOSED TO DO THAT!" as the hot oil splatters ALL OVER the range, the refrigerator beside it, and the vinyl floor in front.

I couldn't figure out a way to reach over the hot splattering mess to turn off the burner.  I couldn't just grab the skillet handle to move it off the burner, even with a potholder, without burning everything below my elbow at least.  I couldn't figure out what to do.  I stood there trying to remember if I should use baking soda or flour to put out a grease fire and I began estimating how much time it would take me to get the dogs, the cat, and Katie outside the house...where are the dog's leashes?  The cat's kennel?  Is Katie even wearing any clothes?

I did manage to at least delegate a responsibility when I commanded my tall husband to "take the battery out of the smoke alarm!"  

Pleased with myself for remembering this vital step from the last time I nearly burnt the kitchen down making dinner, I stood there thinking as my tremendous fortune spread out before me: I married a man who is quick into action.  Will grabbed a giant lid and dropped it on top of the greasy fireworks display.  

Mmm.  Thanks, Babe, for allowing me to momentarily fantasize I had a fireman in my kitchen.

My fantasy was soon squelched with the reality that I would have to somehow clean up all this grease.  What a freaking mess.

It turned out pretty good.   

Our range and everything surrounding it, newly degreased

Buddy Christ was due for a bath anyway.  

I would complain about His skills watching over me as I cook for my family, but I guess since no fire consumed us and He sent my fireman angel Will to the rescue, Buddy Christ really is my Culinary Guide.  Thank you, Buddy Christ!


Saturday, September 15, 2012

VlogBrothers' 1000th Video

I love these guys! If you're not watching VlogBrothers or Crash Course on YouTube, you are missing the opportunity to have a better life. Seriously. Watch it!

Friday, September 14, 2012

Elton John Is My Madeleine

I never considered myself an Elton John fan.  That was my sister Jenny's thing.  Before she became born-again and turned to Christian music, Elton John was one of her favorites.  I remember rifling through her LPs when I was a little kid, sitting Indian-style as we called it then, starring at the booklet that came with Tumbleweed Connection.

Recently I've developed a new obsession: Early Elton John.  I was never much of a fan of his over-the-top fancified pop of the Eighties and beyond, and after Jenny moved out and took her albums, I kinda forgot how much I used to love his songs when I was a kid.

You know how people buy sports cars and get face lifts when they turn forty?  I think I'm experiencing my own kind of second childhood.  Elton John is my madeleine:

Image source: Wikipedia

"No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. ... Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? ... And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea."  --Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time

Music is the source of my involuntary memories.  I close my eyes and listen to Tumbleweed Connection and I'm back on Bucher Drive in St. Joseph, Missouri in the early Seventies.

Enjoy it with now me, won't you?

I get it now, listening to this gospel-chorded rocker, why my Christian sister liked Elton John before she became born again.  But as a young adult, labeling myself as a lesbian, when I'd hear an old Elton John song on the radio, I'd flash back to my early childhood sitting in our bedroom with my sister Jenny, listening to her Elton John albums, and I thought it was pretty ironic that Jenny was the one who turned me on to Elton John, one of the earliest pioneers of the LGBT-rights movement.  During an interview with Rolling Stone magazine in 1976, John outed himself as bisexual.

I heard about the controversy through the grapevine in my own living room as I sat watching TV with Jenny and our brother Pat.  I was about five, Jenny about thirteen, Pat about fifteen.  Elton John was performing on some TV show.  In my memory it was "The Captain and Tennille Show" but after some quick and dirty research, I have no proof that Elton John was ever a guest.  Facts don't matter much in my stories, so I'm sticking with my memory.  I was paying less attention to the TV show itself and more attention to my siblings' conversation.

"I can't believe you like him, Jenny.  He's a fag, you know."  Pat smacked his gum and rolled his eyes at Jenny.

"I don't care.  I loooooooove him!"  Jenny squealed.

"What's a fag?"  I asked.

Pat and Jenny looked at each other and burst into laughter.

"What's so funny?"  I whined.  I hated to be left out of the joke.

"Nothing!  Nevermind!"  Jenny covered her face with a throw pillow to stifle her giggles.

"No!  I wanna know!"  I whined louder.

"It means he likes to kiss boys instead of girls."  Jenny explained.

I don't remember what happened after that.  I think we all just sat silently and watched the rest of the show together.  Maybe they talked some more and I ignored them, focused on the idea that a boy would want to kiss another boy.

But then again, I kinda wanted to kiss my friend Courtney.  I had met her after storytime at the library.  I remember her distinctly because she was the only girl I'd ever met that had a very short hair cut.  In fact, when we met, the first words out of my mouth were, "Are you a boy or a girl."  When she said, "A girl," I said, "Ok.  You wanna play with me?"

I never got to kiss Courtney.  We've long since lost contact.  I don't even remember her last name.  But you know what's funny?  Now that I think about it, you know who Courtney reminds me of?  Rachel Maddow.  No wonder I like The Rachel Maddow Show.  It has nothing to do with my interest in progressive politics.  I just still have a crush on Courtney after all these years.

Teaching Compassion

"Modern education is premised strongly on materialistic values. It is vital that when educating our children’s brains that we do not neglect to educate their hearts, a key element of which has to be the nurturing of our compassionate nature." - The Dalai Lama

"Mama, I need to tell you something."

I generally don't hear these words until the end of the day as I'm tucking Katie into bed.  She's not the kind of kid who wants to talk about school right when it gets out.  When she first started school I thought she was just tired and moody when I'd walk her home and get no response to my questions about her day.  Then one day we got home and Katie threw her backpack onto the couch.

"What's wrong?"  I asked, shocked at her violent outburst.  From my point of view we'd just had a nice walk home together.

"I'm tired of listening to people talk!"  She said, slumping onto the couch next to her backpack.

"Oh.  I see."  I sat next to her and put my arm around her warm little shoulders.  "Well, I'm sorry I'm talking a lot, but I've missed you and I want to know how your day has been.  Maybe next time you want some quiet you could say it calmly instead of rudely shouting and hurting my feelings?"

Katie nodded into my armpit.  "Sorry, Mom," she said quietly.  "I'm tired of listening.  I just want to listen to myself."

"Seven hours is a long day, isn't it?  I understand."  I gave her a squeeze and let her be.

Of course.  I feel the same way after a long day at work.  The kid's an introvert and needs a little alone time to recharge her batteries.  I can relate.  

So now when I pick Katie up from school, I say something short and sweet like, "How are you?" just to maintain some semblance of civility in our lives, but for the most part I quit grilling her about her day.  Instead, we're either quiet or we talk about the things we see on the way home.  Lots of mushrooms have been popping up in our neighbor's yard since it's been raining, so that has become a big theme in our conversations lately.  Soon it will be the changing leaves and the birds in the sky heading south.

I'm not concerned about Katie academically.  Either Will or I help her with homework each night, so we see all the amazing things she's learning.  They really push kids to read much earlier now than they did when Will and I were kids.  Katie loves to read so we don't have any issues with that.  

As friends who have visited my house know, I'm pretty happy living in a state of disarray.  For example, I still haven't painted over the graffiti on our bathroom wall and it's been almost two years since my 40th birthday party where I handed everyone a marker and asked them to leave me a message.  We have books and toys and unfinished projects strewn about the house.  And dog hair.  Lots and lots of dog hair.  I've thought about making stuffed animals out of it and selling them on Etsy.  It's not just the filth.  It's the lack of organization.  God forbid I have to find some official document or my last year's bank statements in a hurry.  They're here.  Somewhere.  Just give me a little time to find them.

But I'm almost anally organized about keeping Katie's school work.   It gives me great pleasure to sit with her and go over what she's brought home in her folder each day.   She shows me her artwork and worksheets and I diligently date them and put them inside a plastic storage container marked "Katie's school work" inside our closet.  I take pictures of the particularly funny or unusual or thoughtful things and share them on my Facebook timeline so my mom who lives a state away and can't visit often gets to see Katie's progress too.

But other than straight-up academics, we don't talk much about school until late at night.  That's when she's ready to unwind and unburden herself, to share her questions.

"Mama, I need to tell you something."  Katie rolled over to face me.  It was dark and chilly with the window open, but we were warm under the covers.

"What is it?"  I get excited when I hear those words.  Finally.  I've been waiting since school let out!  But I try to act nonchalant so I don't scare her confessions away.

"I lost a cube today."  She whispered.

"I don't know what that means," I whispered back.

"It means I had to stand at the wall for five minutes before I could have recess."  She raised her voice, clearly hurt by such injustice.

"Oh, standing at the wall.  I remember that."  I said. 

"You had to stand at the wall when you were my age, Mama?"  Katie's voice returned to its calm, quiet pitch.

"Sure.  Sometimes.  Not very often, but sure.  Everyone has to stand at the wall and miss recess sometimes.  That's part of being a kid and learning from mistakes."  I ran my finger across her forehead and traced the shape of her face.  "Why do you think you lost recess time today?"  I asked.  No big deal.  Just wondering.

"Because I lost a cube."  She said, with a twinge of annoyance in her tone as if to say, "I already told you, Mother."

"But what does that mean?  What is this cube and why did you lose it?"  I pressed, a little.

"Everyone gets three cubes in the morning.  If you lose a cube, you lose five minutes of recess.  If you lose two cubes, you lose ten minutes of recess.  If you lose three cubes, you lose all recess and you have to go to the buddy room," she explained in a monotone as if she were reciting her teacher's speech verbatim.

"What's a buddy room?"  I asked.

"A buddy room is a room where you talk to a buddy."  Clearly the child does not have a future in writing definitions for a dictionary.

"What do you talk to a buddy about?"  I inquired, genuinely curious.  I'm so old we didn't have any fancy schmancy rules for discipline when I was in grade school.  If you weren't doing what you were supposed to be doing, the teacher yelled at you or, if she was young and had newfangled ideas about treating kids gently, she'd write your name on the board.  If you got into too much trouble, you'd stand at the wall at recess, and in extreme cases, you'd get sent to the principal.  I remember learning the difference between the words "principal" and "principle".  My teacher said, "Just remember, the principal is your pal."  I never got sent to The Office until I was in high school and got caught cussing out a bully who had just called my friend a faggot, but even in grade school I knew my teacher was bullshitting us.  The principal is not our pal.  Pals are not there to instill fear in us. 

Katie replied, "You talk about what you did and why you shouldn't do it and how you can follow the RULES."  She was teetering on the edge of annoyance with my prodding questions, so I slowed down.

"Oh.  I see."  Even though I didn't.  Is this a social worker they talk to?  A teacher?  Another kid? What an interesting concept.  Talking about your behavior.  Good job, modern public school.

"But you didn't talk to a buddy today, right?  You just lost one cube?"  I asked, trying to accentuate the positive.  I'm turning into my mother.  Pretty soon I'm going to start telling Katie to count her blessings when she's acting crabby.

"Yeah, just a cube and recess."  She agreed.

"I wonder why?"  I asked, as nonchalant as I could muster.  

"I don't know,"  Katie's voice trailed off as she rolled over.

"Then how can you learn what you've done wrong?  You're at school to learn things.  So losing the cube must be a way for you to learn something.  I wonder what it could be?  What were you doing when you lost the cube?"  I asked, spooning her.

"We were getting ready for story time," Katie revealed.

"So what happened?"  I asked, combing my fingers through her wispy hair.

"I asked Ms. B if we were going to use blankets and pillows and she said, 'That's three times I've said no we are not using blankets and pillows so you lose a cube!'"  Katie made a growly noise.

"I see.  It sounds to me like Ms. B already said you guys weren't going to use pillows and blankets but you weren't listening and so when you asked her she knew you weren't listening.  Does that make sense?"  I asked, wanting to see if she was following me.


"So what were you doing instead of listening to Ms. B?"  I asked.

"Daydreaming!  I'm always daydreaming like Daddy," was her excuse.  One night when he was tucking her into bed, I overheard Will telling Katie he got into trouble in school for daydreaming too.

"Well, that's pretty normal, Honey.  It's hard to listen to people all day.  I know.  But do you know why it's important for you to listen to Ms. B?"

"Why?"  She whined.

"Because her job is to teach you.  How would you like it if you were a teacher and you had twenty-four students in your class and you needed to tell them something - would you rather tell each one of them twenty-four times or would you rather say it once and just have everyone listen the first time?"

"Just have everyone listen the first time," she admitted.

"Yeah.  I'd rather people listen to me too.  Think about how Ms. B feels.  If you're not listening to her, how can you learn what she's trying to teach you?  And if you don't learn what she's trying to teach you, then she probably feels like she's not doing a very good job."  I reasoned, hoping Katie would understand the empathetic skills I was attempting to show her.

Katie sat up in bed and announced, "My teacher could lose her job if I don't listen!"

"Well, Sweetie, I wouldn't worry about that.  Just try to listen as best as you can and don't worry about Ms. B losing her job."  This child has obviously never heard of teacher's unions.

I felt bad for laughing but I couldn't help it.  Who knew it was possible to over-kill with compassion?    

The Beer Vote

Image source: Wikipedia

Looks like President Obama has secured the beer vote.  Not only has the White House released its home brew recipe, now The Most Interesting Man In the World from the Dos Equis commercials is holding a fundraiser for the President.  Apparently the beer vote is crucial this election season.  As this article states, 

"ABC News noted in a report last month that Obama's Facebook fans are particularly fond of Dos Equis. Twenty-four thousand of them, or 3 percent of all of Obama's fans at the time, also liked the beer brand on Facebook."

Are you swayed by celebrity endorsements, or does this sort of absurdity drive you to drink?  Leave your comments below.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Paper Dolls

I found Katie at the kitchen table with paper, scissors, markers, and a glue stick.

"Whatcha making, Sweetie?"  I asked.

"Shapes."  She said, barely audible.  The artist does not like to be distracted by conversation while she's working.

When she finished her project, Katie came and got me, leading me by the hand to the table.

"What is it?  I asked.

"Mr. Shapes.  He's eating a fly," she explained.

"I see.  He reminds me of Mr. Teeth," I said.

"Who's Mr. Teeth?"  

"My paper doll friend I made when I was your age.  I must have been about six or so because I distinctly recall riding in the back seat of Mom's 1976 Vega--"

"--What's a Vega?"  Katie interrupted.

"A tiny car they made when I was your age."  Seeing Katie had no more questions, I continued.  "It was summertime and very hot.  I periodically--"

"--What's periodically?"  Katie wanted to know now.

"Every now and then," I explained, then continued, "I had to lift my thighs to keep them from sticking to the black vinyl seats--"

"--What's vinyl?"

"Plastic.  I remember we were driving with the windows down and I was holding Mr. Teeth out the window, his paper choppers--"

"What are choppers?"

"Teeth...flying in the wind.  When his teeth would blow like that he looked more like on octopus than a set of teeth but I didn't care."  I rattled on.

"Oh," Katie said with big eyes and a smile.  She picked up Mr. Shapes and made him do a little soft shoe dance on the table, even though he was missing not only shoes but feet.  

Why did I cut up paper to resemble a set of teeth instead of a typical paper doll person?  I have no idea.  I was a weird child?  That seems to explain much of my behavior.  I don't remember what inspired me to first make Mr. Teeth.  I guess teeth were a big thing in our family.  My mom had been a dental hygienist before I was born, after she divorced her first husband, Jim, but before she married my dad.  Sometimes she filled in so her replacement could take a vacation, so I was aware that teeth must be pretty important if they took my mommy away from me "to work" every now and then.  

Could be too, my dad wore dentures, so I was aware of the concept of a "set" of teeth.  It used to fascinate me to watch him take out his teeth at night and set them in a cup full of some kind of liquid.  I wanted to sneak in there and play with them but I knew better than to touch Dad's stuff.  One time a neighborhood friend picked up one of my Dad's hearing aids while we were snooping around my parent's room while Dad napped.  Before I had a chance to warn her to put it down, Dad woke up.  My friend peed her pants as Dad chased us out of the room, screaming, "Put that down, Goddamnit!  Do you know how much that thing costs?  Get the hell outta here!!!"  

So yeah, I had a thing for teeth.  

Mr. Teeth went through many incarnations.  Being made of paper, he was prone to rips and tears.  If I saved the final version of Mr. Teeth, he long ago disintegrated.  My memories of playing with him have not faded at all.

Katie likes me to tell her stories about what life was like when I was a kid, just as I loved listening to Mom's childhood stories when I was a kid.  Katie also likes me to retell these stories of Grandma Bev's childhood that my mom had told me when I was Katie's age.  

Which I'm sure is where Katie got the idea to make paper dolls.  After Katie introduced me to her paper doll invention, Shapes, I told her about how my mom used to love making paper dolls when she was a young girl in the 1940s.

"How did she do it?"  Katie wondered.

"Um, let's see?  She folded paper a certain way and then cut out a silhouette--a shape--of a girl, then unfolded it and it makes a string a paper dolls.  I think.  It's been at least thirty years since my mom showed me how to make paper dolls."

"Can you show me?"  Katie pleaded.

"Oh, honey, not now.  I've got a million things on my to do list.  Sometime soon."

Katie hung her head.  The girl has heard "sometime soon" so much she knows it really means "yeah right."  So, she took it upon herself.

I came home from work the other day and found Katie at the kitchen table again with paper, scissors, markers, and a glue stick.

"Whatcha making, Sweetie?"  I asked.

"Paper dolls!"  She beamed.  She had a glue stick open and was just piecing together some finishing touches.  She held it up.  "See!"

"Oh!  Who is that?"  I asked.

"This is Stitch."  

Katie's voice sounded like she was making formal introductions, so I played along, lifting Stitch's right hand to shake it, "Nice to meet you, Sir."  

Katie jumped up and down and clapped her hands together.  Then she introduced me to her other paper doll friends.  Here is Katie:

"Take Katie to work with you, Mommy, so whenever you miss your real Katie you can look at this paper doll Katie and not feel so bad," Katie instructed.  

"Thank you.  That is very sweet of you!  Let me put Katie by my keys so I don't forget to take her to work with me tomorrow."

Katie smiled and waited for me to return to the table.  "This one is Stitch's friend.  His name is Stip."

I shook what I thought was Stip's arm, and said, "How do you do?"  

Katie bent over laughing and squealed, "Mom!  That's not Stip's arm!  You're shaking his leg!"

My response, "Oh, dear.  Pardon me, Stip!" just drew more laughter.

No need for me to miss my long lost friend, Mr. Teeth.  Katie's good at sharing her paper dolls with me.