Friday, May 22, 2009

Mommy Bloggers, Graphic Novels and the Accelerated Universe

In a Slate post What do “bad” moms and slacker dads have to tell us, Ann Hulbert questions the long-term effects (on children) of mommy bloggers gutting their children’s developmental lives on-line. My initial take was: Why criticize other mother writers—I know firsthand how easily one can be shut down by a casually (unintentional even) cruel remark or two. But the useful part of Hulbert’s article was that it prompted me to think about how our children will digest? reject? the psychic grid of so much introspection, self-help, desire to “process” that marks the U.S. parent generation (Sonoma County California, anyway). In a school meeting the other night, one of the Dads said, in response to why our second graders know the term, “sexting”, are using the word “sexy” and kissing in trees...“Look, whether we like it or not, the universe is accelerating...”

In a parallel world, I listen to our new washing machine, which my son informs me, spins at a rate of 450 mph. The ascending whine so accurately mimics take-off that I’m waiting for the stewardess and her oxygen mask demo until I realize again I’m only in a bunk bed waiting for sleep to interrupt my son’s next question (Why do we dream? his answer—It’s like during the day we play and our brain watches and at night our brain plays and we watch it--, much finer than mine—So we keep learning at night) and then he’s escaped again, to witness the silver glint of the spinning drum in the next room.

The sound induces enough anxiety that I miss our 20-year-old washing machine (smelling septic towards the end with our family layers of sand and black dirt settled in its under-barrel) which shook the entire house. A dinner guest made a remark I couldn’t get out of my head every night I ran wash: “I can feel your machine shaking the nails back out of their holes.” I guess better than picturing the walls of the house falling away from our floors is this new sensation of my body gearing up for hyperspace.

Which is where I’d rather be sometimes when I feel I’ve fallen short as a parent. A musician friend mentioned her inability to sit in the audience and enjoy an orchestra as it performs—she can picture the score, hear every wrong note. I feel a similar double awareness—my own childhood memories in the background and my own take on my parents, while in present time I’m attempting to parent well. I’m amazed by how long it can take to see where one fits in one’s family tapestry, and am grateful for the writers putting out their family under-stories, like Alison Bechdel (comic strip artist/writer of Dykes to Watch Out For) in her graphic novel: Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. I read it cover to cover, lured in by the poetry of some of her chapter titles: In the shadow of young girls in flower, The canary colored caravan of death, The anti-hero’s journey.

Bechdel captures the kind of bald statements parents blurt out (that make themselves feel better but confuse the hell out of their kids). In one scene, when it comes to light he’ll be visiting a psychiatrist (after a brush with the justice department over buying beer for an underage boy), the father says: “I’m bad, not good like you”—just the kind of admission I could see our “tell-all” generation making. I love Bechdel’s distillation of childhood, puberty, and arc into adulthood, her choice of quintessential scenes that impart her parents’ essences, the language she uses: “[My father] really was there all those years, a flesh and blood presence steaming off the wall paper, digging up the dogwoods, polishing the finials, smelling of sawdust and sweat and designer cologne. But I lived as if he were already gone (p. 23).”

I was moved by Bechdel’s intense grappling with her family of origin. I do feel we’re moving through time at an accelerated pace; thus I crave those writers who can slow down long enough to take me into the core of turning points that help me better understand relationships between human beings. I also just finished Blankets, an illustrated novel by Craig Thompson--a first love story, a beautiful weaving of poetry and drawn images that convey the intersection of psyche and physical world. When the young man receives the gift of a handmade quilted blanket from his lover, the lovers speak to one another from inside the various panels of the quilt.

Later as the protagonist watches his young lover sleep, he muses, “I realized that I didn’t want to be ANYWERE else. For once I was MORE THAN CONTENT being where I was. But I couldn’t sleep, so I listened. I heard Raina’s breathing—and beneath that, her heart beating—and beyond that, the gentle murmur of spirits in the room....And the sounds wove into a rhythm of hushed orchestration—spiraling me into slumber (pp. 432-434).” You have to see for yourself the haunting way Thompson braids in the images of snow, panels of quilt, the circles of heart beat, the frost angels working their way across the window panes.

You also have to live long enough to have such perspective on the past, and then, if like Bechdel and Thompson, you are lucky enough to chance upon the perfect medium to tell your tale, you’ve made the world a better place—and inspired in this mother, at least, the belief that my children will safely navigate their way (despite my shortcomings) through the particular story of their childhoods to their own sanctuaries of understanding.

Further reading:

Ann Hulbert’s post: What do “bad” moms and slacker dads have to tell us at:
Raising America: Experts, Parents and a Century of Advice About Children, a book by Hulbert

Fluency in form: A Survey of the Graphic Memoir, The Missouri Review, Winter 2007 issue (Vol. 30 #4) by Lisa Hoashi a review of Art Spiegelman’s Complete Maus, Marjane Satrapi’s Persopolis: The Story of a Childhood, David B.’s Epileptic, Craig Thompson’s Blankets, and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home

Friday, May 15, 2009

Mother's Day

My mother and I sit side by side in spa chairs, automatic kneaders patrolling our spines just as jerkily as the roller coaster cars at J’s Amusement in Guerneville used to waddle up the track when I was a kid—you weren’t so much frightened by the ride as you were in terror of the aging trestles collapsing. Either way, you’d have whiplash by the ride’s end and a little brother to talk out of another go.

Mom’s never had a manicure or pedicure in her life. My brother, from the city, researched and paid for this double Mother’s Day special for us. Within five minutes, the race car treatment begins—only we are not cars--Mom and I on our brown Naugahyde thrones--and the crew is 100% female, speaking Vietnamese, showing us photos of their children on their cell-phones. When the beautiful, heavy-set blonde client across from us chimes in, I have to look anywhere but towards her, her mini skirt absolutely not doing its job as I wonder...if she realizes how many people will be kneeling at her feet in the course of the next hour as they prepare her toes.

Showgirls, in hot pink kimonos, traipse across the TV monitor, all carrying white fans twice their size. The male lead singer, wearing camouflage, bursts through to encircle the waist of his female crooner. Next come the airplanes, black and white footage: out of their tails dropping what I thought were bombs until they bloom into parachutes. Someone massages lotion into my calves while another attendant sands down my heels; I start to nod off, as the kids had set the alarm for 5 a.m.

I confess, I kissed the kids and put a pillow over my head and drifted in and out of sleep until they shook me awake again at 7a.m. I did my best to down a lukewarm, murky cup of tea (was it butter? floating on its surface?) and a chocolate chip cookie, which I set in the blue glitter party hat they brought me for later, as my husband had up his sleeve breakfast at Howard’s, where the boys fought over the corner chair, the jelly tower, and the camouflage airplane (red flashing lights and sound-barrier explosion recording making us barely tolerable despite sitting in the back room).

The man next to us caring for three kids by himself gave my husband a smug look when I got up to go the bathroom and someone at a neighboring table told my husband, “Hey, you’re supposed to take the kids out and let the wife go do her own thing, like this guy here.”

But I wouldn’t change any of it—-the butter tea, breakfast out, and Mom and I with fingers and toes splayed out under the double-decker table of violet light waiting for the polish to dry, Mom hiding behind the floral arrangement. She’s saying silly things under her breath like, “It can’t be healthy for these girls to work around all these chemicals all the time can it...” and “Look—they’re using a mask now—why didn’t they wear one to protect themselves from you and your toe gunk when they worked on you?!” Before we’d even left the parking lot, we had to run into The Beauty Store and More like a couple of teenagers to buy nail polish to fix her botched big toe (since she had neglected to wear sandals).

On the way home, I stop to see great grandpa (recovering from his recent fall) and give him two purple chocolate hearts, one for him, and one for his mother (who I am coming to know little by little... as I type in excerpts from her diary that great grandpa has taken pains to translate from the original Finnish). By 10 p.m., house full of snorers, I sneak downstairs to work on a few more pages. A perfect close to the day: spending time with a young Finnish girl, daughter of a shoemaker. Ilmi--in this chapter making whisks of birch tree branches to sell--cares so much about learning to read and write that she’ll ski kilometers through the woods alone to go to school. We leave her here, skiing also towards a future in which she’ll become a mother and in giving birth to my husband's grandfather, bestow the gift of my husband and my eventual children to me.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Comes a time when you have to wait outside the men’s bathroom door...

...and trust your son to dirty urinals and the company of men you don’t know. Or stand in line for the women’s bathroom during intermission (Beauty and the Beast) with eight little girls dressed like Belle in gold and white gowns, two stalls out of commission (one doorless, one with a clogged toilet). Against the backdrop of the reality of at least one child found in a suitcase at the bottom of a pond and news of a roadside stalker (Sonoma County), how do you launch a child, trust your community, believe in God?

I’m so thirsty my armpits hurt, said my son last night when he snuck down the stairs after 10 p.m., found me scribbling. When he asks what I’m writing about, I can’t say about rape, so I defer to the page before and say: how a human ear has as sure of a curve as an abalone shell, and both rims seem to curl out of the same horn, only one is silver and one is of skin beneath which lies a brain (proof enough of God).

I don’t tell him that it doesn’t matter what image I start with, I end up asking the same questions (end of paragraph 1) which is my lot as mother/writer. No surprise most of us hunker down, like those abalone, and suction tight to the home cliff at the slightest touch of a stranger. Or have the urge to nod in affirmation at the opening lines of the poem Not a Sparrow: “Just when I think the Buddhists/are wrong and life is not mostly suffering,/I find a dead finch near the feeder” Tess Gallagher, Dear Ghosts, p.5). Best I can hope for is to be coaxed out of mistrust for the group at large when one or two members of the human tribe make devastating choices.

And take notes as I go. Like Lucia Perillo in her book: I’ve Heard the Vultures Singing: Field Notes on Poetry, Illness, and Nature. Touted on its cover flap as “a poet’s honest—and edgy—reckoning of her attempt to maneuver through the world in a body she reluctantly inhabits,” Perillo’s book includes, in addition to ways of grappling with multiple sclerosis, enlightening scrutiny of the tradition of female outlaw poets in the chapter, Bonnie Without Clyde.

As Perillo questions the Norton Anthology’s table of contents with regards to female poets, she writes: “Now in this moment: I pull poetry books down from my shelves until I assemble a big stack written by my more-or-less peers. Together we write this poem I call ‘Bonnie Without Clyde’ (p. 126)” composed of lines by twelve women writers from Kim Addonizio to Susan Yuzna. What a cool way to put one’s finger on the pulse of female poetry.

I admire also the stark, sure overview Perillo allows herself: “Though it was the male poets of the last midcentury who first started writing autobiographically, it was the women who got slapped with the confessional label, which has come to mean a large degree of self-absorption combined with poorly edited melodrama. If one were to get paranoid about this, it might seem that the term confessional poetry was coined so that any eruptions coming from female quarters could be squelched (p. 123).” Such overviews serve to remind one simply to keep writing.

No excuse to hide, or your daughter will, is a line I cut (for its baldness) and then keep splicing back in to a Joan of Arc poem I muscle to the ground preparing today to submit to CALYX, A Journal of Art and Literature by Women. As a poet I’m cursed with that childlike belief in the incantatory strength of words to push sunward the group mind we inhabit. More likely blessed.

One day in the park (while I was home writing), my 6 year old son ran off alone to use the bathroom. My father called after him to wait.

“What,” yelled my little guy, “are you scared someone’s going to steal me?!”

“Actually, yes,” my father calmly replied when he caught up with my son, “I need to go with you for now.”

My father reassured me he didn’t provide further gory details or launch into any lengthy explanations. We both agreed it was a necessary statement of fact that my child is better armed with than not. And my son’s exasperation when he finds me planted outside the door waiting for him--worth withstanding. Soon enough he’ll be on his own.