Thursday, March 26, 2009
Everyone loves a butterfly, they are really marketed as a symbol of the triumph of transformative experiences. As people from Corning sang growing up:
Something took that caterpillar as he slept that day
Woke him up and gave him wings and helped him fly away
People too can live in shells afraid of being free
But whatever changed that little worm can change both you and me.
Certainly people dig butterflies for this anthropomorphic point. But now that I have some first-hand lepridopterology experience, I would like to point out some of the dark underside of whatever changed that little worm:
1. Loads of shit. All they eat as caterpillars is cabbage and brussels sprouts and they have deposited about a cup of smelly little poop pellets in the habitat.
2. An eighth of their body: When the caterpillar creates the chrysalis, it digests most of its own body. I can't help but think that hurts. Particularly brutal is when the back centimeter of their body drops off. The floor of the habitat is littered with seven amputated caterpillar asses. Gruesome.
3. Mysterious brown liquid. Which plops out of the chrysalis just before the butterfly emerges. Foul.
4. No inate flying skills: Every time the two butterflies try to fly, they fall like stones to the floor. It's very gentle comedy.
So change - real change - is messy, smelly, painful and humbling. And scary.
Saturday, March 21, 2009
I don't know who even cares about this except me, but I do care and also, if I were one of the people who knew me on Facebook either from college or law school, I would be curious as to why a person who was a very devout Christian, really, in some ways, up until 2000 was now a pagan/epicure according to Facebook.
I went to a Christian college, Wheaton, where I got a seriously good education. I went after an evangelical upbringing, in which sin and hell were serious concepts presented to pre-schoolers as something that may well be in their future. Very bad. I was threatened with hell for not working on The Great Commission. But more on that later.
Before I got to Wheaton, I began to embrace a much more liberal Christianity I had to to reconcile all the drinking and smoking I was doing out on Santorini the summer before. But still, when I arrived, and when I was there, I believed completely in God and felt like I experienced God through worship. I also was indoctrinated -- unconsciously by any one person but as a cumulative effect of living in the culture -- as a raging homophobe, a rabid unthinking opponent of protection of abortion rights, anti-Darwin. You have no idea. The student body of that college voted 95% Republican in the 1988 election.
It was not really me, and I retaliated by being the nightmare student in theology classes raising her hand insistently to ask whether the professor really thought every buddhist, taoist, jew and muslim on the planet was going to end up in hell. I was critical of the religion even while I was there. But I still found enough in the core doctrines and the words of Christ to hang on. So much so that when I went to law school after college, I taught Sunday school in an Episcopal church in Porter's Square in Cambridge, Mass.
William Weld, the governor of Massachusetts, attended the church - it was called, like, St. Peter's or St. Paul's. But either way, during the prayers of the people, the congregation members would stand up and pray. The prayers seemed very strange to me until I understood they were praying to Weld:
"And lord, when bill number 1-7-0-8 appears on the governor's desk for signature between the 13th and 18th of March, please, God, give our governor the wisdom to sign it . . .
I didn't care. Not only was I a church member (my ability to show up to church after staying up all night drinking was the tiniest bit legendary at 6 Exeter Park) I was the poster girl for Christianity on the Civil Rights - Civil Liberties Law Review. I wrote an article about the theology of civil rights, how Christ taught the essence of Christianity is not coercion but allowing people to choose that path they want to follow, and how protection of this principle should stand true in our governments as well as our religions. I spoke at gay rights rallies about how Christianity had no basis in the words of Christ for turning away gays (how little most Christians care about that point). I prayed. I was into it.
And then after losing a big trial in 2000, I went to my parents' for Easter. My brother came too. I attended Easter Vigil and then struggled all night with the horrible thing I had realized at the vigil: that I didn't buy it. That the birth and resurrection of Christ had no more claim to the truth as the Muslim scriptures regarding the holiness of combat, or the Buddhist scriptures of the enlightenment of Buddha. When I appraised my own beliefs that long, icky night, I was forced to conclude that what I truly believed in and the tenets of Christian doctrine - like the Apostles Creed - were really, really not the same thing. They weren't even overlapping circles.
The very people I loved the most in the world had been badly victimized by Christianity - homosexuals. Despite its sublime history as a religion willing to engage with great thinkers, Christianity seemed to be getting more and more stupid. And its take on art (terrified of modern dance, heavy theatre censorship) was maybe even worse than Communist Russia. At least the Russkis had some style.
I also felt The Great Commission too strongly. The Great Commission is a Christian doctrine that holds that it is the responsibility of all Christians to go out among non-Christians and hustle up some converts, pronto. They laid The Great Commission Porn on strong at Wheaton, all those chapels devoted to the worship of idiots who called themselves missionaries and got themselves killed by the local heathens for being annoying. This was a path to heroism.
So by the time I got up Easter morning, I could not go to Church and pretend that this resurrection had any special meaning that put it above any other religion. Doctrinally and scripturally (if not actually), Christians believe their beliefs superior to others. This is too short a path - just add a few words- "Christians believe themselves to be superior in beliefs (and therefore superior) to others." I know this is not always the case - yes, I know that. But it frequently is. Too much for me to waste any more of my life energy trying to reconcile what I wanted to believe with what I was supposed to believe.
I mourned for a long time my separation from the Church. I posted this very sad entry on http://www.exchristian.org/ ("Poster Girl For Christianity"). I am sure that even now I am not over it, I do love what Jesus had to say, and I love Rudolph and The Grinch . . . I am very, very fortunate to have a husband who is essentially an atheist, and it is great to be able to take religion out of the equation. For a long time, I thought that even as an ex-Christian I could still respect my religion, and some Anglican parishes I truly can. But I can't respect any sect that does not accept every single person. And not many do.
If Christianity really was the best Christianity I ever knew: the brilliant writings of Frederick Buechner, the strange and powerful Joe McClatchey, the strength that comes from faith in the resurrection . . . the huge appetite for uncertainty and intellectual challenge, well, I would still be a Christian. But those things have become the least of what Christianity is about. So much so that I had to say good bye.
If someone could come up with a version of Christianity that featured no hell below us, above us only sky and the intellect of St. Augustine, then maybe I could sign up. Oh, wait, isn't that Star Wars?
Friday, March 20, 2009
You have an incredibly useful skill set for parenthood already, believe me, a career that involves assessing people, judging mood, figuring out how to frame a question. Are you kidding me? Your daughter is this little bundle of human mystery for you to figure out and you are pretty much better at doing that than most people on the planet.
After birth: Don't let fear get the better of you. I really did in my first pregnancy, and the fear really spiralled in the face of sleep deprivation. Your first priority, more than anything else, is for you to sleep and you can only do this if you sleep when the baby sleeps. Screw everything else.
Birth: I had a 39 hour premature labor with baby one and a 40+ hour induced labor hell with baby two. They wouldn't have been as bad if I wasn't beating up on myself so badly for succumbing to an epidural. You and I have climbed mountains together, friend, and maybe you will give birth in a pool after ten minutes with birds singing but if you don't and you go for pain relief, then forgive yourself instantly.
I found baby prep here to be ridiculously, religiously dogmatic. There were two religions: the Gina Ford super nanny uber-discipline church and the hairy legged breast-feed, natural childbirth, prenatal yoga -or-the-baby-will-be-crap church.
Luckily you are an intelligent person and you will not swallow either dogma as an article of faith but rather use your own judgment to add weapons to your arsenal in the parenthood wars from both religions. Rely on your own judgment, it has not yet steered you wrong, has it?
Enjoy and remember that if the mama isn't happy, then no one is happy.
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
The Irish have St. Patrick's Day, leprechauns, New York cop accents, Lucky Charms cereal, pots of gold at the end of the rainbow. What did the Welsh get? Nothing. We have a super cool flag with a dragon and promote leeks, which are very healthy, but no one really cares. In fact, "welsh" is kind of a depressing word. It means to be dishonourable and renege on a deal. (Welsh on a debt, for instance) I wrote a complaint letter to the Economist once: "Not to compare the plight of the Jews with the plight of the Welsh", I said, "but why are you saying the U.S. is "welshing" on foreign debt when you would never say the U.S. was "jewing down" interest rates on the debt?" It got nowhere. But I know I'm right.
I think the superior Irish PR has to be down to geographic distribution, right? The Welsh came to the U.S. and settled where there were mines, in rural Pennsylania. The Irish settled where there were gay parades, bar fights and police corruption, in Manhattan. O.k., I'm kidding, the Irish brought those things to Manhattan.
So I thought when I moved out of the States in 2001, I would be free of the whitewash job done by the red-headed midget in the green suit. I moved to London and a lot of Londoners have no time for St. Patrick's Day either. . .two sides to every story, you know, including the one between the IRA and the English, and no matter how you slice it a lot of bombs went off during the 70's and 80's in London thanks to the Greens (and a lot of those bombs were funded by passing the hat in bars in Manhattan).
But no such luck. My son's nursery was in Kilburn - they billed it as West Hampstead, but it was about 50 ft from Kilburn High Road, one of the most Irish parts of London. And I'll be goddamned if they didn't spend all of freaking March colouring little leprechauns and four-leaf clovers and rainbows and pots of gold - incredibly annoying. I had to do an intervention and give them Welsh flag dragon colouring sheets for St. David's Day. ( Much cooler than leprechauns) I also tried to do a mini-Eisteddfodd at my son's school - the Welsh singing festival (again, I know no one cares). I tried to scale it down for 3-year-olds. We ended up doing the chicken dance. The kids loved the chicken dance but now all the employees of Teddy's Nursery "West Hampstead" think that the Chicken Dance is Welsh. No - if you take one thing away from this blog, it's that the Welsh lay no claim to the chicken dance.
So back to my Mom. She was pretty incredulous when even in the small town in Western New York where I grew up, we were told by our teachers to wear green on St. Patrick's Day. To her this was obscene. We were absolutely forbidden to wear green ("You are NOT IRISH") and in fact, lately my mother has admitted that she scoured our wardrobes and dressed us in orange, the colour of the Nationalists. I am sure no one in Corning knew the significance of her dressing her children in organge, but I imagine it gave her some grim satisfaction. In fact, bitter, silent denigration of other Celts may be the single most Welsh thing my mother did. Well, that and perpetual Welsh cakes.
I actually am pretty unclear what it means to be Welsh. When I was at Oxford in the 80's, my boyfriend at the time walked past Jesus College (the Welsh college on Turl Street) with me and remarked (before he knew my mother was Welsh) that all Welsh are short, hypochondriacs and liars. I think this was my working framework for quite a while.
So maybe I'm jealous of the Irish with their superior PR. I certainly am jealous of their playwrights. Martin McDonagh, Conor McPherson, Frank Guiness, Enda Walsh, Brian Friel. Holy shit, they really do write the best plays. I think it has something to do with them being warlike.
Which is why it is absolutely killing me to watch the American show Star Wars: The Clone Wars. This animated tv show chronicles the adventures of Anakin Skywalker, Princess Padme, R2D2, Yoda and Obi wan Kenobi during the clone wars. There are a load of new characters too and the accents are hilarious. The blustering stormtroopers lacking self-awareness? Australian accent. The female sith lord? French accent. Of course. And best of all, the pacifist racoon people who colonized a remote planet rather than take sides in the Clone Wars? IRISH! That kills me! To hear these racoon healers spout Buddhist/Swiss peace talk in a thick Irish brogue - I am on the floor. IRISH? Irish people take sides in a pinball game! Someone make George Lucas go see the Leiutenant of Inishmore. Having Irish pacifists is kind of like having Welsh life coaches. OK, I know no one understands that. Which I guess is the point of this blog.
Friday, March 13, 2009
Today my five-year-old son's teacher kept me at the gate and mentioned that something has to be done to help O's concentration. She was very kind and discreet and I totally agree. He has a killer imagination (kudos to me), but it is so interesting that he spends all his time there and very frequently is not engaged with what is going on. (blame to me) He is hopeless at completing a task without constant prodding. When left to his own devices, he will just pace in a room, saying different people's lines under his breathe. He calls it the story that will never end. When he shares them with me, I actually think they are pretty good. He's a natural for giving each character a distinctive voice. It is an inborn talent.
But he has a problem engaging with the world around him. When he was born, I had a tough time adjusting. In fact, I think I spent a lot of time pacing around rooms talking under my breathe about what I needed to do next, and overruling myself, and weighing efficiencies and all the fuckery of first parenthood. He was premature and frequently ill, and my encounters with the NHS escalated to exteme hostility very quickly because they were not providing the care I thought he needed. Also, I was also an American engaging with British culture at a very intimate level (birth).
But basically, I have to ask myself how much, during the crucial 0-3 patterning period, was I living inside my own head and unable to engage with what was in front of me. Unable to complete a task? Is he mimicking that?
And, you know, I have to ask myself a lot of questions and consider it dispassionately for a great while. I am sure I will think that I only have the answer in retrospect, anyway, this is always true in my life.
And I have to ask myself how I can change my own behaviour to help O learn to engage. I don't have a chance of changing his unless I change mine. Pretty basic psychotherapy. Luckily, there are many things in the parent arsenal: the bribe of Eurodisney earned through stars on a star chart, cosy talks in bed. By the way, Julie, your son will get worse and worse the more you follow the course you are on (which started when you were writing about him in a column, right?) - change yourself in order to change the dynamic.
And, Julie, I would only write a book if I had an intelligent answer worth reading to the above dilemma on both the cause and the cure.
And if I concluded that in the book and in my life I was going to exclude my son from my love and protection, well, then, I would realize that the book - and the story of my life - was not over and that it was my responsibility to write the story of my own life with a happy ending. No one else is going to do it for me, or for you. The conclusion is simply unsatisfactory. Try harder, bend and break yourself. No less is required of you. Especially you who would publish.
Perhaps you have concluded that the second home in the home counties this book will finance is your happy ending, and not a reconciliation with your son?
Friday, March 6, 2009
I was at a nightclub in DC one hot summer night when I was 24 and my date at the time pointed out that I was not going to go to nightclubs for the rest of my life. Well, being a hardcore nightclub attendee (Cabaret Metro in the late 80's in Chicago - the CBGBs of the John Hughes set) back in the day, I was furious at him. OF COURSE I would be going to nightclubs for the rest of my life. That was 1991. Well, seventeen years later, that guy was right. I only get to dance at weddings and dance parties with my son in my kitchen and damn, it's not good. I want to move around, get my heartrate up, lose myself dancing around. So this club is £5 (cheaper than therapy) and promises to play dance music from, like, 7:30 until midnight on a Thursday night. Like my old jazz teacher Doug Yeuell used to say, you have to dance to feed your soul. So I am calling the babysitter.
But then my husband, who is a 43-year-old partner at Bird & Bird, comes home this evening (in time for pizza night) (they only have dominos in the uk; DON'T JUDGE) and says that people are wondering whether Jade Goody would make it through the weekend. For my husband to mention a pop culture event like this, it has to be big. Big. And the papers are calling Jade the new Diana and I feel like I am watching the UK get its grief on - a collective emotional release of a emotionally constipated people.
I watched the Big Brother UK that she was on sporadically and she was comically ignorant but she had a big heart and an interesting spirit. So she was a bitch sometimes. All of the interesting women I know are bitches sometimes. It comes with the territory.
So anyway, in the UK public opinion/focus is so homogenous (too big for a theme park, too small for a country) that there is this weird thing going on where a lot of people are letting themselves mourne at once, a strange rock concert, collective consciousness moment. The flowers that will be at her gate. . . the collectible plates. The death of Diana was a truly global event
We speak so little of dying in Western Culture and this is proof positive of the mistake. This overwhelming collective need to share in a death. This almost glorification of it. Face it head on.
We as a culture need to face a lot of things head-on. Alison Benjamin wrote an article in Thursday's G2 entitled "We don't need it - that's the bottom line on toilet paper". You can kinda get the point from the headline, and she was saying that other less neurotic cultures can clean themselves after defecating and the environmental price of toilet paper is steep - so why can't we just get over it and learn the methods?
Well, it's hard to change people's relationship with their bodies, but that may be what it takes to make the world a better place. (This article made it look like toilet paper was using up all the trees in the world)
I personally sorta blame Christianity for the distant and unfulfilling relationship many of us have with our genitals. Especially gay people. Blake's play makes the point that in American military culture it is far more forgiveable to have a random drunken sexual encounter than to foster a healthy same sex relationship. I attribute this to Christian culture's message of sin and forgiveness. I have friends and family who are believers I respect, but my path must be what it is, which involves pointing out the many negative psychological effects of a born-again Christian upbringing. And
Tuesday, March 3, 2009
I have been. I get to cast myself as someone brave, confident, watchful, hardworking, strong, insightfu, protective of people who need protection and worthy of respect. I get to cast myself as someone who has the necessary powers. If there is any saving to do, I have to do it myself - no one else is going to save me. I dig it.
Of course, to be true to my son's vision, I have to cast other people as superheroes as well. Which requires me seeing the mass of humanity I usually despise in a softer light. And requires me to mightily respect their choices and their powers. It's really a pretty useful way to see the world.
Much, much more useful and kinder to the pysche than the christian mythology I grew up with.
Batman, Superman, Spiderman, and The Incredibles - many for me and Owain to spend time with together. He was Superman for his first two Hallowe'ens and we go to see the kryptonite in the gems and minerals section of the Natural History Museum every time we go.
By becoming well-versed in the stories of superheroes, we have learned that sometimes superheroes do things that are bad and sometimes they do things that are good and same with the "bad guys" and the trick is to not decide that someone is bad or good in advance. The trick is to see what they do and judge what they do - why is Superman stopping that man? it's not cause he's the "bad guy", it is because he is hurting someone, or stealing something -- and not to think of people as bad or good at all. In fact, calling people bad or good is kind of a waste of time. Superheroes tend to be reasonable, which is a virtue of which I approve.
Listening to my son talk tonight, I realized heroes, superheroes and protagonists were all synonymous for him and I kinda liked it. Of course, this may be my own heroic justification for too much television.
When he was really little we did a lot with Superman. We both loved the Christopher Reeves movies (well, the first two, I find the third a little unwatchable) and really, really loved Brandon Routh in Superman Returns. (Especially because in Superman Returns, Lois Lane and Superman save each other) (and there is that killer, killer plane crash in Wrigley Field)
I would have immersed him in the important American story Star Wars before now but he insists on pronouncing it Star Whores, which would be funny if he were an ancient Hollywood agent embittered by Lucas's supremacy, but is just creepy coming out of the mouth of a five-year-old.