Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Getting a Mental Break

“How would you go about giving yourself a mental break?” My cousin Iris, who is a life coach, asked me after I told her about the anxiety and feeling of impending doom which have been following me since August. Would a vacation be a mental break? I asked her. “From what I know of you,” my cousin replied, “your anxieties and stress follow you to the vacation.”

How then does one go about taking a mental break? And what is a mental break anyways? “Just letting yourself be,” my cousin said, “without needing to do anything or achieve anything or finish anything. Just be.” She thought for a moment, then added, “Maybe it would be better to start with an hour. Or even five minutes. Or thirty seconds. Of just being.”

I went to take a shower. Before going in, I told my anxieties to wait for me outside. I asked the critic if he wouldn’t mind to let me go to the shower by myself, just this once. It occurred to me that I rarely shower without my critic leaning over my shoulder and commenting on how long I’m taking, how much water I’m wasting, and the general scarcity of water in the world. Let me enjoy my shower as a mental break today, I told him. Please wait outside.

It is much harder than I imagined, to get even thirty seconds of mental break. It seems my stresses and anxieties are standing by, ever ready to take advantage of any opening to come into my mind. I think to myself: all is well in my world at this moment in time in this place. And somewhere a whisper pesters: “But you don’t actually know that. The kids are not under your eye. Your parents are not here. Even Dar is in the other room and something could happen to him before you can hear.”

A friend told me the other day that the first step in the twelve step program is to admit powerlessness. I am, as yet, far from being able to admit that. Powerlessness scares me. My first thought in response to the whispering voice is that I should tell Dar to stay near me at all times. Can you imagine me actually doing that? And the critic, as though adding wood to the fire, laughs in my ear: “You’re a control freak,” he says, satisfied.

Oh dear. All these parts of me talking and commenting and judging. And where had the mental break gone? And yet, I think perhaps for a few seconds, maybe not for a whole thirty, maybe for only ten seconds or five, my mind rested in the moment of peace of the hot water washing the day off my back. Five seconds today, and maybe five seconds tomorrow, and maybe eventually they will start adding up, and I can rest in the moment, and let that mental break happen wherever I am.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Description’s Noiseless, Unseen Tread

I was a voracious reader growing up. I often say that my best memories are of my mother, my sister and I going to the library, scanning the shelves, searching for new books, and later carrying a huge, tottering pile full of promise to the car. As a young girl I devoured The Count of Monte Cristo, Three Men in a Boat, The Hobbit, My Family and Other Relatives, All Creatures Great and Small, and The Red and The Black. My mother used to tell me to read the first 100 pages before deciding if I’m interested in a book, and not surprisingly, I finished reading almost every novel I began.

Recently, I decided I wanted to read Three Men in a Boat again. The novel is filled with poetic, rambling nature descriptions such as this one: “From the dim woods on either bank, Night’s ghostly army, the grey shadows, creep out with noiseless tread to chase away the lingering rearguard of the light, and pass, with noiseless, unseen feet, above the waving river-grass, and through the sighing rushes; and Night, upon her sombre throne, folds her black wings above the darkening world, and, from her phantom palace, lit by the pale stars, reigns in silence.” (Chapter 2).

Shockingly, I find that now, at age 40, I have less patience for nature descriptions than I did at age 14. All I want is action. I pick through exposition to find Harris attacked by the swan or losing his way in the maze, Jerome burying the cheeses on the beach or taking a young lady on a boat ride, or even George trying out the banjo. Anything seems to me more interesting than wallowing in a description of night. And yet I love Jerome K. Jerome’s descriptions. I love his lyrical prose, his light, ironic touch, how he seems to make fun of himself and his comrades while giving an articulate description of the English countryside.

In Gary Schmidt’s The Wednesday Wars, Holling’s teacher Mrs. Baker assigns him Hamlet. Holling says the tragedy is pretty good, if you skip all the long speeches. His friend Meryl Lee objects:

“You can't just skip the boring parts."

"Of course I can skip the boring parts."
"How do you know they're boring if you don't read them?"
"I can tell."
"Then you can't say you've read the whole play."
"I think I can live a happy life, Meryl Lee, even if I don't read the boring parts of The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark."
"Who knows?" she said. "Maybe you can't.”

These days, novels brim with action. Descriptions take second place -- a distant, less conspicuous second place. Writers are told again and again: “Show, don’t tell!” And yet the description above adds a lot of meaning to Jerome’s romantic, indolent character. I can tell how happy he is just to lie around and look around him, and when I stop rushing ahead to the next action scene I have to admit: I am perfectly content to sit there with him, watching Night as she folds her black wings. Living the happy, description-full life.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Just a Beautiful Day

Frost covered our dining table this cold, clear Sunday morning. Our heater died on Friday and will only get fixed on Tuesday, and meanwhile it was nearly as cold indoors as outside. Wearing a thermal shirt and two jackets, I turned on two space heaters near my chair and hoped that some form of warmth will infiltrate the frigid house.

I had meant to go for a morning walk with my friend Rebecca, but I was cold and reluctant to move from the cozy-potential of the space heaters. Finally, however, after I convinced myself that I’d feel so much happier after a walk, I called Rebecca. Our hike led through a woody trail up a hill. Rebecca’s dogs rushed back and forth, sniffing for jackrabbits and deer and news from other dogs. Oaks glowed green in the sunshine, olive-colored fern falling off their branches like snow. A madrone gleamed red and green in the shifting shade. Crossing a ravine, my morning crankiness disappeared into the brown, fertile soil and the whispering forest, and my day became full of the joyful promise of living trees.

Later, Dar and I went to the farmers’ market and enjoyed the abundance of fresh vegetables, roots, and leaves in the stalls. Two women sold freshly-baked gluten-free and dairy-free muffins and cookies and gave us a taste of Guatemalan coffee with coconut creamer. We had lunch at an Ethiopian restaurant where the waiter showed us a youtube video of how they make traditional teff bread. We drank sweet spicy tea and tore pieces of the soft, fluffy bread, dipping it in yellow lentil and brown beef stews.

At home I cleaned the chicken coop, replacing the wood chips with clean ones, and gave the chickens some of the leaves we bought at the farmers’ market. They were overjoyed, pecking at the leaves with abandon. Still energetic, I took my three dogs for a walk through the trails near my house where we met two deer crossing a meadow and some bicyclists shooting, wheels squealing with the effort to keep pace, up the road. The sun began to dip below the hills, and cool air wove its tendrils around me, reminding me that it is nearly wintertime, and that the heater at the house still doesn’t work.

As we walked down the driveway, a flock of migrating birds flew by through the clear blue sky. The dogs, panting and excited to be home, rushed ahead to the door. I looked at the red roof of my home and knew that this was the only place I wanted to be. There’s no place like home.

Now here I sit, wearing thick flannel pajamas and a jacket, as close to the heater as I can. Dar sits next to me, reading a book about stamps. The dishwasher is churning the dirt off of our dinner dishes. The chickens have already retreated into their coop, and the dogs have fallen asleep on their bed. It is dark outside, and for this moment in time, all is well in my world.

How was your Sunday?

Friday, November 9, 2012

An Egg a Day

So much about raising chickens appeals to me: reconnecting with nature, knowing where my food comes from, eating wholesome eggs. We raised seven little chicks this summer. We kept them warm and fed, petted them, and allowed them to perch on us and run around the TV room. Once the chicks grew, we moved them to a coop outside and started counting the days till we get fresh, natural, home-grown eggs. Instead, one chick after the other began, unmistakably, to crow. Out of seven chicks, five turned out to be roosters.

I am fortunate to live in a town that allows roosters, so long as the neighbors don’t complain. But five roosters? On two little hens? Turns out there are no places willing to take in roosters. In my search for a rooster home, I called Animal Place in Vacaville. Jacie, the adoption coordinator, told me she hears stories such as mine all the time. People are promised that they will get 98% female, but the real ratio is a lot more like 50% male. At birth, chicks are “sexed” to find out if they are male or female and the males killed. But the sexing is not accurate. Females end up killed just as much as males, and people still end up with roosters. The best way, she said, is to adopt a hen.

Animal Place rescues hens from factory farms. Have you ever wondered for how long hens lay eggs and what happens to them once they stop? I have never given the matter any thought, and I was stunned when Dave, another Animal Place coordinator, told me that farmers replace (translation: kill) their chickens every two years. These “used-up” chickens are not, in case you were wondering, the chickens that we buy to eat.

In March, Animal Place, in cooperation with Stanislaus Animal Services Agency, rescued 5000 chickens from a factory farm in Turlock. 45,000 more chickens died after the owners abandoned the factory, leaving the hens without food or water. When Dar and I came to Vacaville to pick up four hens, Animal Place still had about 300 birds left. Dave explained that these birds were raised to lay. Their combs hung long and strange across their heads -- from lack of sunshine during their year and a half at the factory farm, Dave explained.

Today, one of these leghorns is sick with an egg stuck in her reproductive system. Her prognosis is not good. She might die. She might live but never lay any more eggs. Either way, she is no longer just a chicken -- since we want to keep her we now look at her as a pet. The vet explained to me that since these birds are genetically-modified to lay an egg a day -- a completely unnatural phenomena -- they tend to have many reproductive problems.

I wanted to get back to nature, to reconnect to who I am on the most basic and fundamental level. Instead I find myself bowled over by just how deep our rape of this earth really is. I try to be environmentally conscious and conscientious, and yet I find that I eat eggs of chickens bred like machines who are kept for only as long as they are useful. And there’s no way around that. No matter if they are pasture-raised, cage-free, organic, free-range.

This is true for so much of what we eat. Soybeans and corn. Milk. Meat. Eggs. Chocolate and coffee. We seem irretrievably divorced from what should be natural and pure in our food. I feel so sad today. I am sad about the millions of chickens slaughtered in the United States every year after they have laid eggs for their allotted 18 months. I feel sad for all the little chicks that are killed at birth. I feel sad for cows and pigs, goats and sheep, all animals who are so useful to us, and who we reject once their usefulness ceases. And sad for Clementine in her cage, suffering from her stuck egg, which, if it were not for our consumer, supply and demand society, she would never have had to worry about.

To find out more about the life of chickens:
Society for the Advancement of Animal Wellbeing
Animal Place

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Dazzling, Wonderful Shoes!

The blog today is in honor of the marvelous Bridgey who introduced me to the best shoe shops in the area and encouraged me to buy as many pairs as I like. 

I am not a dressing-up kind of gal. I wear the same shoes (sneakers) and hiking or workout clothes every day. My dressiest pair of pants are jeans, and my dressiest shirts are t-shirts. I rarely wear jewelry (though lately I’ve taken to wearing a gold necklace with a merlinite pendant round my neck), and I never, ever put on make-up or perfume. I suppose I should also confess that I keep myself warm with the same two hiking-style jackets, one of which my mother hates because of a large brown stain on the back from when Eden accidentally painted me.

Despite this, you might be surprised to learn that I own quite a few pairs of high-heel shoes. And I don’t mean just one or two. I have a pink, floral pair that I bought for my cousin’s wedding and worn that one time. I have a platformed black sandal that makes me feel tall and thin, and another black, elegant, shiny sandal. My grandma bought me a fabulous pair in yellow and tan -- worn once. I have a red platformed pair -- still brand new. I have one in sparkly purple that Eden decided she hates, and another classic black pump which pinches my foot terribly. And there’s my favorite one: silvery-grey with black dots, surprisingly comfy.

 So what does a plain-dressing gal who wears hiking clothes and prefers flat sneakers (the flatter the better) want with so many pairs of (shall I confess it?) expensive, stylish shoes? Well, perhaps I too have a vain streak, an “oh my gosh I love looking hot” vein in my practical body. And perhaps I also love, just once in a while, and no more than once a year, to dress up in a tight-fitting dress and to add to it a pair of sexy heels. But more true than that would be an equally embarrassing confession: I just really really love shopping for shoes.

Remember the scene from Roman Holiday, where Audrey Hepburn (who plays a visiting princess) removes her shoe and cannot find it again under her dress? There’s just something about shoes, even if they are partly or completely hidden beneath clothes. They can make us tall, stable, comfortable or uncomfortable, elegant or dowdy. They can make our calves look sexy, lengthen our legs, give an unforgettable accent to an outfit. Can you imagine a cowboy with sneakers? A president in clogs?

My shoes, though kept hidden in the closet, remind me of an aspect of my personality that I rarely acknowledge: the coquetish, girly part of me that likes to dress up and wants to look beautiful, and that enjoys so much when Dar says, “Wow!” or Eden says, “Ima, you look good today!” The practical me prefers to dress in comfort. The sexy woman in me says, “Wear that jacket with the stains, but you have to have the shoes’ support behind you!”

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

OK, So It’s a Panegyric of Gary Schmidt’s The Wednesday Wars

I did not want the novel to end. Actually, that might not be an accurate description of my emotions as Joel Johnstone, the audio book narrator, neared the conclusion of Gary Schmidt’s The Wednesday Wars. The kids and I have been listening to the novel for the past few weeks, laughing and crying, discussing Vietnam and Shakespeare, and loving every moment. Today, however, we had to say good bye. Laughing helped a little to choke down the tears that burned at the corner of my eyes and the sadness which tightened my throat as the story wound, inexorably, to its end.

What a beautiful, beautiful story! A whole, wide, wondrous world! Racial tensions, war, family, competition, ambition, fear, love, friendship, white feathers and yellow tights, miracles and brown, perfect cream puffs. Holling Hoodhood, the protagonist, tells us of negotiating a world strewn with rules, disappointments, and unexpected events, both good and bad. As a seventh grader, he is perched on the rim of growing up, and he notices everything that happens around him, understanding people (and sometimes misunderstanding them) with touching sensitivity and straight-forward, often self-deprecating expression.

My favorites are the unlikely friendships born in the novel: Holling and his eye-rolling teacher Mrs. Baker (despite the fact that Holling is certain that she hates his guts). Holling’s classmate Mai Thi, the tough Vietnamese girl who was sponsored over to the U.S. by the Catholic Relief Agency, and Mrs. Bigio, the school’s cook whose husband dies in Vietnam. Holling and Meryl Lee, whose fathers’ have competing architectural firms (I can see Hoodhood and Associates and Kowalski and Associates becoming Hoodhood, Kowalski and Associates in a few years). Holling and his sister Heather, who wishes to be a flower child and change the world and who leaves their house (the Perfect Home, as Holling calls it satirically) to find herself.

Some books I read once, and it is enough, but not this one. Having heard it on audio, I would now like to read it on paper and see if it is the same. There are so many details there, so many undercurrents in every word, that I expect I shall find it quite different. I love Joel Johnstone’s reading. I love how I can hear Mrs. Baker’s sarcasm dripping when she corrects Holling’s grammar. I love Danny Hupfer’s breaking voice. I love Holling’s multicolor way of speaking, depending, of course, on who he is speaking to and whether or not he is feeling threatened.

And in honor of Gary Schmidt’s powerful writing, I love the cream puffs, the escaped rats, Mrs. Sidman’s yellow rain jacket, Doug Sweiteck’s penitentiary-heading brother, and the many other colorful, fabulously portrayed characters. I will forever think of Mrs. Baker waiting for strawberries, and Mrs. Bigio opening her heart to the young Vietnamese girl. And above them all, sternly ruling, the ghost of William Shakespeare, with an answer for every question on life, and his best contribution to swear words, the ultimate: “Toad, beetles, bats!”

The Wednesday Wars on Audible
The Wednesday Wars on Amazon
The Wednesday Wars on Goodreads
Gary Schmidt's Website

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Woman and the Reformed Rake

Typing in the word “rake” on Amazon brings up hundreds of novel results: romancing a rake, reforming a rake, running away with a rake, redeeming a rake, or taming a rake. Hundreds more come up for “rogue” and “scoundrel.” The general outline of these novels tends to be the same: an immoral, experienced man meets an innocent, inexperienced woman. She will teach him that he can love and be loved, and he will set her free by teaching her the mysteries of her own body.

This basic plot repeats with fascinating variations. Most recently I read The Devil in Winter, by Lisa Kleypas, where young “wallflower” Evie requests the protection of Sebastian, a notorious rake, promising him her fortune if he marries her; and the fabulous Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake by Sarah Maclean (on which I wrote a blog before). The male protagonists of these two novels are reformed by the end, tying the knot, promising fidelity, falling in love, and allowing their woman to twirl them round her little finger.

Richardson’s Pamela is an eighteenth-century example of this kind of novel, but Richardson’s novels, written nearly three hundred years ago, were moral lessons, aimed at teaching young ladies the importance of keeping their virtue intact. Pamela was able to resist Mr. B.’s attempts at ruining her -- though I seem to remember a certain rather juicy scene where he tries to kiss her, and she evades his embrace by lying on the floor face-down (Richardson thought if she lay face-up the scene would be too sizzling). Pamela marries Mr. B., but her successor, the heroine of Richardson’s later novel Clarissa, is not so lucky. Clarissa’s rake offers to make amends and marry her, but for Clarissa, once ruined, her only choice was to die. Neither Lovelace’s offer of marriage nor his regrets could save her, no matter how willing he was to be reformed.

Today, reserving innocence till after the wedding is less wide-spread than in the eighteenth century. “Rake” novels no longer warn girls of succumbing to the charms of a rake. Instead, they promise delights beyond our imagination to a girl who is willing to live by her own rules. Not less important, however, is the message that it is okay for women to take pleasure, to seize the day and take control of their own destiny.

Truth be told, I do not read romance for its lessons, moral or otherwise. The chase, the attraction, the tension between the two main characters is what makes me come back to them again and again. In a way, because most romances were written by women, I am willing to forgive the male protagonist a lot. I do, however, believe that in between the fabulously decadent scenes, romance novels offer a vision of the modern woman, perhaps not yet 100% free of her expectations from men, but ready to jump into adventure and experiences, try new things, and leave all the norms and regulations imposed by society in her dust. And the best part is: she always lives to tell the tale.