Thursday, January 27, 2011

BARACK OBAMA, TIGER FATHER

My daughter had school on Wednesday.  It wouldn't have been unusual except that snow had been falling for hours when we got up, which usually sends Philadelphia into a tizzy.  Three hours later, she called from school to say the place was shutting down.

On the tortuously slow drive in, I joked that her head of school made the decision to open because of the Sputnik Moment--Obama's observation that too much of the world outstrips the US in education, and that the collective "We" would have to kick some serious math and science butt in order to keep up economically.  Probably her school was going to fire the art teachers and double up the math classes.

She was not amused.  But it made me think.  Okay, this was also inspired by reading about Amy Chua (no, I haven't read her book.)  The Russians didn't get Sputnik up there by jumping in and doing the job for their kids every time they had trouble making a bed or using a screwdriver.  By letting rudeness dominate when a meal isn't to a child's liking.  By worrying that if we set firm limits and stick to them, we might damage their psyches.

All of which I've been guilty of doing.  Chua's message is that kids are strong and capable.  Don't discredit them by forgetting that.  Obama's message is that the United States is strong, but disciplinary measures will be needed to keep it that way.

I'm in the arts; arts funding is going to be cut. Well, they gotta do something about the deficit.  I say, let's not waste a moment's energy by directing our energies away from the creative work at hand.  Under the system that produced Sputnik, artists and writers either gave up or risked their lives to keep working.  That's a far cry from where we are.  We're challenged.  But that's not an excuse to throw in the towel.

At least, that's what I'm going to tell my daughter when, today being an actual snow day, that Yes: some work around the house will be involved.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

NEW AND IMPROVED WEBSITE

New and improved is an oxymoron.  But everyone knows what it means!  Here's my updated website, designed by my very talented husband, Steve.


Definition: An editor sits in the sun all day and doesn't work very hard.  Oh, and people send her money.

Monday, January 17, 2011

HEADS UP, CONTEST-HUNGRY LITERARY WRITERS!

The Guide to Literary Agents blog is sponsoring a cool contest--no fee--for writers of literary novels.  The deadline is next Sunday, January 23.  They want the first 150 to 200 words of your novel and a one-sentence synopsis.  (Piece of cake!)   3 prizewinners will receive critique of the first 10 pages of the novel by the agent judge and a  free one-year subscription to writersmarket.com

The website, run by Chuck Sambuchino, is a great resource for any writer seeking publication.
Contest details here

I'm entering.  And good luck to everyone else who does!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Does Thee Like Bob Dylan?

The Quaker plain speech began as a way of protesting social rank.  The early English Friends did a lot of jail time for their radical views, and their somewhat combative social identity was predicated on not deferring to people of higher rank with the pronoun "You," or condescending to those of lower rank with the more familiar "Thee."  We were all meant to be "friends," after all.

It's still around today.  More broadly, at issue is the Quaker testimony of "simplicity" in life and speech whereby (as Jesus admonished in the gospel) our yea should be yea, our nay, nay, and we shouldn't have to swear by God's name in order to prove our honesty.  Titles conferring rank are discouraged, if  sometimes necessary.

When I was 10, my family applied for passports to visit the English side of the family.  It's hard to believe now, but the process involved some sort of government official in an office building in downtown Philadelphia, a Bible, and a discussion between my parents and said official about "swearing" versus "affirmation."  In the end, we affirmed, rather than swore, something that made the government okay with letting us out of the country.  This is, apparently, protected in the Constitution, no doubt having to do with the influence of early Quakers and other non-conformist religious groups.  I can't remember if we touched the Bible or not. If we did, I think it was a concession to The Man on my parents' part.  (The first time I heard anyone use the word "idolatry"--in a shocked and disapproving tone--was when I came home from tennis camp and told my mother that we kids had to recite the Pledge of Allegiance every morning.)

My English grandmother, who lived near us in Philadelphia, used the plain speech all the time.  It was so much a part of her that I can't remember how she handled non-Quakers--increasingly, most of the people in our lives.  She, and other plain speakers I've encountered, used a non-grammatical form of "thee and thou" that was once common in the North of England, where, incidentally, she grew up.  So the fancy-schmancy "dost thou want tea?" never entered my ears. Rather, "Does thee want tea?' Nice and homely.

When I was about ten and my brother twelve, our mother embarked on a doomed Plain Speech Crusade in our household.  We were too old; we were unwilling to be dragged backward in time.  "We Quakers are a queer lot," my grandfather complained in a 1920 letter to his father, and my brother and I didn't want to feel queer-er than we already did.  I considered myself locked in a time warp in a house dominated by the somber tick and chime of various clocks made from dark wood that were tended and wound up like family members.

"Baby, it's you," the Beatles sang on my rickety record player in those days.  "Nothing you can do but you can learn to be you in time."  "You say you want a revolution..." And when Bob Dylan told me, "Whatever colors you have in your mind/I'll show them to you and you'll see them shine," it just wouldn't have been the same, rendered in plain speech.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Mommy Angst

A few days ago, I thought my daughter was having a seizure.  She's a teenager.  Perhaps those go together, perhaps not.  We were having dinner at Applebee's.  I glanced up from the menu to look at her sitting across from me, but her eyes were out of focus, pinging bing bing bing, up down, sideways in a complicated trajectory.  I stopped breathing for a moment and envisioned her on the floor.  Waitstaff calling 911 while she flailed in my arms.

Then she looked at me.  "What?"

"I thought you were having a seizure."

She laughed. "Really?  I was just rolling my eyes at the stupid song they're playing."  I listened. It was a stupid song. So stupid I don't even remember what it was.

***
Two summers ago, I was going through a bad time with my novel-in-progress.  I had recently read it through, and it wasn't good. Worse, I didn't know how to fix it.  I took to carrying the manuscript around with me in a pink plastic binder in case I should be seized  by answers and needed to scribble in it, fast.

It was a broiling hot July day. I had arranged to meet a friend for coffee in Philadelphia.  I was running late, I didn't want to be carrying stuff, and I decided to leave the manuscript in my car.  So my friend J. and I met, we were drinking iced coffee, she was talking about Virginia Woolf. I distinctly remember that, but I don't remember what she was saying because I had been hit with a moment of panic.  I thought of the pink binder containing the book I loved & had been struggling with for 8 years. I thought of the extreme heat of the enclosed car.  "Oh, my God," I realized.  "I didn't crack any windows and there's no air in there.  It can't breathe."

I caught myself before J. could notice my panic and ask "What?"  I was the one who started laughing, and as soon as I'd told her about my lunacy, she was laughing, too.

So here's the thing: Embarrassment aside, these moments count for something.  There's a touch of insanity in the loves we bear.  After all, we're vulnerable.  Mothers are not omnipotent; nothing in my power could prevent my child from having an unexpected seizure if that's what her brain was up to.

I think it's one reason people write books and read them--they let us explore our feelings of helplessness in a context over which we have some control.  They help us pinpoint what we can change--and how to handle the things we can't.

As far as what might be considered a lapse in sanity, chalk it up to artistic license.