Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Vow. Wow. Ow.

Unless you've been living under a rock (or are a graduate student scrambling to hand in her final paper) no doubt you've seen the shockingly tasteless Vows column in the Sunday New York Times about two married New Yorkers who met each other at their kids' school, fell in love, dumped their spouses and got married.

And again, unless you have been otherwise engaged, you've probably read at least some of the reader reaction and fallout to the piece which, gratifyingly, has mostly expressed shock, awe and total disgust.

You can (and probably have already) Google this to your heart's delight, but some of my fave reactions have been Jeff Bercovici's editorial on the Forbes site, Salon's Mary Elizabeth Williams' smart and sassy observations and the following Tweet reproduced on the HuffPo:

Deborah Wilker
#vowsbacklash - nauseating, tasteless piece in the #NYT- perfect complement to this self-absorbed, nauseating couple
The Times piece is indeed entirely nauseating and insults the intelligence of human beings everywhere by reproducing Carol Anne Riddell's disingenuous claim that the two acted in a principled way and kept it platonic...then told their respective spouses that they were in love with other people:

“The part that’s hard for people to believe is we didn’t have an affair,” Ms. Riddell said. “I didn’t want to sneak around and sleep with him on the side. I wanted to get up in the morning and read the paper with him.”

The retarded thing is that of course the two were having an affair...of the emotional variety. They portray themselves as being powerless in the face of attraction but they actively stoked it along. They passionately pursued a flirtation that led to its logical conclusion: romance. This is called infidelity. For more on this subject, read M. Gary Neuman, a marriage counselor and author of several books on the topic.

It would have been one thing if both Riddell and Partilla were miserably married but that appears not to have been the case.

Here's the thing about marriage, especially when you have kids. With all that is great about it, there is also a certain amount of drudgery, lots of household management and criticism from your spouse. The person you are building a life with is sometimes cranky and combative, justifiably, or not. It is unrealistic to expect that he/she will find you constantly charming, attractive, witty, sexy and otherwise fabulous.

How flattering when someone laughs at your jokes after your wife raked you over the coals that morning! How irresistible when someone tells you that you are remarkable when your husband merely asks you to take out the recycling!

Sigh. This is the oldest, most pathetically cliched narrative. Stuck in the ho-humness of domestic life, a new person appears, making you feel supercharged and romantic and giddy and young and vital and intoxicated with life and possessed of the ability to see endless horizons and new possibilities.

She hangs on your every word, asks your opinion, makes you feel smart and powerful. He tells you how special you are, makes you feel cherished, less trapped. He sees the vital YOU that your dense husband fails to see.

Note to Carole Anne Riddell and John Partilla: If you're not going to be honest with the New York Times, at least be honest with the families you wrecked.

Platonic, shmatonic, atomic.

You dropped a nuclear bomb into the heart of two homes.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Dear Santa, um, Mom or the December 2010 Edition of Big Babe's Berlin Wishlist

Oh, dear.

A week from tomorrow I embark on my SIXTH trip to Berlin in half as many years.

The first couple of trips were untaken as an anxious mother who could not quite believe that her (Jewish) son had chosen to live in that place.

Somewhere around trip #3, Big Babe casually invited me to check out the club scene after an opera one evening and an obsession was born.

First came the Forward article -- on the expat scene in Berlin -- which ran last winter.

Now, the Masters thesis on the same topic, but far more scholarly and critical, focused solely on the Americans who have claimed Berlin as their new heim. Much of my research consists of hanging out, discovering the parameters of the expat scene. I don't know many people who can properly claim bars and clubs and art galleries and parties as the ground zero of their academic research.

Though my trip this past summer did entail a fair amount of work, next week's trip will be devoted entirely to research. Part of my mission is to figure out if and how the Americans in Berlin are impacting the life of the city and its inhabitants. What are they creating...other than a rousing good time? Is Berlin the 21st century version of 1920's Paris or merely a playground for the young and rootless?

To cut costs while in Berlin, already a highly affordable town, I will be crashing at Big Babe's place. Yesterday, he informed me that the running water in his flat was lukewarm to freezing. Normally, I'm not afraid of a bracing start to my day but when the outside temperatures hover below freezing and snow covers every possible surface, I really like my showers hot.

Last year, Big Babe's spacious digs were so cold that I slept in my coat, hat, gloves and shoes. My feet were constantly cold and damp and I drank about three times as much coffee as I normally do, just to keep warm. At night, I drank about 10 times as much wine as I normally would. When you're riding the U-Bahn home at 5 am, then walking several snowy blocks to your freezing abode, a high blood alcohol level is your best friend.

Armed with the certitude of being cold and uncomfortable, I am trying to carve out time this week to visit Uniqlo in SoHo to stock up on thin thermal underwear. Late at night, I'm scouring the Internet to find the ultimate fashionable yet toasty pair of black boots. The knit cap I scored for $10 from the vendor outside of Zabar's will not cut it this year. I need to trade it in for a Russian furry number, the kind that covers my ears, neck and chin.

According to family tradition, Big Babe has sent me his Berlin Wish-List, the artfully arranged accounting of stuff from New York that he simply cannot live without. Noting my ONE bag limit this year, I'm wondering how to accommodate his desires while avoiding overweight charges at the airport.

While I figure that one out, here is Big Babe's Berlin Wish List, the December 2010 Edition, plus a small addendum, which arrived in today's email:

- the small box of cds that I packed and left on the table
- the new Shteyngart (that is, if you've already read it)
- two additional books on the dining room bookshelf (roughly eye-level on the west-facing case): Ferdydurke and The Melancholy of Resistance
-my cowboy-ish leather coat (you know the one). It's too cold for it now, but will be perfect for spring!

I'll also keep my Zabar's wishlist modest:

- 1-2 lbs. french-italian whole bean
- hard salami (it doesn't need to be 40 lbs. this time!)
- chocolate rugaluch! (I still have 1/2 a babkah and need a change)
- Melindas!

and most importantly...



From: "A.J. Goldmann"
Date: December 21, 2010 9:44:36 AM EST
To: Shira Dicker
Subject: Re: Behold! The midnight scream!

Ooh! One thing that I forgot that would be totally smashing if you could manage to pick up, is a 2011 Desk Calendar. I remember they go on sale at BN right before New Years. I prefer the New Yorker one, but the BN one is also perfectly satisfactory (and a bit cheeeeper).



Sunday, December 19, 2010

Sunset Over the Hudson

This is the view from the passenger side of my Honda at 4:24 p.m. driving south on the Henry Hudson Parkway, around W160th Street.

I was on the way back from SAR High School in Riverdale to drop off some costumes and props for Little Babe who was in Thoroughly Modern Millie. It was my second of three trips to Riverdale and back today, but that's the life of the parent. And it was exceptionally cool to return at night for the performance which included my youngest hamming it up onstage, acting, dancing, singing and speaking Chinese cribbed directly from Wayne's World.

That, too, is the life of the parent.

With my oldest 26 years old and a working professional, it seems unbelievable to me that I've already done that difficult, demanding, all-enveloping thing: raise kids. Perhaps this incredible fact is brought into sharper focus this year because I am in a graduate program with people who are typically much younger than me. Some are the very ages of my middle and oldest children, or some number between. What they have looming is already behind me. Yet I seem not very much older than them. To myself, at least.

This past Tuesday, I picked up Middle Babe from Goucher College. She is finished with her undergraduate studies, having taken extra classes over the summer. Having started as a musical theatre major, she graduates with a degree in philosophy, invited to present a paper at an academic conference in the spring. On the drive home we listened to Regina Spektor while marveling over this transformation, over the unreal fact that her college experience is over. Spektor's soulful, surreal music seemed the perfect soundtrack for the occasion. Middle Babe and I recalled the hair-raising move to her first dorm room at Goucher; blithely, we hop-scotched through four years' worth of adventures. From the vantage point of 95N, at 80 miles an hour, the time seemed compressed. Four years went by like that. And now, life looms ahead for her. A zillion possibilities tantalize. It is thrilling and anxiety-producing. For the foreseeable future, she has moved back home, to save rent, to chart her course, to be near her friends and job.

In the Urban Bungalow, Middle Babe joins Little Babe, of course, who, at 15, is completely low-maintenance, resourceful and self-sufficient. Once, not very long ago, he demanded the lion's share of my attention and care; I was his sun and moon, the feeder, the nurturer, the pusher of the stroller, the carrier, the soother, the storyteller, the crooner of lullabies, the playmate, the creator of games, the interpreter and advocate when he was inexplicable. Now, he is a talented teen, a dedicated musician with his own agenda and friends and ambitions and a sophisticated sense of humor and a great reserve of cultural references. These days, our time together is a joyride of jamming, singing along with the Talking Heads in the car, watching YouTube videos, talking about our shared favorite groups -- the Talking Heads, the Beatles, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Green Day, Elton John, Pink Floyd -- being amused by the antics of our dogs, sharing life's innumerable ironies.

Tonight, I blog to gather my thoughts, to capture this moment in my life. I am on break from school now through the end of January, a working break, meant to be filled with research and reading and, of course, writing.

Remarkably, my year-long program is half over. How the hell did that happen?

So this post is the briefest of snapshots, clicked hurriedly, rather like the photo taken as my car careened down the Henry Hudson Parkway in the gathering twilight of a mid-December Sunday of my 50th year.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Reanimation of the Clock, Part II

Prior to photographing Ground Zero, I wrote:

"Ground Zero is a missed opportunity for a memorial and triumphant architectural response to the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001.The time that has lapsed, the general depressing nature of the site, the attraction of marginal characters to the area and -- yes -- the palpable void, contribute to a mood of despair that the camera cannot fail to capture."

At that time, I identified the defining characteristic of Ground Zero as empty space, the absence of what had been. My initial inspiration was to address this void. As I wrote in my previous post, the act of photographing Ground Zero forced me to widen my focus and concept of the area.

Here are the six photos which did not make the final cut:

The Reanimation of the Clock, Tick by Tock

While I have made a point of refraining from writing about what takes place within the inner sanctum of my J School classroom, today I am posting a project for my Evidence and Inference class, administered by Dean Nicholas Lemann.

It is not that I am so eager to share with you my uber-amateur photographs of Ground Zero and questionable captioning skills. Nor am I especially proud of the 125-word (give or take 50) description I finally edited down from 479 words.

The thing is that we have to present our projects in class and I have no idea how to do Power Point. Seems that the other members of my team are similarly at a loss...or buried under mounds of work.

While dashing across the flurry-dusted campus earlier last night, the solution hit me like a snowball tossed by a mischievous child: I would post my work here, thereby sharing my work with the world at large.

So, without further ado, I present my photography project of Ground Zero, which I have entitled "Reanimating the Clock, Tick by Tock." The "rejected" six photos appear in their own post, immediately above this one.

Desolate and industrial, dirty and depressing, the area of Manhattan known as Ground Zero is a paradoxical site. It is New York’s most haunted and hallowed place yet it is also a construction zone whose workers appear to have walked off the job…until very recently.

Now, the mood of the site shifts dramatically with the time of day and the day of the week. During morning and evening rush hour, streams of commuter overflow its narrow streets. At other times of day and on weekends, however, the space still appears populated primarily by vagrants, voyeurs, visionaries and vendors of 9/11 memorabilia.

A notable addition to the area – unique to this season -- is the Salvation Army volunteers in their trademark red uniforms, collection buckets and bells.

In my original hypothesis I wrote, “The overwhelming impression of Ground Zero is of a clock that has stopped, mid-tick.” Now, it is more accurate to state that the chief impression is of an entire metropolis engaged in the act of bringing this clock back to life.


Evening Rush Hour.

Ground Zero Through a Cemetery at Night.

Century 21 at Night.

Danger. Dawn at Ground Zero.

Ground Zero Wakes Up.

Ground Zero Staircase.

Construction Site Through Grid.

Jumping Security Guard.

Exit Only.

Morning Rush Hour.

Epoch Times.

Conversation. The View from the World Financial Center.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Professor David Epstein Makes Columbia's Drug Dealing Students Look Downright Wholesome

There are some things I simply fail to understand.

I understand drug dealing, as illegal and dangerous as it is.

I even understand intellectually that there are warped individuals who have sex with their children.

What I do not get AT ALL is the idea that one or both of those intertwined in an incestuous relationship would explain it as consensual.

This, from Friday's Spec, which apparently broke the story on the arrest of Columbia poli sci prof David Epstein on grounds of incest.

Political science professor David Epstein, 46, was charged Thursday with having a sexual relationship with his daughter, 24.

He was arrested Wednesday morning and charged with one count of incest in the third degree at an arraignment hearing on Thursday. According to police, the relationship appears to have been consensual.

In which realm could a child properly consent to have sex with a parent? At the heart of parental love is an utterly different kind of emotional bond, one entirely devoid of sexual involvement. Consent given by a child even in those cases where the sex is the result of the seductive initiation of a child is not actual consent. The shunning of incest is not some fusty old taboo. It is there for a psychological, spiritual and biological reason. Obviously, it is a form of abuse on the part of the offending parent. The worst to murder.

Having read this story now on several news sites, my chief reaction is that I wish to soak my brain in a big vat of Clorox. The consensual claim adds another dimension of creepy.

Sure makes the drug ring on campus busted earlier this week look downright wholesome.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Higher Education

A great news story can brighten your day. Case in point -- "5 brainiacs grabbed in frat-house drug sting" crows this morning's front page of The NY Daily News, just above its punning headline: "Ivy Sleaze"

Yeah...there was a drug bust at Columbia. Shocking, I know, but the action took place at the row of grungy frat houses on W114th Street, across from the campus. I mean, who'da thunk it? And this was not a case of law enforcement on steroids, that is, police overreacting to a group of geeky kids smoking weed. Hardcore stuff was being dealt. LOTS of cash changed hands. Some fun facts: acid-laced Sweetarts and Altoids were part of the seized stash.

Here's what I'm wondering. What took the cops so long to figure this out? The campus is crawling with drugs and drowning in underage drinking (but probably not more than most private university campuses, to be fair.) Late on a Friday night, about three weeks ago, I had the honor of talking with 3 uber-stoned kids who just returned from a party in one of the dorms. It was an entertaining and illuminating conversation...if you enjoy talking with people whose brains are not functioning properly. (At this point I should mention that I live in a Columbia-owned building and this encounter took place therein.)

And as I posted on Facebook earlier this morning, Big Babe's residential advisor was dealing coke out of her Carman room when he was a freshman at Columbia. (My son emailed this morning to correct me. She was only using. And sharing. My bad.) I learned then about the market in Adderall, the must-have medicine to make it through midterms and finals. There is frequently vomit on the sidewalk outside of our apartment on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Uh, President Bollinger? We have a problem.

It's not obvious? Perhaps the posses of half-naked girls stumbling down Broadway on their way to off-campus parties might be a clue, because when you're wasted, you don't notice how cold you are (see my previous post). When Asian undergrads storm Hamilton Deli for munchies at 2 am and then hang out on Amsterdam Avenue, laughing hysterically, you know you have a problem.

There is lots of glorious coverage of this one. Just Google "Columbia drug bust" sit back and enjoy the show.

I am avidly awaiting the letter from Lee Bollinger. Already twice this semester Goucher College students heard from its president Sandy Ungar about the newly outta-control drug and alcohol culture on the formerly sleepy campus. Property was being trashed, kids were being rushed to the ER , fires were being set. The bottom line was that he didn't want to attend the funeral of a campus kid as a result of over-indulgence. The bottom line was that he was taking the campus back...and he asked the Goucher student body to stand with him.

Middle Babe, my daughter, a senior who will be graduating from Goucher once she hands in her philosophy papers next week, voiced disbelief that her lame-ass college has joined the pantheon of party animal houses of higher learning. This distinction lends her refined alma mater a bit of street cred.

I do wonder how the local drug bust is going down with the Columbia student body, now that the "brainiacs" are revealed to be big-time badasses. I heard that friends of friends of the dealers (aka, users) are feeling that uniquely adolescent sense of rage against the hypocritical adult world as well as sadness for these promising lads' lives being ruined. It is incredibly sad. A future is a terrible thing to waste.

There's obviously way more to say about this saga, including the knee-jerk explanation by at least one of the students that they were dealing to handle the tuition. That will be for another blog. I've got classes to attend, papers to write. In the meantime, here's the report from

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

The Particular Hell of the Writing Workshop

Last night, at a super-fab Chanuka party in the East Village, I was astonished to bump into an old professor of mine from my first round at graduate school in the early 1980's.

It was a writing program at a New York university and he was my fiction workshop instructor. Generally speaking, I enjoyed the class but there was the day he arrived, in some kind of altered state and proceeded to rake one of the writers over the coals.

I do not remember the name of the short story or even the particulars of his assault but have a vivid recollection of how we students sat as still as packages of frozen spinach while the student in question -- a young woman -- bore his brutal attack.

Later that day, when I returned to my abode -- a tiny maid's room on W114th Street for which I paid $200 a month -- I stared at my face for a very long time in the bathroom mirror and then hacked my bangs off.

I suppose this act of cosmetic self-mutilation (I looked like a freak for about a month) was an empathetic reaction to having witnessed a traumatic event -- an unprovoked attack on a fellow human being. Pondering the metaphorical value of that act, it seems the enactment of "tearing one's hair out."

I forgot about this incident at last night's party and gabbed instead with my former professor as if we were old confidantes. Both of our eldest children had been actors in Little Shop of Horrors at the Ramaz Upper School over a decade earlier. We were now the parents of people in their twenties who were pursuing creative careers. Perhaps it was that fact more than the passage of time that served to equalize our relationship.

Jacked up on insanely potent margaritas, I navigated my way through the party, meeting, greeting and eating. It was a fine Chanuka party, filled with A-list journalists, many of whom I knew, some of whom seemed just slightly older than a kindergartener. I would have stayed forever but at one point, I noted the time and the fact that I was due for a student meeting uptown at 8:30 and headed out into the frigid night air, searching for the 8th Street subway mean feat when you are totally trashed.

This morning, I thought about my old professor and how chummy we were at the party. And I didn't think about the horrible workshop incident until something similar happened in one of my classes.

Except that this time, for a good portion of the class, I was the student on the hot seat.

Because I am constrained from writing about what takes place inside my Columbia classroom I will say nothing other than how sucky the experience was.

Unlike the kid who hacked off her bangs, I am a fairly seasoned adult with no intention of going near a pair of scissors. Still, it was unpleasant and shocking and hardly what I expected. Yes, the constructive criticism was there; buried in the basement beneath the feedback free-for-all. It took every ounce of self-restraint not to walk out of the room...or simply stand up and protest: Hey. this is not the way a writing workshop is supposed to be.

The shock of the workshop followed me around all day, like a pesky younger sister, but there were several points of grace along the way. One was sharing an elevator with the actor Richard Kind and his toddler son at the JCC, where I went to run off my rage after my afternoon class at the New York Historical Society. Seeing Kind recalled his excellent performance as the mentally ill brother in A Serious Man, the one who cries out, "Hashem hates me!!" who feels God's loathing and abandonment.

Another was returning home from the gym (where I ran four-plus miles, lifted tons of iron and did so many crunches that it hurts when I cough) to light the menorah with HOBB and Little Babe and recover my inner Maccabee.

And I will share yet another one with you: the email I just received from my friend, Lynda, who was unable to make it to Shira Means Song, my 50th birthday celebration last month at the Staten Island Ferry Terminal:

I am so glad I bumped into you at the JCC and I got to see this video, which as you say, is pretty hilarious. Congratulations to the whole family and the DOT too! I am the 121st visitor to the site. You have Guts! Creativity! Imagination! and a pretty dress.


Since I have been negligent in writing about the OVER-THE-TOP SUCCESS that this event was, I will simply post the YouTube video, edited down to a manageable length.

It reminds me of the importance of using one's voice, of finding one's venue, of doing great, crazy, ambitious things, at vanquishing ones' adversaries, of taking risks, of actualizing your dreams, of standing up, of celebrating the song of oneself.

Check it out!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Good Night, My Adoptee Godmother

Tonight, I was shocked to learn that the bold, brilliant and elegant Betty Jean Lifton -- writer, humanitarian and open-adoption activist -- died one week ago in Boston of complications from pneumonia.

Margalit Fox's obit in today's NY Times appears here.

I spoke with BJ over the summer and hoped to see her this winter. I had a book idea that was knocking around in my head for the past two years and she was the one to discuss it with. Nearly 27 years ago, she saved my life by inviting me to join her Adoptee Rap Group, which met monthly in her Central Park West apartment.

At the time, I was 23, newly married and pregnant with my first child.

Just prior to getting pregnant, I met my birthmother in an encounter that was so bizarre and violent that it barely seems plausible. The thing that I did -- barging into my past, demanding to know the truth about my origins, defying conventions, breaking rules, knocking over obstacles -- seemed a criminal act of sorts, therefore, being held up at gunpoint hadn't really surprised me for it seemed a reasonable punishment for my deed.

Someone, a New York State judge, I believe, directed me to BJ. She was warm and funny and unafraid and iconoclastic and sharp. She had a cozy, almost plummy voice. She was cool and stylish and maternal -- exactly the kind of grown-up woman I wanted to be. She wrote books about the very thing I was engaged in -- the search for personal truth. She was famous yet completely accessible, unimpressed with her renown.

When I showed up on her doorstep I was a terrified girl with a growing belly who had almost gotten killed on the way to meeting the woman who gave birth to her -- a drug-addled welfare recipient living in a stinking, garbage-strewn hovel in Bed-Stuy.

I had been having recurring nightmares about giving birth to a red-headed baby girl in the bathroom of the house I grew up in...and then watching helplessly while my mother and birthmother fought over the child.

During waking hours, I was besieged by feelings of doom. My pregnancy evoked an almost existential terror, exacerbating my lifelong sense of alienation. More than ever, I saw myself as a visitor from another planet, a foreigner, a fake.

There were rational reasons for at least part of my distress, of course. I had never met a woman who was a great writer and had kids; I was fairly convinced it had never been done before. I felt like my life was over. I woke up every morning crying. I wanted to run away.

All kinds of people came to BJ's rap group. Some were extraordinarily interesting, others were incredibly weird; many were in terrible pain. One of the men -- an adoptee and adoptive father -- fell in love with me in the most awkward way. His attraction was born, I believe, of his double loss and the archetypical power of my pregnancy. I was lush and glowing, literally bursting with life. I was also young, the youngest pregnant person in Manhattan it seemed. With a college degree, that is. And I was distraught. The whole thing must have made him want to steal me, save me, be me.

BJ served cake and coffee at our evening meetings, asking for no compensation. She moderated our discussion and interjected, providing insight, humor, context. Sometimes she sat back and simply listened. From time to time, a story shocked. People often cried. I do remember laughing quite a lot, as well. Though the group had the quaint designation of a rap group, there was no crunchy granola, hippie-dippie vibe to our gatherings.

Instead, BJ's adoptee rap groups were gritty and real and valuable. They were part of a long-ago era, my young adulthood in Manhattan, a time before cellphones and BlackBerrys and email and computers and sky-high real estate and super-busy lives and insincere conversation conducted while doing 10 other things and all the trappings of the 21st century.

BJ's obit rests on the table next to my laptop. I keep glancing at the headline through blurry eyes. Damn it. I wanted to see her again, after two long decades. I wanted to talk to her about my book idea. I wanted to reconnect. I wanted to hear about her life, listen to her laugh, hear her latest insights about this way of being -- perpetually on the search for authenticity.

Last Sunday, at a brunch on the Upper West Side -- completely out of the blue -- I found myself talking about BJ's rap groups. I spoke incessantly -- perhaps obnoxiously -- about being adopted, about needing to find out why I had been given away. I spoke about the paradoxical nature of adoption -- the tragedy and joy contained therein, the dance of two families who might never meet, conjoined through one child.

As I spoke, I noted, as always, the rapt attention of my audience. Adept storyteller though I might be, I know that it is the subject of being adopted that gains me the spotlight.

Weird how I talked about BJ last week. Just like that. Out of the blue.

And then, a couple of days later, I learned that I was admitted to a course in book writing at Columbia on the strength of my book proposal -- the one I wished to talk to BJ about, the one I assumed I would interview her for.

The black ink of the newspaper makes BJ's obit unambiguous. I'm glad I'm seeing it this way first rather than online, where colors distract. The NY Times newsprint reminds me of when I first met BJ. I wish to linger in recollection of that time.

Tonight, I remember BJ Lifton and cry. Through my tears I see her smiling from the newspaper, giving me the thumbs-up for my project, laughing in her honeyed way, reminding me that, of course, I already interviewed her, many years ago, when we sat in a circle in her Central Park West living room and she was smart and cool and caring and I was on the cusp of growing up and discovering the truth about my life.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Fear of Mothering

Two first-person articles ran in yesterday's Wall Street Journal, providing a both-sides-now view of Erica Jong's philosophy of motherhood.

One was by the world-famous author herself of Fear of Flying, the seventies roman a clef that forever changed chick-lit and the public discourse on women's sexuality. The other was by Jong's daughter, Molly Jong-Fast, the sole fruit of her glass-bottomed womb.

Mommy Jong writes an overly-long, often-rambling meditation on a current trend in parenting (not just mothering, actually) that consists of micromanaging all aspects of the child's life to insure maximum enrichment, fearful hovering, a commitment to providing healthful food in the greenest way possible, a premium placed on breast-feeding and general overwhelming devotion to the child one has just brought into the world.

The chronicler of the Zipless F*$% describes an "orgy of motherphilia" that stands in stark contrast to, say, Betty Draper's goyishly hostile style of parenting. She cites the freewheeling, multi-culti families of Madonna and Angelina Jolie as nothing more than media creations where an image of seamless, easy domesticity is falsely conveyed. She slams so-called "Attachment Parenting," a view that advocates complete non-separation between mother and baby. She finds it shocking that 21st century women would want to revert to cloth diapers. She accuses modern moms of treating their offspring like fashionable accessories. She chastises childrearing experts for promoting an ethic of childrearing that only the very rich can enjoy.

In her essay Erica Jong sounds less like a social critic and more like one of those cranky old ladies who ride the M104 bus midday. One gets the sense that, surrounded by attractive, bright and fit former CEOs, lawyers and doctors who halted their professional success to become full-time mothers, she is tearing out her famously tousled hair. Or is rent with guilt over what a crappy mother she was.

Tragically, the kicker of the story reveals her own desire to be exonerated:

We need to be released from guilt about our children, not further bound by it. We need someone to say: Do the best you can. There are no rules.

Um, Erica? There actually are rules governing childrearing. Such as: Thou Shalt Not Neglect Thy Child While Pursuing One's Own Fame. Or, try this one on: Thou Shalt Engage in at Least Some of the Pedestrian Aspects of Parenting That Bind You to Your Child, No Matter How Unglamorous or Boring. Or Thou Shalt Not Be Fooled Into Imagining that Art is More Important that Life. In other words, Writing About Thy Skanky Pursuits is Not a More Noble Activity Than Reading Bedtime Stories to Thy Lonely Child.

The fact that you broke or disregarded the rules of childrearing doesn't negate the fact that there is a contract between parent and child built on the expectation of basic care and devotion. Having evidently disregarded this contract, it does sound kinda bogus when you start ranting about how it "takes a village" to raise a child.

The accompanying essay by Molly Jong-Fast pretty much illuminates the reality, which is that Ms. Fear of Flying sucked as a mom though her adult daughter confusedly half-claims to negate this assessment:

This is not where I dramatically declare "my mother is a bad mother." There is where I say what's true: that my mother was as good a mother as she could possibly be.
At once filled with praiseworthy prose about her mom having done the best she could and being a heroine for going out there to earn money, the voice of a sad little girl comes out every now and then. Admitting that her mother harbored "ambivalence" towards her, the essay paints a woman who traveled incessantly, left her daughter in the care of her "nanny Margaret and Sugo the houseman" and avoided anything resembling nurturing because of her own mother's thwarted ambitions.

Probably the best indication of what Jong-Fast endured is the fact that she became the very kind of mother that her mother is railing about in her article:

Full disclosure: I spend a ton of time with my children, never travel barely work and am a helicopter parent like you can't believe...

You don't need an advanced degree in psychology to note that Jong-Fast might just be reacting to the manner in which she was raised, utilizing her own super-devoted method of mothering as a personal tikkun to the laissez faire love she received.

As illustrated by the following passage:

Famous people, who are often intensely-driven workaholics, are typically not focused on their children. We saw each other, but my mother was filled with the fear of slipping into domestic life and sabotaging her own career.

If one of my kids ever characterized our relationship as "we saw each other but..." I would want to cry for a million years.

Motherhood or fatherhood or any kind of hood necessitates at least a modicum of devotion. Molly Jong-Fast's "but" reveals that her mother's devotion lay -- and I mean lay -- elsewhere.

Getting back to the mothership...while I agree with many of the points Erica Jong makes in her essay, the takeaway is ultimately tragic because it is impossible to ignore her personal investment in slamming today's "motherphilia."

Clearly, she suffers from the exact opposite syndrome: "motherphobia."

Far better critiques of contemporary trends in childrearing can be found in the work of two of my pals -- Lenore Skenazy's book and blog: Free Range Kids and the comedian Jackie Hoffman's biting song, "Woman on the Upper West Side."

The column inches devoted by the Wall Street Journal to Erica Jong and Molly Jong-Fast amounts to little more than a poignant and pathetic public family therapy session.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

I'm Sorry I Sweated in Your Shorts

Dear Anonymous Large Guy Whose Shorts I Wore at the Gym Tonight,

I wanted to thank you from the bottom of my heart (or the heart of my bottom, as it were) for your unwitting generosity.

Had you not left your ginormous black shorts in the locker room yesterday, I would not have been able to run/sweat my way to Nirvana while listening to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Talking Heads and Leonard Cohen atop the elliptical machine at 6.8 miles an hour.

You see, after a whirlwind day that began with the tombstone unveiling for the inimitable Leo Chester at a New Jersey cemetery and included a 3-hour jam session in the basement of Congregation Ramath Orah with Little Babe, his extraterrestrially-gorgeous cousin Hannah and his BF Joe for my November 13th musical performance at the Staten Island Ferry Terminal, I truly needed to work my ya-yas out. ("Ya-Yas" is code for my growing terror that my idea is idiotic, that I cannot sing, that we will get kicked out because of the new security alert due to those packages from Yemen and that all the time I'm spending on rehearsing and planning should be channeled into my grad school program instead.)

Anyway, around 6 pm, grabbing my workout gear and combination lock, I flew out of the house while HOBB was on his way home from his orchestra rehearsal, leaving him a VM asking him if I had heard correctly; had he indeed offered to serve as chef for the evening? If so, I'd see him in one hour, sweaty yet satisfied.

Problem was, when I got to the locker room, there was no evidence of my itty bitty lil black shorts which I could have SWORN I put in the leopard-print bag before I bolted out of my apartment in a paranoid frenzy that my gym ambitions would have been waylaid by HOBB's arrival. (I was probably right, therefore not paranoid. Just experienced in the ways of my husband.) I dug deeper inside my bag. There was a sports bra, tank top and sneakers. Nothing else.

Sprinting to the front desk in my underwear (winter coat draped over my shoulders and pulled tight around my midsection), I poignantly pleaded for a pair of shorts or pants...perhaps something placed in the Lost and Found?

Nothing doing.

"Men's also??" I asked, noting that the staffer had checked only the pile of women's clothes.

Laughing, she withdrew a truly impressive pair. Yours.

"If you can keep 'em on, they're yours!" she said, handing them over.

Normally skeevy about borrowing clothes and all that (I get grossed out just thinking about it), I threw the shorts on, pulled the waistline drawstring tight, folded over the waist twice and, voila, I was ready to hit the fitness floor.

Passing the mirror, I tried not to look too closely. I looked cool/weird. Actually, much more weird than cool. And somewhat deformed by the bunched-up fabric. You must be an impressively, uh, statuesque person. Your shorts were so baggy that even folded twice they almost hit my knees. Coupled with my V-neck sleeveless black shirt, I did look artistic and edgy yet possessed by the sudden desire to be modestly-attired...on only one part of my body. Sculpted arms and shoulders and even some cleavage peeped out of my tank-top but the billowing fabric encasing my haunches reminded me of the gym attire of super-tzinius* yeshiva girls I sometimes see at the gym near my bungalow.

I was self-conscious, yes, but mainly overjoyed. Salvation was mine. And all because you left your shorts to me.

Because of you, my workout was not hijacked by my negligence. Indeed, I sweated like a freak in your supersize shorts. The guy to my left kept casting me concerned looks. He probably thought I was on drugs because I ran with my eyes closed, mouthing along to the songs.

So, thank you again for helping me get my three-miles of Zen tonight. Heaven knows I needed every inch of that journey for I will surely be up for hours to come writing my midterm paper for tomorrow's class.

Now, every time I pass a large man at the JCC, I shall wonder if he is you.


Bungalow Babe in the Big Shorts


Thursday, October 28, 2010

Ooohh!! Oooohh!!! Pick me!!!!!!

Brad's Cafe is dangerous to my productivity. I sit here with my laptop, sipping their lethally strong iced coffee with soymilk, answering emails, making phone calls, meeting tons of people I know and doing everything but what I ought to be doing, namely schoolwork.

Today, instead of starting my History of Journalism paper (on the German press during the Third Reich) or any of the three papers due for my outside course in Sociology (can someone please explain why academic writing is so dense???) or even helping my friend promote her new book (I promised to send out a flurry of e-blasts. I will, I swear, just haven't done it yet) I found myself perusing literary social networking sites and stumbled onto one I actually liked.

It is called Fictionaut.

The thing is, this band of elitist snobs issue you invitations only if they deem you appropriate.

So I signed right up, filling out the form where you make the case as to why you ought to be invited, with the words, "Google me, bitch."

I was paying homage to the scene in The Social Network, of course, where Mark Zuckerberg gets his customized business cards.

But maybe that's not a highbrow enough reference for the Fictionaut fascists. Maybe I ought to have included an allusion to a Bergman or Fellini film. Or Godard. I bet the readers of Fictionaut love Godard.

Anyway, while breathlessly (get the allusion??) awaiting news of my membership application, it occurred to me that I was having a flashback to that universal memory from childhood. The one where you stand pathetically on the sidelines while the jocks select worthy players for their team.

(The following paragraph is a gratuitous and self-indulgent digression. Skip if you like.)

A scruffy tomboy until I turned overnight into Lolita at the age of 12 I was in a state of constant rebellion against any kind of group enterprise and completely negative about team sports. The thing was, I really didn't care about the game but once I was chosen, took great pride in the fact that I could kick a kickball out of the field, shoot baskets fairly well and was an ace dodgeball and gaga player.

So, I am not sure whose childhood memory I am appropriating or maybe I am tapping into a paradigmatic memory that is readily available to all adults.

The point is, I am sitting at Brad's quietly praying, "pick me!"

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Bad Student for a Day

No one cares that I was racing to class this morning with my BlackBerry pressed sweatily to my ear because of an urgent phone call from a family member about a crisis-in-progress. With my pocketbook cutting grooves into my left forearm and my computer bag bouncing against my right thigh I flew across Amsterdam Avenue, barely minding the traffic turning from W116th Street, concentrating only on the conversation and the fact that I was surely going to be late for my 9:30 a.m. Art and Culture seminar.

Our professor, an exceptionally nice guy, has made it clear that the one thing he really hates is lack of punctuality.

So, when I arrived, panting, four minutes late, he was not pleased.

Sinking into my seat, sunglasses fogging up from my rising body heat (thank you, menopause) I wished to blurt out the reason for my tardiness, the amazing fact that I had arrived at all, the revelation that I actually felt like a heartless bitch for hustling off the phone call to attend to something as relatively unimportant as an art and culture class, that sometimes it was freaking difficult to be an adult student, that is, deal with everything that goes along with having serious connections and responsibilities -- aging parents, kids, a husband and friends who were getting sick suddenly and whose own parents, siblings and spouses were dying at an alarming rate.

But graduate school means never having to say you're sorry I just swallowed my discomfort and blocked out the crisis.

The seminar was good, great in fact, with Mark Harris, the film critic and author (Pictures at a Revolution) and lots of entertaining movie clips and a generally relaxed atmosphere. There was lunch with HOBB at Cafe Nana, a visit to Dodge to scout for a student to profile for a forthcoming class assignment, speed-of-lightening responses to pressing emails, retrieval of phone calls, conversations with family members about the crisis, plans to get to NYU Medical Center later that night and then, Evidence and Inference at 2:30.

I made it a priority to arrive on time. Today's session featured a lecture by a Sudhir Venkatesh, an ethnographer, that riffed on the excellent book Random Family by Adrian Nicole Leblanc and the various techniques of getting people to talk about their lives. I thought of my penchant for having perfect strangers reveal deeply intimate matters and was moved to ask whether one ought to being wary when one evidently possessed a particular knack for getting people to talk.

While our professor reframed the question to illustrate the difference between the ability to elicit a response and the ability to extract valuable information from a subject, Venkatesh's response was cutting. He noted that many first-time ethnographers had a narcissistic belief in their own abilities. There was some laughter in response. Was it directed at me? Did my question reveal me as to be a narcissist? I was surprised and not a little bit hurt.

Hours later, exhausted by the emotional trajectory of the day, returned from the meeting at NYU Med, thinking over the numerous calls and emails, trying to figure out when I could fit in a phone conference with Little Babe's History teacher and how to get Middle Babe the Trader Joe's gift card by tomorrow so she could buy food for her college dorm in Towson, Maryland and whether I could slip out early from my History of Journalism class tomorrow night to catch a friend's book talk, I realize that my four-minute tardiness and my possibly boastful question makes not a whit of difference in the grand scheme of life. What matters is the material under discussion in the classroom, the takeaway from the lesson, the experience of meeting important scholars, the kernels of valuable guidance, the revelations that come, unbidden, in the middle of class as concepts bloom around you and you skip happily through the fragrant field of thought, selecting your signature bouquet.