Friday, March 30, 2007

Friends, Romans...

Did you know that it's Memoir Week at Slate? Well, it is. The memoirists are tackling the issue of how they told their family and friends that they've written about them in ways that may or may not be flattering. I haven't read all the essays because I'm saving it for next week when Caleb's on spring break. I like my online reading to be punctuated by requests for food and pleas to look at accomplishments on the Gameboy.

I've always referred to my book as "narrative nonfiction," which is a sure way to get people to look at you as if you're making things up. I had a conversation with my fabulous editor Jackie early on, in which we talked about what kind of book this is. "Yeah," I said, "where is it going to be shelved in the bookstore?"

("Well, let's hope right up front," she said, which is one of the many reasons I heart the woman.)

As it turns out, Practically Perfect is going to be called a memoir. But reading these essays on Slate, it's pretty clear to me that my book's not a memoir, at least not in the same way. For one, I never tackled this issue of how to tell the people, because I showed the people--Brandon, my mom, my sisters, one friend in particular--as I was writing it. My story is not one that relies on a certain type of portrayal of my people.

There's that, and also that I'm a little bit of the chickenshit.

The only person I'm apprehensive about reading the book is Caleb. Not that he'd be allowed to right now; there are too many f-bombs, too many admissions that I'm not always sure what I'm doing. But someday ... someday he'll have opinions about my publicly stated opinions of being his mother. I suppose I'll do the only morally responsible thing then. I'll take him aside, show him how to set up his own Blogger account, and let him have at it.

I'm kidding. If he wants to do that, he can figure out how to set up his own account, just like The Olden Days.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Pull You Close and I Drink You Up

It is time now to turn to the univeral language. Love.

Here's a fun bit of research from PPIEW: In happy romantic relationships, Partner A will see all sorts of wonderful traits in Partner B that neither Partner B's friends nor Partner B himself see. In unhappy romantic relationships, Partner A sees all sorts of faults that are likewise invisible to Partner B and Partner B's friends.

In my case, "Partner B" stands for "Partner Brandon." And he really is either as fun, smart, hot, kind, and generally awesome as I think he is, or I'm in love with him. So, it's a win-win, as they say in the old country. ("Partner A," you'll note in this case, stands for "Partner Alienating Her Readers With the Mushy Talk.")

Today is our ten-year anniversary, and as much as I love him, I've been unable to find Brandon a suitable present to mark the day we made our sweet love legal. Ten years is traditionally the tin, or aluminum, anniversary. You'd think that might be helpful, but alas it's not.

I called my mom yesterday afternoon and told her about the aluminum or tin. "The only thing I can think of is wearing some aluminum foil pasties," I said.

"Or you can have Krissy up," she said. Tin is Krissy's nickname, as in Kristin.

"Yes," I said. "Here, Brandon. I got you my sister for our anniversary."

"No, I just meant that you could take her out with you."

"Here, Brandon. I got you the younger, slimmer version of me."

"Maybe Krissy could wear the pasties," Mom said, laughing. "That would be fun!"

"For whom?"

We laughed. Tin and aluminum. Ha-ha-ha! Ha-ha! Ha. Aah. I got quiet.

"Are you going put this in your blog?"

Sorry, Mamasan.

Confidential to the Befuddler: There will be a cold aluminum can of beer waiting for you. And ... other things. Happy decade, babe--here's to decades more of people helping people. I love you!

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

(Don't) Steal This Post

You might find it hard to believe, but I am not all happiness and light.

Yesterday I was pissed off for a good five hours. I was talking to Ruth, who heads up Brain, Child's advertising and marketing. We were chatting about some of the calls she gets, and she mentioned that she got one from a P.R. person who wanted our media kit (which is basically a little package that tells potential advertisers about our demographics, ad rates, blahdee blah.) This caller represented a "very successful" online magazine for mothers that was getting ready to become a print pub. She was also wanting the tips on becoming a successful print magazine.

Huh. Kind of weird, in a Single White Female way.

Then we looked at the online magazines for mothers, and it gets weirder. There's a website that is indeed moving into print. Its fare does not look tempting. But its mission statement does.

Or not so much tempting as... familiar.

Here's a little something Stephanie and I wrote in some promo material about Brain, Child: "Our philosophy is pretty simple: Motherhood is worthy of literature. And there are a lot of ways to mother, all of them interesting. We're proud to have published articles and essays that are smart, down-to-earth, sometimes funny, and sometimes poignant. Take a peek at our current issue to see what we mean. Or read our mission statement to get the full-blown manifesto."

From the editor of this website: "[Redacted] features unique writing by mothers on the ups and downs and many challenges of motherhood. We seek writing that is vivid, complex, intelligent, and down-to-earth. ... Our philosophy is simple: Motherhood is always worthy of literature. We are a literary magazine for mothers with something to say. We're proud to have published essays that are poignant, smart, raw, and sometimes, humorous."

Woman? It's called plagiarism. Look it up.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

On Being an Athletic Supporter

I'm not, and have never been, an athlete. I was the only girl who didn't do gymnastics in elementary school. I once got socked in the head with a softball when my sister Erin and my dad were practicing; I was sitting in the grass reading a little Nancy Drew at the time. In high school, I sprained my ankle not on the balance beam, but near it.

So when Caleb first started Little League, I didn't know what to expect. Because in addition to the sensitive, the athletic are another category of folk that I'm not sure I know how to handle. And I certainly didn't know what to make of the parents of the athletic. There's a certain reputation that you may be familiar with.

Last night Brandon took Caleb to his first practice of this season, and he reported that it seems as if we got a good team. Meaning, none of the following*:

-The Vaguely Scary Dad: Quietly berates his child and thinks no one can hear him when he's berating the other children under his breath. Always brings his large dog (that you have to suspect is somehow compensatory) and scares the younger siblings of the players with it.

-The Bossy Parent: Cheerful, but you damn well better remember to bring snack when it's your turn. Because she's reminded you thirty times already.

-The Old Hat: She has a hundred children, and #98 is on the team. She is neither surprised nor delighted by any turn of event because she's been witness to EVERYTHING, sister. Also, she calls bases "bags."

-The Very Important Parent: Don't interrupt. He's in the middle of Having It All.

-The Amnesiac: You meet her at every single school and extra-curricular function. And every single time, she has no idea who you are.

I think it'll be a good spring in the stands.

*With apologies to Tracy Sutton, of "Playdate Mommies from Hell."

Monday, March 26, 2007

Luck, Luck, Goose

Sometimes Caleb and I will be hanging out in some idyllic mother-son way, lounging on the couch, say, or walking hand in hand through the Kmart parking lot, and I'll say to him, "How did I get so lucky to be your mama?"

And he'll say, "I don't know. You just did."

It's as good an answer as any. One of the things that drove me nuts about many of the self-help experts was this tidy correlation between action and consequence. I know that it's meant to be empowering. I know that it's supposed to curb whining and inspire people to fix what ails them. But when you flip it around--you brought on whatever bad stuff that's going down in your life--it get pretty creepy pretty fast.

I kept bumping up against this issue, also known as There Is No Such Thing As Luck. Which is crazy talk. I didn't do anything in particular to get the wonder that is my healthy, smart, fun boy, any more than other parents did anything to get their children who got cancer or their suicidal teenagers. Yes, there are such things as bad parenting, genetic predispositions, uninformed decisions. But there's also such a thing as hard situations that happen for complex reasons, or no reason at all.

On the face of it, this sounds like the more depressing mindset to have. I can totally see why people are drawn to the experts who say you can grab Destiny by the suspenders and ride that bronco to success.

But, really, I think it's a lot easier to have gratitude--for the eight-year-old hand in yours, for the afternoon on the porch with a beer and a card game, for the nice email from your aunt--if it feels undeserved and untainted with self-congratulations. Also, if you roll like this, when the bad stuff happens, you might be able to take it without, or with less, self-flagellation.

In any case, it was a comforting thought to have once we were actually standing in the Kmart, having less than idyllic mother-son discussion regarding the Easter Bunny's generosity, or lack thereof, in electronics genre of gifts.

Friday, March 23, 2007

It Depends on How You Look at It

For most areas of life, there really are very few revolutions in the conventional wisdom. For losing weight, say, it all comes down to: Burn more calories and/or intake fewer of them. Or, for almost all interpersonal relations, a good rule is: Don't be a prick. So what makes the next big self-help bestseller? You can bet your bippy it's the marketing.

This occurred to me last night as I settled up the bill for our meal. If someone had said to me, "Would you like to go to a fondue restaurant?" I would have (and did), reply, "Sounds dandy!"

But I might have reconsidered if someone asked me, "Would you like to sit a table for a very long time and be served a plate of raw meat that you then have to boil yourself?"


There's a little change in the schedule. The always excellent Theo Pauline Nestor and I will be at Third Place Books in Seattle on June 13, not June 14.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Yukking It Up

Is laughter the best medicine? No: Medicine is the best medicine. (I think I stole that from someone.)

But if I have a choice between funny and not-funny, the funny is always going to be more pleasurable to me (and probably to most people). Yesterday, I saw Mary Roach, author of Spook and Stiff, speak a Virginia Festival of the Book event. I approach these events, where I absolutely love love love the writer's work, with equal parts excitement and dread. Excitement because the lady's work delights me. Dread because there is always the possibility that the writer is an asshole.

Long ago, I covered a big book event where I had to interview a star roster of writers. I can tell you that Rita Mae Brown ain't nothing but a pleasure to be around. John Gardner, who now writes the James Bond books, has both a strong English accent and a speech impediment, which is a challenge for a reporter.

And then there was this other writer, the very famous one, the reason I wanted to cover this event in the first place. Like a lot of young writers, I adored her work, bought her books, and was prepared to fawn.

I approached her and introduced myself. She brushed me off; she was dismissive. She was rude. Long story short, I can't read her work any longer. Since then, her star has dimmed, and you know what? Good.

I am a petty, petty woman.

So, anyway, I went to this event yesterday, and I'm happy to report that Mary Roach seems very nice. Her schedule had her rushing off to another event across grounds immediately after the one I attended at the med school, so I didn't get to meet her and have her sign a book. (I have both of them anyway.)

Since it was a medical school event, she mostly talked about Stiff, her book about all the different ways cadavers serve the living (mostly through organ donation and in research, in fields from forensics to automotive safety.) There was a lot of talk about the ethics of working with cadavers--what respect, in terms of a corpse, means. If you've read the book, you know that it clearly doesn't mean gentle handling.

Someone asked what she plans for her own remains. And she said that she has two applications at home for donating her body to science at universities in the Bay area, where she lives. She's at a stand-still. "I feel like a high school senior," she said, tempted to call the schools and see what kind of deal she could broker for her own cadaver. This is what I love about her work, that it's dark and funny and comforting on some level. Yes, we will die, but we can also think of it as graduation. I can't wait for her next book, whatever it may be.


Speaking of the funny, do yourself a favor and read this. And if you know something awful about the author, keep a lid on it.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Companion Dog

Oh, we're a bunch of creative types. Cleo, our first dog, we called our beagle girl. Simon, we call a Simon-dog, since he's the only dog of his kind we've ever seen. (There was a dog in the city where we used to live that sort of resembled Simon, and we called that dog Black Simon, which I thought had a pirate-y ring to it. Yargh! Black Simon! He plunders low-lying snacks!)

Our newer dog is Luna, a Boston Terrier mix. Before we got Luna, we looked up in a reference book what Boston terriers were supposed to be like. Boston terriers aren't listed with terriers. Or hounds. Or in any of the look-at-this-weird-evolutionary-bit-left-over categories. Turns out, Boston terriers are non-sporting or "companion dogs." Which so sounds courtly, doesn't it? I will be receiving gentlemen callers from 2 to 3 in the parlor with my companion dog.

Our companion dog is a little bit of a nut. She pounds her front two paws on the ground, challenging Simon. BRING IT! BRING IT! I'll be minding my own business, catching up with a little Oprah, and she'll crawl up on my chest and stake my bosoms with her nails. She's not a barker, but she's a dedicated licker of herself, if you catch my drift.

Why do people have pets? (This is not something you want to Google, I'm sorry to tell you, not unless you want to find out something untoward regarding 8% of Australian men.) The general consensus seems to be, though, that pets fulfill (or at least the owners believe the pets will fulfill) an emotional need.

That's not to say that pets bring happiness, always. (A friend of mine almost took on a Mastiff that she had to return to its foster owners because it freaked out when she got close to her husband. Almost 200 pounds of freak-out.)

But all in all, Luna does increase my happiness. I'm not sure that the need she and Simon meet is companionship, exactly, or love. But it's something like that, blended with a need for some sheer absurdity. What I'm saying is, you're going to be waiting a long time if you think that your friends are going to pass gas and then jump up with a betrayed look that says, Why would you make a loud noise like that right near my ass?

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

One for My Baby and One More for the Road

Oh, my. The happiness studies are coming fast and furious.

On Slate, one of Monday's stories was "Why Old People Are Happier Than You." (Interesting art choice, with the photo of the woman who looks less happy than about to tell you that she's fixing to get a migraine.)

The article cites a study by two economists who looked into happiness and found a U-curve--that this, people start out happy, get progressively less happier until about age 45, then get progressively happier.

(They also found that the richer tend to be happier than the poor, according to the article, although money tends to have a complex relationship with happiness. According to other sources I've read, though, the difference in happiness between the rich and the poor tends to be pretty slim, unless you're talking sub-Saharan African kind of poverty.)

So, basically, there is such a thing as a mid-life crisis, if by "crisis," you mean "the unhappiest age you'll ever be in your life."


In The Atlantic, there's a little write-up on a psychological study that finds that "regret over indulgence and gluttony diminishes with time, but regret over missing out--doing the responsible thing and deferring gratification--only increases." In other words, it's like that old saw: the elderly report they only regret what they failed to do, not what they did.

Eh. First off, this study was published in the Journal of Consumer Research, which leads me to believe in the existence of people who'd benefit from us believing this. God knows I'm no heavyweight in the self-control department, but I have to be skeptical of any research that exhorts us to spend more.

Also, I wonder what kind of lives this study looked into. Because on my death bed, I'm pretty sure I won't be looking at my beloveds and croaking out, "Dahlings. If only. I'd purchased more. Consumer goods."

I think Mihaly Csikzsentmihalyi (that's pronounced CHICK-sent-me-high-ee), author of Flow--a book about living the good life not through pleasure alone--might back me up on this.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Getting Schooled

If you've been reading the blog, you know that hardly a post goes by without my dropping some "positive psychology" this or "Martin Seligman" that. This is because it's definitely an area that still fascinates me (unlike, say, decluttering).

I read in the paper this weekend that Claremont Graduate University is kicking off the first doctoral program in positive psychology. The program's leaders are Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Jeanne Nakamura, who, according to the article, "emphasize that their work is not aimed at a 'self-help' audience." Also, "they note that when the first few students begin the program this fall, their first year of study will be dominated by rigorous work in research methods and statistics."

I'm looking forward to seeing slogans for the program.
Happiness: It's Serious Business.
Butch Up: We're About to Find Out What Makes Life Worth Living.
Positive Psychology: It's Hard Science, People.

I'm curious to see what the coming decades will bring as the program gets off the ground and the first journal for positive psychology starts churning out research.

It seems as though anyone who writes about Csikszentmihalyi is prepared for him to become a household name because I've never read about the man without also seeing the pronounciation of his name. (It's CHICK-sent-me-high-ee.) I wonder if he has this in a contract somewhere, the Chick Sent Me High-ee clause.

Imagine trying to get a reporter to include this, though, the first time. Jennifer, can I interview you? Yes. And it's NESS-line. Did you get that? NESS-line. NESS-line. Did you write that down? I'll wait. No, go ahead. NESS-line. Thanks.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Things on Which to Chew

. In the parenting chapter, I tried to teach a little emotional intelligence (or, "E.Q.") to the boy. Our problem wasn't body language but I did read an interesting chapter on that.

I was thinking about this yesterday, specifically between the mismatch of body language and speech on the show "Top Design," in which interior decorators compete for money and other things, for Bravo viewers' pleasure. Each week, the Bottom Designer is let go and the main judge, Jonathan Adler, comes over, makes a sad and sympathic face, hugs the Bottom Designer, and then says, "See you later, decorator." See you later, decorator. I am sad to see you go, but not sad enough to refrain from using my kicky catch phrase.

. I know. Two links to Jennifer Mattern in one week? Maybe I should get my own blog. Anyway, I thought this was interesting, this post in which Jenn poses the question, "Why do you blog?" inspired by someone once telling her that writing is an inherently narcissistic activity.

Is it? In all honesty, there's a small part of me that worries about this. Because the book, it's a whole lotta me. Yeah, there are other people, some cultural analysis, and the experts, of course, but I'm waiting for the review to come in that calls me a self-absorbed navel-gazer. (On the day planner: Wait for other boot. Will drop today.)

The rest of me, though, thinks that's a bunch of horse manure. I think self-expression is a normal human impulse, and no one has ever forced another person to read a blog, article, or book, unless you count the situation of my manuscript and Brandon. There exists an expert on lit who maintains that writing and reading are forms of making a community.

Besides, narcissism (in the non DSM-IV way) is really in the eye of the beholder. I would hate for, say, David Sedaris to suddenly become a shrinking violet, depriving me of learning about six to eight black men.

. You can talk about happiness without talking about depression--in fact, that's what the field of positive psychology is all about--but the fact is, some of us are looking to be happier, while others of us are struggling to just get up to neutral. (I'm bringing this up because I just read the interview with Frieda Hughes, the daughter of poets Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, and a poet herself.)

I barely touch on depression in Practically Perfect, but there are some mighty fine books on the subject vis á vis motherhood, like Tracy Thompson's The Ghost in the House, Marrit Ingman's Inconsolable, and Sîan Busby's The Cruel Mother. All different, all good.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Some for Selling, Some for Keeping

The latest Newsweek has a huge special section on business matters, and the main piece is an article about the debate between organizers and those who embrace mess.

The mess-embracers (good name for a band? like the Pie Tasters?) are basically two guys, Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman, who wrote a book called A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder: How crammed closets, cluttered offices, and on-the-fly planning make the world a better place. It's a fun book in the way that Blink is a fun book: You get your analysis of a counter-intuitive idea and also some food for thought if you happen to run a business.

Anyway, the Newsweek reporter quotes some organizational experts who have fighting words about A Perfect Mess. "He's [sic] made it seem like we're all a bunch of neatniks, running out to clean up people's messes and tell them what bad people they are," the head of the National Association of Professional Organizers said. Now, the organizers say, almost three quarters of their clients are those who need help being more productive. Not so much those with the slobby houses.

There was a certain tone here from the organizers, I thought. Like, "We are performing A Very Important Business Function!" Like, "Back off, bitches--we're saving the economy!" Like, "Look at us, all up in the capitalist Zeitgeist!"

Oh, come on, mister. It's more like the market of people with personal messes dried up once they figured out they could drive their own asses to the Container Store.

When I was writing the book, Brandon worked for a huge international corporation. And, I swear to God, it seemed like every other month, he was at some training program or another learning how to be more effective, more productive, more in tune with his co-workers' working styles. It didn't seem to occur to anyone that a tense environment of lay-offs and downsizing might be not so great for the morale, productivity, or effectiveness.

Since I specialize in low-paying jobs, I haven't had first-hand experience with the business organizational gurus. But as a small business owner, it seems to me that all the productivity training in the world is going to be a bust if the employee is unhappy with her job. I think Abrahamson and Freedman touch on this in their book, but I sure would love it if someone, some business-book type, would reframe the discussion this way. I'd totally buy something that looked at the happiness of the average worker, and what's in it for the business. (Actually, there probably is something like this!)

Power to the People. I'm out.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Inexplicable Good Mood Partially Explicked

Last night, I was in a very, very good mood.

This shouldn't seem blog-worthy. (Really, Jen? A good mood? Last night I was thirsty!) But this burst of happiness just sort of came out of nowhere.

I've been sick with a more-than-a-cold, less-than-a-flu, bigger-than-a-breadbox thing for twelve days. On Monday, I had an event that emotionally blindsided me, the sort of thing that made me go to bed early, thinking, Tomorrow this event will be in The Past, in the graveyard of bad feelings.

Yesterday morning, I had a meeting with Stephanie, Ruth (Brain, Child's advertising and marketing whiz), and Anne (Brain, Child's designer). I thought I was feeling fine, but since I'd quarantined myself for so long, it was only once I got to the meeting that I realized that I was still somewhat sick, what with the Kim Carnes quality of my voice and my nose obviously chapped from blowing it. I wanted to invite Ruth to lunch, but instead I went home in the interest of keeping my germs to myself.

But then, last night ... I don't know what happened. The weather was in the 70s and dry. I opened the windows in the kitchen. I put on a CD that Brandon thought he got for himself. I sung along. I pulled off my socks and shuffled around on the cool tile. I enjoyed cooking dinner, and that hasn't happened for quite some time. Nothing was externally different: Caleb still grumbled about his homework, the house was still a mess, Simon still kept up his barking campaign at the squirrels.

This calm--this feeling right in my own skin--struck me as very animal. Normally, I go about my business without giving much thought to my body, but last night's good mood made me believe there must be some advent-of-spring evolutionary thing at work in my body, or my brain, no matter what's going on in my particular life.

Maybe, I thought, in the past, this good mood would have provoked me to procreate, or start planting the crops, or given me the clarity of mind to think up new ways to ensure the survival of my family. (Evolutionary Me always seems to be preoccupied with the harvest for some reason.)

As it was, the good mood inspired me to not do much but enjoy it. I did the dishes while Brandon and Caleb played a card game. I cracked open a beer and read all but the last chapter of a novel. I had a square of dark chocolate and a handful of Goldfish and it was absolutely delicious. I snuggled with Simon, who's been a little stiff in the hips lately. I went to bed late, knowing that, like the emotionally blindsiding event, this good mood might be--probably would be--fleeting.

And then I sort of ruined it by being wistful before the good mood was even over. But by then, I could barely keep my eyes open anyway.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Come and See Me Sometime

Have you ever been at a bookstore when, coincidentally, there's also a writer there promoting his book? And he's standing in front of a table and there are a few (empty) chairs set up but everyone's going about their business, shopping for all the books that aren't his?

And your heart breaks into a gazillion pieces for him, but on the other hand, you have the child with you who's starting to get cranky because you neglected to feed him before you left the house? And you're supposed to get groceries after this jaunt to the bookstore? And, worst of all, you're just not interested in what the guy's book is about? And you flash a sympathetic smile but quickly look away? And, for the rest of the day, you wince when you picture him bravely standing there?

Me, too. Don't let me be that guy, okay?

The tour schedule is up! And to sweeten the pot, at a few places, I'm reading along with some incredible writers: Brett Paesel in Los Angeles! Theo Pauline Nestor in Seattle! Jennifer Mattern and Catherine Newman in the Berkshires! All four of these women made me giddy with their writing, and I don't say that lightly.

In other news, the pre-ordering page is now in full working order, if you're so inclined.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Good God

Hi. It's confessional Monday, and today's confession? I know embarrassingly little about the world's religions. And it is a real embarrassment, given the fundamentalism within and without the United States.

This knowledge deficit hit me once again when I was reading Jane Smiley's Ten Days in the Hills this weekend, and Smiley writes this from the Buddhist character's perspective: "Paul roused all of a sudden with what he considered to be the most terrifying thought, that he was in time." Later she writes, "During the day he didn't believe in either death or time..."

Because I was reading this all hepped up on cold medication, my first thought was one of sympathy for Paul. The time, or specifically the time change, semi-annually screws with my head. (Spring ahead! Fall back! Spring back! Fall down! Swing your pardner round and round!) I drive Brandon and myself crazy trying to figure out what time it is really. Should I be hungry for dinner? Not yet? But we're eating anyway? Okay.

Anyway, a few seconds later I think I got what Paul was talking about, the inability to transcend these things that, during the day, seem like illusions. To him. It's a testament to Smiley's writing that I got that much.

The last chapter of Practically Perfect is titled "The Soul," and I quickly realized that to get up to speed on the world's religions would be a whole book unto itself. As a result, it's pretty heavy on the Christianity and Judaism, with a smattering of transcendentalist thought thrown in.

I'd like to fill the huge spot of ignorance in my brain about the world's religions. (I'd be willing to give up knowing all the words to both Grease and Sixteen Candles. Sixteen Candles anyway.) One of the books I read but didn't use was Karen Armstrong's The Spiral Staircase, a memoir by a former nun who becomes one of the leading religious scholars today. I also loved Kristin Ohlson's Stalking the Divine, a book about a group of cloistered nuns in Ohio whose main job as to pray for others. (I'm looking forward to reading Kristin's latest, with Deborah Rodriguez, Kabul Beauty School: An American Woman Goes Behind the Veil.)

The problem with books about religion is they tend to be filled with abstractions whch makes for some snoozy reading. So, I'm looking for some suggestions for fascinating and readable books about religion: Buddhism, Hindusim, Islam, what have you. Lay it on me!

Friday, March 9, 2007

No News Is No News

Years ago, I worked at a weekly newspaper. I learned a ton, from how to run a publication to how to write in an entertaining way. It was a great job with an excellent mentor, but the one thing I hated was interviewing people, particularly ones who didn't want to be interviewed.

My beat, if unofficial, was the arts, women's issues, music, and dining. I also got the stray homosexual matter. It wasn't exactly hard news most of the time, but these were the days before widespread email. Before I picked up the phone, I'd sit at my desk, trying to psych myself up. Hello. This is Jennifer Niesslein from C-Ville Weekly, I'd practice under my breath. I was twenty-two. I'd always have a list of questions at the ready on my yellow legal pad.

Most of the time, it was fine. I'd learned that it's easier to come across as stupid on the phone than to make a mistake in print. It got somewhat easier the more I did it and the more I developed a relationship with contacts.

But there were the few times that weren't easy at all. Once, I noticed the obituary of a man active in the classical music community, and (after much psyching up), I called a friend of his for a statement on his life. As it turned out, she hadn't heard of his death yet. I heard her breath catch, then after a silence, she said, "I'm going to have to call you back, Jennifer."

Another time, I was investigating a new shelter for battered women. Flyers about it had popped up around town and it wasn't affiliated with the known shelter. I called the guy who was founding it. He told me that his shelter provided a place for women to stay while their husbands or boyfriends "cooled off." He saw his job as "reuniting families." He kept spooling off one bad idea and another, and I sat there for a good hour at my desk, phone at my ear, scribbling away.

I knew that this would be a good story. But it was so insanely uncomfortable for me. It was all I had not to interrupt and set him straight. I didn't want him to be so wrong-minded. I wanted to tell him the ways in which he was wrong, that the goal of a shelter is to help save the life of the abused. I wanted to tell him that abusers don't cool off and that's it. There's a reason why they called it a "cycle" of abuse.

It was our cover story. The flyers disappeared, and I like to think that the article had something to do with that. (FYI, the National Domestic Violence hotline is 800-799-7233.)

So how much do I admire reporters, in those uncomfortable situations day after day? Oh, quite a bit. I believe in the value of reporting and the importance of people getting the news the way that Caleb believes in the right to a daily two hours of Gameboy.

During my experiments, one expert advised me to take a "fast" on the news. He believed the news can cause undue stress on individuals. I can see his point: It's hard to feel healthy and at peace when you start your morning reading about war, rape, murder, homelessness, random accidents. Also, there's the problem of sensationalism. ARE YOU POISONING YOUR CHILDREN WITHOUT EVEN KNOWING IT? IS THERE A HOMICIDAL MANIAC UNDER YOUR BED? IS THAT BAD SMELL IN YOUR TRASH CAN A LETHAL MILDEW? WHAT REALLY HAPPENS WHEN YOUR HUSBAND GOES ON A BUSINESS TRIP?

But reading the news makes me feel connected to the world. I tried the fast for a few days, but I felt unmoored. I like to know when certain bills are up for a vote. I like to know the school system budget. I wanted my horoscope and the troubled people writing to Dear Abby. I felt isolated.

The news fast, like a lot of things, is probably one of those pieces of advice that's highly dependent on the person taking it. For the non-fiction junkie? Probably not such a good idea.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

What Kind of Parent Are You?

If someone asked me to describe myself, I'd say "Regular." After all the self-help I took, in which I was asked again and again to really think about me, and after almost going nuts after all that self-reflection, I'm not very interested in Who I Am anymore.

It's still a gigantic part of trend pieces in the media, though. You had to have seen all this press about being an Alternative Parent. Or Hipster Parent. Or whatever.

This "trend" came about because the writer Neal Pollack came out with a book called Alternadad around the same time a deep-pocketed company launched a website aimed at "hip" parents. Listen, I have nothing against Neal Pollack; he's a fellow writer doing his best and contributing to his family's bank account. I enjoy the man's blog.

But this whole trend is almost impossible to write about without coming off as overly involved in Who You Are. If you critique the trend, you sound like some dork invested in the way things have always been. Permanent press slacks were good enough for mothers before us! Leave the dungarees to the crazy kids with their rock and roll marlarkey! You also sort of negate the good idea that parents are entitled to hold onto their identities after the kid comes. (It's been happening for a while, but still....)

If you laud it, you sound sort of desperate, a hanger-on. Can I be part of your club? My kid knows the lyrics to "Post-Paint Boy," too!

As far as Brain, Child covering it, Stephanie and I are just letting the thing ride. Getting into what's hip and what's not is just a losing proposition for a magazine. Magazines aren't like Lou Reed or Kim Deal, eternally cool. (That was a totally necessary name drop, by the way.) The ones that slavishly cover the hip eventually become caricatures of themselves. (That's right, Jane. I'm talking about you.)

Anyway, I was reading the New York Times, and there's nothing like a story about the exploits of super rich parents to remind you that this whole parenting world can be split up a million ways, not just hipster and traditional.

According to the Times, some parents in Los Angeles are taking consulting with the experts to a whole new level. These local experts have even become celebrities in their own right.

I almost literally can't imagine this sort of parenthood for myself. I was just reading the experts' books and taking the advice when I, or at least my self-confidence, started to unravel. An actual person?

I'd be a wreck.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

A Business Matter

Like the blog but have a hankering for plot, character, and deeper analysis? You can pre-order Practically Perfect in Every Way through Brain, Child now. It's the only place to order a signed copy. (Personally? I like signed copies of books, although I understand that there are people who think, "Yes. I know how to write in cursive, too.")

Click here and you get a signed copy of the book when it comes out in May, plus a free issue of Brain, Child (a single copy or an issue added to your subscription--it's up to you).

Click here and you get a signed copy of the book when it comes out in May, plus a one-year subscription to Brain, Child for a low, low price.

Best of all? It's paper, y'all!

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Tuesday Tidbits, Wednesday Wandomness

. Stop. It's survey time.

Two companies have banded together to solve a little puzzle: Content Connections and eWomenPublishingNetwork say that women buy 70 percent of all nonfiction, yet the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list, over the past year, has held less than fifteen percent women authors. (Less if you disqualify Ann Coulter on grounds of being inhuman). I quote:

The "Women and Books 2007 National Study" will help:
--Publishers focus on the unique preferences, needs, and behavior of female book buyers.
--Booksellers better understand how and why women buy and recommend books.
--More women adopt a successful strategy for becoming published authors

I'm mighty curious to see what they turn up.

Go ahead and take the survey here. They'll announce the results at Book Expo America, May 31-June 3 this year, and participants are promised their own copy of the report.

. So, I read in the current Newsweek that Thomas Jefferson may have had some Jewish ancestry. I live in Charlottesville, home of Jefferson's Monticello and the University of Virginia; they are indeed mitzvahs to our tourism industry. But I never quite understood the people who are really into ancestry. I'd always suspected them of wanting to be Special in an irrefutable, undemocratic kind of way.

I'd also been thinking about Jill Niemarks's piece on, about the epigenome, the place where genes and environment mix. According to her, the epigenome might hold some of the answers to why we are the way we are. She thinks it's going to reveal a whole new map for human nature. (I think that, and also that the future's self-help is going to have to re-invent itself in light of what the epigenome reveals. Don't worry. I suspect the experts will adapt just fine.)

To recap: Thomas Jefferson. Genes. Genome. Epigenome. I'm sorry. That was a rocky trip through my thought process, no? Let's continue.

. I'm on some media list because of Brain, Child, and I got this email in my in-box today: "Opinion Available." Girlfriend? Have you seen the Internet?

. From my sister Erin: "Last night, Jeff and I flipped the channel and we stopped on Fox 5 news. The 'breaking' story was about a woman and her six children (ages 6 months to 6 years). The reporter went on to say how their dwelling (a basement) was sealed up and padlocked after someone reported that the place was filled with human and animal feces, rotten food, and broken furniture. Of course, the police allowed the camera crew to come in and video tape before the padlock was put on. Here's what pissed me off. Instead of finding help for this woman and her children, they embarrassed her on TV. Obviously this woman needs help if she and her family are living in that kind of mess. I hate Fox News."

Now, Erin and I both have dogs. There has been, and there will be, animal feces in our homes, but apparently this was old animal feces, which is a different story. (See how I drew the line?) And Erin's right--it's a sad cultural fact that instead of offering help, we offer shame as an incentive for this woman to help herself. Which she clearly could not.

Erin's story also reminded me of The Mommy Myth, a 2004 book by Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels. In it, Douglas and Michaels take a good hard look at how motherhood is portrayed in the media. They have a lot of fun with celebrity mothers, but it's their section on poor mothers that really makes the book. The pair makes the case that the sorry state of U.S. social spending depends quite a bit on Us seeing Them as different. So we get the woman with the six kids and old animal feces, not the working mother who still can't afford asthma medicine for her kid.

Douglas and Michaels--they break it down so you can learn the moves.


At most social gatherings, I live in fear of the sensitive. There are good reasons, precedents, for this. I once unknowingly insulted an entire room of people with an offhand comment regarding house cleaning. I've made light of matters heavy. Just with my tone of voice, I've accidentally brought my sweet, poetry-loving niece to tears--twice. My sister Jill jokingly calls me Aunt Bitch.

I wrote a whole chapter on getting along with other people because the whole social butterfly thing doesn't come naturally to me, and The Experts say that people with friends, both close and casual, are happier overall. I was haunted by the idea of "casual" friends. As I imagined them, in their Friday khakis and collarless shirts, this subgroup of people included the sensitive, and I spent long weeks trying to parse out this particular conundrum.

I didn't write about my handful of close friends in terms of experiments, although they certainly brings me happiness. Last Friday, my oldest friend Beth came down for a visit. We met in eighth grade when we both tried out for the school musical and were both rewarded with positions in the chorus. (I think the play was about peer pressure, or the dangers of drugs, or some other very important lesson imparted by musical-theatrically-inclined thirteen-year-olds.)

I wouldn't have predicted Beth would be the close friend I have twenty years later. Although we went to many concerts together (we once camped out for Cure tickets) and skipped school to visit museums in D.C., Beth was popular in high school, preoccupied with her boyfriend, a Homecoming princess. I was vaguely dorky, preoccupied with Getting the Hell Outta Dodge, princess of Tetris.

But we kept in touch through college and post-college. I don't know what makes a friendship stick. I like the adults that we've become. Beth is Brain, Child's staff artist (she does the cartoons, the debate art, and usually the Motherwit art), so we have kind of a work connection. But I feel like I could call after months of not talking and still be able to confide anything without worrying about the sensitivity issue. It's a rarer quality than you might think.

I know that Beth will always be late. She knows that I'll say things that can be taken in an unfortunate way. We're familiar with each other's flaws. But I knew she was a true friend one afternoon when Caleb was a toddler. It had already been a long day with the fussing and crankiness on both Caleb's part and mine. The dogs were nuts. Beth came over, and I made us cups of tea. We talked for a while, but I was just spent, tired, out of things to say. On the other hand, I didn't want to be alone, in charge of Tantrum Boy and the Nuts Mutts. We settled in the sunroom.

Beth stayed and watched two viewings of CinderElmo with us. That, people, is a friend. Particularly if you consider that Beth herself was with single with no kids at this time. Particularly if you're familiar with Elmo's voice and his Cheney-esque habit of referring to himself in the third person.

I don't know how you luck into this. I wrote a review once about the connection between mothers and included a self-help book called The Friendship Crisis. It's an interesting book. The main thing I got from it is that you have to put yourself out there in the stream of potential friends, no matter what level of sensitivity is your comfort zone. (I don't know how that sentence just devolved into a condom commercial.)

Also, book clubs seem like a good idea.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Tips for Surviving a Nasty Cold

--Drink lots of fluids.
--Hit that OTC medication hard.
--Enjoy being a sniffly martyr.

--Drink lots of caffeinated fluids.
--Watch five or more hours of America's Next Top Model, "Cycle" Six.
--Become overly upset that Jade (and not Furonda! NOT FURONDA!!) made it into the final three.
--Try to sleep off your ANTM overload and expect Jade to keep her obnoxious self out of your restless sleep.


Friday, March 2, 2007

The Case of the Missing Teachers

Hey, thanks for leaving comments!

I was hoping you could help a sister out with one more thing. I'm trying to find some of my teachers so I can send them a copy of the book when it comes out as a sort of thank you. (I know, I know--gift certificates are the preferred teacher present...)

This is who I haven't been able to find:

Katherine Greig
Arlene Edwards (her maiden name)
Sylvia Leidigh

They taught at New Galilee Elementary School (in western PA) in the late seventies, then later at Big Beaver Elementary. (I'm not making up the name of the school.)

Also: Susan Beasley Brown, who taught at Broad Run High School (in northern VA) in the 1986-87 school year.

If you know these women, would you shoot me an email? It's jennifer at PracticallyPerfectBook dot com.

Thank you kindly.

Paper Products

I got some samples of the dust jacket of Practically Perfect this week. I've known what it looks like for some time now--hey, you've known what it looks like for some time now, unless this is your first visit here, in which case look to the right. There 'tis.

There's something very exciting, though, about having the actual physical thing. Stephanie and I were talking a couple of weeks ago about the benefits of hard copy versus the internet. For one, it's just awfully nice to have portable reading. (Every evening, I'm eagerly awaiting the scenario in which I can turn on the fireplace and flop down on the couch with my blanket and Jane Smiley's Ten Days in the Hills.The physical stuff is an important part of this scenario.)

For two, the screen requires a certain kind of writing (like the radio does): shorter sentences and a different kind of rhythm. It becomes physically uncomfortable otherwise, unless you have Super Eyes. And the posture of steel to park it in your computer chair for a few hours. I think very few people would read the same sort of long, chewy reporting onscreen as they would on pages.

Of course, Stephanie and I are biased. We publish Brain, Child. But Steph pointed out that having the physical magazine is something both that's truly a tangible benefit and something that's hard to tout to readers. (We'd both read that Malcolm Gladwell piece about people being notoriously bad at predicting what will make them happy.) I suggested that maybe our next house ad should be: Brain, Child. It's paper.

Anyway, I got a huge kick at seeing the dust jacket. The blue is brilliant in real life, and the paper is super glossy, as if you could use Windex on it. Rock on, art department, I say!


Confidential to Myrtle: Joyce says she's not promiscuous.

Thursday, March 1, 2007


Listen, I'm just a small town girl. Living in a lonely world. Yesterday, I took the midnight train to the Camel Book Drive.

The writer Masha Hamilton has organized a book drive for a library in an area Kenya near the Somali border. I know next to nothing about Kenya (other than a man I know weirdly prided himself in pronouncing it KEEN-ya, which I thought made him seem like a bit of a PEEN-yis.) According to the site, the people who live in this region are semi-nomadic and get their books from a traveling camel library. They could use more books, and so I signed right up to send some.

I don't normally do stuff like this. I tend to give closer to home where I have an easier time understanding what the giving means. I like a no-strings-attached approach. I don't give to organizations where the recipients somehow have to change their lives to in order to receive help, whether it's accepting a certain religion or give up their vices. I'd feel like an asshole indeed if I were to give some money, trade someone else's dignity for my feeling of altruism, and expect them to conform to my expectations.

So, pretty such any charitable organization can become pretty controversial in my book. I wondered about my gift of books in English--a language these Kenyans know (along with Swahili). But they speak Somali at home. I winced. Hey, kids! Here's a package for you! It contains the destruction of your mother tongue! You're welcome!

(You can send books in Somali or Swahili, although the selection isn't all that. Also, they're pretty spendy.)

Then I found this post by someone who had the same concerns that I did--along with a note from a Kenyan intellectual, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, who writes that the kids actually do need the books, and like it or not, English is a prominent (and, actually, the official) language in Kenya. I know he's just one man, but his comments resolved my conflict.

Coincidentally, the book fair at Caleb's school was last night. And not to sound too Deepak, but it really was great trying to broaden my persective, trying to imagine what people in a part of the world I've never been, would like. The pickings about Africa were pretty slim, but I wound up with a couple children's atlases, a book on African-American inventors, books on horses, dinosaurs, Egyptian pyramids.

Caleb picked up a few books for himself and took a shine to one of the atlases. I'm not of the opinion that motherhood is some universal bond, but I did get a kick out of thinking that somewhere, some other woman, might also be watching her kid wiggle his way to the front of the crowd so he could snag a book before other kids got the one he wanted.