Tuesday, April 29, 2008

City of Ladies

In Book of the City of Ladies, the medieval writer Christine de Pizan constructs an allegorical city populated by remarkable women of historical note. I have yet to read this book, but I have been captivated by the idea of a city of ladies.

Back in the fall, I was pondering about what books to suggest for our 2008 book group selections. I had started reading Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's Well Behaved Women Seldom Make History, which uses de Pizan and her City of Ladies as a foundational theme and text.

Soon afterwards, I had a phone conversation with a good friend whom I had not spoken to in a long while. We ended up talking for at least 2 hours about a number of topics, including the empowerment I have found in writing and her frustration over her inability to write. She commented that out of all the "mommy friends" she has, she hadn't had such an intimate and emotionally-open conversation in a long time. We both greatly enjoyed the talk.

As I was drifting off to sleep that night, with my mind still whirling from our conversation, I had a quasi-dream or a picture in my head. I was surrounded by women. Closest to me were strong, empowered, intelligent women who are dear friends of mine, whom I can share all of my concerns, frustrations, and thoughts about what it means to be a woman, about motherhood and life, and about hundreds of other idea-rich topics. Further away from me were other strong women from history. I distinctly remember that Elizabeth Cady Stanton was in the group, quite a ways from me, but part of the press of women surrounding me. I had also been reading about her in Ulrich's book. As I drifted off to sleep, I felt so safe and sheltered and so grateful to be among such amazing women who have enriched and blessed my life. It was a wonderful image to fall asleep with.

I have recently read Ulrich's book in its entirety and her discussion of the City of Ladies brought back this memory.

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Sunday, April 20, 2008

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

This was the perfect book to read at the beginning of spring.
Barbara Kingsolver's description of the fertility and growth of her (amazingly large) garden made me excited for summer to be here. I was really inspired by Kingsolver's family's efforts to eat locally for a year. For them, it came down to giving up bananas (but not coffee or olive oil), growing a very large garden and using its bounty to store up food for the winter (I love the idea of making, then freezing, pesto at the height of basil season), growing turkeys and chickens and then harvesting and freezing them for later consumption, and buying local produce, milk, and other meats.

The best part of the book, IMO, was her descriptions of the family's efforts to eat locally. I thought the sections of the book which talked about commercial farms, carbon footprints, and other side effects of the way Americans eat were interesting, but not as good. However, her description of the turkey industry (I was amazed to learn that 99% of turkeys never make it past Thanksgiving and that turkeys scarcely ever reproduce on their own. Mostly, the females are artificially inseminated and the eggs incubated. Thus, turkey don't know how to reproduce and take care of eggs.) dovetailed well with her description of her own efforts to help her turkeys have turkey babies. I also really enjoyed reading about her trip to Italy part-way through their year and her insights on the Italian food economy.

I feel inspired to do a few (very small) things after reading her book.

1. Seek out farmer's markets and other sources of local produce this year.

2. Plant a small patch of vegetables in the yard.

3. Find delicious ways to prepare foods that are in season. She has a lot of great looking recipes in the book I'd like to try. And I want to look into a cookbook that is organized by season.

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Two Income Trap

We did this one for book group this month. Using data from a survey of families in economic trouble, the authors find that families have less overall economic security where both parents work, compared to families in the past where one parent worked. This is because when both parents in a family are working, most of the money that they make goes towards fixed costs (like a mortgage). The title comes from the fact that if one parents has to step out of the labor market due to a family issue or layoffs, the valuable safety net of having the other parent step into the labor market (most often the mother) to make up some lost income is not available. They point to skyrocking levels of bankruptcy, but then show how excessive consumption, a common explanation, does not explain it.

(As a side note, I thought that they did not give enough thought to the fact that someone who has not been in the workforce for a long time will have a hard time finding a job in the area of their expertise. If the economy has been turning south, it will be even harder to find a job. And certainly, whatever job this person--probably the mother--could find will not pay even close to what was being earned by the husband.)

Policy implications at the individual level were minor. "Don't get into more house than you can afford" and "don't use all your income on fixed costs." There were a few more at the goverment/institutional level--things like not making bankruptcy harder for families, prohibiting large and unfair credict card interest rates, making risky loans harder to give, giving incentives for saving.

All in all, this was an ok book, but the authors didn't do a good job walking the line between researcher and general audience. It was packed full of anecdotes to make it accessible to non-economists, and they left all the meaty details out for the same purpose. But this left it feeling watered down and a little repetitive. Their academic articles would be better for the nuances of their arguments, and this book could have been condensed to a (admittedly lengthy) magazine article.

The discussion at book group took a long time to turn to the book. Baby Z was with me, and I was only peripherally involved because I was busy with him and because I didn't have much to say. I felt a little bothered that the woman who suggested the book was not there. Why did she like it? What kind of points did she think were discussion-worthy? We'll never know.

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Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Soundtrack of My Life

What is it about music that is so evocative of particular times in our life? More than anything else, when I hear certain songs, I am immediately drawn back to a certain place, with specific people. And more than just the memories, songs bring back the dramatic feelings of those experiences.

Interestingly enough, there is a song that brings me back to BYU, 1997, living with Polly (a big country fan), trying to get on with my life post-Brian, which has this idea as its topic.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you Tricia Yearwood's The Song Remembers When:

I was standing at the counter
I was waiting for the change
When I heard that old familiar music start...

After driving out the memory
Of the way things might have been
After I'd forgotten all about us
The song remembers when

We were rolling through the Rockies
We were up above the clouds
When a station out of Jackson played that song
And it seemed to fit the moment
And the moment seemed to freeze
When we turned the music up and sang along...

We were headed straight for Eden
It was just around the bend
And though I have forgotten all about it
The song remembers when

This afternoon, I had a conversation with a friend about Latin music and I was immediately transported back to Mexico and Bolivia. Since then, I have been brainstorming songs that are strongly tied to place and memory. Here are some of them:

1984: Journey's Faithfully, sixth grade dance. For some reason--I think mostly to avoid Def Leppard--the teachers played this song over and over

Valentine's Day 1985: Chicago's You're the Inspiration. Everyone dedicated this song to their girl/boy friend in the Valentine's Day edition of the East Middle School newspaper

1990: They Might Be Giant's Flood

1991: Beauty and the Beast "I want much more than this provincial life". Sophomore year of college, crushing on James

1993-1994: We couldn't listen to much music on the mission. One hymn that was sung in Spanish wards with extreme vigor was "Rendire' mi corazon, en secreta oracion." It sounded so much better in Spanish than in English.

1995-1996: The Eagle's Peaceful Easy Feeling. This is inextricably linked with a lot of memories around the guy I thought I was going to marry. A whole group of us listened to The Eagles Greatest Hits album over and over and over. In my apartment with roommates. On a road trip to Vegas. Brian was the Desperado who didn't know what was in front of him. I wanted to be this: "And I'm feelin' strong. I will sing this vict'ry song, woo, hoo,hoo,woo, hoo, woo hoo hoo."

1996: Mana's Donde Jugaran Los Ninos The group of BYU students that I went to Mexico with for the literacy study abroad there listened to this one over and and over. Anytime I hear any song from this album, I am sitting in a restaurante eating a torta in Guanajuato. Unless it's Te Llore' un Rio. Which reminds me of Brian. I sang along with this song so passionately quite a few times. "I cried a river for you, now you can cry an ocean for me." I wanted him to come back to me, telling me he was wrong, begging me to take him back.

No tienes corazon
No te vuelvo a amar
Te llore' todo un rio
Ahora llorame un mar

1997: Shakira's Estoy Aqui. I hear this and I am in Bolivia at a barbeque.

1998: James Taylor's How Sweet It Is. A new group of roommates, and a new greatest hits album. The year I finished my master's, I also met AJ. One evening, I was using my advisor's office to work on my thesis and AJ came up to visit me and bring me delicious death by chocolate cake from an event he had been to. We "hung out" and listened to James Taylor.

2001: Bobby McFerrin and Yo-Yo Ma's version of Hush Little Baby. MJ was born in October of that year. We sang Hush Little Baby to her every night for years. When she got older, she begged us to make up lyrics with strange gifts: "Daddy's going to bring you pink unicorn."

2002: Enrique Iglesias' Escape. My sister M came to stay with us this summer. Right before we moved to NYC, Enrique was on the Today show. M was obsessed with him, so she and MJ and I stayed in a hotel overnight so that she could stake out the outdoor performance venue and watch him perform. MJ and I walked over close to the time of the performance so we could hear (from a distance) "you can run, you can hide, but you can't escape my love." MJ loved dancing to it, and for months afterward, we would get excited when we heard it in the grocery store and dance to it at home.

2004: The Lion Sleeps Tonight. This is what we sang to T every night. He has recently been asking us to sing it to him at night again.

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Saturday, April 12, 2008

Self Improvement Books, Part 2

In thinking about reading these books, I figured out another reason why I constantly postpone picking how-to-be-better-books up and getting into them. Reading for me is a way to leave my regular, mostly hum-drum life behind. But, when I read books that very specifically and conscientiously require me to self reflect and think about my own life, it turns the whole experience into something very different.

I've started two of them.

The first: Square Foot Gardening. There was way too much information in there. I decided to talk to the woman I know who did this last year for the very basics and forget about reading much more of the book.

The second: Parenting book. Well. I am very depressed about my parenting. And overwhelmed. It seems like a lot of what I do is Bad Parenting Behavior. I might have to set this one aside for a while and only pick it up occasionally and then only work on very small steps at any one given time.

And that's another problem. I can't handle doing all these personal and family self improvement plans simultaneously. This was just plain a bad idea.

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Friday, April 11, 2008

Newborn Pleasures: #5 and #6

#5: The tongue that is perpetually white from drinking only breastmilk

#6 Sticking out tongue:
We all have a great time sticking our tongues out at baby Z and then watching him stick his tongue back out at us

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They Might Be Giants

Just a few minutes ago, I heard T saying, "Z lives his life in a garbage can." Hmm. What is he talking about? Is this some manner of sibling frustration at getting replaced as the youngest kid in the family?

Perhaps. But probably not. After I asked him about it, he told me it was from Particle Man--all save the Z part:

Person man, person man
Hit on the head with a frying pan
Lives his life in a garbage can
Person man

My kids have been really into They Might Be Giants (brand new album) Flood. The other morning, I was sleeping in a little bit after AJ and MJ had already left, and I awoke to vigorous singing of "Not to put too fine a point on it, Say I'm the only bee in your bonnet, Make a little birdhouse in your soul" and "after chasing Jason off and countless screaming Argonauts." They especially love this one and Istanbul (not Constantinople).

Back in 1990, I started college. Two of my uncles were also there, and they helped me get settled in a bit there. I took American Heritage with one of them who was just fresh of a mission. Anyway, they introduced me to They Might Be Giants and Flood. Listening to it with my kids brings back lots of memories. Living in Helaman Halls, jogging around the track nearby. The album is great fun.

Since having kids, we have really liked listening to They Might Be Giants albums for kids. When Maren was small, No! had just been released and we listened to it a lot. She loved "Don't cross the street in the middle, in the middle, in the middle of the block" and we listened to it over and over. One afternoon, when she was 8 or 9 months old, my sister and I had taken a trip out to the Ikea on Long Island. I guess we pushed our limits with MJ, because towards the end of our trip, she started screaming and wouldn't stop. The only thing that would calm her down is that song, and we listened to it over and over and over. Later that summer, we took her to a concert in Central Park to hear them in concert. It started at a hour much past her bedtime. She started getting fussy during the opening act, but once TMBG started playing, she was happy and engaged and dancing around--as much dancing as a pre-walking baby can do.

We still haven't gotten their new cd Here Come the 123s. But, we did just find that they have just started video podcasting for kids and we have enjoyed watching some videos.

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Thursday, April 10, 2008

"Self improvement" books

The next few books that I have to read are all for the purpose of betterment. For myself, for my kids, for my family. I resist reading these kinds of books because for the most part, I don't think that they are very interesting. And it takes up precious reading time that could be spent in more engaging books. Plus, they require that, if I agree with their tenets and conclusions, that I step up and make a plan in order to incorporate their principles into my life. Not to mention that I find them too common, with their "inspiring" anecdotes and cheesy covers, that I am embarrassed about reading them. (Yes, I am an elitist book snob.) And lastly, they aren't typically books that you read from cover to cover. All of these things put them squarely in a different camp from what I typically read. But, the time has come for these and because of various timing reasons, they are all up on the "next to read" list. I'll have to see if any of them merit their own post once I'm done.

They include:

1. One for me about exercise and nutrition. I'm motivated right now about weight loss and fitness, so I hope this will help me with some struture. It's all about a 12-week program. I like the specifics. I will let you know in 12 weeks what I think of the program and how it worked.

2. One for baby Z about sleeping. It's amazing--he's sleeping sooo well at night. Much better than either of my others. I will scan the sections relevant for his age and work on a few things with him. He will need to start learning to go to sleep by himself in a month of so.

3. A couple of parenting books. One just came up at the library. A good friend recommended it and talked about how much it has helped her with her kids. And I figured if I'm going to read one, I may as well read another that has been sitting by my bed for a while.

4. One for our family. This one is a how to book on gardening. Pick a small patch of well lit yard, build a little garden container, and make a square foot garden. A friend did this last year. It was small enough that they could maintain it, and they got some nice produce from it.

Phew. That's more than enough self improvement for one time. I am saving the two books I have on how I can get my kids to do housework and how I can get myself to do housework for later.

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A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

By Dave Eggers. This book is interesting not so much for its content but for the way it is written. Described as post-modern, it is a stream of consciousness memoir about two brothers, ages 22 and 8, whose parents die within weeks of each other and then their life together as the older brother becomes the caretaker and parent of the younger. I started it out feeling intrigued and interested. Their adventures and lived lifes were zany and sometime hilarious. But, it got long. It would have been better if it were 100 pages shorter. And there was too much "language" for my taste, even though I think my bar is set pretty low.

I liked this paragraph from the NYTimes book review

''A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius'' is, finally, a book of finite jest, which is why it succeeds so brilliantly. Eggers's most powerful prose is often his most straightforward, relying on old-fashioned truth telling for its punch. In a scene that is moving, funny and terrible all at once, he returns to Lake Forest for the first time since his parents died and tries to scatter his mother's cremains into Lake Michigan. The ashes, which he is surprised to discover resemble cat litter instead of the biblical dust he was expecting, keep sticking to his sweaty palms. He spills some and stoops to pick them up, and in the process spills some more. Then he accidentally steps on them. He is aghast: ''I am a monster. My poor mother. She would do this without the thinking, without the thinking about thinking.''

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My Sister's Keeper

By Jodi Picoult. Ah, a good fiction read. And what I mean by a good fiction read here is nice beach vacation kind of light read, plot driven to the end. But, it wasn't all fluff. The main dilemma of the story--the ethics of genetically engineering a child and then using her blood and organs to support an older, sick child and the family dymanics that are involved when a child is suffering from severe illness--are thought provoking. All in all, the story was interesting and compelling. The characters were interesting for the most part. And the ending? Well. That threw me for a loop. I kept wondering how it would end. And wow. Picoult pulled out a good one with it.

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Sunday, April 06, 2008

To Nurture

Susan W. Tanner from this morning's session of General Conference.

"To nuture is to teach, to foster development, to promote growth, to feed, and to nourish...The scriptures use the word nurture only twice and in both cases speak of the responsibility of parents to raise their children "in the nurture and admonition of the Lord." President Hinckley also admonished both men and women to be nurturers.

This seems to be quite different from "Another word for nurturing is homemaking."

And I love how she clearly states that men and women should both be nurturers.

One small issue I had with her talk. I didn't like how she implies that the innate gift to nurture comes solely by virture of having XX chromosomes.

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Saturday, April 05, 2008

It's all relative

Disclosure: This is about my physical appearance. I don't like to admit that body issues bother me--I am beyond the typical body compulsions that most American women feel, all those unrealistic expectations they have about what they should look like, right? And I don't like to talk about my insecurities. I don't like to hear other people (read: some of my sisters) obsess about their bodies. But, yet, here it is.

On and off the past few weeks, I have been depressed about my weight. Ugh. So much to lose. My least favorite part of going to the dr when I was pregnant was getting weighed. Kind of silly, because it's the one time you're supposed to be gaining weight, but for me, I knew that it wasn't just baby weight and I was going to have to deal with it sooner or later. The first time I went back to the gym, at about 3 weeks post-birth, I got on the scale and knew the time had come to deal with it.

The big belly, the last couple of months before birth, dwarfs all other weight gain. It just felt like it was all belly. Then, when the belly is gone (or at least, when the baby is born) then the weight on the rest of the body becomes crystal clear. Before the birth, everyone smiles at you and your "cute belly." Afterwards, you're just one of thousands of chubby Americans. I want to wear a sign on me saying, "I just had a baby. That's why I'm chubby like this!"

The weight will come off, I know. By the time I'm done breastfeeding, I might be somewhere close to my more normal weight. And that's the other depressing thing. The breastfeeding boost to breasts are dwarfed by the extra weight other places. By the time the weight it gone, I'll be back to nearly A. Or worse.

Lucky for me, I have a really cute baby. I can divert attention from myself and my insecurities by placing him strategically on my lap, in front of the leftovers from the pregnant belly.

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Is it hypocritical to say "Amen" when you don't agree with everything said in a prayer? Or can you say a conditional "Amen", setting aside that which you object to? Or is it better just to not say "Amen" at all?
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