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Archive for February, 2012

Sweet Reading

Pictures books can be a great medium to introduce traditions to children, especially those that a child isn’t likely to encounter at all, or experience only partially.

Take Diwali, for instance. My mother’s vivid stories of the festivities when she was a child herself differ considerably from my own Diwali experiences. Living in another country where the festival does not warrant a public holiday, my own rendering of Diwali is so modified, that I suspect my son might never really feel the Diwali spirit, which is very like, and yet very unlike, the mood that prevails during Christmas in the West. I know that a scrapbook of photos and notes could tell the story much much better than I ever can. It would begin on the eve of Diwali, with the shikakai paste and sesame oil being set aside for the next day’s ritual hair wash; with the new clothes being neatly laid out, ready for tomorrow; with buttery goodies being lovingly made, some sweet and others savory; with the traditional deepavali leghiyam being prepared, a digestive intended to offset the effects of over indulgence. Details that would require artful illustrations. And there is a lot more to Diwali than the firecrackers, really.

Maple Syrup Season written by Ann Purmell and illustrated by Jill Weber is much like a scrapbook. The story is set in the Brockwell family’s sugar bush and follows the enthusiastic aunts, uncles, grandfathers, grandmothers and cousins as they get busy one maple syrup season tapping, collecting and boiling sap into sweet, thick syrup. There really isn’t much of a plot, except to follow the various members of the family as they harmoniously work to make syrup and reap the sweet rewards of their hard work. It does make the point that making syrup is hard, hard work that requires many hands, many early mornings and late nights in snowy winter and early spring. The illustrations are cheerful and busy with lots of details. My two and a half year old  enjoyed spotting and naming our winter friends, some that he has see in his own backyard: robins, cardinals, blue jays, squirrels, and deer, red foxes, owls and chipmunks. He may not have understood the syrup making process down to the last detail, but he does know that sap comes from trees, which is then cooked to make the maple syrup and treats that he so enjoys. He knows that holes are made in trees and spouts inserted, so that the sap can drip into buckets. When we followed-up our many book-reading sessions with a maple sugaring event on a windy afternoon, he got to see it all: sap, spouts and buckets. He can now make a connection between the food that he eats and the trees that he sees during summer walks

He was not the only one that learned a thing or two. I’ll be the first to admit that Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children’s Book. Well, many things. I learned about maple sugaring terminology, while my son learned  a new word: hibernation. He might have also learned to appreciate winter fashion and the different styles of winter hats. Maybe he will reject his blue trapper hat and demand a beanie. Maybe.

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To Have? Or to Have Not?

We all know infertility can be an ordeal, and many talented writers/artists who’ve had the misfortune to experience it have chronicled their arduous journies, such as Phoebe Potts in her memorable graphic memoir, Good Eggs. Infertility, like most other conditions, has many many dimensions, the least of which is the inability to have a child. Relationship dynamics is always affected, self-esteem often suffers, and much time and money are spent on what becomes an obsession. The moneyed invest in IVF and therapy, and endure much pain, and the non-moneyed speculate on whether money could have bought them a biological child and endure much pain.

Peggy Orenstein’s memoir Waiting for Daisy: A Tale of Two Continents, Three Religions, Five Infertility Doctors, an Oscar, an Atomic Bomb, a Romantic Night, and One Woman’s Quest to Become a Mother is a story of distress and longing, but it also describes Orenstein’s deep-rooted contradictions and confusion. The book’s rather long subtitle somewhat summarizes the struggle, but not her emotional anguish. The title also kills much of the suspense – you know there is a baby girl at the end of the story somewhere, unlike Good Eggs.

Orenstein’s woe partly stems from the way she identifies herself – a feminist, pro-choice, strongly attached to her career. As she watches many of her gifted friends settle down into full-time motherhood, she speaks of feeling scorn and pity, while at the same time envying them for their conviction. She also witnesses the exhaustion and resentment that working mothers stomach. Seeing her peers feeling either trapped or burned out (or both), she notices how “so many women were smitten with their children while begrudging everything their husbands did or didn’t do” and wonders if having a child precludes some semblance of a fulfilling career life:

Last time  checked, childlessness was only supposed to be a condition of career advancement for nuns.

Certain about her feminist identity, she struggles to reconcile her feminist self with motherhood and the resulting disarray to her life, and expresses her confusion, thus:

“I was clear about who I didn’t want to be like, but not who I did. So many people I knew – women and men – had tumbled into their lives without much thought defaulted into marriages, careers, and parenthood because that was what one was supposed to do. I wanted to live my life more consciously. But what did that mean? How could I guess what I might regret in twenty years?”

While some of us claim to not have any of this confusion or regrets, I know many (including me) whose twenties were plagued by self-doubt, and a burning desire to figure things out and carve out our own unique path. Her confusion speaks to me on many levels. Her story is unique in that, despite her strong ambivalence about motherhood, she tries so desperately to get pregnant.

Orenstein’s journey also has other painful twists. Much like Giuliana Rancic, she receives a breast cancer diagnosis at 35, as part of pre-conception tests. When she finally receives the green signal to try to conceive, she faces numerous setbacks and one too many miscarriages. Compounding the situation is her mounting desperation which almost jeopardizes her marriage to Academy Award winning filmmaker Steven Okazaki. Although, clearly the marriage is based on mutual respect and tenderness, Okazaki’s attitude sometimes seems puzzlingly cold. On one occasion, after losing yet another fetus/baby, Orenstein wretchedly tells her husband:

“I’m so sad. And I’m scared.

He shrugged. “You have to learn to roll with it, Peg.”

Orenstein rationalizes Okazaki’s seeming lack of sensitivity as due to his stoic Samurai side (Okazaki is Japanese-American). Okazaki does express his own  grief and apologizes later.

Orenstein’s state of minds throughout the memoir are (a) her single-minded pursuit to get knocked-up – not to become a mother, but to conceive, to get pregnant, as she admits on several occasions:

You don’t notice your motivation distorting, how conception rather than parenthood becomes the goal, how invested you become in its “achievement”

and (b) her eternal confusion about her own identity and desires. “How was it that despite my achievements, my education, my professed feminist politics, my self-worth had been reduced to whether or not I could produce a child?”, she ponders. Her confusion often results in dishonestly, both to herself and others as when she lets a well-intentioned person think she is quite keen about adopting a Japanese baby, when in fact she is not sure at all. She avoids, dissembles, and lies outright.

Orenstein, strongly pro-choice, is also at loss to explain her abject misery over her miscarriages. If what she lost was but a fetus, and not yet a life, why was she so distraught? Why did she feel a connection to her 6-week old fetus? And how did she feel it snap when the fetus stopped growing? She struggles to make sense of this loss of a being not legally living, but something potentially living, almost a child. Miscarriages are not that uncommon. And yet, she notes, the English language (and many others) do not offer women the tools or words to express and deal with their loss.

…there is no word in English for a miscarriage or aborted fetus. How better to bury a topic than to make it quite literally unspeakable?

Orenstein ventures that pregnancy begins much earlier now than half a century ago. While our mothers got their pregnancies confirmed a good month or so after they missed their period, these days First Response proudly announces that it can tell you six days before you’ve even missed your period. The pregnancy and the fetus/baby are more real – you can track the size of your child’s toe nails online and even listen to its vigorously pumping heart. You can even get an ultrasound picture. A miscarriage is that much harder when you’ve formed an attachment to this tiny kidney bean that you know intimately well.

The Japanese language, however, does have a word for the dead fetus.

In Japanese, it is mizuko, which is translated as “water child”…A mizuko lay somewhere along the continuum, in that liminal space between life and death but belonging to neither.

Orenstein finds solace at a temple of Jizo, a beloved Bodhisattva, revered by the Japanese as the protector of dead children. There is something profoundly human and moving about a staunch feminist, hitherto questioning the parental decisions of fellow women, being completely defined by her longing for a child; and a fiercely pro-choice woman mourning the death of her 6-week old ‘baby’ and seeking to find calm by making offerings to strange Gods. We are all shaped by our life experiences. We live, wonder, and are affected.

Born into a Jewish family, Orenstein also discusses women in Judaism. She explains why menstruation is considered impure:

Death is considered impure in traditional Judaism and since menstruation represents the monthly loss of potential life, so is a woman having her period.

I now have some explanation for a practice my own culture has practiced. Whether I agree with it is another matter. Orenstein also speaks of her college sweetheart who defends Judaism’s attitude towards women:

It’s a distortion of American culture to think that the person who has the greatest influence on a child’s values and development is inferior to the one who brings in the money. Men may have imposed that ideology, but the women who didn’t glorify the domestic role contributed to it, too.

My own experience has been that women have glorified the domestic role, while at the same time insisting that this role is exclusively women’s and that men’s roles are unconditionally superior.

Orenstein’s story is graphically intimate, funny, deeply moving, and very, very engaging. I look forward to reading her other works.

Waiting for Daisy: A Tale of Two Continents, Three Religions, Five Infertility Doctors, an Oscar, an Atomic Bomb, a Romantic Night, and One Woman’s Quest to Become a Mother is my entry to the What’s in a name 5 challenge – a book  with a topographical feature (land formation) in the title.

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Dunne’s Private Eden

Great sunrises are among the uncelebrated benefits of being a bird watcher.

                                                                                                                                          – Pete Dunne in Bayshore Summer

And yet, Bayshore Summer is not another Pete Dunne birding odyssey. It is an ode to the Jersey shore, intended to “portray  and preserve something of the unique and dwindling heritage of this little-known region” and to “honor dying traditions because readers, already estranged from the land, may wish to know them”.

Even as an outsider, a non-native who has lived in this country for less than a decade, I can sense that the Garden State, New Jersey, is considered exceedingly uncool. Why, only yesterday, someone called the state ‘the armpit of the USA’. Pete Dunne is a New Jersey native. Not only that, he has chosen to spend much of his adult life in “arguably the most maligned state in the Union”. His New Jersey is not one of congested turnpikes and plentiful traffic, much of which is headed towards the ‘city’. He comes from southern New Jersey, far from the madding crowd, and lives in quiet, rural Cumberland county which the trusty Wikipedia describes as “a low-lying, generally featureless coastal county, with many salt marshes near the Delaware Bay”. Featureless, or not, much of southern, coastal New Jersey has a rich natural heritage and tremendous ecological value. As an advocate of the region, Dunne writes with affection, contemplation and sadness on what the bayshore was, is, and he fears, will become.

Dunne begins on a sunny Memorial Day,a harbinger of summer. The warm season in NJ is contained between two “legislatively contrived and non-celestial” holidays. Summer(unofficially) begins on Memorial Day and (unofficially) ends on Labor Day. After feasting, visually of course, on shorebirds, Dunne delves into the delicate relationship between shorebirds, horseshoe crabs (whose eggs provide the birds with the fuel to travel to Arctic breeding grounds), and man (who has over-harvested the crabs). Over the next two hundred odd pages, he traps crabs, loads salt hay, and goes fishing in the waters of Delaware Bay. He also discusses New Jersey predators. Green eyed (some), blood thirsty, winged tormentors.

Flies.

Such as the innocent sounding strawberry fly, or the more notorious greenhead fly. Despite harboring such loathsome offenders, New Jersey remains Dunne’s object of devotion. Perhaps, Jersey Tomatoes have something to do with this. As a (Jersey tomato) fan says in the book:

“There isn’t much that you can say that’s nice about New Jersey… but it sure does have the best tomatoes.”

Discussing bayshore institutions, such as tomato farming and poaching (yes, poaching), and bemoaning the light pollution that has stolen the stars from Jersey’s night sky, Dunne also mentions interesting asides, such as:

What is Wawa?

Wawa, in the language of the Lenape people, means “goose”, and the Canada goose is the emblematic bird of the Wawa chain.

Indeed. And I thought it was a silly two syllable name for a convenience store (and never noticed it’s logo – to my credit, I haven’t many Wawas and have never stepped into one).

Dunne’s books, whether they discuss birding or not, share a common thread: our relationship and estrangement to the natural world and its consequences. As in the rest of the world, man is guilty of over-harvesting the finite treasures that the Jersey shore has to offer. Dunne expresses his dream: restricted development, and a national heritage designation that will afford the area the biological protection it sorely deserves. And strict standards. And starry starry nights.

Dunne’s books, whether they discuss birding or not, share another common thread: his strange conversations with inanimate objects and, in this book, a long-dead person. In Prairie Spring, Dunne chatted with the painting of a horse, in Feather Quest, he spoke to a tree, and in Bayshore Summer, he continues the tradition by striking a conversation, rather one-sided, with a nineteenth-century nature book writer, Dallas Lore Sharp (1870-1929). Sharp, who sang the praises of Cumberland county in his books, focused on “getting people – most specifically young people – out into the natural world”. His books, are of course, a century old, and sadly dated. An updated version of this, “a literal blueprint for getting young people out and engaging the natural world” would not only be timely, but really a perfect project for a nature enthusiast and gifted writer like Dunne. It would also make an excellent gift for my son.

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Although I suspect that reading The Tightwad Gazette III is not going to reduce my monthly expenses by half, I did enjoy Amy Dacyczyn’s witty, unpretentious style and found her stories and tips inspiring and engaging. Because much of the issues discussed are still relevant, I almost forgot that her commentary and advice is from nearly two decades ago. Just then, I was jolted back to 2012 with one reader’s recommendation on thrifty communication.

Dear Amy,

Many people are using E-mail these days. They communicate through computers via Prodigy, AmericaOnline, or even free networks.

I don’t know if the fact that I am not really familiar either Prodigy or AmericaOnline indicates that I am ignorant or far too au courant.

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In the case of a purely instructional comic, particularly in the case of a behavioral or attitudinal piece, the specifics of the information are frequently overlarded with humor (exaggeration), to attract the reader’s attention, convey relevance, and set up visual analogies and recognizable life situations. This inserts ‘entertainment’ into a ‘technical work’.

Will Eisner in Comics and Sequential Art

Daniel H. Pink cleverly taps the comic’s potential to instruct and motivate in his The Adventures of Johnny Bunko, which he proclaims is The Last Career Guide You’ll Ever Need. Pink uses a small cast of characters, comprising of Johnny Bunko himself – a young, bored, uninspired management trainee who, Pink insists, is a “lot like you and me…a good person basically” and a spiky-haired, supernatural career counselor, Diana. Joining them are Bunko’s various bosses and sidekicks, all splendidly multi-ethnic in a story that aims to impart career-related wisdom.

Using a manga-like medium (even though it doesn’t read back-to-front or right-to-left like traditional manga does), is certainly an ingenious approach to dispense career advice. Pink also keeps his counsel pleasantly succinct: six rules, no more. He uses a simple narrative to prove his point, that these six lessons are all one needs for a satisfying, successful career. His style is not fussy or pedantic, and the story serves to make the rules sticky.

Clever, certainly, but calling it ‘the last career guide you’ll ever need’ might be stretching it far too much. Although Pink has done a fairly good job of distilling  his career lessons into six short, simple rules, I don’t necessarily agree with all of them:

  • There is no plan
  • Think strengths, not weaknesses.
  • It’s not about you.
  • Persistence trumps talent.
  • Make excellent mistakes.
  • Leave an imprint.

While the rest may qualify as excellent career advice, I do have a problem with Pink’s very first rule – ‘there is no plan’. While I agree with the premise that life is complicated and unpredictable and that there is no real way to map it all out, and that it is better to do “what turns you on”, I don’t think that might be the best career advice for everyone. Pink, via Diana, urges us to ape what successful people do and how they think:

…they understand what you and your dad and your college advisor don’t.

While our dads and our college advisors may know less about us than ourselves, I’ve found that sometimes the unlikeliest people can make you have an ‘aha’ moment or point you in the right direction. ‘There is no plan’ is probably not the best way to summarize this piece of advice, which emphasizes that parents, teachers and counselors are often wrong, and might only lead to young people shutting their ears to all but their own ideas. Yes, you cannot map it all out, and there is no real way to know if you’ve taken the best path. So, don’t chose a path that you know you will loathe, don’t put all your eggs in one basket, and talk to as many people as you can. And that, is a plan. Discover, network, converse. And modify your plan when and as you see fit.

In my experience, career advice is sometimes like fashion. It is exciting and new one season, and dated the next. When I was growing up, and looking for my first job (not all that long ago, actually), Pink’s advice would have been innovative and inspiring. I am talking about a time when we were urged to begin our resume with an Objective whose sole purpose was to announce what you wanted to do with your life. Most life aspirations sounded unoriginal, dull and insipid, something like ‘To gain knowledge and advance in my career’. We were also encouraged to stick with tried and tested routes that led to secure careers. Life has, since then, changed and so has the name of my hometown. Pink’s advice is hardly groundbreaking, but it is brief and pithy.

The plot is weak in places, but the characters and format are interesting enough that I’d recommend high schoolers and college students give it a try.

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