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Archive for May, 2012

Coming of Age in China

About two months ago, I received The Little Red Guard: A Family Memoir (2012) by Wenguang Huang, as part of a LibraryThing Early Reviewers giveaway. Based on the blurb and description provided, I expected a moving and perhaps humorous story set in Communist China of the 1970s. Huang’s memoir is remarkably poignant, and he is certainly has a sense of humor, but The Little Red Guard is also a surprisingly complex story of an unfamiliar culture at a particular period in its history, and the familiar struggles of its people.

The Chinese belief that “When a person reaches the age of seventy-three or eighty-four, the King of Hell is most likely to make his call”, leads Huang’s grandmother to obsessively start preparing for her death when she turns seventy-one. Believing that being buried next to her late husband is the only way to join him in the afterlife, Grandma endlessly urges her obedient son, the author’s father, to promise to bury her properly. The family then sets about acquiring a coffin and burial clothes, and making plans to ensure a befitting burial – which consumes their energies and finances for the next decade and a half, and leads to conflict and comedy, but mostly conflict. All this in the 1970s,  during China’s Cultural Revolution, when traditional practices and elements, including burials, were strictly banned from Chinese society.

… in the 1970s, buying a coffin for a living person in the city was considered an act of defiance against the Party policies and punishment could be severe.

The family lives under the stress of the risk of discovery, which would certainly destroy all prospects for Huang and his siblings. The book’s blurb…

The unbending dictates of Communist China pit one generation against another in this story of a family’s fifteen-year struggle to honor a grandmother’s final wish.

…certainly sums up this story well. But only that story. Undoubtedly, Grandma’s death wish, which Huang describes in this essay in The Paris Review, is a major theme that runs throughout the book, but it is so much more than that – a rich account of   private lives and public performances from a remarkably different time and place.

I’ve visited China earlier through books, but they have either been through the eyes of a non-Chinese person (River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze), or set before Communism took root in the country (The Rape of Nanking and The Good Earth). River Town does offer some glimpses into Communist living, but mostly public Communist living. The Little Guard was a good starting point to remedy my ignorance.

It is quite remarkable how an ideology can take over every aspect of people’s lives. Even their names.

In the mid-1960s, many parents opted for more progressive names for their sons to express their loyalty to the Party: “Yaojin”, to honor Chairman Mao’s Great Leap Forward; or “Wenge”, the Cultural Revolution; or “Weihong”, “defending the Red Revolution”.

Huang’s own name, Wenguang, which has something to do with being scholarly, was thus quite nontraditional coming from a family that embraced Communist ideology. But only in public. Even though Huang’s father was quite the model party member, the family’s (and other families’) private opinions and practices were quite different, even contradictory, evident in the trouble they took to purchase the hard-to-acquire coffin and other accessories required for a proper burial. They did, however, practice contradiction with caution, for you couldn’t be too careful with the communist climate encouraging neighbors, relatives, siblings, parents, and children to rat on each other. Very big brother-esque.

Father gave me a serious look [when Grandma mocked their Communist ideas] and said, “Don’t listen to your grandma and don’t tell the others what she says. She is illiterate and backward in thinking”. As I left the room, I heard him tell Grandma, “Watch out. He doesn’t know any better and could talk to his friends. If they report us to the authorities, they might think those were my ideas”. It was true.

The Red Guards were a youth organization, mobilized by Chairman Mao Zedong, to make and keep China red. Huang was the head of the Little Red Guards and the Communist Youth League throughout his elementary and high-school years. He writes:

As a “Little Red Guard”, I was supposed to defend and fight for Chairman Mao’s revolution, not to guard Grandma’s coffin. Each time I looked at the “Little Red Guard” scarf that I wore around my neck at school, I felt a pang of guilt. I was even hit with a fleeting thought of reporting it to my teacher. Then, the idea of seeing Father being paraded publicly deterred me.

Communist indoctrination began at a young age.

When American preschoolers reading Dr. Seuss or watching Sesame Street, we were memorizing Chairman Mao, starting with his simpler quotations and graduating to whole essays by elementary school. Thanks to visits to Mother’s factory, my revolutionary vocabulary was extensive because I asked what this or that character meant until I could easily read banners – DOWN WITH THE COUNTER-REVOLUTIONARIES AND RIGHTISTS and THE WORKING CLASS IS THE LEADER OF THE REVOLUTION. When I became the first memorize the three famous essays by Chairman Mao in first grade, I was made class leader.

Little Huang had to deal with these, often dangerous, contradictions between his public persona and his family’s private practices. He writes about walking the tightrope – sharing forbidden secrets with classmates, being constantly prodded by teachers to stay true to their Communist faith, and surprised by his father who espoused Communism on the surface but acted very differently at home. Lest you think that Grandma’s elaborate burial plan was motivated by a sense of duty co-existing with Communist beliefs, Huang writes about his confused childhood.

Often, the teachings I received at home contradicted what I was taught in school. For example, the most important lessons at home were about filial piety…In my third year at elementary school, we were taught that filial piety was part of the Old Confucian philosophy, which needed to be eliminated. “Only Chairman Mao and the Communist Party are your closest relatives”, said our teacher. “If your parents or relatives engage in any counterrevolutionary activities, you should not hesitate in reporting them or publicly denouncing them. It is a true test of your revolutionary will.”

Ideological differences aside, Huang also speaks of differences in culture, much of the sort we hear in presentations on cross-cultural adaptability.

Unlike parents and teachers in the West, who encourage children to stand out from the crowd, be confident, unique and let their individuality shine, my parents insisted that I be ting hua or obedient and conforming, because “the gun will shoot the head of the flock.” Speaking from his own experience, Father warned me, “Don’t show off and be overly aggressive at school. Go with the flow. Otherwise, if anything goes wrong, you are likely to be a bigger target.”

He talks of the emphasis on rote learning as a way to discourage creativity and critical thinking. Echoing what Nurtureshock has to say about the inverse power of praise, Huang also notes that:

My parents, like many in China at the time, believed that praise led to arrogance and that criticism encourages children to aim higher. Throughout my school years, my academic performance was among the best in the class. Never once did I hear my parents praise me.

In 1974, Huang is designated coffin-keeper at age nine and shares his room with a big black secret coffin. Apart from describing his family’s preparations to honor Grandma’s wishes, the author also reflects on his own coming of age and changing worldview, from being deeply entrenched in Communist ideals as a child, to becoming a “bona fide Capitalist” who even tries to cut all ties to his Chinese self and past. Huang’s journey begins when he gains admission into the prestigious Xi’an Foreign Languages School and following China’s open-door policy in the 1980s, visits the United Kingdom as an undergraduate student. Being exposed to Western philosophy, witnessing intoxicating freedom and encouragement of critical thought in the West, Huang becomes increasingly disenchanted with the tenets of Communism. As the years of Communist indoctrination slowly wear off, Huang seeks to escape what he calls an “oppressive environment” by moving to the United States, where he is accepted at a graduate program.

Traveling back to China later, Huang speaks of Xi’an, his hometown, transformed in much the same way as Akash Kapur writes of India in India Becoming.

The courtyard houses were gone. Skysrapers punctuated the skyline, and gaudy traditional-style retail outlets lined the widened streets, and loud billboards glittered with the universally exclusive consumerist icons of Chanel and Rolex in the hastening dusk…Nowadays, all is transition and impermanence. In today’s rapidly changing China, both the living and the dead must give way to development…People are no longer to their birthplaces, and as they search for better job opportunities, many have migrated to the sprawling cities and to distant parts of the world.

Towards the end, the reader begins to realize what the book is really about. Huang grows somewhat estranged from his father in his college years, in part due to his father’s obsession with tradition. Ironically, his grandmother outlives his father, who dies an untimely death at age 60. At his father’s funeral, Huang deliberately sets aside ritual, and does not deliver the expected  long and touching eulogy that tradition demands of him. In his later years, Huang regrets his behavior. This book is his eulogy.

This book represents my effort to make up for my foolish reticence at Father’s funeral in November 1988. It is also my attempt to rescue an obscure family story that I believe speaks universally to the contradictions that are thrown in our paths as we grow up.

 

My only criticism of this book is that the title simply doesn’t do it justice. In retrospect, I think the title suits the work admirably.

 

 

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This year, I challenged myself to read 60 books. While that does not seem like a lot (and really isn’t much), I remember scrambling to finish my 60th book last year before the clock struck twelve on December 31st. This year, I’ve managed to manage my time better and have made good progress towards my reading goals. Its May and I’ve already read 31 books.

This year, I’m trying to step out of my comfort zone and read books about people, places and things which haven’t featured much on my reading lists thus far. I ventured into Nordic crime fiction, which has been quite enjoyable. Watching the Icelandic movie Jar City, based on Arnaldur Indridason’s book of the same name (in English), kindled my curiosity about his other works of crime fiction that feature the cynical Detective Erlendur Sveinsson. The titles of his books, their covers, and his narrative, all conjure a picture of Icelandic landscape that is frigid, barren, desolate and very intriguing. Since then, I’ve read Silence of the Grave (2001) and, more recently, Hypothermia (2007). My standards for crime fiction are impossibly high – I’ve never met a book I’ve been compelled to rate with even 4.5 stars, and I’m always mildly disappointed by how the stories end. I find Indridason’s works entertaining enough to go back for more of them.

Entertaining enough, despite being distracted by his occasional quirky narrative.

Karen was aware of the mountain Grimannsfell to her right, although she couldn’t see it, and Skalafell to her left. Next she drove past the turning to Vindashlid where she had once spent a two-week summer holiday as a child. She followed the red tail lights at a comfortable speed until they drove down through the Kerlingarhraun lava field, and there their ways parted. The red lights accelerated and disappeared into the darkness. She wondered if they were heading for the pass at Uxahryggir and north over the Kaldidalur mountain road. She had often taken that route herself. It was a beautiful drive down the Lundarreykjadalur valley to Borgarfjordur fjord. The memory of a lovely summer’s day once spent at Lake Sandkluftavatn came back to her.

I urge you to try and actually read these words and not just skim through them.

For centuries the main inland route from Eskifjordur to the Fljotsdalsherad district used to pass across Eskifjordur Moor. There was an old bridleway that ran north of the Eskifjordur River, inland along the Langihryggur ridge, up the near side of the Innri-Steinsa River, through the Vinardalur valley and over the Vinarbrekkur slopes to Mindheidarendi, then up onto Urdarflot and along the Urdarklettur crags until it left the Eskifjordur area. To the north of this is the Theverardalur valley flanked by the mountains Andri and Hardskafi, with Holarfjall and Sedheidi beyond them to the north.

To the best of my knowledge, these sections add nothing to the story. What place do they have in a thriller that aspires to be ‘gripping’?

He and Eva Lind started at Lake Ellidavatn where a new suburb had sprung up, then did a circuit of Raudavatn on a decent road, before continuing to Reynisvatn which had now disappeared behind the new suburb of Grafarholt. From there they drove past Langavatn and had a view of numerous little lakes on Middalsheidi Moor before slowly proceeding to Mosfellsheidi. They inspected Leirvogsvatn beside the road to Thingvellir, followed by Stiflisdalsvatn and Mjoavatn. It was late by the time they descended to Thingvellir, turned north and passed Sandkluftavatn which lay beside the road north of Hofmannaflot on the route over the pass at Uxahryggir and down the Lundarreykjadalur valley. They picnicked beside Litla-Brunnavatn, just off the road to Biskupsbrekka.

A fair amount of searching on the internet reveals that most (all?) of these Icelandic landmarks are real and Indridason’s exact descriptions of them might trigger nostalgia or some such emotion in an Icelander. A non-Icelander like me can either skip these sentences entirely, or take the time to hazard guesses, such as, perhaps fjordur refers to a specific topographical feature (maybe not), dalur refers to a valley, and vatn to a body of water.

My 31st book this year was also Nordic crime fiction, by Norwegian writer Jo Nesbo – The Redbreast (2000), part of the Harry Hole series. Hole, Nesbo’s detective, is a brilliant alcoholic, much younger than Detective Erlendur. The Redbreast is a rather long, fast-paced thriller, perfect movie material, and very engaging. Nesbo does not give us blow-by-blow accounts of Hole driving past various Norwegian landmarks, which is just as well. The Redbreast is part of a series, and does leave some loose threads, which should be resolved in its sequel(s). Currently, I am awaiting Headhunters (2008), a standalone novel also by Nesbo.

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When I search for Nurtureshock, the very first search result informs me that the book “has been featured on Good Morning America, Nightline, All Things Considered, Fresh Air, and in Newsweek”. It also has consistently good reviews across many websites that allow user-led discussions. Any residual reservations that one may have about reading a parenting manual, are addressed by the authors when they insist that they’re not the kind to parent by the book either. They then entice us with the tried and tested formula of telling us how the book will challenge many of our “bedrock assumptions” and question what we’ve always assumed to be true.

The central premise of this book is that many of modern society’s strategies for nurturing children are in fact backfiring – because key twists in science have been overlooked.

Nurtureshock: New thinking about children, written by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, is divided into several chapters, each addressing a trait or behavior that parents may consider desirable or undesirable in their children, but will agree are wholly unavoidable: confidence, intelligence, lying, sibling tension, teen rebellion, aggressive behavior, self-control, and so on.

Praise

The first chapter, and the best in my opinion, works on shattering the myth that praising children’s intelligence boosts their confidence. Research has shown that children who are praised for being smart, and praised frequently, begin to discount the importance of effort, get more competitive and become risk-averse. Even before I became a parent, I noticed how at playgrounds, parties, and other public spaces where I encountered children, parents, both enthusiastic and distracted, were generous with ‘Good job!’ and ‘Great work!’. And why not? Conventional wisdom says that expressions of praise boost a child’s self-esteem, and self-esteem is an important predictor of later success. What parent would not want to be thought of as encouraging and unconditionally loving?

Interestingly, research has found that parents might have a less noble agenda:

…the continued appeal of self-esteem is largely tied to parents’ pride in their children’s achievements: it’s so strong that “when they praise their kids, it’s not that far from praising themselves.”

Praise, researchers says, works best when it is not frequent, but intermittent; when it is really specific and sincere. Let your child know that he did a good job listening to you, or being careful with his books, or not spilling her fruit. Let them know that the effort they put in is important; that the brain is a muscle, it grows and becomes smarter when you challenge it.

Sleep

For many new parents, the joy of parenthood can be dulled by the rather debilitating sleep deprivation they face those first few months. Soon, the baby starts sleeping for longer periods of time, and the parents’ bodies learns to cope with what it learns is going to be a chronic condition. Parents learn to function with half the amount of sleep they are used to. Bronson and Merryman say that parents often forget that children and adults are built differently, and assume that what works for adults, works for children as well. Since praise works well in adults, they assume it must do their kids a world of good. Since adults seem to be able to function fairly well with moderate sleep deprivation, they reason that their kids might be tired but they’ll manage just like their parents do. Not true.

[In children] “a loss of one hour of sleep is equivalent to [the loss of] two years of cognitive maturation and development”.

Several scholars have noted that many hallmark traits of modern adolescence – moodiness, impulsiveness, disengagement – are also symptoms of chronic sleep deprivation.

Among the middle schoolers and high schoolers studied, the odds of obesity went up 80% for each hour of lost sleep.

The lesson here is to protect your child’s sleep time consistently. Sometimes, parents tend to schedule their children’s bedtime around their own convenience. Understand that children need sleep more than adults, and are affected by sleep deprivation differently.

Talking about race

Parents also assume that exposing children to diverse environments is essential and sufficient for their kids to understand that everyone is equal. Not true.

…kids are developmentally prone to in-group favoritism; they’re going to form these preferences on their own. Children categorize everything from food to toys to people at a young age. However, it takes years before their cognitive abilities allow them to successfully use more than one attribute to categorize anything. In the meantime, the attribute they rely on is that which is the most clearly visible.

…which is often the color of their skin, the shape of their eyes, or the language they speak.

Merely sending your child to a diverse school is no guarantee they’ll have better racial attitudes than children at homogenous schools – they self-segregate by race and ethnicity within the school.

So, be explicit about how it is wrong to judge people based on these attributes, and don’t shush your kids when they bring it up on their own.

Lying

Contrary to what most parents think, their children tell lies and learn to do so at a very young age. Their lies are mostly motivated by a desire to avoid conflicts and displeasing their parents. They start with bad, obvious lies (saying they didn’t take the cookie when they are holding one) and move on to more sophisticated deception (learning to dust the crumbs after they take a cookie), as they learn what works and what doesn’t. Lying is actually a huge developmental milestone, and a sign of intelligence.

Be more aware of your own ‘white’ lies, as children are keen observers, and learn a lot from their parents. No matter how big or small, white or not, don’t let kids’ lies go unnoticed. In addition to teaching them that lying is wrong, teach them the value of being honest. Kids usually know that lying is wrong, so the threat of punishment alone is not going to keep them from lying. Let them know explicitly that you will not be upset by whatever they have done, and will be happy if they do tell you the truth. Don’t try to trap kids and try to test their honesty (by asking them angrily, “did you do this?”, when clearly they have done ‘it’).

Intelligence and IQ tests

Again, unlike in adults, measured intelligence is not a constant in children. IQ tests administered to children are not meaningful until they reach second or third grade, and are not good predictors of academic success when given to younger children. The authors use supporting research to make the point that by testing for intelligence in preschoolers, the ‘gifted children’ programs are not allowing for late-bloomers to test in. This flawed structure also often does not allow for retesting in the later years to ensure that the children who got in the programs really belong there.

As a child ages, the location of intellectual processing shifts. The neural network a young child relies on is not the same network he will rely on as an adolescent or adult. There is significant overlap, but the differences are striking. A child’s ultimate intellectual success will be greatly affected by the degree to which his brain learns to shift processing to these more efficient networks.

Sibling tension

Having a sibling does not necessarily translate to better social skills, especially in older siblings. Children learn social skills more from friends and non-sibling playmates (who they’ve to take care not to lose) and practice these skills on their siblings (who are always going to be there). If you have more than one child, encourage them to value each other’s company, and find common interests.

Teen rebellion

Although arguing with a teen-aged son or daughter can be the source of much distress for the parents, the teenagers themselves might think of arguments as constructive and strengthening. Teenage deception is as ubiquitous as preschool lying, and for much the same reasons – to avoid conflicts and unpleasantness. Being the super-permissive parent does not necessarily mean that your child will be less dishonest as kids can take it to mean that their parents don’t really care.

The type of parents who were lied to the least had rules and enforced them consistently, but they had found a way to be flexible that allowed the rule-setting process to still be respected.

Make fewer rules and enforce them, but be willing to listen to your child and negotiate if required. Be a collaborator and don’t stonewall them with the conversation ending “Don’t argue with me!”.

…moderate conflict with parents [during adolescence] is associated with better adjustment than either no-conflict or frequent conflict.

Self-control can be taught

Turns out that children can be taught to perform amidst distractions, control impulses and be disciplined. The authors discuss a pre-school program called Tools of the Mind, where kids come up with their own play-plan and script their imaginative play; engage in buddy reading in pairs, where they learn to take turns to read, listen while their partner is reading, and control their own impulses to read first; recognize ‘good’ work from average work where they’re asked to practice writing the alphabet and circle the best ‘A’ (or another letter) that they’ve written. Such exercises are thought to strengthen the part of the brain that is responsible for concentration and setting goals, develop an awareness of how well they are doing when their work is completed accurately and motivate them to perform better.

Being socially competent

Is aggressive behavior in children always a sign of future problems? In this chapter, the authors challenge the conventional notion that “a truly socially-competent child is non-aggressive” and alert parents to the idea that pro-social and antisocial behaviors are not necessarily the opposite ends of a single dimension, and that many kids tend to use both behaviors effectively. Even children who are not physically or verbally aggressive, may be what the authors call relationally aggressive and engage in ignoring peers, telling lies, or withdrawing their friendship. While parents tend not to let their kids watch violent television for obvious reasons, even educational media for kids might teach them to engage in these subtly aggressive behaviors (and in prosocial behaviors, as well). Children are also affected by the relationship between their parents.

The problem is not witnessing conflict between the parents, the problem is not witnessing the resolution of the conflict – being exposed to constructive marital conflict can actually be good for the children – if it doesn’t escalate, insults are avoided, and the dispute is resolved with affection. This improves their sense of security, over time, and increases their prosocial behavior at school as rated by teachers.

Language skills

Early language skills are not dependent on exposure but interaction.

The central role of the parent is not to push massive amounts of language into the baby’s ears; rather, the central role of the parent is to notice what’s coming from the baby, and respond accordingly.

In other words, parent responsiveness may have an impact on an infant’s rate of language acquisition.

This book is essentially a compilation of research, and because it deals with so many disparate topics and brings up the details of a number of research projects (which often seem to contradict each other’s findings), I did find the book rather overwhelming. I wish the authors had been a little more discriminating about discussing the research in detail, and dwelled a bit more on the practical implications of the findings. In some chapters, the authors do describe their experiences with their own children and I would have loved to read more of them.

The first chapter on praise made the most sense to me and I now mentally cringe everytime I praise my son with a ‘Very good’ and am learning to be more specific and less generous with my compliments. I am also learning to be more aware of my own behaviors when he is around.

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Maisie Dobbs is a detective. So, I assumed that the eponymous Maisie Dobbs (2003) would be a suspense novel, and not totally without reason – the inner cover proclaims the novel to be of the genre ‘Fiction/Mystery’. Fiction it surely is, mystery – well, there is some mystery, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call this a mystery novel.

Maisie Dobbs belongs to a poor working class London family and loses her mother at thirteen. Her father, Frankie, fears that he may not be able to afford the education that his gifted daughter surely deserves, or care for her with his limited resources. He sends her to be a junior maid in the aristocratic household of Lord and Lady Compton. Maisie is the sort of child that some parents would be proud of – she is meticulous, hard working, responsible, compassionate, and empathetic. She is also rather strange – unnaturally intuitive and excessively serious – whose idea of fun is to wake up at three in the morning to read The Philosophical Works of David Hume. Lady Rowan Compton, whose philanthropic desires have conveniently been recently awakened by friend and accomplished private detective, Dr. Maurice Blanche, recognizes what a bright girl Maisie is and sets her up as a pupil of Dr. Blanche. Under his tutelage, Maisie is accepted at Cambridge in the autumn of 1914. The War interrupts her education, and Maisie trains at a nurse and serves at the Front in France. After the War, Maisie first works under Dr. Blanche and eventually sets up her own practice as an independent private investigator.

Maisie’s time as a housemaid has much of the upstairs-downstairs drama as in Downton Abbey, only without the scheming footmen and maids. This divide between the aristocratic class and the working class is often brought up in the story. For instance, Maisie is advised by her friend and fellow-maid, Enid, that

… there’s them upstairs, and there’s us downstairs. There’s no middle, never was. So the likes of you and me can’t just move up a bit, if that’s what you think.

When Maisie gains admission to Cambridge, her father is worried that

Maisie might not ever fit in to any station, that she would forever be betwixt and between.

Also noteworthy is that although Cambridge admitted women since the late nineteenth century, women weren’t awarded degrees until 1948. Maisie’s mentor Maurice Blanche expresses his desire for change when he says:

Of course, as I am male, a degree could be conferred upon me. But there will be a time, I hope before too long, when women will also earn degrees for their advanced academic studies.

Enid, Maisie’s friend, is shown to practice her English so as to sound of a higher social class than she actually is – poor working class. Do you remember Henry Higgins’ speech lessons to Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady? Dropped aitches were an easy indicator of working class status – the upper class pronounced the ‘h’ sound in words that began with h, while the lower classes did not. And so, Enid practiced her h-ouse, h-ome and h-ope

…convinced that if she was to get anywhere in the world, she had to work quickly to introduce aitches into her spoken language.

Class differences aside, the novel is more about the devastation of war than about the exploits of a female super sleuth. In her dedication at the beginning of the book, author Jacqueline Winspear remembers her grandfather, who “sustained serious leg wounds”, and her grandmother, who was partially blinded, during the First World War. So, it’s not a surprise that the War is a theme throughout most of the book. More specifically, the book does not dwell as much on death and destruction, as on soldiers who suffered grievous facial wounds, and were unable to function fully in society:

With their damaged faces, once so very dear to a mother, father, or sweetheart, they were now reduced to gargoyles by a war that, for them had never ended. There were men without noses or jaws, men who searched for light with empty eye  sockets, men with only half a face where once a full-formed smile had beamed.

At the time of the War, plastic surgery was still, if not in infancy then perhaps in adolescence, and many men who suffered facial disfigurement wore tin masks to conceal their shattered faces. See this fascinating article in the Smithsonian Magazine about the physicians and artists at the Masks for Facial Disfigurement Department. It also includes a video of a mask being fitted on a soldier.

Maisie, a nurse herself, is no stranger to these horrific injuries…

He lay with his profile to me,” wrote Enid Bagnold, a volunteer nurse (and later the author of National Velvet), of a badly wounded patient. “Only he has no profile, as we know a man’s. Like an ape, he has only his bumpy forehead and his protruding lips—the nose, the left eye, gone.

– From the article in the Smithsonian Magazine

…or to standard protocol as to how not to express your distress at the sight of these gaping wounds…

Always look a man straight in the face,” one resolute nun told her nurses. “Remember he’s watching your face to see how you’re going to react.

In Sidcup, England… some park benches were painted blue; a code that warned townspeople that any man sitting on one would be distressful to view.

– From the article in the Smithsonian Magazine

Another tragic aspect of the war that plays an integral role in the plot is the execution of soldiers for desertion and cowardice. Many soldiers were accused of desertion, sentenced to death, and shot dead by their own people. Soldiers who refused to participate in this cruel exercise were likely to suffer the same fate for insubordination.

I am sure I would have enjoyed Maisie Dobbs tremendously while in high school. There is a romance, that I will not get into, which would certainly have appealed to my school-girl sensibilities. While I was certainly moved by the grim aspects of war, I did find the plot and the mystery (or mysteries) rather juvenile. And as for Maisie herself, I did not know what to make out of her. She’s an odd one, a good person to be sure, but very odd. I was also not impressed by the rather single-dimensional characters in the story – they’re all good-hearted and extremely helpful. Winspear might have done a good job describing the dark times of the War, but her characters are too forthcoming to be real.

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I have a question for you. If you were looking to buy toothpaste for your toddler, a boy, and someone gave you toothpaste (perfectly good toothpaste) for free, would you take it? Would you behave differently if the tube was pink and had a picture of Dora on it?

My son brushes his teeth with (and secretly swallows) Dora toothpaste. There, I’ve said it. I didn’t buy the said toothpaste to necessarily make a point, but only because I got a really good deal on it. That said, I’ll admit that I did hesitate a tiny bit, and later felt that I could really be making a point. But this is toothpaste we are talking about, and our preference regarding dental cleaning supplies is privy only to a rather small group of people who might step into our bathroom. If I notice a great deal on a pretty Princess backpack, I will certainly pass.

When I was growing up, baby clothes were just baby clothes, not girl clothes or boy clothes. Babies then looked angelic, grumpy, and naughty, much as they do now, in a cute, genderless way. Peggy Orenstein, author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture, grew up in a different part of world and is a couple of decades my senior, but it does seem like she has similar memories of babies dressed in light-colored unisex clothing.

“…less than a century ago, all children wore frilly white dresses and unshorn hair until at least age three.”

Completely ignorant of what fashion-forward parents dressed their muffins and buttercups in, I first walked into the store to be visually assaulted by entire aisles of cotton candy colored apparel and accessories. As Sally Field remarks in Steel Magnolias.

“That sanctuary looks like it’s been hosed down with Pepto Bismol.”

For every four shelves of pink, there was one rather pitiful shelf of blues and browns, for the boys. I may be exaggerating a tiny bit, and there may have been red polka dotted dresses somewhere, but they were all pinked out. My son, I am confident, has not worn pink more than twice so far. When he was a baby, he was without exception taken for a girl, and we were advised that dressing him in pink would be equivalent to making him wear a sequined headband that spelled out GIRL in glittery capitals. Not that we found anything pink suitable for a boy. As the parent of a boy, I thought it unfair that girls had monopoly over pink. Orenstein, the mother of a girl, laments that girlhood has become entirely monochromatic.

I wanted my son to develop his own interests and refused to buy into stereotypes that boys like moving vehicles and not much else. By the time he turned one, he had twenty of them – pickup trucks, race cars, firetrucks, and dump trucks. All gifts. Turns out, he loves them. He also enjoys playing dress up, pretend playing with Kipper- his dog and friend (and a soft toy), pretend cooking, and playing with blocks. While I may choke up with parental pride at his being so well-rounded, I know very well that he will change when he starts school and sees what other boys do, don’t do, or are not supposed to do. I also know that this may well be a part of growing up and the pre-school news flash that boys and girls are different.

Orenstein is the author of 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 MotherHer long and agonizing quest to become a mother ends with the arrival of her daughter, Daisy. As Daisy grows from a baby to a preschooler, Orenstein begins to wonder about the kind of messages she is giving her daughter when she (Daisy) and her friends play (and identify) with Ariel and Cinderella, lounge in Disney Princess beanbags, and entertain in Disney Princess Summer Palace Slumber Bags or Bed Tents, which my Toys R Us flyer informs me are “Perfect for providing the royal treatment to visiting princesses”, and generally participate in contemporary girlie-girl culture.

She wonders…

…is the Princess Culture simply innocuous fun?

Is this all just a case of much ado over nothing? Calling them princess (and buying them  appropriately royal dresses and helmets and kneepads) is just our way of letting daughters know how special they are to us. Princesses are special. They can also be compassionate and inspiring. They can allow your child to cultivate imagination and construct a fantasy world (which all kids do anyway), filled with special creatures and special possessions.

…or does it pave the path to premature sexualization, emphasis on physical perfection, or worse?

Princesses are also exclusively privileged, perfectly proportioned, and have plenty of things. So, are we also teaching our girls to be snotty, obsessed with their looks and materialistic? Or, are we over-thinking it?

According to the American Psychological Association, the girlie-girl culture’s emphasis on beauty and play-sexiness can increase girls’ vulnerability to the pitfalls that most concern parents: depression, eating disorders, distorted body image, risky sexual behavior.

A long time ago, marketers figured out that hypersegmenting the tot world and magnifying the differences between boys and girls would make a very good strategy to sell boy stuff and girl stuff. Which is why we have boy toys and girl toys (some of which are just pink versions of Lego). Now, while your daughter can get away playing with Thomas the train (most of the times), you might be warned that your son will be scarred for life if you get him a kitchen set. Not a tutu, just a kitchen set. Some feel that all this segmentation discourages cross-sex friendships in our little ones. And Orenstein worries that “if early experiences with mixed-sex play have a lifelong positive impact on kids’ behavior, aptitudes, and relationships, the segmentation of every possible childhood item by sex was more troubling than I had initially imagined”.

“Playing princess is not the issue,” argues Lyn Mikel Brown, an author, with Sharon Lamb, of “Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters From Marketers’ Schemes.” “The issue is 25,000 Princess products,” says Brown, a professor of education and human development at Colby College. “When one thing is so dominant, then it’s no longer a choice: it’s a mandate, cannibalizing all other forms of play. There’s the illusion of more choices out there for girls, but if you look around, you’ll see their choices are steadily narrowing.”

– From Orenstein’s article in the New York Times, What’s Wrong With Cinderella?

What is wrong with Cinderella, anyway? “It’s just, honey, Cinderella doesn’t really do anything”, says Orenstein. Cinderella, Ty Girlz, American Girl, and Bratz do have a common denominator – they are all pretty. In fact, some are sizzlin’, know how dress to impress, and admit to being shopaholics (I once shopped for 12 hours straight!). Apart from promoting “shopping as the path to intimacy between mothers and daughters”, does this also teach our daughters to value their appearance above everything else?

…is it even possible to escape total and complete immersion in this culture? And what does that entail?

In Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters from Marketers’ Schemes, authors Sharon Lamb and Lyn Mikel Brown argue that girls are given just two choices by marketers: they are “either for the boys or one of the boys”. A girlie-girl would obviously be for the boys. Being one of the boys is not necessarily a better model either because, Orenstein says, “it discourages friendship with other girls: a girl who is ‘one of the boys’ separates herself from her female peers, puts them down, is ashamed or scornful of anything associated with conventional femininity”. No parent will wish for their child to be different, punished for it  and unaccepted by peers. Moreover, consciously avoiding anything that smacks of the girlie-girl culture might inadvertantly send the message that there is something wrong about being female.

All our kids, boys and girls, need a childhood hero (or heroine). What choices can we offer our girls that are neither hyperfeminine, nor aggressive, and free of agenda? (The world of boys is another book, or three).

I love a book that raises questions. Unfortunately, when there are far too many questions and far too few answers, my ill-equipped mind gets into this unpleasant state of cognitive restlessness. While the book promises that “armed with awareness and recognition, parents can effectively counterbalance its influence in their daughters’ lives”, I am no closer to understanding how I can help my child, or a hypothetical daughter, achieve that balance.

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