Sunday, April 20, 2008

The things I should be writing about today...

1) The stupid new CHILDREN'S book, My Beautiful Mommy, that just came out. Here's the sales pitch, from an article in Newsweek Magazine: "My Beautiful Mommy" is aimed at kids ages four to seven and features a plastic surgeon named Dr. Michael (a musclebound superhero type) and a girl whose mother gets a tummy tuck, a nose job and breast implants. Before her surgery the mom explains that she is getting a smaller tummy: 'You see, as I got older, my body stretched and I couldn't fit into my clothes anymore. Dr. Michael is going to help fix that and make me feel better.' Mom comes home looking like a slightly bruised Barbie doll with demure bandages on her nose and around her waist.
The Newsweek article continues, The text doesn't mention the breast augmentation, but the illustrations intentionally show Mom's breasts to be fuller and higher. "I tried to skirt that issue in the text itself," says Salzhauer. "The tummy lends itself to an easy explanation to the children: extra skin and can't fit into your clothes. The breasts might be a stretch for a six-year-old. The book doesn't explain exactly why the mother is redoing her nose post-pregnancy. Nonetheless, Mom reassures her little girl that the new nose won't just look 'different, my dear—but prettier!'

Oh--my--freaking---goodness! See now, this is what I should be writing about today. I should be asking: Why and in what universe did Newsweek magazine think this book was worthy of mention in a serious book review--thereby launching it into the public forum? God help us--and all the children who will be confused and disoriented by its message: The only beauty is perfection. And only perfection will make Mommy happy. Translated into little-girl language: When I grow up I want to be perfect, too!

2) I should be writing about my daughter's beloved friends, twins, who have recently returned from an anorexia clinic in Philadelphia and the way I keep thinking about how much I used to love eating with them and their father, who is one of the best home cooks I've ever met and their mother, a gifted, gentle artist who must be blaming herself--and shouldn't be; and about the twins' beauty (ethereal, diaphanous, bewitching); I should also be talking with my daughter about how their experience is shaping her feelings about her body.

3) I could be writing about last week's gang fight in the quiet little river town where we are buying a house, (and about why I'm reluctant to mention the town's name--think property values); about how it started when a young man pulled the bandana (aka "colors") from the neck of a rival gang leader's girlfriend; and how this reminded me of the time, all the way back in Troy, when Paris yanked the "colors" (in the form of Helen) from the bedroom of his rival, King Agamemnon, setting off the Trojan War. I should write about how rival teenagers have been sorting themselves into gangs and fighting in vacant lots forever: Tony and Bernardo circling each other in West SIde Story; Capulets and Montagues duking it out in Verona; This is what kids--aka hormonally-hopped up idiots--do. Think George Bush and Osama Bin Laden--teenage pals playing out their scuffle in the sandlot of the world.

4) I could mention the way that teenage girls form gangs, too; gangs of envy, misunderstanding, competition and innuendo; and how watching my daughter go through a cycle of this kind of violence breaks my heart; and how listening to her work things out, in her wise-beyond-her-years way, helps me keep quiet about it (for the most part) because I know that this is a rite of passage that is making her stronger, more sure of who she really is;

5) I could be discussing the Hilary/Obama debate and how I want, more than anything, for these perfectly brilliant candidates (either of which this country would be blessed to elect) to tell the media that they are tired of being asked innane questions that are designed, not to discern policy or provoke real discussion, but to foster conflict for the next news cycle. I want them to say: Your questions are demeaning to the intelligence of Americans; they are trivializing this process and demolishing our nation's chances to have a real government.

6) I should be telling you how missing Grey's Anatomy for the past few months (because of the writers' strike) is really pissing me off - and how we've been spending our time instead; about addiction to distraction, about boredom and potato chips and this really cool snack I invented: heavy cream, unsweetened Mexican cocoa powder and two drops of Agave syrup (shake it up in a spice jar and eat it with a spoon....) while watching American Idol

7) I could point out the way that undertaking one thing--say, writing a book about my father's struggle--I discover that I'm really writing about someting else, the unraveling of the carefully assembled illusion of my own life, to name but one.

But instead of writing about these things, I'm thinking about how I'm not funny anymore--and that bothers me. I feel dark and twisty inside, as if the world's troubles have seeped inside my socks while I was out walking in the acid rain. I feel hopeless and damp, waiting for what seems an eternity for the return of the sun.

I used to be funny. I used to laugh with my sisters. This happened just last month, in fact, on a street in Brooklyn when, Emily, my sister Beth's partner started snapping photos and bending us all into poses: "Jenny, you stand there. Amy over there," and straightening Beth's hair again and again. And we all started laughing... and laughing. And we couldn't breathe and we couldn't stop...

When I read Anne Lamott, who manages to be spiritual AND touching AND wise while being, all the while, uproariously, irreverently funny, I want to be her. I want to be as free and as brave and as honest as she is. Somehow, she's found that key that opens the little lockbox on the heart and gently, invites it out for a pile of pancakes with butter and real maple syrup... while simultaneously showing us what life looks like--with it's messy and magical, foolish and incredibly wise, broken and taped together characters who somehow figure out how to keep alive the hope that things will all turn out in the end.

That's what I want to write about today: The mystery. The totally unsupportable hope that keeps us keeping on, in spite of children's books about tummy tucks, and gang wars in our quiet communities, and fathers in nursing homes, skewed election coverage and teenage girls savaging each other.

On we go--chasing the tail of the shiny, almost-got-it-this-time something that calls us ever onward. What makes us keep on? I mean, given the messes, the trouble, the pain, what makes human beings so hopeful? That's the mystery. And that's what I should be writing about today.

I want to tell you how, as I wrote that last line, the two-year-old at the table beside me reached up and socked his three-year-old sister on the ear, and she started to wail.

"Why did you do that?" his father asked. "Did you say you were sorry?" his mother demanded.

"No!" said the two-year-old perpetrator, clapping his hands over his ears. At which point, the other little girl at their table tipped over backwards, landing with a smack between her tumbled chair and the plate glass window. As she started shrieking, all the parents looked at each other, their astonished faces, blinking, "What just happened?"

It's a mystery, I could have told them as I packed up my laptop and fled (they were so noisy!)But they'll figure that out.

Which reminds me of a story. One bright morning when my own children were small and we were driving up the spiraling curve of the Bear Mountain Parkway, my son, max, who was seven or eight at the time, asked, "What's sunlight made of?"

In the brief time that I'd been this child's mother, I'd witnessed several things about him--the way that he grabbed at sunbeams in his stroller and talked to insects, trees and animals as if they were talking back. (I had also seen him comb his hair with a toothbrush, but that is another story) I had listened to his sister, Katie, two years younger, sing her joy (non-stop) into the world since the day she was born. So I knew the answer they were looking for was not, "Light can be both wave and particle," or a discussion of the way that somehow, each luminous streak contained microscopic objects called photons--or that sunlight is the critical factor in photosynthesis.

I'd made a promise to these children before they were born--to do the best I could not to disturb the world of its wonders. To let them go on thinking, for as long as possible, that things might just turn out okay in the end.

So I told Max, "Sunlight is made of the sun's love for us--and for all of creation," even though I knew the other answers,that moment at least, I felt proud that I hadn't mucked up the mystery.

And as we pulled onto the bridge, the Hudson River sparkling like a net of jewels below us, Max stared out the window, ready for another day on planet Earth. Katie just kept singing.

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