Friday, July 10, 2009

A motherhood memoir that blew me away

In my last blog post I spelled out my reservations about "female confessional journalism." I don't like writing that strikes me as oversharing without illumination, and it really bugs me when women are limited to sharing childish mommy stories.

But last night, while browsing, looking at new summer releases, I came across Alice Eve Cohen's memoir, What I Thought I Knew. I downloaded it to my Kindle, and once I started reading her story, I didn't want to put it down. She shares her experience of the chaos that took over her settled life at age 44 when, after experiencing health problems and told she was menopausal and infertile, she discovered that she was actually six months pregnant.

I don't want to reveal too much about what happens next, because a reader should experience the story unfolding page by page, as Alice is told new "certainties" that are dashed again and again. What I Thought I Knew is the perfect title for this memoir, and Alice writes out ever-evolving lists of her own feelings, what her doctors have told her about her condition, and her baby's prognosis.

Cohen breaks through any reservations I have about personal narrative. Once I started, I didn't want to put the book down, so I read it in one evening. What differentiates Cohen's writing for me is that she does not use distancing techniques of humor, irony, or snark. She is incredibly straightforward and pulls us into her experience, sharing her most intimate experiences in a way that illuminates the choice to enter motherhood, along with family dynamics, depression, the fallibility of the medical system, the value of community and professional support, and ultimately, the mystery of grace.

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Friday, July 03, 2009

Women's confessional journalism is a problem for motherhood writers

Broadsheet on asks the question today whether "female confessional journalism" harms women. I feel that it is harmful at worst, extremely limiting at best, especially when it comes to motherhood. Unless you want to write about being a "Bad Mommy," your husband's affair, or peeing in a diaper, women's confessional journalism is a problem for motherhood writers! Read my letter for more of my perspective.

Watch today's rerun of The Secret Lives of Moms on Oprah to see an example of why this oversharing-yet-not-very-thoughtful trend drives me nuts. [I blogged about that episode when it first aired in April.] It's a fine line, because I believe in honesty about motherhood, yet if you are going to share intimate details of your family life you'd better earn it by creating a true insight. I thought the Oprah episodes back in 2002 with Naomi Wolf really did earn it ("What Your Mother Never Told You About Motherhood and "What Mothers Honestly Think About Motherhood"). In fact, those episodes helped inspire me to write Mojo Mom, and at the time they created controversy about telling hard truths about motherhood. Now we spew all sorts of personal details yet it feels like blowing off steam with gallows humor that keeps us on a juvenile level and prevents us from looking deeply at what motherhood means to our lives.

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Thursday, July 02, 2009

Why are we surprised that politicians cheat? And why we should care.

Cheating bothers me, a lot. But beyond the actual marital infidelity we've seen from politicians such as John Edwards, John Ensign, and Mark Sanford, what really bothers me is lying, hypocrisy, hubris, narcissism, privilege, and paternalism. In short, the idea that the rules that apply to the rest of us don't apply to them. This raises the "private" behavior of these elected public leaders (current, former, and aspirational) to the level of something that we should all care about. After all, these men are making the laws that govern our lives.

I believe that the behavior of these individual men reflects a larger belief system that underlies powerful political philosophies, namely the conservative movement. The neo-conservatives of the 1950's and beyond, including Bush-era leaders such as Paul Wolfowitz, followed the ideas of Leo Strauss, "a philosopher who believed that the elite should use deception, religious fervor and perpetual war to control the ignorant masses." Many of these leaders who profess a strong belief in conventional morality and religion actually believe it's an important way to control the masses, but once again, the rules do not apply to them, the elites. (And yes, among Democrats, we don't always do better. I am still mad at Bill Clinton for behaving like an undisciplined, privileged idiot, and for exponentially compounding his problems by lying.)

We can see this hypocrisy again in the recent reported instance in which anti-abortion politicians paid for an abortion when he caused a pregnancy. Wealthy, elite men have always found ways to procure illegal abortions when necessary in their own lives; it is women, especially poor women, who must be punished for living with the consequences of their actions under anti-abortion laws.

For a truly revealing example of this dynamic of selective morality in a larger context, which relates directly to Mark Sanford and John Ensign, listen to Jeff Sharlet's interview with Terry Gross on yesterday's episode of Fresh Air. (Well worth listening to, whether you download the podcast or sit in front of your computer to listen. It's the second segment in the show.) Sanford and Ensign have been involved with "The Family," a secretive, powerful fundamentalist Christian organization that explicitly believes that they can identify God's chosen ones, elite and powerful leaders whom God wants to rule. And if you are a chosen one, you can be a murderer or dictator (such as Siad Barre in Somalia and Suharto in Indonesia) and still do God's Work. Sharlet said The Family's philosophy/theology is linked to ideas of American power; paternalistic, dangerous, and away from law and regulation. After all, if God is in charge and the hand of God directs the free market and America's imperialist adventures, who needs laws to protect us?

Think this sounds esoteric? The Family's house on C Street currently houses at least five Congressmen. The Family started the national prayer breakfast back in the 1950's, a tradition that continues to this day, accompanied week of lobbying by foreign officials (lots of defense ministers).

So yes, John Edwards, John Ensign, and Mark Sanford, I care when you start acting like Scarlett O'Hara. As Rhett Butler said, "You're like the thief who isn't the least bit sorry he stole but is terribly terribly sorry he's going to jail." Because if your political philosophy and morality applies to me, but not to you, I want no part of it.

For more on this, and why it actually does relate back to our ideas about mothers and fathers, I recommend George Lakoff's work on the Strict Father (conservative) and Nurturant Parent (liberal) models of the world. The Strict Father is an authoritarian leader whose judgment cannot be questioned. "Because I said so" works in a Strict Father household, but a Nurturant Parent model requires more explanation---and more democratic rule--than that.

Lakoff's book Don't Think of an Elephant is pretty accessible, and I recommend it. I had the chance to hear him speak last year, and while he is incredibly professorial in his delivery, everything he said made sense to me. Interestingly, his model explains why such disparate conservative causes including low taxation, referring to our enemies as "evildoers," captial punishment, anti-abortion, and anti-gay-marriage aggregate under the same tent. All have to do with black and white morality, right and wrong, us and them, and living under the rule of a strong who can pretty much do as he wishes behind the scenes. Lakoff is a linguist, and he makes the point that each of us has some elements of the Strict Father and Nurturant Parent models ingrained in our brains. Conservatives have been better than Liberals in finding ways to use this knowledge to get their message across. Fortunately, President Obama is a much more effective communicator than recent candidates were, such as the inscrutable and wooden John Kerry.

The Bush years showed us where the Strict Father model got us. I have grown much more cynical over the years but I do still hope that we can continue to move toward a model of government that is transparent, accountable, and egalitarian in the sense that the same rules do apply to all of us, and that we create laws that respect people's ability to live their lives without requiring a hypocritical, authoritarian thumb to keep us in place.

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Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Turns out Disneyland is the real world....

I am back from Los Angeles. It's taken me a few days to get my blogging mojo back. I had a fantastic time with Momma Zen author Karen Maezen Miller, both at our Sierra Madre Books event, and just hanging out with our families.

You see, it turns out that even Disneyland, even life in Los Angeles the day Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett died, is more real life than sitting behind a computer all day, looking for material to blog about. For a week, I really was where I was, in the world, not in cyberspace. Here Karen and I were waiting in line for Pirates of the Caribbean (with our families, who are out of the frame). No mouse ears for us, just caps!

This week away makes me realize that I need to carve out separate time for writing projects, and blogging. I still want to blog---I cherish this opportunity to reach out to readers on an instant basis. But I may begin to rely more on short-form communication like Twitter and Facebook to share links that I do not have time to write extensive posts on.

Too much web-surfing is really affecting my brain. I need to take my own advice about "Reclaiming my mind space" and really look at my mental environment. For example, I came across these idiotic new Microsoft ads. The first one is just gross and stupid. I am not going to post it here. You can see it on the link if you wish but I warn you, it involved internet porn and projectile vomiting. The second ad pretty much sums up how my brain feels after a day of surfing. This is what I am trying to avoid:

So here's my commitment to you: For quick communications and interesting links, I will share info through Twitter and Facebook. And when I have something more substantial intelligent to say, I will blog about it! If I am not blogging, I may just be offline, writing my next book!

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