Friday, January 30, 2009

Diary of a Mad Housewife (with apologies to Patricia Williams)

Several years ago I arrived late at a friend's house for a fundraiser to support Michael Nutter, who had just left City Council to run for mayor. I actually passed him on the side-walk on my way in, and although I had just recently introduced him at a Founders' Day function at my kids' school, I was too shy to say "Hey, remember me? I'm going to give you some money!" I knew I had missed him, but I still wanted my friend Beth to know I had tried to make it, so I headed on up to the ninth floor of Society Hill Towers, to the little corner apartment with the gorgeous views of the Ben Franklin bridge, where I often find myself comfortably ensconced with a glass of wine and a plate of cheese of a Sunday afternoon, gossiping about church politics.

The house party was still in full swing, and I knew almost nobody. I'm pretty shy, and really bad at jumping in with small talk, so I was grateful when a middle-aged woman, probably a lesbian, smiled and started chatting. She was a math professor, and the president of the Philadelphia Chapter of the National Organization for Women. Inevitably, she asked me "What do you do?" -- a question I had been pondering myself lately. Pondering, that is, not what I DO, but what I SAY I do when asked that somewhat perplexing question. For several years I had answered with some variation of "I'm home with my kids, and I do a lot of volunteer work." Responses to this generally varied only slightly. Occasionally, someone was genuinely interested in my kids and in my various volunteer gigs. But the most common response was some flavor of patronizing disinterest, usually including the phrase "the most important job in the world!" Now, I actually don't think that being home raising children is the most important job in the world. Raising children well may be, but I know way too many men and women who work and raise terrific kids to think that being home is the only way to do it well. And usually the people who say this to me likewise do not think that being home raising children is the most important job in the world. I know this because A) they are not doing it, even though most of them could be and B) they have no interest in talking to me about it, whereas presumably, had they just met someone doing "the most important job in the world," they would have lots to say. But I have found there is no better way to kill a conversation with a new acquaintance than to answer "I stay home with my kids" when asked, "And what do you do?"

So, I had been pondering for some time now a new response to that question. I had long thought "stay at home mom" was a pretty silly label, since I rarely stayed home. When my son was little, I did all sorts of things outside the home, I just did them with a baby and a toddler in tow. Most of the things I did as a volunteer are things other folks usually get paid for: at my church, I ran a Christian Education program, raised several hundred thousand dollars to support programs for kids living in poverty, and started an after school program; at my daughter's charter school, I researched bond deals, hired and fired staff, lobbied the School Reform Commission, launched a capital campaign and fended off lawsuits. So when the nice mathemetician from NOW asked me, "And what do you do?" I led by describing some of my work as Chair of the Board at my daughter's school. We were in the thick of lobbying the School Reform Commission for financial support we had long anticipated, and quite reasonably should have expected, but which had suddenly dried up upon the discovery that CEO Paul Vallas's budget was suddenly and unexpectedly running a huge deficit. I had called on several contacts from my law school and law firm days to get audiences with anyone who would listen, and I had met with and pleaded our case to all sorts of interesting, high-powered folks, some of whom were even sympathetic (we never did get the money). Professor NOW was intrigued by the crazy politics and the creativity and ingenuity required to keep a charter school up and running.

Then something occurred to her. I could see it on her face, a perplexing questions which she immediately blurted out: "But how can you get paid to be on the Board of a Charter School?"

"Oh, I can't. I wish I could! Goodness knows I put in enough hours! But I'm home with my kids, so I have time, and I'm a volunteer on the Board."

"Oh," she said. "That's interesting." And she smiled tightly, turned on her heel, and struck up another conversation with someone else.

This really happened, I'm not making it up. I actually almost laughed out loud, she was so blatant. In her defense, Professor NOW was just more blatant than even I, after years of being home, was used to. But her meaning, as clear as if she had spoken the words, was not so different than the patronizing "most important job in the world" folks: what you do does not have value because you do not get paid for it.

My life now would be even more offensive to the good math professor: almost all of my work these days revolves around my home and my family. For various reasons I am taking a break from almost all of my outside-the-home work at church and the school, and I'm finding, interestingly, that this makes for an even more mentally healthy me and a happier family. For the time being, and maybe for the long-term, I am fully and blissfully embracing this answer to the question, "And what do you do?"

"I am a homemaker."

I feel comfortable and non-defensive about that answer. But I'm still kind of intrigued by this notion that any sort of activity gets vested with value, becomes "work," only when one is paid for it. I wonder sometimes, if I had a house-cleaning business, or I was a baker, or a personal chef, or ran an urban CSA, or got paid to blog and read books and write reviews, or if I really could get paid for everything I do for the charter school and the church (I'd be rich, let me tell you) -- then it would all be "work," right?

I recall a case I read in law school, about the Commerce Clause. The Commerce Clause says, among other things, that Congress can pass legislation that regulates inter-state commerce. One case interpreting what constitutes inter-state commerce found that a farmer who raised wheat on his own land, entirely for his own consumption, was engaged in inter-state commerce -- and thus bound by federal legislation regarding grain quotas -- because even his subsistence farming created ripples affecting commerce across state lines. What he grew even just for himself and his family, impacted interstate commerce significantly enough to subject him to federal regulation.

Now, it should be said, I hate this case; and in hating it, I suppose it doesn't really support my point. But my point isn't that baking bread and hanging laundry to dry, making beds and knitting scarves, growing vegetables and picking my kids up right after school -- my point is not that these things should be seen as legitimate "work" because they affect inter-state commerce (Lord knows I don't want Congress telling me what to put in the compost, or how to can peaches and applesauce....) But as much as I hate that Supreme Court case, I think it's interesting, because it does sort of speak to this phenomenon I'm noticing, this notion that work is not really work if it does not clearly and obviously have economic value.

Which is all to say, I love being a homemaker, and I also love thinking about being a homemaker. This, you may find, is a bit of a theme in my life: anything I love to do, I also love to think about doing. And anything I love to think about doing, I also love to write about. Thus, the debut of "Diary of a Mad Housewife," an occasional series about my work, and about what I'm thinking about my work. If you've ever wondered what someone like me does all day, keep checking in to see all my secrets revealed!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

25 Random Things About Me

Someone made me do this on Facebook. For my friends who aren't on Fb (I'm looking at you, Margaret), here are 25 random things about me:

1. I have at least two significant things in common with John McCain: I love Abba, and I'm an adoptive mom.
2. Sometimes I hate living in the city and dream of a quiet house in the suburbs.
3. But mostly that sounds like a nightmare.
4. I am a convert to Christianity.
5. I love gathered silence of the Quakerly sort, and high liturgy of the Catholic sort.
6. I grow, can and freeze a lot of my own food, right here in the heart of the city.
7. I graduated near the top of my law school class. I loved loved loved law school.
8. Practicing law was a nightmare.
9. Julie and I have been a couple for almost 22 years. More than half our lives.
10. I have a fairly cordial relationship with our friendly neighborhood drug dealers, but the mentally ill ex-prostitute across the street whom I've known since she was 12 hates me these days because she thinks I'm narcing on her. I'm not, but there's no convincing her.
11. Keeping my house clean is integral to my mental health.
12. I just looked through my high school yearbook, and it is full of ads for fertilizers, and John Deere dealerships, and feed stores.
13. I'm named after my late grandmother, who was Swedish. My daughter is named after my late mother, who was Dutch. Marta Trixie Marta Trixie. We're hoping to break this tradition in the next generation.
14. I'm a pretty good baker. Bread mostly, but I also make a mean white cake with buttercream frosting.
15. I'm not so sure that the terms "liberal" or "progressive" accurately describe my political philosophy any more. But I don't think there are other terms out there that do any better.
16. On the whole, I would almost always rather be reading a book.
17. I'm crazy about my kids. Even when they drive me crazy. I think they are insanely beautiful and talented. Not that I'm biased or anything.
18. If I weren't living this life, the only other life I can imagine is that of a monastic. Benedictine, probably. Or Trappist. I love silence. Probably more than is reasonably healthy sometimes.
19. I ran a marathon in 5.5 hours. I ran a half marathon faster than that, and it was the greatest thing I ever did just for myself.
20. A pet-peeve of mine is non-profit boards that don't understand what governance is and what it isn't. Which includes most non-profit boards, in my experience.
21. I studied in Israel and Palestine just before the first Intifada.
22. Thomas Merton is my patron saint.
23. Despite what my Facebook page says, Julie and I are not technically married. But only because we haven't made it up to Connecticut yet. (And who woulda thought it would ever be as easy as that?)
24. I think slavery and its legacy of institutionalized racism is THE American tragedy.
25. I'm not nearly as upset as most people I know that Rick Warren is giving the invocation at Barrack Obama's inauguration

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A Round-Up of the Inaugural Prayers

I didn't see Gene Robinson's prayer, but here's a link to the text (and while you're at Peter's Cross Station, check out Shannon's two brilliant "Why Adopt" posts, here and here).  I think his prayer is quite lovely and thoughtful.

Robinson's prayer certainly set a tone that Rick Warren failed to live up to.  I thought the only memorable thing about Warren's prayer was the fact that he couldn't even manage to be inclusive  ("God the Father," in the name of Jesus, the Lord's prayer) on an occasion where it is so obviously called for.  I would have thought, given the kerfluffel over his choice in the first place, and the massive, world-wide audience, that he might have tried to be a little thoughtful? inspiring? poetic? But what do I know.  Thankfully, I suppose, his prayer will be quickly forgotten.

But not Lowery's!  I thought he stole the show.  Lift every voice and sing, indeed.  All the flourishes of a Black pastor, with just enough humor at the end to poke a little fun at himself and the seriousness of the whole thing.  I loved that not half an hour into his presidency, Lowery had President Obama chuckling.  Well done.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Andrew Sullivan on Prop 8

Andrew Sullivan has become one of my must-read blog these days (there are only a handful). He calls himself a conservative, but I agree with him way too much for that to possibly be true (I'm with this reader). I do have some serious bones to pick with him (see my review of his his book The Conservative Soul), but on the issue of Prop 8, I'm in pretty much complete agreement, having decided long ago that political solutions are always better than legal ones. (The fact that I am apparently also in agreement with George Will gives even me some pause; if my friends want to organize an intervention, I'm available most day between 9:00 and 2:00).

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

You Can Always Sling Hash at 914 Highland Avenue

Bob Hammarberg says it's "sling hash," not "fry eggs." But could I have really made that up? I think it must have been both.

Another friend pointed out that google maps has a picture of my childhood home. You'll notice that the siding is wood, painted in a lovely deep green. That was not so much my childhood home. Do you know that black and gray swirly shingle siding that you only see anymore on old houses in depressed, industrial towns? It might be asbestos? (If it's not, it kind of gives that feeling anyway.) THAT's what my house was covered in when I lived there. But that porch -- my dad built that, and I'm willing to bet he planted that tree out front. I tried to zoom in close enough to see the hopscotch in the sidewalk, but it's pretty blurry.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

You Can Always Fry Eggs in Missoula, Montana: A Tribute to my Dad

My dad loves words. Language is endlessly fascinating to him, and as a child, heated discussions about language among my dad and his professor friends and grad students seemed like a really normal thing for grown-ups to do. Amid billowing clouds of cigarette smoke, cans of Old Wisconsin Club beer in their hands, Jim Rose and Bill Heilman and Bob Hammarberg and Deidrick Thede would “argue linguistics” at the wall-sized chalk board in our kitchen. Chalk dust would float in the air as they furiously wrote sentences on the board and then rubbed them out with the sides of their fists, too impatient for an eraser. I had no idea what they were arguing about, but they weren’t scary sorts of arguments, not like the kind Mom and Dad sometimes had late at night, when Erik and I would sit at the top of the steps, listening and fretting. Mom and Dad’s arguments were about things like “karma” (she thought it was a reasonable thing to consider, he thought it was ridiculous) and whether or not Dad helped enough around the house (“Hire a new wife!” Mom once scrawled in colored chalk on the long-unfinished dry-wall of the laundry room; the walls got finished and painted promptly, as I recall).

No, Dad and his friends weren’t scary when they argued linguistics, just passionate, and I could tell the difference. Mom didn’t participate in these arguments – not because she wasn’t qualified, but more likely because she generally put her head down on the table and went to sleep after a drink and a half, whereas Dad and his friends seemed to stay sharp long into the night, after many beers. I would listen in because things that I said or wrote – grammatical constructions from the mouths of babes – often made it onto the blackboard. The linguists also made funny noises they called diphthongs and clicks – all kinds of amazing sounds that my dad was really good at—and they talked about things like the Great Vowel Shift, which they called the Great Vowel Movement. I would also stick around because usually they would take breaks to play poker, and then Dad would let me sit in his lap and put in the chips for him, which I would do with great care, counting out exactly the number of blue and red and white chips that he told me.

Among the words my dad loved were swear words. When I was growing up, he swore a lot – both as casual commentary and out of real anger and frustration. “Sommanabitch” he would say in the way some fathers might say, “Well, what do you know about that?” But mostly his swearing involved blasphemy of some kind: “Jeee-zus Cher-ist!” was fairly mild and very common, as was “God DAMN it!” “Jesus H. Christ!” expressed considerable more exasperation, but sometimes only “Jesus fucking Christ!” would do. I blame my father entirely for my inability to swear with feeling without taking the Lord’s name in vain. I generally am able to satisfy myself with a mild “Good Christ!” – but honestly, sometimes only extreme blasphemy will do. My mother’s cousin Ge, who was fluent in at least German and English along with his native Dutch, maintained that it was impossible to really swear effectively in another language, and I’m sure he was right. The language of swearing in my family was blasphemy, through and through.

Swearing was a lesson my younger brother learned early in life as well. In kindergarten once, Erik was hammering away at a little toy tool bench and swearing up a storm. I didn’t go to kindergarten at that school, so I don’t remember his teacher, but I have no doubt that she was a prim and proper, elderly maiden lady, because almost all of the teachers at Highland Elementary were. Even without the swearing, Erik must have been a somewhat alarming child: he had long, shaggy, white-blond hair, piercing blue eyes, an impish smile and a taste for trouble. And he was unbelievably smart. No doubt alarmed by this picture of a delinquent in the making, Erik’s teacher immediately alerted my mother to his blasphemous tirade at the carpentry bench. With equal amounts of amusement and satisfaction, I’m sure, Mom calmly explained that Erik simply thought that swearing was what one did while one was working in a woodshop.

When I was growing up, my Dad was a die-hard atheist, having rejected Episcopalianism as incompatible with the intellectual awaking he had experienced as a first-generation college student. He was an open-minded and respectful atheist, though, and offered to send me to Mass with Bill and Trish Heilman when I expressed some curiosity about religion (I declined; I was quite the little atheist myself as a child). I recently learned that in high school, Dad was an observant Christian, saying the morning office every day during Lent; because we are so much alike, it isn’t surprising that my own spiritual practice revolves largely around liturgy. Perhaps Dad unwittingly set me on this path when he read the Lord’s Prayer to us over and over, first in Old English, then Middle English and finally in contemporary English. This could possibly be the most boring thing a child could endure on the knee of her father, but Dad had a way of making it endlessly fascinating.

It didn’t occur to me until middle school that grammar was a bad word, something to be dreaded. Starting in seventh grade, each year we began on page one of Warner’s Grammar with the parts of speech: a noun is a person, place, or thing; a verb is an action or linking word; an adjective describes a noun and an adverb describes a verb; and so on and so on. We would be tested on the parts of speech long into the first semester, and my classmates would, invariably, year after year, answer the question “What is a pronoun?” with the wrong list: “is, am, was, were?” Finally, in tenth grade I rebelled and told my English teacher Laura Baker that I refused to start again with “what is a noun?” What was the point of this, after all, and when were we actually going to write something, I asked? Upon learning that my father was a linguist, Mrs. Baker gave me a little workbook on generative grammar, and let me work my way through it with almost no oversight. It wasn’t the pedagogical revolution I had hoped for – “This stuff can be really interesting, just ask my Dad!” – but it was better than nothing.

Dad also loved the things words could do, especially poetry. He would read us Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” and Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven,” and we were there, hearing the harness bells shake and the raven’s “Nevermore” with chills running down our spines. Dad has long passages of poetry committed to memory, things his high school teachers and college professors made him learn, and which he has never forgotten. Having a memory like a sieve myself, I have always been wildly impressed with this feat.

Our house was always full of books, and the beautiful bookshelves Dad built to house them. One bookcase was designed specially to accommodate our double volume of the OED, with its onion skin pages and tiny print. I didn’t know exactly why, but I knew it was a prized possession, and I loved reading the words through the magnifying glass that came with it. We also had a full set of Will and Ariel Durant’s multi-volume The History of Civilization, and my mom prized the hand-written note she received from Will Durant thanking her for correcting an obscure error she had noted in one of the volumes. Books were everywhere in our house, and someone was reading all the time. When I was in middle school, my eighth grade English teacher asked me to baby-sit her two little boys (a dollar an hour until midnight, two dollars an hour after), and I remember wandering around after getting the boys to bed, searching in vain for the books. How could you be an English teacher and not have books? She was kind to me, and watching her boys became a regular gig, but I never quite forgave the dearth of books in her house.

I will always think of the summer of 1974 as the summer my parents abandoned us to Watergate. It was the summer between third and fourth grade, so I was nine years old. I would have thought we didn’t have a TV that summer – ours broke sometime in elementary school, and we were without TV until we moved in 7th grade to a house where the previous owners left a working set behind. It must have been sometime later that year that it broke, though, because the televised Watergate hearings figure so prominently in my memory of that summer. My folks and their friends seemed glued to the set, where men in suits sat behind green-topped tables and said very serious things I didn’t understand. I had no idea what Watergate was all about, but it was an article of faith in our house that Nixon was a Very Bad Man. I had cried the night McGovern lost several years before. I was only seven, but I adored my parents, and would passionately carry whatever banner they handed me. Later that year in second grade, I got in trouble when I defaced the photo of Nixon in my Scholastic Magazine, adding a pointy beard and mustache, and blacking out the President’s eyes. Denise Miller told on me – her mom had a bouffant blond hairdo and was the president of the PTA – and Miss Ruth reprimanded me, saying we must show respect to the President. It’s one of a handful of piercingly humiliating moments seared in my memory from childhood. As I recall, I did not argue, but in my heart, disrespect for the President burned proud and bright.

Politics was nothing new in our house. Among my earliest memories are marching against the Vietnam war as a pre-schooler in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where my parents were both graduate students. I remember one march where the police wouldn’t let us carry signs on sticks (because they could be used as weapons?), so my parents put Erik in a baby back-pack and attached their sign to his back: “Will He Go Too?” I remember Dad telling stories about how he was at a party with Jane Fonda once, and how the marches would start at the sports stadiums right after a big event let out, to swell the numbers of protesters immediately.

My parents, I guess, were sort of hippie intellectuals. As I recall, there wasn’t too much turning on or dropping out, but they certainly had the hippie look going in the late sixties and early seventies. From my earliest recollection, my dad has had a beard; I’ve seen pictures of him as a clean-shaven young man, but I honestly don’t know if I would recognize him immediately if he shaved his beard. Now he keeps it very neatly trimmed, and his hair short and combed, but when I was a kid, his beard was bushy and wild, and his hair brushed his shoulders. He kept it out of his eyes with a bandana tied around his forehead, and he always had a carpenter’s pencil – shaved with a knife, not sharpened – behind his ear. He wore jeans, and pocket tees. Mom had black cat-eyed glasses, and wore her already-graying hair pulled all over to one side and clasped in a pony-tail under her left ear. She mostly wore batiked, flowy tops, reminiscent of her childhood in Indonesia, where my father had also spent time researching for his dissertation.

My dad was quite a drinker in my early childhood. They all were, my Dad and his friends. I have no doubt my mom would have been too, if she could have stayed awake long enough to have more than a drink or two. My parent’s parties were legendary, and no one loved them more than me and my brother and the Hammarberg kids, Nik and Mia. Nik and I were the same age and were “the big kids,” Erik and Mia were the same age and were “the little kids.” Everyone else was “the grown-ups.” While the grown-ups partied, we were sort of feral children, with the run of our huge Victorian house and the wooded ravine behind. Sometimes the parties were at the Hammarberg’s house, and for a while Bob was part of a mock motorcycle gang called “Hell’s Tuna’s,” consisting mostly of academics and folk musicians, and they also had rollicking parties.

But mostly the parties were at our house, which pulsed with people and music – the Beatles, Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, Cat Stevens, Joan Baez, some Stones, but mostly the Beatles. The soundtrack of my childhood can be found on two Beatles Greatest Hits double albums, one red, one blue. On these albums there are two almost identical photos of the Lads, leaning over the railing of a balcony, I believe, but in one they are clean-shaven, and in the other, hairy and wild. The theme song of my childhood is “Back in the USSR,” which the four of us thought hilarious, and we would move the needle on the record player back to that track over and over, jumping around the living room in a manic air guitar parody, screaming at the tops of our lungs, “Hey! I’m back!” The best part of the parties, though, was when the stereo went off and Bob Hammarberg got out his banjo. Sometimes Dad would play along on a little ukulele, and Mom would noodle around on the harmonica. We had a repertoire of songs to which we were devoted, including “Waltzin’ Matilda,” “Oh Mah Darlin’ Clementine,” “On Top of Old Smokey,” and our all-time favorite, signature song, “Halleluiah, I’m a bum! Halleluiah, bum again! Halleluiah, give us a handout, and revive us again!” When the grown-ups got a bit more lubed, they would sing bawdy songs like “Friggin’ in the Riggin’” and “Roll Me Over in the Clover.” There were rousing choruses of “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” and rounds of “Fish and Chips and Vinegar/Don’t Throw Your Trash in My Back Yard/One Bottle of Beer, Two Bottles of Beer…” In mellower moments, Dad – who directed and sang in church choirs as a teen-ager, and who has a beautiful voice – would lead us in rounds of “White Sands and Grey Sands” and “Tell Me Why the Sky’s So Blue?”

My parents’ parties always ended with us four kids pretending to be asleep in the hopes of being granted a sleepover. Once Nik and I convinced the little kids that their exaggerated mock snoring wasn’t helping our cause, we were generally successful. Our biggest sleepover coup was election night, 1976. We were at the Hammarberg’s watching the election returns because we did not have a TV, and the returns were very late in coming. We woke the next morning, joyful at the news that Carter had won – but the real thrill was waking in Nik and Mia’s room on a school day!

My partner Julie and I share a philosophy of parenting we call “benign neglect,” which I am proud to say is a direct inheritance from my own parents. My childhood was marked largely by enormous freedom, bounded just enough by high expectations and unconditional love to make it feel largely safe and happy. We were a little bit wild, my brother and I, with dirty fingernails and messy hair – Erik’s was always too long and in his eyes; mine had a permanent rat’s nest at the base of my neck. Periodically, Dad and I would sit on the front steps, and he would spend hours with a comb, untangling it. Erik and I had the run of the neighborhood, including a wooded ravine behind our house with a bicycle bridge across it, a corner drugstore three blocks away that sold candy and gum for a nickel, a wooded convent five or six blocks in another direction called “Bishop’s Hill,” where we played in the leaves in the fall and sledded in the winter. We even walked all the way downtown to go to the movies, where a quarter got you something at the concession stand, and if you pooled quarters with someone else, together you could buy a big box of candy.

My memories of my dad from my early childhood are almost all of how fun and present he was. I read somewhere that great moms are rarely remembered vividly from early childhood, because they are ubiquitous, the air we breathe, whereas dads are remembered in much greater detail because dads are fun! and do special things! I suppose this is true in my family; my mom was certainly the sun around which we all revolved, but I don’t remember playing tickle monster with her on the Persian run from Amsterdam (the rug that is now in my living room), or carving Halloween pumpkins, or listening to rain on the tin roof of the sun porch; and the thrill of sitting in the front seat with Dad on our cross country camping trip when I was four (while Mom attended to the toddler Erik in the back seat) is the main thing that makes that trip memorable.

In retrospect, I don’t think my elementary years were a particularly healthy time in Dad’s life; he drank way too much, and I think my parent’s marriage was strained in ways I only dimly understood as a child. (At one point in elementary school, they separated for a time, and Dad had a small attic apartment across town, and when we visited, he took us to the light opera, and we made rock candy on strings and Boston brown bread in tin cans. I can still feel the exhilaration of finding Dad’s long, green, leather-topped footstool in the foyer when I arrived home from school one day, because I knew it meant he was coming home.) But for me, my early childhood memories, including my memories of Dad, are vivid, and, for the most part, awash in sunlight.

Vietnam protests, Watergate obsessions and election-night cliff-hangers notwithstanding, my dad was not really so much of an activist as a homebody, like me, and I sometimes wonder if he missed his calling as a homemaker, in the broadest sense of the word (again, like me). It never occurred to me that being a girl was a liability or limiting in any way, but looking back on my early childhood, it seems that my parents were, despite their best intentions, unable to escape gendered expectations for their own lives. In those heady, early days of the women’s movement, my life was full of smart, strong, and independent women – my mom, of course; and Gitta Hammarberg, a Russian scholar; and Bernadette, who spearheaded the local recycling drive and who, along with her husband Dedrick (a grad student) lived in an apartment my dad had renovated in our attic. Terry the red-headed lesbian lived there for awhile as well; Betsy Henry’s mom, who lived down the street from us, was later an editor at Off Our Backs; and even the school marms at Highland Elementary had forsaken family life for their careers, and to me they were nothing short of heroic (even Miss Ruth, whom I adored despite her defense of Nixon).

My mother was a disaster of a homemaker – our house was always profoundly messy, and the meals she cooked were perfunctory and obligatory. Her years of being a part-time grad student while raising me and Erik – she got her masters when she was pregnant with me, and her PhD when I was a sophomore in college – were not particularly satisfying for her, I think. She typed my dad’s dissertation and left a PhD program to move to Lafayette when Dad got his first academic position. She continued her graduate work at Purdue, but was never really fulfilled until she quit pursuing a university career of her own, and went back to teaching high school when I was a teen-ager. She loved having a job, bringing home a paycheck, being involved with people and making a difference out in the world. And she was very, very good at it.

On the other had, I think Dad did not enjoy the pressure of having to be the breadwinner, but his homemaking abilities are legion, beginning with his skills as a master carpenter and cabinet maker, which he has used to build and/or renovate and furnish five homes in my lifetime, including my own little rowhouse in Philadelphia. There is almost no corner of my current home that has not been touched by Dad’s hands, including its most beautiful feature, wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling built-in cabinets and bookcases in our living room, which Dad built from ash and walnut trees he harvested from his farm in Indiana. Upstairs, oak cabinets, shelves and cubbies wrap around two walls in our bedroom. My daughter Trixie does homework at the oak desk my dad made me as a child for Christmas one year, and all of her prized collections grace the matching oak bookcase that came a few years later.

When I was a child, we lived in an old, rambly Victorian that my dad was always in some stage of fixing up. I went back recently to discover that our neighborhood has become one of the most posh in Lafayette, Indiana, but at the time, it was a pretty working class neighborhood that was considered by most of the University folks to be on the wrong side of the Wabash River. Where there was a town/gown split, my parents felt far more comfortable in town (some of our friends in West Lafayette always had a classical radio station on in their house; Dad thought this was pretentious, not because he didn’t appreciate classical music – indeed, he had ruined his hearing listening to it much too loudly as a young man – but because it was not, in Dad’s mind, background music, but something that should really be listened to). Our house was huge and airy, full of beautiful trim and musty carpets and a kitchen that was the center of our family’s universe. Dad tore down walls, renovated the attic, built a greenhouse off the back and a new porch in the front. In my mind’s eye, there is always a cement mixer in the driveway, and a pile of gravel, and some sort of project underway. The most memorable of the projects involving cement was the new sidewalk he poured, with a hopscotch etched into the surface. When I returned to look at the house a few years ago, it was still there, nary a crack nor buckle to be seen some 30 years later, and kids on their way home from school still hop their way across 914 Highland Avenue.

Since I can remember, Dad has been an organic gardener, way before organic gardening became trendy, when the magazine Organic Gardening was just a little bigger than a trade paperback and had a decidedly unpolished look. Our backyard in Lafayette was entirely roto-tilled and planted in vegetables, which we ate all summer and canned and froze for the winter. When I went to college, I learned that asparagus is considered something of a delicacy; I always thought it was just what you ate every day in April until you were so sick of it that you were glad another year would go by before it was in season again.

Though Mom did most of the day-to-day cooking, Dad was by far the better cook. Often my parents’ parties would start with a big Indonesian feast of nasi goring (fried rice) and bami (fried noodles), each in a huge, cast iron wok, which we called by the Indonesian name, a wa-jong. There would also be chicken satay with peanut sauce, and fried shrimp crisps which we called kru-puk, and sometimes even fried bananas, if we were really lucky. When supper was ready, Dad would call out, “Mah-kahn, mah-kahn!” which meant, roughly, “Supper’s on, come and get it!” in whatever Indonesian dialect he had studied as a grad student. Sometimes Dad would jokingly suggest that we should say grace, and then he would say “Grace!” and dig in. Or he would say, “Good bread, good meat, good God, let’s eat!” And always, in any lull in the dinner conversation, he would declare, “I’m not talking while the flavor lasts!” Occasionally we would go out to eat – always on payday, and always to one of two places: Ponderosa Steak House, where Dad got steak, I got fried shrimp (Dad hates seafood, so this was my only chance), and kids got free refills on soda; and the Peking Chinese restaurant, where we ordered spicy kung pao chicken, moo-shoo pork, and egg rolls. On the way home, Dad would always say, “Well, that was a great appetizer, how ‘bout we pick up some pizzas for dinner?” And we would laugh and laugh every time.

Dad also made candied popcorn balls as Halloween treats, date-filled cookies and fruitcakes at Christmas, and for many years during my childhood, fresh bread every week. His schedule as a professor allowed him time during the day some days, and there was nothing better than coming home to the smell of Swedish limpa filling the house. When Terry the red-headed lesbian lived with us, she and Dad often baked together, and they had written in the recipe, during one of the rises, “open a can of beer.” When we arrived home from school, they were probably on beer number two or three, and they were buttering warm bread as an after-school snack.

In Messages from My Father, Calvin Trillin (whose “Deadline Poem” I read every week in my Dad’s gift subscription to The Nation) says that upbringings have themes. Trillin’s theme was an immigrant version of one of the grand American promises: “We have worked hard so that you can have the opportunity to be a real American.” I would say my upbringing had two distinct themes: “You can be anything you want to be (except a Republican or a born-again Christian; a lesbian, vegetarian Peace and Global Studies major is fine);” and its corollary – something my dad used to say -- “You can always fry eggs in Missoula, Montana.” When I decided to leave a promising and highly lucrative career in the law to stay home with my kids, keep house, garden, preserve food, read books, and volunteer with my church and my kids’ schools, almost everybody thought I had completely lost my mind. Everyone except Dad. I think Dad was a little relieved; it was the law firm that had confused him – although he would never say so, because one of my Dad’s best qualities as a dad is that he understands my life is mine, and he doesn’t judge, or even comment. But he has always taught us – by word and example -- that you can do anything with dignity, that likely you will land on your feet, and that an interesting life lived with integrity is far more important than money or prestige.

I believe he loves the life I’m living now, but clearly not because he has a limited imagination of what a woman can and should do. Rather, he loves my life because I have chosen all the parts of his life that he loves best – the parts that are about integrity, and sustainability, and “quotidian mysteries.” Dad may be an atheist, but he understands our need for daily bread, and the festivals that mark the turning of the year, and our need to be connected to creation in intimate and daily ways that leave you with dirt under your fingernails, and something beautiful and lasting you can call your own. This is my heritage, and it is indeed goodly.

Blog Review: this woman's work

Dawn Friedman, who blogs at this woman's work: writing, mothering, and writing about mothering, is one of the most important thinkers writing on the ethics of domestic infant adoption. I wish she would hurry up and write a book, which I will promptly read and review, but in the meantime, if you are interested in or considering domestic adoption, her blog is a must-read.

Dawn is the mother of an 11 year old biological son and an almost 5 year old transracially adopted daughter. Her daughter's adoption is fully -- and beautifully -- open, and her daughter's other mother is an important part of their family. She writes with great insight and honesty, always grounded in her own personal experiences, and with a passion for reform in an industry much in need of it. What I love about Dawn is how right she is, without being righteous; how unflinching and self-confident she is in her views without being smug and self-congratulatory; how humble and real she is without any sense of false modesty. She is not only able, but eager, to grapple with complexity, of which there is no shortage in the world of adoption. Perhaps most importantly, she does all this without ever failing to be kind and generous and open-hearted.

In the past few days, Dawn has been answering questions posed by readers about her views and experience of adoption, and this is a great place to start. For a more thorough overview of Dawn's thinking, go to the "Archives" link at the top of the page, and then scroll down to the topics, where I believe "Adoption" tops the list.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

The Sun and the Moon: The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists, and Lunar Man-Bats in Nineteenth-Century New York

Matthew Goodman, The Sun and the Moon: The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists, and Lunar Man-Bats in Nineteenth-Century New York (2008)[*****]. In the interests of full disclosure, I should note right up front that Matthew Goodman is the husband of one of my best friends and Earlham roommate, Cassie. Having said that, I fear no prejudice from the connection, because this book is fabulous all on its own. It is the intertwined stories of the rise of the tabloid press in New York City in the 1830's, and a marvelous hoax perpetuated by John Adams Locke, the editor of the first and most successful penny paper, The Sun. This hoax convinced most of New York, and eventually the rest of the country and Europe as well, that the noted astronomer John Herschel had invented a "hydro-oxygen telescope" which allowed him to view the moon up close, and that he had found remarkable creatures, including biped beavers that lived in houses, and intelligent -- and apparently immodest -- man-bats. Both of these stories are interesting in and of themselves, and well-told, but Goodman's real genius is to place these stories in various social, religious, scientific and political contexts that both animate them and give them tremendous relevance today. These contexts include the abolitionist movement, and the vicious racism of most of New York and its press; the role of the press and in particular the newspaper in society; the tension between religious faith and scientific inquiry; the quest for intelligent life in the universe; and the thirst most of us share for sensationalism and the bizarre (and our willingness to fork over a lot of money to have that thirst quenched). Woven through this story are several intriguing supporting characters, including Edgar Allen Poe, who was certain Locke had plagiarized his own moon story Hans Phaal (which was itself in large part plagiarized); and P.T. Barnum, who was touring at the time with a slave woman whom he claimed to be the 160 year old nurse-maid of George Washington. The Sun and the Moon is a story meticulously well-researched, imaginatively and entertainingly told, very nicely written, and well-worth reading.