Monthly Archives: January 2011

On Relationships: The Importance of Juvenile Fiction

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My favorite books growing up, the ones I happily read over and over, were Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series, a five-part mythological mystery adventure series set in post-war Britain and Wales, where a small troupe of plucky kids overcomes an ancient evil with the help of their Merlin-like great uncle. These books no doubt spurred my early interest in genealogy, as I kept secretly wishing I had such a man of mystery in my own family tree.

I would read all five books in order, savoring each one, then after spending a bit of time reading other books (to see if they were anywhere near as great), I would go back and read them again. I also loved Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles, among many others, but they did not stand the test of time for me like Susan Cooper’s novels did.

Having favorite books as children is important as we develop adult relationships, too. In college, one of the standard questions I asked new acquaintances was what their favorite books were growing up. If their eyes lit up and they started jabbering wildly about their most beloved books, I knew that we could possibly be friends—though maybe not best friends if they thought My Friend Flicka was the best book they’d ever read. Yet friendship was still possible between us because we shared an essential type of imagination, whereas with those who didn’t love fiction as a child it was not.

Which is why I was mystified by the answer my first love, let’s call him Chester, gave to my all-important reading question. Chester was an imaginative, adventurous fellow, but he said that he didn’t have a favorite book or author growing up.

“Well, I mean, what were some of the titles that you read the most?” I asked on more than one occasion.

“I read the Horatio Hornblower books several times, those were good. I read the Swiss Family Robinson, Treasure Island—I read lots of books,” Chester replied almost defensively, “but I wouldn’t say I had a favorite.” He was certainly well-read, no doubt about it, but where was the gleam in his eyes, the sharp intake of breath as he described a book that had truly inspired him as a boy? I thought it odd, but took him at his word and chalked it up to It Takes All Kinds.

Eventually Chester and I got married and had children, and I thrilled to watch each of them fall in love with their own favorite books once they started reading. I figured that as long as they were arguing passionately about which was the better series, the Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, they would probably turn out just fine.

As our children became teenagers, though, things between Chester and me grew more difficult. What had started for me as a vive la différence kind of marriage was degenerating into a “this strange guy and his intolerable habits” scenario. I started reading fiction again, which I’d had no time for while raising young children. Not just any fiction, either—I took up the lengthy, ambitious James Clavell novels set in the Far East. I began with Shōgun and worked my way forward chronologically from the 17th century to the present.

Then a funny thing happened. I was reading King Rat, Clavell’s novel about prisoners in a Japanese POW camp during World War II, when Chester’s eyes lit up. “Oh, I loved that book as a kid. I must have read it over a dozen times, and never got tired of it. King Rat, what a brilliant book!”

I was stunned. “Really?” I asked cautiously. “What did you like about it?”

“Well, the main character is just so smart! He outwits all the officers, has a hand in every black market deal on the island, keeps his men alive by being daring and clever, and basically thrives in an intolerable situation.” Chester face was glowing, his hands effortlessly animating his speech. My heart sank.

“But Chester, this book is about a sociopath! It’s like Hogan’s Heroes on steroids, true, but the guy is only out for himself and doesn’t care about anyone or anything. He cruelly manipulates his fellow prisoners, is uniformly hated by everyone, and ends up a lonely, ostracized pariah. Really, that’s the book you loved as a kid?”

I tried not to let my disappointment show, but I’m afraid it was evident. Here, finally, was the answer to a question I had been asking Chester all the years I’d known him. I had never given up searching for that clue to his early psyche, and now that he had revealed it, I was more troubled than ever.

Chester must have realized that he’d said too much, because he shrugged and walked away with a look that said that I would never understand. Later on he tried to backtrack, saying that King Rat was just another of the many books he had read and been influenced by as a kid. I pretended to believe him and let it go, but I never forgot the gleam in his eye I had glimpsed that day.

Inevitably, I guess, our marriage unravelled a few years later. Its demise is a long story—but entertaining!—that I will write about some other time. One of the things it taught me, though, is how right I’d been about what we read as kids. At first I believed Chester when he said he still cared about me even though we were breaking up, but I was deluding myself. I still imagined us as part of the same plucky group of kids who were working together to combat evil, whereas he was involved in a complex psychological thriller where only he would emerge the winner. Too bad he never stopped to consider how his story ends.

At the end of The Dark Is Rising books, the kids prevail in their quest—that is the good news at the end of this particular story. I never would have guessed that children’s fiction would be a lifeline during a long, drawn-out divorce, but it absolutely has been. So here are two essential pieces of relationship advice: first, read a lot of great fiction while you’re growing up. Second, look for partners who shared those early delights and inspirations, but only get involved if you’ve been on the same team from the start.

6th Annual Brigid Poetry Festival

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It is that time of year again, when bloggers around the world post a favorite poem in honor of Brigid, the Irish goddess and patron saint of smithcraft, poetry, and healing. Brigid’s feast day is February 1st, so between now and then is the perfect time to publish a poem to celebrate.

Last year many great poems were published all over the web. This year, I have set up a Community Facebook Page to help people easily view each other’s poems and to share them around as much as possible. If you post a poem on your blog, please share the link on the community page so we can all go there and read it. If you don’t have a blog or website of your own, go ahead and post your poem in its entirety to the community page.

I haven’t quite decided which poem to post, so I have a week ahead of me to wander through books of poetry. May you enjoy the same pursuit, and by February 1st may the web be overflowing with poetic offerings!

How Nora Ephron Ruined My Life

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My ruination at the hands of Nora Ephron began in 1978, when as a high school senior in Oakland I was able to take classes at UC Berkeley. This was a tremendous boon not just educationally but recreationally, as there were security guards constantly patrolling our high school parking lot, looking out for rebellious teens such as myself who might try to cut class and leave school early. Now, thanks to my special UCB privilege, I could leave anytime I wanted and they just waved me on. That was a huge improvement in my life thus far, and not anything Ms. Ephron should be faulted for.

I decided to take English 1A first, to get a required class out of the way, and strode into Wheeler Hall one afternoon to look at the print-out of all the TA’s who would be teaching different sections. I chose a cheerful-sounding woman who didn’t list any Shakespeare in her required reading list, because how bad could that be?

Beth, my TA, turned out to be 24 and cute as a button. She was like a 5’2″ Barbie doll, with gorgeous flouncy hair, a great smile, and sparkling blue eyes beneath very long lashes. She held her piece of chalk like it was a cigarette, which I thought tremendously sophisticated, and kept the class jocks in line by sassing them back. Beth was a bonafide liberated woman, as well as being a talented teacher, and she wasn’t going to teach from a standard-issue English text—she assigned us Nora Ephron’s recent book of essays, Crazy Salad.

Suddenly I entered a world in which women could not only sass back in person, but also in print. Ephron wrote about everything from Watergate to breasts, and even dared to title a chapter “Vaginal Politics.” Each week I sat in class, amazed that we were talking about Linda Lovelace and Martha Mitchell in the same breath. Each paper I wrote was a little gutsier, a little more humorous, than the last. Beth was very encouraging.

Of course it was not meant to last—anyone at the registrar’s office could have told me that—but the damage had been done. I had caught a glimpse of a world that didn’t actually exist, except for Tuesdays and Thursdays from 2:30–4:30 pm. In this world Nora Ephron’s writing was something to admire and emulate, which left me completely unprepared for what came next: Robin, the bitter TA who taught English 1B.

Robin’s pathway to a PhD was littered with the trampled dreams of every young woman in her classes who dared imagine that they could write. She threw us into the viper pit of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets and stomped on our fingers, laughing, as we tried to climb our way out. I learned two things in that class: one, that I would never be a serious writer, and two, that I couldn’t read worth a darn, either. It took me ten years after that to finally give creative writing another try.

I blame it all on Nora and the way she breezed across the cultural battlefields of the day, tossing jokes out of her bag like some irreverent, feminist, female, neurotic Johnny Appleseed. She made it seem easy, even fun, to be a successful woman writer, at a time when such a thing barely existed outside of small enclaves like New York City.

But that is not the only wrong I have suffered at the hands of Ms. Ephron. Just last week I was reading I Feel Bad About My Neck, and this line jumped right out at me: “Never marry a man you wouldn’t want to be divorced from.” Damn you, Nora Ephron! Why didn’t you tell me that years ago? Couldn’t you have said that back when it might have done me some good, like before I married the guy who was a difficult boyfriend, an even more difficult spouse, and now that we are divorced is completely insufferable?

In Nora’s defense, I was probably too young at the time to have believed her even if she’d said it to my face. That’s just how it is sometimes with young love. Still, even though I was probably not going to take that bit of advice, it wouldn’t have hurt to hear it a few times before marrying someone I now have to be divorced from for the rest of my life.

Ironically, though, reading the divorce comment was also what convinced me to finally let go of my hurt and resentment towards Nora Ephron. She didn’t mean it personally, for one. Second, I figure that if Nora can still manage to be a funny, irreverent, feminist and neurotic writer all these many years later, she must be doing something right. Which means that Beth had it right after all, and Robin merely deserves our pity for ending up as a technical writer instead of poet laureate. She had so much potential, I am sure.

And third, maybe I should write my own relationship advice sooner rather than later, since I now have so very much of it to share. It might help the next woman unable to see clearly due to all the love-bugs squashed on her windshield. It could also prevent me from being attacked for not sharing soon enough. So you will notice a brand new “Relationships” category assigned to this blog post, along with the new “Leaving Hotel California” free-for-all memoir category. I will leave you with my first piece of advice: “Never marry anyone (updated!) you wouldn’t want to be divorced from.” I hope you find it just as useful as I did, and even more timely.

Leaving Hotel California

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One of the themes of this blog over the last couple years has been California Cosmology, a term coined by Alston Chase to describe the curious mixture of Eastern and Western philosophies, speculative science and experimental psychology that has been California’s unique contribution to many modern social, spiritual and literary movements.

I have also coined the term “Hotel California Cosmology” here, meaning how good ideas can become something more worthy of a Christopher Guest parody than anything progressive, relevant or even helpful. One of the striking things about Hotel California Cosmology is how much sense it seems to make when you are in it, but then how jaw-droppingly awful it reveals itself to be once you are well away. In my article, I wrote about how the entry works:

But when you are searching for transformation, you can’t stay safe all the time. Sooner or later you will be sucked in by something and lose your bearings, because that’s the only way to undergo a powerful change. Finding yourself again is the tricky part, of course, but that’s kind of like waking up from a dream. First you have to fall asleep.

Now that we are in a completely new decade I want to approach this topic from a fresh perspective: how we wake up. For that, I have started a whole new category of blog posts here, called Leaving Hotel California. Those of you who are offended by satire should never, ever read these posts. For the rest of you, my people, let it be known that the gauntlet has been thrown. Not only will I talk about social and spiritual movements, but I’ll also veer into the land of relationships, negotiation, and what passes for love.

Of course, I will take pains to fictionalize some of this, because my intention is not really to skewer any person, place or thing. It is to highlight the delusions that pass for truth, and the truth that gets passed over as fiction, so that others do not have to make the same mistakes that I made. Maybe they will wake up more quickly than I did, and that will be good for them. But the one virtue of staying in the fray for as long as I did is this: I have ever so much material to draw from. It’s going to be a fun year.