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Saturday, July 30, 2016

What is this World, plus Lindy West's 'Shrill'

Two things happened around the same time last week.  Just as I was finishing Lindy West’s mind-blowing collection of essays, “Shrill,” I read about a feminist blogger who decided to hang up her laptop because one of her trolls suggested that her 5-year-old be raped.

I find myself thinking about my parents all the time these days. They died in 1998 (Dad) and 2002 (Mom), and so they just escaped most of the Internet craziness — not to mention the fun-house nightmare of this presidential campaign. Something happens on almost a daily basis now that makes me imagine how dismayed they would be at where our culture has landed. For instance, they would just not know what to think about a world in which men anonymously threatened child rape against a writer.

Yet the world has gotten better in some ways, too, and I count as an examp;e Lindy West’s fierce writing in "Shrill: Notes from a Large Woman" (Hatchette Books). To be clear, my parents wouldn’t understand West, either. But I view her as the answer to some of the unfortunate cultural conventions that thrived during their generation’s heyday.  I needed her writing when I was 15, but alas – she hadn’t yet been born.

West is the fat feminist writer (Jezebel, GQ, The Guardian) who you might know from hearing about on NPR.  A few years ago, one of her trolls opened an email account in the name of West’s dear and recently departed father and started posting hateful messages as if in his voice. Accustomed as she was to ignoring the regular tide of commenter sewage, West was caught up short by this one.  Unable to ignore the bracing cruelty, she wrote about it. Much to her surprise, the troll outed himself to West, and the two eventually had a real conversation.

I’ve listened to this story twice on the radio and read it now as part of “Shrill,” and I can’t explain how deeply it moves me. I find a tiny bit of hope for humanity in the troll’s willingness to apologize and examine his motivations. And the story was one of my first introductions to women writing (very effectively) in defense of their right to be treated humanely regardless of size. This is no small tonic for generations of women taught to apologize for their bodies.

“Shrill” is all of that and more.  West writes about the internal and external battles she faced as a funny woman in the bro culture of stand-up comedy.

She tells us just what it’s like to be a fat person who doesn’t quite fit in the airplane seat. “I have, in my life, been a considerably thinner person and had a fat person sit next to me on a plane,” she writes. “I have also, more recently, been the fat person that makes the other travelers’ faces fall. Being the fat person is worse.”

She unspools events around a kind of heartbreaking cold war she had with her editor, sex columnist Dan Savage, when he decided to jump on the “War Against Obesity” bandwagon. (Spoiler: West still loves Dan, but I loved him a lot less after reading this.)

And oh, by the way, she’s funny enough that on several occasions I  shoved the book under Carlo’s nose to make him read an especially hilarious passage. My favorite West moniker for a woman’s nether regions: “shame canyon.”

It’s a strange thing, reading West’s stories. No one wants to be fat. And those who are don’t want to be fatter. The empathetic reader will find that it hurts to imagine living in West’s shoes, even as she wishes she had a tenth of West’s will to stand strong, day after day, and declare herself worthy.  If I believeed in required reading, “Shrill” would be on this year’s list. Just consider this an enthusiastic nudge.


Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Keep walking through the ugly

The piece I really wanted to write tonight is called "Helen Mirren is Ruining It for the Rest of Us." It's a brilliant essay, if I do say so, about how women of a certain age, an age at which perhaps they ought to be setting down their hand-mirrors and their punishing self-loathing, instead have joined together in a chorus of "I want to look like Helen Mirren when I grow up."

Because, get it? Helen Mirren's all grown up. And she's still a babe at 71, so why shouldn't we be, too? Just as we wanted to look like Christie Brinkley in 1975.

Anyway, I was going to make this semi-feminist point that Helen Mirren is already taken, but frankly I lost my mojo on that and by now you get the point. Instead  I'd like to share with myself a few words of encouragement. Feel free to hang in here as I engage in optimism calisthenics.

Last night I was making the drawing you see above. It's a drawing on a postcard for someone, actually, and it's inspired in part by Haruki Murakami's book "Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World." A chubby woman in a pink suit is a fixture in the plot. As I was reading,  I kept thinking about what she would look like and eventually I ended up wanting to draw her floating. So I did a little sketchbook sketch and then reworked it a little to what you see here.

At the quarter- and half-way marks, I could tell that what I wanted to happen was not indeed happening. And I'll admit it — I wanted to shut it down and watch TV. But I've had enough experience working things through and having them turn out better than I could've imagined, so I slogged forth. And as you can see, I ended up with ... this.

Did not turn out the way I'd hoped.
Does not convey what I wished it would convey.

On the other hand, I didn't bail. I did my best to aid and abet a version of the drawing that was better when I was done than it would've been if I'd quit. This means that I had to keep thinking and problem-solving. And it means that if I have a quota of, say, 10,000 bad drawings to log in my lifetime, good news! Only 9,999 to go!

Some people come by grit naturally — you know, the way Helen Mirren has a natural gift for still looking great in her 70s. Others of us have to lean hard against the winds of pessimism and lethargy.

So there we are. Last night, I leaned.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

When I think of the 'failed schools' canard

Lucy Lange read “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” one chapter a day to her third-grade class back in the 1970s. Mrs. Lange had a brunette flip, the tiniest remnant of a childhood lisp, and an endless supply of kindness. She brought Soma puzzles to her classroom and let us work them for rewards of Sweet-Tarts from a bowl on her desk.

And she read “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” aloud to us every day until it was done. Did I mention that? As soon as it was over, I wanted her to start again. This was my first experience of book nostalgia. Mrs. Lange was the reason.

In seventh grade, Shelly Buckholz and I spent a week in Old Quebec with our French class. A snowstorm extended our stay an extra couple of days. Cars parked in the shadows of Le Chateau Frontenac were windshield-high in drifts. We wandered the city practicing our Ohio-girl French, which had been taught to us by our gangly duck-footed teacher, who also led us in “Frere Jacques” and other ditties, and who was quietly mocked by some of the boys for being presumed gay. Like Mrs. Lange, he was good-natured and generous, and passed along a sticky appreciation for words and how they morph across cultures.

In high school, Carol Bush told me I could write, and encouraged me to study journalism.

An eccentric old English teacher (he probably wasn’t that old at the time) nudged us through readings so dramatic that we actually understood some of the  Shakespeare plays.

A prissy home ec teacher taught us a slick way to measure shortening in a cup of water and pressed the point about the value of a seam-ripper. I will never again make an A-line skirt or a halter top, but because of her I can thread the needle on a sewing machine, and I made Raggedy Ann dolls for my kids for Christmas when they were little.

The Vietnam vet who taught 10th grade business is literally the only reason I know debit from credit.

And in 12th grade, my Spanish teacher did palm readings and promised me I was a “late bloomer.” I sure wasn’t blooming in high school, so I clung to that reading like the last canteen of water on a trek across the Sahara.

I could go on and I’m not even to college yet. But then again, you have your own list of influential teachers, too, right?

Last week, one of the sons of the Republican Party’s presidential nominee played upon that old canard about failing schools and lazy teachers. Applause all around, I imagine — I just read about it after the fact. Even third-hand, the message boils my blood.

My own school career has been in the rearview mirror for a long time now, although I went back to college again in 2009.  Still, I know that just as they did in the 70s, teachers work harder than many people making two or three times their salary. They leave imprints on lives for decades. Tap on the skull of someone who has succeeded in some field, and a story springs forth of a teacher who exerted life-changing influence at a critical moment.  It’s so common as to be cliché.

Not every teacher is stellar. True then, true now. But the ones who take on education as a calling stay with us forever.   

Pretty magical, when you think of it.


Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Here, try my pizza

On this, the third day of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, the main thing on my mind is politics, and God knows you don't need more of that. So let’s talk about why Margherita pizza is better than other kinds of pizza.

Fresh basil.

Fresh basil and actual tomatoes, not tomato sauce. When the thing comes out of the oven, you can taste all ingredients. 

I’ve skated through motherhood on the strength of about six recipes.  This one is the headliner. I make it in a food processor, though that’s not absolutely necessary. So here, feel free to try its wonderfulness yourself. But if you substitute some godawful pre-fab crust (#boboli), please don’t tell me. You’ll crush my soul.

3 C. unbleached flour
½ teaspoon salt
1 package of quick-rise dry yeast
1-1/4 C. warm water
1 teaspoon sugar
1 Tablespoon olive oil

5 medium plum tomatoes OR
    4 heirloom tomatoes
½ C. fresh basil, chopped
8 oz. shredded part-skim mozzarella
½ C. grated Parmesan
½ C. pine nuts (optional)

Heat oven to 475.  Spray 14-inch pizza pan with Pam or coat lightly with oil.

Proof yeast in warm water. Add sugar and olive oil to yeast mixture. While yeast proofs, in a food processor or large mixing bowl, blend flour and salt. Slowly add yeast mixture to dry ingredients until a dough ball forms around processor blade. Dough should not be sticky. Remove dough ball from processor and place in a large, lightly oiled mixing bowl. Cover with a towel and let rise for about 30 minutes.

Use slicing blade to slice tomatoes. Chop basil; set aside.

Roll out dough to fit pizza pan. Sprinkle the grated mozzarella over the entire pie. Add tomato slices, covering mozzarella. Sprinkle Parmesan over tomatoes. Add pine nuts if desired.

Bake pizza for 14 minutes or until cheese is golden brown. Remove pizza from oven and sprinkle with fresh pepper and chopped basil. Let rest for at least 5 minutes before serving.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Here's my beach body, plus 'Mother Bruce'

This is a beach body — one of many models available.
A spread from 'Mother Bruce'

Perhaps you read about the slender young thang who accidentally went viral last week by posting a photo of herself and an unawares naked woman in a gym locker room with a caption that said something like "Since I can't unsee this, neither can you." I will not characterize the victim of this act other than to observe that she did not appear to be as slender or as young or as genetically advantaged as the perpetrator.

The internet delivereth instant karma, and I'm fine with that. It's hard to imagine a time when people will not be mocked for the ways their bodies look, but at least there's some movement in that direction. We even have shorthand for it now — body shaming — and in certain company, you can find yourself quickly chastised for judging or joking about someone else's looks or size. 

That's true even if the object of judgment is so thin as to invite fake concern about anorexia. "I wonder if she's getting any help." (No you don't.)

And it's true if the person is so large as to inspire comments such as, "I'm just worried about her health." Actually, you're undone by such a wanton affront to the aesthetic you've been trained to respect. Geez. Have some self-awareness.

But back to the photo of the naked woman in the locker room.

More than my loathing of the culture that encouraged the chick with the cell phone to violate someone's privacy in the interest of venting her hatred, the incident left me filled with optimism and admiration. Why? Because the non-thin, non-young person who was violated was naked in a gym locker room.

From that, I have decided to extrapolate the following: That she went there to move her body. More than that, that she went there to move her body for the sake of moving her body, and perhaps because she likes how it makes her feel, and finds joy in movement. That she did not go so she could become like the skinny bitch who secretly snapped her picture, but because she has this one body, with which she's going to do as she wishes, including working out, showering naked in front of other women, showing up on the beach in a real swimsuit and feel joyful about the breeze on her skin, and having a whole lot of crazy sex in wild positions with someone who feels love and lust for her.

Take that for what it's worth. There were two women in that viral photo. One was rendered ugly by her own ... oh, hell, let's just call it what it is: thin privilege. 

The other was showing us who we can be when we cut the ties to shame.


Author/illustrator Ryan T. Higgins demonstrates that he has the whole package — art skills, writing chops and a great sense of humor — in Mother Bruce, the story of a grumpy black bear who just wants breakfast but ends up with a gaggle of goslings who adopt him as their mom. Despite many attempts to shoo them back into a more gooselike existence — including slingshotting them into migration — they will not leave him.

I loved every single thing about this book, from Bruce's expressions of grumpitude to the layout and design of the book itself, which is rich with detail on every page.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Andy Sipowicz and strange company

Apologies to Thrity for stealing the elephant I drew for her and putting him here. He has nothing to do with this post. But he's cute, isn't he?

“NYPD Blue” plays five nights a week in reruns on cable.  I was raising kids when the show originated (1993-2005), and it was all “Barney” and Nickelodeon back then. But now I sure am enjoying my cocktail-hour getaways with the men and women of the 15th precinct. Do NOT attempt to interfere with my 50 minutes of being virtually On the Job with my colleagues on the force.

Since I missed NYPD the first time around, it came as a late discovery to me how well written the show was. I’d lay odds that when James Gandolfini was preparing for his role as Tony Soprano, he studied Dennis Franz as Det. Andy Sipowicz, a man you could be furious with 10 times and love 11 in a single episode. He’s a strong cup of donut-shop coffee, that Sipowicz, and much of the time I’m silently asking, “Andy, do you have to be so rude to this witness? Would it kill you to be a little kinder?” But then he swears vengeance on some lowlife, and he delivers the guy’s metaphoric testicles on a platter, and I love him all over again.

Standing next to the decidedly unsexy, middle-aged Sipowicz is a litany of sexy cops in their prime, weight-room devotees we see naked several times season: Jimmy Smits (before he croaks over several wrenching episodes), Ricky Schroder (before he’s offed by some bad guys), Henry Simmons (still alive so far – I’m in the 10th season), and a series of women cast for how they look in sweaters. Though I did kind of have a girl crush on Det. Jill Kirkendall, and was sad when she got in trouble and had to leave town.
In designing his gritty New York fantasy, creator Steven Bochco strived for authenticity. He wanted to make sure we knew how cops actually got work done. Thus, we sometimes see the detectives slamming suspects around the poky, smacking them in the face, threatening their body parts or lives, and generally meeting the underworld on its own brutal terms. And — spoiler alert — not all of the abused are, strictly speaking, bad guys. Sometimes they're just collateral damage.

This element of "NYPD Blue" probably played differently a decade ago. Now, with a year and half of highly publicized police-related deaths making headlines regularly, I’m a little less entertained by the extreme rule-breaking than I might have been before. Before, it would all have seemed . . . theoretical.   

When I watch the show, and when I watch the news, I think about what it must take to be an urban cop, and also what it must be like to be in police crosshairs. The real world and a decade-old police drama are making strange company up there between my ears. 

Monday, July 11, 2016

Any Good Thing

Sometimes I remember all the days I've had when wonderful surprises came along, and I think maybe the difference between getting good surprises and bad surprises has something to do with inviting the right guests to the door.

Any good thing can happen, I said tonight. Then I leashed up the dogs and walked into the balm of a summer evening.

A couple of robins flitted around the bird feeder I remembered to fill this morning. Daisy thinks she can catch the robins, but when she missed (again), she lifted her golden snout to the air to catch a scent and pulled hard on the leash. Deer, I figured. She has a nose for deer, and they’re all over the place.

But we never saw a deer tonight.

We did see a neighbor doing work in her backyard.

We saw pachysandra with brown leaves, and I wondered if it was fallout from the recent cicada visit. Because what else kills pachysandra? It's the cockroach of ground cover.

We passed the raccoon carcass that’s been in the street for three days, and I noticed the stench has waned. It was oddly reassuring. There’s a moment with roadkill where part of you believes things will never smell normal again.

In the garden down the street, the daisies and black-eyed susans strained toward the setting sun.

We turned off the main drag and onto a side street. Quiet enveloped us. It was delicious.

At the century home with the big yard, we looked for Arlo the golden retriever, but he must’ve been in for the night.

We passed the house that once had three geriatric dachshunds that used to come tearing out from their doggie door, bouncing across the lawn like little brown beach balls and barking like all holy hell. One day they just weren’t there anymore, and I think about them and smile every time we go by their old place. I don’t know what happened to them, but the story I tell myself is that they moved to Florida with their humans. Though the dogs were very old. Probably the humans were, too. But I’d like to think they’re all enjoying the beach and a fresh bowl of water with ice cubes.

At the house with the invisible fence, the Jack Russell terrier who can’t decide if she likes us or not yapped from the front door. She likes us. She hates us. Likes us. Hates us. Likes hates likes hates. We like her anyway.

A pair of red-headed house finches pretty as cardinals wheeled up to a wire and watched us go by.

And the quiet of the evening tried to calm the noise in my head, but for a moment or two I got distracted making a list of every dumb thing that makes me irritable these days. Politics. Fast food litter. Guns. People who don’t use their turn signals. It’s an interminable list.

Then I stopped that, because I saw a pair of ladies power walking in their compression pants, sort of half-serious about the exercise, and I was happy to know they were there, making our neighborhood feel lively. Which of course it is. Despite the dead raccoon.

Back home, I dropped the leashes just to see Roscoe try to beat Daisy to the door. He never wins.

But he could, of course. You just never know what could happen. Any good thing.

Saturday, July 09, 2016

Over and under, plus Necks Out for Adventure

The "Over or Under" game was news to me when Lylah mentioned it on our flight to Denver a few weeks back. Maybe there are more official rules somewhere, but the way we played was by taking turns lobbing things at each other, deciding whether they were overrated or underrated, and defending the argument. I wrote most of them down on the sketch page, as you can see above. I won't bore you with all our answers, but in the "Overrated" column we agreed on hot fudge sundaes, tea, crayons and Lady Gaga. We decided that birthdays, Justin Timberlake, required classes and "Grey's Anatomy" are underrated. (Important note: Many of these things and people have huge followings and we're still calling them underrated because we deemed them unworthy of the even larger wave of criticism they have inspired.)


Speaking of travel, Candlewick Press  published NECKS OUT FOR ADVENTURE, a picture book by author/illustrator Timothy Basil Ering. A young bivalve named Edwin, who lives in the unpredictable sea, is separated from family and community after a big stinky foot descends madly on their space. Edwin must stick his neck out to forge ahead. Ering has much fun with his word play (wiggleskins and scrintleberry leaves are part of the story) and his wild, kind of messy, acrylic and ink paintings. There's lots of delicious texture and visual complication on each page. Readers will think twice before they plop their smelly old feet down thoughtlessly on the bed of the ocean.

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Ready for my close-up and 'Grit'

Our neighbors feed the deer.

Yesterday afternoon, I watched a doe chewing leaves off one of the trees in their backyard. Earlier, I had seen the woman of the house leave something out back — maybe some melon. Now it was gone, and the doe, who looks pregnant, was onto leaves.

I cut up a Gala apple and took it outside, and called to the deer. I’m not sure what I said. “Hello,” maybe. Or perhaps “Hi, sweetheart,” the way my grandfather talked to his grandchildren and his poodles a thousand years ago. 

I tossed a small chunk of apple to her 20 feet away. She ate it and walked closer. I threw another bit, a little less far, and she walked toward me to get it. We did this six or seven times until she was almost close enough for me to hand it to her directly. She watched me, and I could tell that she was assessing the risk. I wondered about her wet nose and whether I would be brave enough to let her take a piece of apple from my hand. After all, she might bite, and that would not be a small wound.

But I ran out of apple, and when I went inside for more, my dogs got into an argument with each other and scared the doe away. I hoped she knew it was them, and not me.

She would be welcome to come back. I could give her rose petals and silent blessings.


It would be a mistake to use the phrase “self-help” to describe Angela Duckworth’s nonfiction book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. While, yes, she intends her research into personal grittiness to be useful, she spends most of her time describing grit and how successful people use it rather than giving readers numbered steps to follow.

Here’s what I took: People who succeed at high levels have well-defined priorities around work they’re passionate about, and they develop habits that keep them bouncing back after failure. Duckworth says this all in much more interesting detail, which as we know is where the devil is. One note worth underscoring: She makes a point to spend time with the idea of intentional practice, which is focused time that artists, athletes and the like spend honing particular skills.  There’s nothing groundbreaking here, but Duckworth frames the pieces nicely and offers hope for those who need a little more grit in their souls.

Saturday, July 02, 2016

Colorado sketchbook

My view from the coffee shop patio at Devil's Thumb Ranch.

--> We spent last week (June 19-26) being Colorado tourists in the Fraser/Winter Park area. My mountain brother and his family showed us the best parts of where they live, and we did a bit of exploring on our own, too. One day we took a drive up to Devil's Thumb, a luxurious dude ranch where visitors can hike and do zipline runs and ride horses and bike. We ate lunch and petted a fine and friendly gray horse (a mare, I think). The sun was warm and the air was perfectly cool, and it was one of those rare days when just to sit outside and do nothing is to use your life well.


Speaking of Colorado and my mountain brother, I finished the book he gave me, Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf. (You know him from Plainsong.) This one scans a familiar landscape: Holt, Colorado, and gives us a pair of aging friends who embrace each other as a hedge against loneliness. They begin by sleeping together — literally just sharing the night and stories in the dark. A visiting grandson complicates matters, in a good way at first. But Addie's and Louis's simplest desires  refuse to remain simple when her adult son objects on the grounds of impropriety. This complication isn't completely believable, but I guess Haruf decided he needed plot. I was content just to go along and spend time with this couple and their companionability and the the stories they told each other, the simple meals they ate together. Those are the elements that spoke to me like the best poetry.