Monday, 25 July 2011

By Way of Sorrow, Indeed

Someone on linked to the lovely slideshow above on YouTube yesterday, saying a friend of his had put it together in celebration of New York's first legal gay marriage ceremonies. I defy anyone to look at the succession of images depicting loving gay couples, contrasted with images of the hatred and bigotry they've faced for so long, and not be moved. The slideshow is set to a song called "By Way of Sorrow", which my Googling tells me is written by Julie Miller and performed by a group called Cry, Cry, Cry, and I cannot imagine a more perfect accompaniment for this video.

As happy as I am for these couples, as thrilled as I am to see that the tide of homophobic bigotry is on the wane, my happiness is veined with sorrow and shame. I feel sorrow that gay people have had to wait so very long for a civil right so many of us have had all our lives, that the U.S. Federal government still does not recognize their marriage, that if they were to merely drive across the state border into New Jersey, their marriage certificate would legally mean nothing, that according to Wikipedia only 4% of the world's population lives in a jurisdiction that offers legal gay marriage, and that gays face discrimination and even violent persecution nearly everywhere on the planet.

The shame I feel relates to my own past. As a Canadian I live in a country that has recognized gay marriage for six years, and I am in no way responsible for what the U.S. or any other country's legislative tardiness in coming to it's senses. The shame is personal rather than political, and is rooted much further back.

I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian home. I attended a Christian school and Sunday School and church all my childhood, and had few other social contacts as my family lived on a farm. I'm embarrassed to think how indoctrinated I was at 14 or so, but the reality is that I didn't have much chance to be otherwise. As I attended public high schools, the re-education process began in grade nine and eventually led to my becoming agnostic at age 28 and an atheist at some point in my thirties, but it took many years for life to chip away what had been instilled in me.

At 17, when I was still two-thirds cocooned in a hard shell of patent Christian theology, I fell in love with a close friend who was gay. I didn't know he was gay, of course. If I'd had any real experience at all, I would have known. If I hadn't unconsciously wanted not to know, I would have known. Incidentally, it turns out that my first crush (at 11) and first boyfriend (at 16) were also gay. This is why you'll never hear me claiming to have gaydar, though since this trifecta I have at least, so far as I know, managed to pick straight men to date.

But it wasn't entirely due to my naiveté and wilful disbelief that I didn't know. My friend didn't tell me, and he had girlfriends before and after me. I finally clued in over four years later when I came across evidence through a bizarre chain of circumstances. It was his responsibility to tell me. Had he told me he could have spared me a great deal of pain, and both of us a lot of drama, and maybe we could have saved the relationship we did have that meant so much to us both in those days.

However, he didn't tell me, and in the years since I have recognized that I had a hand in keeping him silent. I remember very clearly, and with many a cringe, that one day on a walk through the park the subject of homosexuality came up and I expounded on what the Bible says about it and quoted the Biblical words "with such do not eat". I may even have shaken a finger at him. There were other incidents when I spoke disparagingly of gays or acted grossed out by what "they" did.

To understand the enormity of this you must know that I was a backward, sensitive teenager completely lacking in confidence or a sense of self-worth. My friend had confidence and self-esteem to burn, and whenever I was around him he cast such an aura of it that he made it possible for me to be wholly and unself-consciously myself while feeling completely accepted and supported. When I was around him we were in a world all our own and nothing anyone else said or did had the power to hurt me. He created that wonderful space for me... and in return I told him he wasn't fit to eat with.

I do keep what I did in perspective. He remained in the closet for a number of years afterward and I very much doubt it was my wagging finger that kept him there. He had a lot of issues that were unrelated to me, and even to being gay, just as I had my own issues that caused me to spend several years looking to him for things it was crystal clear all along that he could not and would not give me. But he was for several years someone I loved more than anyone, he probably suffered a lot over the conflict between who he was and what the world around him expected and allowed him to be, and instead of helping him and giving him the support he always gave me, I gave him one more slap in the face. It is this regret that remains with me to this day, more than fifteen years after all other regrets evaporated when I came to see that I wouldn't have been at all happy paired up with him even if he weren't gay.

And this is partly why, even though I am heterosexual, I am such a passionate supporter of gay rights. I've had intimate experience of how bigotry towards gays and living with lies hurts all of us, even when we're the bigots. Had my friend and I grown up in a time and a place when being gay was accepted as readily as being left-handed and the world offered the same options to a gay teenager as it did to straight kids, we both could have been saved the pain and waste of those years. And then perhaps my journals from my late teens would not be so full of an anguish so raw that to this day, twenty years later, I cannot bear to read them.

So to the newlyweds (including my former friend and his husband who have been maried for what must be close to three years now), I say congratulations, best wishes, and please forgive us all for being so wretchedly slow to give you your rightful place at the table.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Jean Teasdale and a Life Spent On An Escalator

Satire is a difficult thing to review for the same reason that Saturday Night Live sketches generally don’t make good movies: because satire by definition has little depth, and its thin premises are soon exhausted. Satire is simply a cleverly skewed presentation of truths everyone readily acknowledges, and one can find little to say about it before having to resort to obvious truisms. And so although I’ve intended to write a review of The Onion’s first ever “columnist-written” book, A Book of Jean's Own! All New Wit, Wisdom, and Wackiness from The Onion's Beloved Humor Columnist,by Jean Teasdale (really Maria Schneider), ever since it came out last fall, coming up with enough words on the subject has involved much mental scratching about. But I was determined to get this review written. I do think Jean comes close to transcending her satirical type and becoming a realized character with some interesting ramifications. I won’t go so far as to say she makes her readers care about her, exactly, but she’s real enough that many people who read her say they know someone very much like her, and sometimes cringe at her partial likeness to themselves. I have several friends who are equally into the Jean Teasdale material and we have very lively conversations about her and talk about her as though she exists. Tellingly, these conversations often seem to be on the theme of “how we could get her life on track”, and thereby tap into one of the most important veins in Jean’s character.

Human beings have a natural bent towards improving themselves and their lot. If we didn’t, we’d all still be living in caves and gnawing on raw meat. After millions of years of progressive development and invention we’ve exacerbated and inflated this tendency until we’ve reached a point of schizophrenic divide. We’re bombarded with images of perfection and incredible achievements while at the same time have reached such an apex of material comfort and convenience that comparatively little effort is absolutely required of us. At least in North America, and under certain circumstances, one can with relatively little effort and knowledge ride the crest of excess material goods and easy credit and self-satisfied ignorance like a sun-baked, slurpee-sipping water park visitor on an air mattress in a wave pool. Resolving this tension within ourselves, deciding upon realistic individual standards, and maintaining a reasonable and consistent level of effort can require concerted effort. Some people find their balance in this matter easily, but for others this schism is a source of great conflict and practical difficulties. Entering the ring of this conflict is one Jean Teasdale, proud and willful lowest common denominator.

Jean is at once an exasperating and enjoyable departure from the social norm of at least making some effort towards being all you can be (or, failing that, feeling guilty if you don’t). Some of Jean’s best and most hilarious moments are those in which she is on the very brink of achieving a state of mindfulness and then turns and snatches the iron, or rather, her Teflon psyche, from the fire. One classic example of such a moment occurs in one of my very favourite Jean columns, the one she wrote after 9/11, in which she decides to deal with the horror of the terrorist attacks by pretending they never happened, and this column about her marriage contains another example. It’s almost refreshing to see someone decide to not only embrace but wallow in her own rock-bottom laziness and sub minimal standards: someone who has “dress sweats”; who happily reports that she wears Crocs and clogs so as not to have to lace up her own shoes; who reads only home making and bridal magazines and romance novels; and takes to her bed, well fortified with junk food and sweets, whenever reality encroaches and life presents her with a challenge.

But then too, there is the urge to “fix” Jean. Her refusal to expect anything of herself or to be realistic has led to a life of precarious mental balance, and forces her increasingly more deeply into denial. She’s like someone who enjoys the free and easy ride on an escalator so much she tries to stay on it all day, and runs into all the drawbacks and hazards one might expect. Her marriage is a hopeless mismatch, she is a middle-aged women with a net financial worth of well under zero, she thinks she’s going to have the three children she dreams of even though she’s 40 and married to a man who doesn’t in the least want a child, she’s so overweight it impacts what she can physically do, she’s been fired from a long series of thankless minimum wage jobs, and she has no skills or education beyond high school.

My friend Jay and I have discussed how Jean could turn her life around or at least make it suck a little less. I suggested that Jean could sell the hundreds of stuffed animals and dolls and “collectibles” and assorted crap she seems to have acquired, which would surely give her a nest egg of at least a few thousand dollars, get at least a part-time minimum wage job and take it seriously enough to hold onto it, make up a budget and stick to it, cut up her credit cards, start knocking down some debt, and look into part-time community college programs. Once she has her finances under control, skills, and a job with enough income to be self-sufficient, she can move out. Jay thinks Jean should leave Rick and declare bankruptcy, immediately.

Maria Schneider has said that the Jean columns get more depressing with each one she writes, and that’s understandable. I first discovered Jean in the summer of 2001 upon reading this column, and not too long after read most of her archived columns at one sitting. It induced a weird mental state in me that I can only compare to the feeling one gets from eating an entire bag of chips at one go. Such matter may be enjoyable going down, but it leaves a bad aftertaste, and there was a unwholesome feeling of mental somnolence, as though I’d gone too far into Jean’s warped and confining little mindset and couldn’t get back into my own. Like the potato chips, Jean is meant to be enjoyed in small doses, and I think that may be partly why I didn’t enjoy A Book of Jean’s Own as much as I hoped. Jean’s columns are all solidly crafted with their own narrative arc and make for an enjoyable few minutes of entertainment each. The book was more of a hodgepodge of Jean’s thoughts on this and that: Jean’s tips on how to throw a pity party, her daily schedule, her sketch of her dream wedding dress, fiction she wrote about herself, extracts from her cat Priscilla’s “diary”, an account of the time she reacted to a job loss by shaving her entire body bald, recipes for chocolate goodies that sound revoltingly sweet, assorted lists, her accounts of her “most memorable” false pregnancy alarms (the first occurring before she’d even lost her virginity), her husband Rick’s scribbled contributions, etc. Jean says in the book that she’s not one of those “snobby authors” who expect their book to be read beginning to end, but I do think it’s best to read it that way, as the only narrative force it has comes from Jean’s growing desperation to fill the book (at one point she fills five pages with the repeated sentence, “I am limited!”), her progressive breakdown as her deadline looms, and Rick’s stepping in to finish the manuscript. Not that I regret buying or reading the book, but the columns are the main body of work and the book is better enjoyed as an adjunct to the columns than the other way around.

On the whole the book simply maintains and fleshes out Jean’s character as set in her columns. Maria Schneider must have run head-long into the limitations of the character in conceiving this book. Jean, of course, would never be able to focus and discipline herself to the task of writing a book. And, if she did, she would never come up with an interesting premise, let alone develop it into a book-length manuscript. The book, therefore, is the only thing Jean could ever write: a hodgepodge of Jean-like thoughts.

There are a few editorial sleight-of-hand changes which I suspect were made with an eye to the column’s future. For one thing, her age has recently become fixed and lowered. Jean has been “pushing forty” since her column’s debut in the mid-nineties and she used to make a lot of references to David Cassidy and other such seventies-era pop culture, but she celebrated her fortieth birthday in the summer of 2010, which makes her of an age more likely to have swooned over Michael J. Fox. Also the genesis story of her column has been changed. In a column that seems to have been taken down, I remember her telling the story of how she sent out copies of a column called “That Cathy Cartoon Was Bang-On!” to a number of newspapers on spec, and that just The Onion and some sort of coupon or sewing newsletter (that went out of business shortly afterwards) took it. Now the story is that her first column was “Day 24 in Deely Boppers and Counting!”

On the plus side (no pun intended, really!), I love that Jean’s drawings of herself are cartoon versions of her “official” photo. The drawing of her engaged in her “naked Plush Jamboree” past-time is – well, I won’t describe it, because it really needs to be seen. Suffice it to say it is arguably the best item in the entire book. The photos of Rick Teasdale and Jean’s pal Fulgencio are superb and just what you might have expected when picturing the characters. And there were several moments where Jean hits some all-time new low ebb of self-awareness. It turns out that her cherished cats Priscilla and Garfield actually hate her, probably because she insists on constantly subjecting them to an affectionate mauling regardless of whether they’re in the mood.

I also really enjoyed having a long-cherished theory of mine confirmed. My friend and I had a running argument regarding Hubby Rick, with Jay holding that Rick was a jerk and saying that Jean should leave him immediately, while I opined that while Rick may not be a palatable character he’s no worse a spouse than Jean. Yes, Rick’s obviously an alcoholic who expects Jean to do all the housework, makes no effort to do anything to please her, drops the occasional mean comment, and threw out Jean’s “Think Spring” balcony display (even though his agency in the disappearance of this display typically escaped Jean completely). But Jean, for her part, expects Rick to pay all their bills, makes fun of him constantly in her published column (including references to his, er, competence in the bedroom), calls him "Hubby Rick" though he hates being called that, and makes no effort to accommodate his tastes and needs. She has filled their apartment with dolls and stuffed animals and frou-frou knickknacks that he hates, adopted two cats against his will, and gives him dancing flowers and potpourri for Christmas. A Book of Jean’s Own confirmed my take on Rick. Jean is a classic unreliable narrator (reading between the lines of what she says is the biggest payoff of reading her work), and Rick’s section of the book is quite revealing on both their parts. It so happens that Rick turns out to be, if less literate than Jean who can at least spell and write in complete sentences, more intelligent, realistic and insightful. He knows he has a problem with drinking and he readily admits he’s fat, but he’s also equally straightforward about his intentions not to bother changing. More interestingly, he “gets” Jean. He knows she lives in a fantasy world and that he’s enabling her by paying their rent, but he’s willing to do so because he knows she doesn’t have any better options and because he, unlike her family and many of the other people in her life, does have a certain real if grudging affection for her. This is hardly a good foundation for a healthy marriage, of course, but in a way it’s an improvement on Jean’s passive aggressive denial.

I would be open to reading another Jean book, though I can’t imagine where Maria Schneider could possibly take the character that would produce enough material. I’m hoping that some of the listed future book titles in the back of the book are merely a joke, especially Priscilla Teasdale’s Kitty Letters to God. I do enjoy Jean’s increased internet presence almost more than the book that occasioned it. Before the launch of the book in late 2010, Jean got a Twitter account, a Facebook page, and a web site for the book, where “she” posted sad accounts of her book tour appearances. This all served to give the character a startlingly realistic dynamic, especially when Jean interacts with her followers on Twitter. So, although the book may not have been quite what I hoped for, I look as eagerly for new Jean columns as I’ve always done, and now can also follow Jean on Twitter. As Jean would say herself, "Success!!!"

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Some Vintages Age Better Than Others

A few months ago I came across a copy of Especially Father, by Gladys Bagg Taber, in Value Village. The book, written in 1948, seemed to bear promise of being a type of book I quite like. Though I don’t know exactly how I should classify or even describe this kind of book. Probably the best description is that of “vintage memoir”. I’m thinking of books like Our Hearts Were Young and Gay by Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough; We Shook the Family Tree by Hildegarde Dolson; and E.M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady, though Diary of a Provincial Lady is autobiographical fiction rather than a memoir. These books and the events they describe all belong to the first half of the twentieth century, and are all in a literary vein one doesn’t come across these days: erudite yet understated; delicately witty; self-deprecating yet dignified. And, if you can get your hands on an older edition, the yellowed pages with their well-aged scent and old-fashioned typeface adds to the feeling that one is stepping back in time.

Upon reading, Especially Father did prove to be this kind of book written by this kind of author. Taber penned more than fifty books, besides publishing a great deal of work in the periodicals of her day, and seems to be best known for her books about Stillmeadow, the seventeenth-century Connecticut farmhouse she bought and restored. I’ve made a note to myself to get my hands on one of these books sometime. But I expect to enjoy those books more than I liked Especially Father.

The book that Taber meant to commemorate her father, Rufus Bagg, does not do so in the way she intended. It’s evident that she loved her father and found that the excitement and hubbub he generated compensated for his shortcomings, but lacking her affection, and perhaps also her level of tolerance, I can’t agree. Good and even admirable characteristics her father had, yes. His level of physical energy seems to have been titanic. His knowledge of geology was profound and immense – as was to have been expected of a mining engineer and college geology professor – and he could discourse about it in a fascinating, poetic way. And he seems to have loved his wife and daughter deeply. But he also seems to have been an utterly unbearable man. Taber details his exploits: how she and her mother nearly starved in a rented room in Mexico because her father went off on an expedition to the mines in the mountains, supposedly for only a few days, and didn't return for a month (during which time Taber's mother ran out of money); how her father beat little Gladys black and blue for telling a neighbour where they hid their spare house key; how he left her in a store one morning and never remembered her until he returned home at suppertime; how he got up by six every morning and made such a racket no one else in the house could sleep; how he fought bitterly with the college librarian over a seventy-five-cent fine for months; how he browbeat his older brother into giving up his courtship of the girl who became Taber’s mother so he could court her himself; how he thought the only problem with Mexico was “all those foreigners” who lived in it; how he didn’t believe in red lights and never stopped for them; how he never understood any viewpoint that differed from his own and was convinced his own opinions were infallible.

Taber evidently wants her readers to admire her father as much as she did, but the really admirable character in this memoir is Taber’s mother. Without her mother’s sympathy, reason, and astute management, Taber’s childhood would have been a miserable experience. It would have taken a rare woman to put up with her father’s pigheadedness, and Grace Bagg seems to have had both the depth of sweetness and the strength of character to not only put up with him but to be happy with her lot – and to be the woman every other woman in town came to with her troubles. Taber writes that her father took her mother entirely for granted, that he expected her to do all the housekeeping, give the best parties of any wife on the faculty, feed six extra dinner guests at no notice, edit his papers, compose his speeches, find anything he had mislaid, and account for every penny he ever gave her. Many married women would have been expected to do the same at the turn of the twentieth century, but surely most would have received in return at least the occasional compliment or some consideration from their husbands. Grace Bagg did not, and she seems to have remained remarkably unresentful through it all, though Taber remembers how her mother would sew furiously late into the night when really perturbed. Grace Bagg did occasionally do battle with her husband to get what she really wanted – and win, too, because she had an understanding of his nature and therefore an ability to use his weaknesses to her advantage that he lacked – but generally she seems to have been able to take most of her husband’s behaviour in her stride and to see the never ending turmoil he caused as an adventure and a joke. But even while I marvelled at Grace Bagg’s spirit and fortitude, there was no getting away from the fact that she should not have been treated in such a way as to make such heights of self-abnegation necessary.

Taber does seem to have been fully aware of her mother’s worth (as she wrote, “Mamma was a genius”) and she is also cognizant of her father’s faults, but she could certainly have gone several steps further towards understanding the extent of his shortcomings. I found the pride not only Rufus Bagg but Taber herself showed over being a descendant of Cotton Mather to be appalling. Taber wrote:

I thought of the first ancestor, back there in 1632, setting his firm unfrightened foot on the new and terrible terrain.

It was his crest, and he was perfectly confident that he was virtuous and noble. And if the goodly man cheated the Indians, it was always for their own good, or for the glory of God. If he persecuted the witches, he was saving their souls or defending the innocent wretches they were casting spells upon. Sin was his mortal enemy, compromise a word he never knew.

Sure Mather treated the native people and their rights like nuisances to be swept aside, and presided over the cruel executions of innocent people, justifying it on the basis of an imaginary threat. But hey, he meant well, and compromising is for the weak and afraid!

Virtue, like everything else, doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The blame or praise we attach to an action or characteristic is wholly dependent on its context. Compromise can be good or bad; persistence can be constructive or destructive. Good intentions need to be coupled with good judgment and competence if they are to lead to positive results. Anyone with a passing knowledge of history or politics knows what happens when those in power refuse to compromise or to be subject to checks and balances and ride roughshod over the rights and opinions of others to achieve their own ends.

Taber opens the book by telling us in a prologue that she came to write this book about her family because she did not want her memories, especially those about her father, to be lost, and ends it by describing a Bagg family reunion and commenting,

The sight of these, the last of the Puritans, standing there gave me an uneasy sense of weakness in my own generation…. If the time came for Communism to sweep the world, Father would face a firing squad still shouting, God bless the Republican Party.

This may have a fine rhetorical ring to it, but the truth is, far from sweeping the world, Communism was to collapse of its own accord, while the American Republican party has become a corrupted and destructive force. And none of Taber’s fond nostalgia about her father stands up to deconstruction much better than that example. Surely there’s no benefit in glorifying the kind of pig-headedness and complete lack of consideration for others that Rufus Bagg showed. We’ve seen what happened when the U.S. was governed for eight years by a man who prided himself on his own ignorance, who said that we were “with him or against him”, who said that dictatorship would be fine “if he was the dictator”.

Especially Father is a mildly enjoyable little memoir, but the reactionary, overly simplistic, and reverent tone of it did it no favours whatsoever.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Marie Antoinette and the Recession

Of late there has been a lot of copy generated about coping with the recession. Salon for example has been running a series of lifestyle articles called "Pinched; Tales from an Economic Downturn". New York Times financial reporter Edmund Andrews wrote about his own experience of getting in far over his head with a house he bought in a memoir called Busted. Even a magazine like Elle, which must be the antithesis of a publication concerned with living according to one’s means, has gotten into the act with a writer’s account of her “Year of Living Frugally”.

These articles draw me like a magnet, and once I’ve read them, I proceed to the reader comments, which are often just as good and interesting (if not much more so) than the article. It fascinates me to read about how people arrange their lives and make the most of their resources. I’m always hoping to get some ideas for how to manage my own time and money to better effect, and to vicariously learn about what will not work without the cost and trouble of trying it myself. And then, too, sometimes reading such material gives me a healthy reality check as to how fortunate I am compared to others. But at other times it’s just food for ridicule, when it's not grist for irritation.

These articles run the gamut of quality. The best of them are written by good, thoughtful and self-aware writers who have come to terms with their situations with courage and a matter-of-fact acceptance of reality, and without self-pity. They have an understanding of how their individual standard of living measures on a global scale. They know they may have to work long hours at jobs they don’t like or move in with the in-laws to get by, but they are thankful to have paid work or generous in-laws, not to mention a computer and spare time to use for writing the article, or for that matter, enough to eat and clean water to drink. One of my favourites was "Excuse Me While I Stick My Head in the Toilet", a Salon article written by Rebecca Golden, who works as a cleaning lady, and who takes pride in being physically able to do such work now that she no longer weighs 600 pounds as she once did. And it’s a pure pleasure and inspiration to read the articles written by people who delight in their own resourcefulness, who honestly enjoy the contriving and the organizing and ingenuity they employ to live within their means, who realize that such mindful, careful attention to household management can mean the same or even a better standard of living.

Then there’s the polar opposite. The Elle magazine article mentioned in my first paragraph is possibly the best example of the worst kind of recession-geared articles. The writer, Laura Hollinger, is a New Yorker with a six-figure income, and her idea of being frugal is relying on dinner invitations to make her Aspen and Vail vacations affordable, or foregoing certain luxuries like having her hair professionally blow-dried as often or buying a new cashmere sweater (when she already has four piles of cashmere sweaters) so she can afford certain other luxuries like a Cartier watch. This article was roundly and deservedly mocked on Jezebel. I completely agree with the Jezebel poster who wrote that the problem with the article is not how the writer spends her income since she has every right to do whatever she wants with her own money, but how the article is positioned. Laura Hollinger is in the top 1% of income earners in one of the world’s wealthiest countries. It’s obnoxious for Hollinger and Elle to frame this article as an example of frugal living when by any objective measure it is nothing of the kind.

Another failed article in this vein was a Salon piece, "Can It!", by Sarah Karnasiewicz. Karnasiewicz made jam and concluded that, as delicious as the jam was, it wasn’t cost effective. Salon's readers lost no time in pointing out that Karnasiewicz's math hadn't accounted for the facts that one doesn’t normally make jam from organic strawberries purchased at an uptown market or buy brand new jam jars for just one use.

In my own reader comment, I said Karasiewicz reminded me of Marie Antoinette playing shepherdess. Many of these articles do have either this "playing poor" or a "crying poor" quality. So many of the writers just don’t have the honesty, knowledge, experience, and insight to do justice to the topics they address. Edmund Andrews wrote an entire book about his experience of buying a house he couldn’t afford and losing it without ever disclosing that his wife had declared bankruptcy twice — the second time during the time frame the book covered. Rebecca Golden's article about working as a cleaning lady would not have had the authenticity it does had the writer only worked as a cleaning lady for one day, or if she didn’t have to actually live on what she makes cleaning houses. And it’s so tiresome to read accounts written by the truly clueless and entitled who whine and blame all their problems on forces beyond their control: they can’t lose that extra 30 pounds because they can’t afford to join a gym; they can’t get married because they can’t afford a wedding with 200 guests; they bought a house they couldn’t afford because evil bankers gave them outsized loans; they’re “broken-hearted” not to have made more than an average of 40K a year from writing.

The reader reactions to such articles are a phenomenon in themselves. Nothing, it seems, raises the ire of readers faster than the complaints of a writer who has had better financial opportunities than them. And of course everyone has to air their own story of how they’ve managed on less. As one of the Jezebel commenters put it, these threads are so prone to become a “pissing contest”, with everyone producing evidence of thrifty they are or how few advantages they have, i.e., “I make my family’s undies out of worn-out sheets, and WE LIKE IT THAT WAY.” I’m exaggerating, but not by much. Another Jezebel reader claimed such threads reminded her of the Monty Python's The Four Yorkshiremen, and indeed there are parallels. So, giddy as I am over my recent purchase of a secondhand, brand-new condition $13 cashmere sweater at a Value Village, I’m going to try to refrain from trotting out my own thrifty cred in this review. I don’t want to get sidetracked into claiming that my family “dreamt of living in a corridor”.

What I do wish to say it that it’s just as important for us readers to maintain a healthy perspective as it is for the writers. I’m not going to condemn Elle for running Laura Hollinger’s article, or even wish serious financial reversals upon her. It’s a high-end fashion magazine after all. Elle, as with all media corporations, gets far more of its revenue from advertising than it does from subscribers, and Elle’s advertising clients are companies like Dior and Tiffany. We are never going to see articles about how to make three kinds of bean soup or max out our coupon savings in Elle because the women who buy Dior clothes and Tiffany jewellery aren’t interested in reading about those topics. (And who can blame them? I wouldn’t be either if I had that kind of income.) Even if the women who buy Elle can’t actually afford Dior and Tiffany products, Elle has to at least appear to be geared for women who live at that level if it wants to keep its advertising revenue.

And then too, even if it were feasible in business terms to run such articles, it wouldn’t be desirable. Why should every personal account about cutting back or getting more for less involve living at or below the poverty line? Do writers really have to be homeless or unable to pay for groceries or major surgery before they are allowed to muse about their efforts to live within their means? No one has unlimited funds; we all have budgets to stick to. Setting priorities and deciding what we can and can’t afford is a universal experience, and I think we’d all benefit from seeing money management as the subjective, context-specific experience it is rather than preening ourselves on our supposed moral superiority over others who have more and/or don’t manage as well.

It would be nice if such “high-end” money management lifestyle articles were of better quality than Laura Hollinger's and evidenced more insightful, nuanced, and creative thinking, since I can’t imagine anyone benefiting from the revelation that wearing clothes that are already in your well-stocked walk-in closet is cheaper than going shopping. But then that’s a criticism I could also make of many money-saving ideas in articles geared for people living at a lower standard; a lot of these ideas are so obvious and old hat to those of us with modest means. It all comes down to that old writing truism "write what you know", but to that I would add, "be self-aware about what you don't know". If you can live like Marie Antoinette, don’t assume that you know all about the working class experience or talk about how frugal you are or expect sympathy from anyone because you’ve had to start buying fewer ball gowns. For that matter, if you're middle class, don't think you know all about the working class or have hit rock bottom because you must shop at the dollar store or have had to take a minimum wage job for a few months. And if you are the socioeconomic modern-day equivalent of a shepherdess, it's good to realize you are just as much in need of a healthy perspective and generous, ungrudging spirit as someone with many times your income.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

The Lesser Sibling and the Short End of the Stick

Katherine Paterson’s Jacob Have I Loved has been sitting on my desk for quite some time, waiting for me to review it. I remember not liking it when I was a teenager. Even ten years later when I was collecting children’s and young adults’ literature and bought a thrift shop copy, I ended up getting rid of it again after a re-read. I found it unsettling. I've found it just as difficult to review as it was to read.

When the story opens, it’s 1941, and we meet 13-year-old Louise Bradshaw, who lives on a small island off the coast of Maryland, with her waterman father, her former schoolteacher mother, her half-senile and wholly nasty grandmother, and her musically gifted twin sister Caroline. We follow Louise through her coming of age to maturity and revisit her when she’s well settled into her adulthood.

Life on the island of Rass is limited and spartan. Almost all of the occupants get their living from the sea, which means that most people have to work very hard, the mortality rate is high, homes and boats are sometimes lost in severe storms, and no one has a high standard of living or much education. The annual Christmas concert put on by the 20-student high school is a major social highlight, and everyone depends on the radio, Time magazine, and the Baltimore Sun newspaper to keep them informed about the larger world. But change is in the air, even though the changes themselves are themselves are grim ones, and initially mean more deprivation and new battles to be fought — literally, because World War II breaks out and the young men of Rass leave to join the military. In a wrenchingly poignant touch, Rass itself is disappearing, the ocean claiming a little more of it every year.

Louise is an intelligent, capable girl with loving parents, but she is constantly chafing miserably against the limits of her life. Her reaction to her twin sister Caroline is the main conflict of the novel, as the title of it indicates. I’ve deliberately written “reaction to” rather than “relationship with”, because Louise’s problems with Caroline have very little to do with who Caroline actually is, and much more to do with Louise’s need to find her own level and role in life, and to be comfortable with who she is.

Caroline was born frail while Louise was a strong and healthy baby, and so Caroline got a great deal of special attention during the first few years of their lives. When the family narratives are told and retold about those first few hours of the twins’ lives are told, they always seem to be entirely concerned with Caroline. When Louise asks where she was while everyone was trying to save Caroline, her family members look blank. Then as the twins got older and Caroline outgrew all her medical problems, it was discovered that Caroline had a remarkable talent for music, necessitating expensive music lessons on the mainland and much more special attention and adulation from everyone in the twins’ lives.

The back jacket copy on my edition describes Caroline as “selfish”, but I disagree that she is. The most selfish thing Caroline does is casually help herself to Louise’s carefully hoarded hand lotion (and she doesn’t in the least understand Louise’s resulting outrage), and the most irritating thing she does is announce she’s going to start writing her memoirs in preparation for the time when she will be famous, but as sibling misbehaviours go, if those are the worst things Louise has to complain of, she can count herself lucky. Caroline is no more selfish or self-absorbed than any average teenager might be, and certainly no more so than Louise. Caroline is quite naturally very involved in her musical studies, but she repeatedly demonstrates an awareness of and a concern for others and their needs during the course of the novel. The radio broadcast about the bombing of Pearl Harbor affects Caroline as deeply as it does Louise, she is infuriated by their grandmother’s horrible insinuations about a friend, and on several different occasions when a neighbour has a problem she is ready with a creative solution and works to bring it to pass. What Caroline lacks, and this is not to her discredit, is the hypersensitivity towards Louise that Louise has for Caroline. Caroline is a naturally serene and confident person, has no issues with Louise, and consequently can’t understand what Louise’s problem is. (Nor does Louise make a concerted effort to communicate her problem to Caroline, except in noisy bursts of rage that merely leave Caroline bemused.) And what Caroline could have done about it if she had understood? She could hardly have given up her music or been less confident or pretty. However, the fact that Caroline doesn't understand and can't resolve Louise's problem does not mean that Louise's issues are any less real or important.

Paterson seems to like delving into grim realities, and family hierarchies with their painful gaps are definitely a grim reality. It’s not possible for parents to treat their children with perfect equality when their needs are inevitably disparate. One child may need more — or less — resources than the others, and sometimes kids just have to accept getting the short end of the stick, especially in cases where one child is extremely gifted or handicapped and there just isn’t enough money or parental attention to go around.

As I think and write about Louise and Caroline, I am reminded of a real-life pair of sisters who had a similar hierarchical gap and unhealthy dynamic: Florence and Parthenope Nightingale. Parthe Nightingale was exceptionally intelligent and talented in her own right, but she lived her entire life in her younger and genius sister Florence’s wake. Florence was so much Parthe’s superior in everything, in intellect, accomplishments, popularity, drive, looks, health, that Parthe could never begin to keep up. Their parents were aware that they needed to separate the girls for Parthe's sake, but Parthe’s poor health made it impossible for her to attend boarding school and no school could be found to undertake the education of Florence. Parthe was tormented by her inferiority in her youth, and by her teenaged years she had developed a neurotic and parasitical attachment to Florence. In early adulthood, Parthe tried to live through Florence and demanded that Florence live the conventionally successful life expected of an upper-class Victorian girl rather than reform the medical system (to be fair, their parents W.E.N. and Fanny Nightingale were of the same opinion as to what Florence should do with her life). It wasn’t until mid-life, when Parthe got married and wrote a number of books, that Parthe finally started to settle into her own sphere and be contented with it. But even then, her happiness was shadowed by the fact that Parthe’s husband was a man who had wanted Florence and, when he couldn't get her, settled for marrying Parthe so that he could have a place in Florence’s life.

Fortunately Louise doesn’t turn into a Parthe Nightingale and latch onto Caroline. Instead she tries to escape her sister’s long shadow, difficult as that is on their little shrinking island where, both literally and figuratively, there are so few places for Louise to go. Rass offers her few options and she gets little support or approbation for the choices she does make. If Louise had been born a boy, she likely would have become a waterman like her father and been perfectly happy with that life, but for a girl in the 1940s this was not possible. She uses her own skiff to crab and later works with her father on his boat, enjoys the work, and is proud of her skill and stamina and of her contribution to the family’s income. But even though everyone acknowledges the economic necessity of her work on the water during wartime her father tells her he cannot let her work on the boat once the war is over and Caroline complains that Louise stinks when she gets home (okay, that’s maddening and should probably have gone in the list of Caroline’s worst behaviours). Louise has a friend in a neighbour boy named McCall — that is, they spend time together because neither of them have other friends even though they don’t get along at all well. And she falls in love, secretly and hopelessly, with Hiram Wallace, who is an islander in his seventies. For the most part it seems to have been this aspect of the novel that made me so uncomfortable, though as I think about why I realize it’s probably mostly just a personal bias against this kind of age gap in romantic relationships, which I need to set aside for the purposes of writing this review.

Falling in love is generally part of the teenage experience, especially for a girl of Louise’s emotional intensity. In her case there was a dearth of eligible boys of her own age, and that river had to flow somewhere. And, so far as falling in love is a choice, Louise doesn’t choose so badly at that, as Hiram Wallace is wise, kind, generous, and truly lovable. But Louise knows full well she can never be with Hiram in the way she wants, and the knowledge eats at her. Her grandmother, who divines her secret, tortures her by constant remarks on the topic as well as with the purplest of Biblical quotes. Louise also has to “share” Hiram and MCall with Caroline as she does every other area and component of her life, and as always she feels, not without cause, that Caroline gets far more than her share. It doesn’t help that her Methodist upbringing has her convinced she’s hell-bound due to the feelings of hate and anger her frustration with her life engenders in her, nor that she feels bound to Rass and her family because she loves them both, problematic as they are.

In the end Louise does get to create a life that she is contented with, and thankfully it doesn’t involve taking one of Caroline’s rejected suitors à la Parthe Nightingale.

I marvel at the skill Paterson demonstrates in this book. Almost no young readers with access to this novel would have any idea of what it was like to live a life as circumscribed as that of a young girl on a tiny fishing island in 1941. But Paterson’s characterization of Louise and her struggle to find her own place is so real that many who already understand what is like to not fit into one’s own life, will be able to relate to Louise. And though they probably wouldn’t want to live the life that Louise chooses, they can readily grasp that the promises of adulthood, of being able to make choices, of having the world open up to them, of being able to cast aside some of the burdens of childhood as irrelevant and outgrown, will also hold true for them.