Invest in Toothpaste

 

“Sometimes, when I’m in the midst of all this, I can hear my mother saying, ‘Democracy is just something you must do every day, like brushing your teeth.’

            --Gloria Steinem, from My Life on the Road

 

I listened to Steinem’s memoir on Audible in the weeks after the election. This book truly was a balm to me, and I recommend it to anyone who found the marches on Saturday energizing. We can all learn a lot from Gloria Steinem.

 Hermione read it too. We have so much in common.

Hermione read it too. We have so much in common.

I’ve always been a fan, but she tells her story with such unpretentious candor you have to remind yourself just how bold and unconventional she was. She’s so open-minded, open-hearted, courageous, tenacious, and quiet. She must have been quiet all those years, because she was clearly listening carefully to everyone around her. The wisdom of her friends and her experiences spill onto these pages for all of us to lap up and take with us. By the time I was done with it, she felt like one of my super-intelligent aunts. 

At points, Steinem might digress into minutiae about organizing the flight attendants, or maybe go too granular on the first nations (although I found that stuff fascinating), but overall I think this book is magnificent. The later chapters in particular, about political organizing, were astounding to me. With an almost parable-like structure, she uses the appointment of Clarence Thomas to clearly show how every single solitary vote counts.

Her observations about the response of other women to Hillary’s 2008 campaign could have easily been 2016. Her views on the importance of true change starting in someone’s living room is being played out right now as we soccer moms are morphing into activists.

 

I Hope the Future is Female

The marches were all peaceful and orderly. Gee, I wonder why? One friend said her bus driver said he’d never in all his years of driving a bus had a group all arrive back to the bus on time. Moms! Another friend saw the Bikers for Trump try to disrupt things midway through the march on Saturday, revving their engines into the crowd. The crowd responded by .... singing. Moms! Of course they didn't engage—we are the ones who teach kindness to everybody else. Our sons and daughters were watching.

This election proved that women are not monolithic.  A majority of white women voted for Trump—a staggering fact that so shows the patriarchy is alive and well. These women clearly don’t buy into any notion of sisterhood, and might not be feminists. Hell, some of the people who marched on Saturday might not have voted for Hillary.

Who cares, now?  Really? Let’s make Trump’s election and his disturbing first few days in office our catalyst for a new sensibility.

Considering the actual popular vote, we don’t need to convince anyone to rethink the choice they made about Trump v. Clinton. We just need to all show up and vote. We lost that test on November 8. Let’s not lose it again. It’s time to brush our teeth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Reason to Read

I always connect to well-written characters, but every once in a while the experience surprises me.

 Whoever designed this cover knows their target audience really well.   

Whoever designed this cover knows their target audience really well.

 

Take for instance Mabel, the main character of The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. It’s 1919, and she’s so destroyed by her tragic struggle to become a mother, so tortured by seeing her sisters with their own babies, she convinces her husband to relocate from their secure Pennsylvania home to hack out a solitary life in Alaska.

This woman is nothing like me. I successfully (and gratefully) became a mother. I would never homestead in the Arctic. I wouldn’t even live in a slightly less-than-ideal neighborhood let alone the stark uncaring wilderness. Yesterday, I went on a Brownie troupe hike on the “fairy house trail” in a forest so close to the road you could see the cars go by. Still, I had moments when I envisioned some apex predator bounding through the trees to take us all down.

Plus, obviously, I’m a living breathing human being and this Mabel is just a name on a piece of paper.

This woman and me, we’ve got nothing to connect us.

By page 7, however, I was with this woman. I was completely empathetic with her pain. She was contemplating suicide and I needed to know what was going to happen. In her pain, I caught my own reflection. She was so crushed with disappointment, stunned and destroyed by how far her life was from what she thought it would be. I know what that tastes like. Don’t we all, at least in some small way?

This is why I love reading so much.

Mabel stands on the thin ice between life and suicide, and lives—almost by accident. Her life chugs bleakly onward but does arrive somewhere new and she’s surprised to feel joy again. (Lucky for me I know what that tastes like too.) The story reminded me that whatever feels bleak in my life might also melt away. 

Books like this are the perfect example of why I think fiction has the potential to make us better people. Not just “Great Literature,” either. This isn’t Toni Morrison (not even Bob Dylan), but I contend the connection I made to these characters oils the gears that enable me to connect with people I find strange in my real world. And who's kidding who, nearly everybody is strange. Take gun nuts and Trump supporters. Just thinking about some of the Trump's supporters and their anti-Semitic tweets is enough to whip me into such an angry lather. And I'm aware that I'm strange too--my dream of melting every last gun and all the ammo is extreme for even people who want stricter gun control. I look at some women (Melania) and wonder at how we are even the same species, our world views are clearly so different. Then I think of Mabel.  If i can care about Mabel, i guess I can take pity on Trump's troglodytes, live in a country with more guns than people*, and even maybe somehow see myself in Melania.

The more pliant our compassion, the more likely we might find a way to connect. While it’s tempting to resist connection, especially with the Trump supporters, compassion can transcend anger and self-righteous disgust. (This might be easier on November 9.)

If nothing else, who can resist some good old frontier nuttiness, and this book has lots of it. Characters take maybe one bath a year, eat moose for dinner, see only five other people, and a little girl kills a swan with her own hands. Wait ‘til you see what she does with the feathers. 

This book is really a fairy tale turned into a novel. In some ways it’s a frosty take on Latin America’s magical realism. The snow child appears one day and even though they both see her, neither Mabel nor her husband Jack are sure she’s real. Neither are we, for a while. But the snow child keeps coming back—as long as it’s cold enough, that is—and her mysterious presence transforms everyone in the story.

Does foregoing quotation marks give an author license to ignore all the commonly accepted laws of physics and fiction? One could take issue with the liberties Ivey takes in imposing some semblance of reality on a fairy tale. But I decided not to. She did perhaps smudge the lines on the fairy snow child, but her rendering of Mabel and Jack’s marriage is as precise as crystal. So much goes unsaid between them it could drive you nuts, just like a real marriage.

My final endorsement for The Snow Child? I read it in a week. Take THAT Middlemarch.

 

 

 

The Bataan Death Middlemarch

According to every poll except the ones that Donald Trump makes up, Hillary Clinton is expected to win the presidency this November. For me, the whole campaign has been nerve-wracking, exasperating, infuriating, and at the best moments, exultant. I think I'm going to help elect our first female president. How strange that Middlemarch, a book written nearly 150 years ago would feel so relevant now? If George Eliot were still alive, I'm sure she'd be wearing an "I'm With Her" Tshirt. 

 Worn by months of handling, spine broken by months of being dropped onto my napping bod, the evocative cover art still makes me smile.    

Worn by months of handling, spine broken by months of being dropped onto my napping bod, the evocative cover art still makes me smile. 

 

I picked up this doorstopper in June, after reading a few lightweight-but-fun novels (including Eligible, by Curtis Sittenfeld, which I highly recommend). I like to judge books by their covers and Middlemarch had a lovely one. It's considered this one of the greatest novels ever written, and I'd never read it. My neuroses about being undereducated is a great motivator (as well as a terrifically powerful psychic bludgeon at 4 am).

So I brought the book home, and slowly started chipping my way in. It's long, overly wordy, and written in a dense antiquated style that often rendered the content indecipherable to my feeble 21st Century tweet-addled brain. It didn't take much provocation to distract me and I could fill a blog post with all I read while avoiding Middlemarch; coming soon, I promise.

It was an act of great commitment but i finished it, and I'm thrilled to brag about it here. I will never run a marathon, I probably won't ever give up dairy or gluten, but I did read Middlemarch. I disagree with those who proclaim this book supreme. If you're in the mood for some long old-ass novels, I'd enthusiastically press Anna Karenina or Moby Dick into your hands, not this.

Tucked inside it pages-long paragraphs, however, are some gems of writing that touch on aspects of the human experience as relevant today as they were in 1870. I'll give a few examples here, with a framework to update the context to a modern discussion:

Why we need botox:

"Looking at the mother, you might hope that the daughter would become like her, which is a prospective advantage equal to a dowry--the mother too often standing behind the daughter like a malignant prophecy--"Such as I am, she will shortly be."

The personal crisis of excessive credit card debt:

"He was assailed by the vulgar, hateful trials of a man who has bought and used a great many things which might have been done without and which he is unable to pay for, though the demand for payment has become pressing."

About the grim day the honeymoon is over:

"...his suspicions that he was not any longer adored without criticism... there was a strong reason to be added, which he had not himself taken explicitly into account, namely that he was not unmixedly adorable. He suspected this, however, as he suspected other things, without confessing it, and like the rest of us, felt how soothing it would have been to have a companion who would never find it out."

These are just a few words of way too many words. A big part of this far-ranging story is told with an anachronistically feminist point of view. One of the main female characters, Dorothea Brooke, shares Hillary's earnest desire to make her mark in the world by doing good. Unlike Hilary, however, even the notion of making her mark is treated as an eccentric novelty in the woman, and generally ignored or patronized. Then she marries someone she thinks is important who she thinks will teach her valuable things. Turns out (shocker) he's a giant ass whose ego-driven insecurity damns her long after he's dead and gone (which thankfully for her happens early in their marriage). He amends his will to control her choices from beyond the grave. Dickhead patriarchy for all eternity.

I know things aren't that bad now, but you'd be surprised by how much is not so different. Eliot wrote with such an incisive sensitivity her characters seemed totally multi-dimensional and human and it floored me to see myself and my contemporaries in these stories of English people in the 1820s: women who consume themselves with their appearance, men and women who fall into crippling debt just to keep up the appearance of affluence, women who deliberately take themselves out of the conversation whenever it veers toward public policy or anything beyond the domestic, men who merely by dint of their own financial success feel confident to bloviate publicly about the same topics despite having few insights, women who defer to their spouses despite their clear skill and intelligence. 

We humans are pretty predictable, I guess, but I'm still a big fan of change. I'm very much looking forward to seeing how the tenor of our times might change with a woman in charge.