Even though February was a short month, and despite all the snow we shoveled within those four weeks, I somehow managed to read a few books. Here’s my quick rundown:
Loitering, by Charles D’Ambrosio (essays) — I have been really enjoying essays over the past year or so, and this collection did not disappoint. The writing—the vocabulary, even—is quite remarkable. Indeed, it is the book that prompted me to purchase a new thesaurus. Some of the essays are dark and uncomfortable, but D’Ambrosio offers so much depth, nuance, and keen observation that you find yourself immersed in places that you likely would never find yourself, like a disturbing haunted house or thinking about Mary Kay Letourneau. They were all much like living the experiences first hand which, to me, is the mark of a really great writer. The only one I did not care for was Salinger and Sobs, but that was solely because I barely remember what Catcher in the Rye was about and so I felt a little lost when he used the book in the context of describing his brothers’ deaths. I will certainly re-read this collection again at some point, even if just to be awed by the eloquent prose.
Being Mortal, Atul Gawande (nonfiction) — I already reviewed this important and well-written book on the blog, and you can read it here.
Ticket to Childhood, Nguyen Nhat Anh (fiction/translation from Vietnamese) — I have to be honest, I found this story to fall a bit short of what I was hoping for based on the jacket description (“a sly and lovely story about what we lose when we grow up”). Maybe I missed something (totally possible) but it felt a tad disjointed. There were certainly a few very profound passages, but the story as a whole just didn’t do it for me (which, now thinking back, has happened for me on a number of translated stories).
Almost Famous Women, Megan Mayhew Bergman (short stories/historical fiction) — In addition to essays, I am favoring short story collections these days. I really liked the variety of short stories about largely unknown women in the past. Some of the women were not likable and surprisingly that’s what I loved when coming across those kinds of characters in this book. My favorite story in the collection was The Autobiography of Allegra Byron; the emotional turmoil endured by Allegra’s caretaker, a woman who’d lost her own daughter to typhus, really came across the page, as did life in the abbey where the little girl was sent to live. I will defer a more thorough review to this one done by NPR, which is what first compelled me to buy the book.
The Drunken Botanist, Amy Stewart (nonfiction) — If you are interested in the history of various alcoholic spirits (gin, wine, tequila, beer, elderflower liqueur, etc.) and love plant life/gardening, this is a great book. It covers a wide range of spirits (many I’d never heard of) and how plant life is responsible for each of them. I purchased it for my iPad when BookBub offered it on sale a few months ago. Since I don’t read a whole lot on my iPad, I’ve been chipping away at this one here and there and finally finished it (I could never seem to read it all in one go). I think this would be great to have on a bookshelf devoted to gardening or food/drink rather than on an iPad, and would make a great gift book too.
The Five Moral Pieces, Umberto Eco (essays) — This line on the back of the book is why I picked it up for a read: “What does it mean to be moral or ethical when one doesn’t believe in God?” The back cover also declares that the underlying subject of the five essays is “the ethics involved with inhabiting this diverse and extraordinary world.” Hmmm. Honestly? I read one of the five essays, and skimmed (super fast) the other four. I enjoyed the one I read (When the Other Appears on the Scene) because it mulled over the question above and gave me much to ponder and note in the margin. The other four were just of no interest to me (that became apparent about four or five paragraphs in).
What I’m currently reading:
Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, Sam Harris (part memoir/part exploration of the scientific underpinnings of spirituality, according to the jacket)
Sweetland, Michael Crummey (novel)
What did you read this month? Anything you recommend?
Copyright (c) 2015 Kristen M. Ploetz
There’s something jarring about seeing some people out of their usual context, like running into a dry cleaning clerk in the grocery store or bumping into the doctor’s receptionist along the wooded nature trail. We are momentarily immobilized seeing them out of their element and in some common sphere instead. We quickly dig deep into our minds for their identities, cross-referencing faces and the wallpaper patterns that usually provide the backdrop. It feels uneasy, if even for a split second, while we put the puzzle together before we can give them a bona fide smile or hello. The return gesture is sometimes awkward. Maybe they haven’t placed our faces yet.
The experience also creates an odd kind of lens through which to view the other person, and have ourselves observed too. Simply because of geography and circumstances, the usual relationship hierarchies are irrelevant, if not erased, in that moment. There is no actual need for the kind of courtesies that must be transacted in the usual context. We can be more open and friendly. We can be jerks and pretend we don’t see each other.
But can we be ourselves? Can we reveal the essence of who we really are? It’s an opportunity to see things (and be seen) in a natural light. What if we don’t like what we see right then and there?
I thought about this recently when I spent a few hours with my family at an art museum in the city. I thought about this in the particular context of being someone who writes publicly about a number of things, the least of which is my status as a mother.* The possibility and probability that I would run into someone who is familiar with me simply because of my writing is extraordinarily remote. I’m just not that widely read. On the other hand, what if that did happen—what if I stumbled upon someone who knew of me because of an essay or blog post I wrote? The experience would completely cut against the grain of being a person who is comfortable behind a keyboard, almost always alone in doing so, and having the time to be articulate.
To be clear, I do not lie or stretch the truth when I write, and I avoid writing about a few topics/people for various reasons. That said, there is a bit of a gloss (or maybe concealer) that all of us selectively apply when we write in this particular form. But overall, I have nothing to hide. WYSIWYG, my friends.
Yet, I immediately got flustered (and, OK, slightly paranoid) about this far flung possibility of being recognized. My first thought was, they’re going to be surprised at how much grey hair I have and my size. I don’t know why I walked down the vanity road first, but there it is. But then I thought: What if they see me when I’m less than thrilled to be in a crowd of people? What if they hear me sigh audibly and impatiently at someone? What if they hear me talk ignorantly about some famous painting that I have all wrong?
And the big one: What if the spigots of my motherly and wifely love are not running at full blast at that particular moment?
Then the shuffle of impatient feet and cries from tired children broke my trance. We all have those moments, all of us. And I try to give people the benefit of doubt in those situations, so why wouldn’t it be extended to me? I have to have faith in that thought. We all do because otherwise we are not letting ourselves be human. We need to keep those doors of empathy, compassion, and grace open, or at least be willing to turn a blind eye once in a while.
It is a message that I am trying to drive home to my daughter over and over again. Don’t make snap judgments about people you see in the world, and take nothing at face value. You will never fully know what is going on inside their head in any given moment, much less the back story that comes with it. Allow a wide berth. Be generous in your margins of error.
So if you see me sometime, say hello. I’ll be ready (and probably weird). And if I see you, you can bet on it that I’m going to tap your shoulder and introduce myself (and I promise to ignore the sideways glance you just gave the coat check girl).
* As I wrote this it also dawned on me that there is a related concept I find happening with increasing frequency: telling people I know and meet in “real life” about my writing. Often they come to know me the old-fashioned way: face to face interactions, whether they be through my daughter’s daily life, professional connections, etc. I do not usually tell folks right away (or at all) about the writing I do here or elsewhere, mainly because it’s not relevant in the moment. But some do eventually get wind of it and it has a similar effect. People who know the nitty gritty of my daily life—the people who know what I might order for lunch or see what I wear at school drop off—then sometimes read my work. It’s a curious thing, for me at least, because I know those are two very different, but necessarily mutually exclusive, lenses through which I’m seen. Both are authentic, but create vulnerabilities in totally different ways. Has this happened to you too?
Do you feel slightly weird when you run into someone “in the wild”? What first impressions do you think you’d leave if someone saw you from afar? Does that frighten you a bit?
Copyright (c) 2015 Kristen M. Ploetz
It’s been a while since I’ve done a longer book review here, but one of the books I just finished, Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande, really merits a few paragraphs.
I first learned about this book when I recently saw Dr. Gawande, a surgeon, as the opening guest on Real Time With Bill Maher. I was immediately intrigued by the book he’d written and its core topic: how we take care of (or do not, as the book also points out) people who are in the last days/weeks/years of their lives. In other words, how and where we make our inevitable progression toward death. It is not necessarily as you think it might be.
Yes, this—death and dying—is an uncomfortable topic for virtually everyone to talk about, myself included. But when it is something that is going to happen to each and every one of us, shouldn’t there be more compassionate treatment and open discussion of this ultimate life truth? I think so, especially if you are going to be involved in deciding how someone else has to spend that part of their life. And, more to the point, I think that these considerations should be made far earlier than in the thorniest, most heart wrenching parts of life’s ending.
But to do this, you also have to have an idea of what the current state of affairs is. You need context for how it was, how it is, and, thankfully, how it might all be better in the future if we have a collective shift in how we treat those we love most in their final days.
Dr. Gawande does this so eloquently in this important book. He lays all of this out there, including his own choices in the process, both as son and doctor. Admittedly, he achieves this by giving the reader ample yet often heartbreaking anecdotes in the process when he recounts various stories of patients and people he’s come to know while working on this book. Truth be told, I cried at a few points during this short book. Sometimes I teared up when I related to what I am likely to encounter at some point in my own life (not my own death per se, but the deaths of my family members), but often it was just the lives being described in the book. Do not let those difficult feelings stop you from reading this book.
Here is why I think this book is important: I think many of us are completely clueless about exactly what happens and what choices do/don’t exist when we are nearing the end of our lives. I certainly had no real idea. My only knowledge was based on seeing how my and my husband’s now deceased grandparents and great grandparents progressed through that phase of their lives. Some of those situations were representative of the current state of affairs, and the others fell on either side of that dividing line, but in the end there is much that I completely failed to take into consideration or understand.
I was also ignorant about how “medicalized” it all has become, particularly in the U.S., and it is not necessarily the best road to take. I was taken aback by how much of a loss of autonomy is forced upon the elderly when they enter a nursing home or even assisted living, and the drastic effects this can have. Just the aspect of who nursing homes are often designed for and marketed toward was eye opening. Children want safety for their elderly parents, but this comes at a cost to the parents: their ability to make choices for themselves is stunted if not removed wholesale. Even something as simple as deciding when (or what) to eat is taken away, purportedly in the name of safety. Yet, can you imagine life like that for yourself? It’s hard to do. In the same vein, I was encouraged by Dr. Gawande’s mention of more progressive ways that we are, as a nation and society, rethinking how the elderly should and can spend their lives at the end. Those stories offer hope.
I learned so much from reading this book and was forced to consider, at least for a moment, how the kinds of choices that exist, and those that do not, will play a part in my life as a daughter, wife, etc. At forty-one years old, I know that those decisions, discussions, and difficulties still lie ahead for me, and goodness I hope for a long while still. Obviously no amount of preparation can really make it easy. But by starting to think about them now, I can start to knit together the various aspects that will come into play and how they might be approached. It’s a responsible, though clearly difficult, thing to do as an adult.
I wish more of us were adept at talking about death and how we go through this process with loved ones or alone, as the case may be. This book helps us start those conversations, and it does so with a keen compassion and insight.
Incidentally, though I have not yet watched it, there is a PBS/Frontline documentary based on this book. I plan to watch it once I put a little heart space between myself and the book. There is something about seeing (versus reading about) people in this situation that I am not sure I can handle at this particular moment. But here is the link if you are interested.
Copyright (c) 2015 Kristen M. Ploetz
I remember before I got married, someone wise told me to take a moment during my wedding ceremony to look around at all of those people there with us. Really soak it in, all that love and friendship seated just yards away as we started our new chapter together. It was some really great advice.
However, it’s not what I remember from that day. Or at least it’s not the first memory of that milestone that jumps to the fore.
I realized this the other day while I was running a few miles on an indoor track. On the running hierarchy, running on a track—and a smaller, “more laps to a mile” track at that—ranks a hair above treadmill running for me. It’s definitely not my first choice of venue for running. I’d much rather be outside. But you might’ve heard we’ve had a smidge of snow here in Massachusetts. Just a tad.
To pass the time, I’d started a game with myself. Take a big milestone from my life, and what’s the very first thing that jumps into my mind.
First kiss: in middle school; a boy named Jason, at the fun fair, and he was wearing an acid washed denim jacket
First car (used Subaru): having to use two feet to drive if it rained
First college drinking experience gone wrong: Sex on the Beach (the drink); still cannot stand the smell of peach schnapps some 20+ years later
College graduation: bagpipes during the procession
Renting first post-college apartment: that huge closet and how frigid it was in winter
First international travel (Costa Rica): the sulfur smell of the hot springs and the sound of howler monkeys
Law school graduation: walking down the middle of Tremont Street in Boston to the Wang Theater
Wedding: My husband, E, forgetting his lines during the vows. The officiant would give a sentence or two for each of us to repeat, except that inadvertently he’d given E an entire paragraph without stopping. I will never forget that look on E’s face.
Honeymoon (Mexico): countless strawberry daiquiris and reading Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks, by the pool
Being sworn into the bar: my father-in-law’s smile while we were in Fanueil Hall for the ceremony
Buying our house: Eric looking pale while we signed the P&S and our agent asking him if he’d like a drink of water
Giving birth to my daughter: both of us yelling for the doctors to tell us whether it was a boy or girl (we didn’t know ahead of time) and them laughing because they thought we knew—those were the longest ten seconds of our life!
Wanna play? Leave your answers in the comments. Have a great weekend and Happy Valentine’s Day—and I raise a virtual warm mug of cocoa to my fellow New England friends…because there’s more snow on the way. Hang in there.
Copyright (c) 2015 Kristen M. Ploetz
Lately I’ve been wondering what, exactly, gives shape to the kind of mother I am. Not the mother I want to be, but the one that I actually am. At first blush, I figured it would mostly be based on what I recalled from my own childhood. But the more I think about it, I am not as convinced anymore. That certainly is a sizable influence, but because I am not doing everything exactly as I saw my own mother do things, I’m starting to realize there are so many other competing factors.
I think some of it has to do with my age and when I became a mother. For me, I think it’s plausible that I might have been a more easy going mother had I not been so already entrenched in routine, a profession (and one that required an advanced degree at that), and having vast amounts of free time for a long stretch of adult life first. Of course I cannot test that theory, but my gut tells me so. Of course, there were positive tradeoffs to waiting (like ensuring marital and financial stability first), but I think a bit of parental nonchalance was likely lost too.
Some of my mothering certainly has to do with the daughter I have. But another large (and related) part, it seems, has to do with the kind of father and person my husband is. Over time, we have developed niche roles as her parents and it is something that I really did not appreciate until this much time on the job (about 7.5 years). I also think the fact that he is so much different from my own father and the way he did things with us as children, it informs my parenting in ways that I was not expecting.
The kind of mother I am also seems directly tied to how much I am working professionally. Especially in the first few years, when I was working outside the home full time, I was more rigid about routine and a few other things. I have made some changes professionally since then (working part-time, from home, and a career shift), and I can tell you unequivocally that they have changed the kind of mother I am now, mostly in good ways but certainly some unfavorable ones too.
Another factor is my anxious disposition. It comes in waves and affects only very particular things in my role as a mother, but it can be strong sometimes. And depending on where my daughter is at on her own developmental path, it can be tough to maneuver. None of my twisted thinking—when it does happen—is rational of course, but sometimes I cannot control it. For example, I have a preoccupation with premature death, hers or mine. I have to deliberately tell myself that life is full of risk and that I must move through things in spite of them. I can hide this very well now, but it still affects my role as a mother in an indescribable and unexpected way that a lot of people do not understand or empathize with.
I think the hyperaware and information intense world we live in is a part of my mothering, sometimes more than it probably should be. It’s so easy to become overwhelmed with all the musts, shoulds, and don’ts that we hear on a daily—if not hourly—basis. I think there is more pressure on parents to do “the right thing” than perhaps any other generation. We are all watching each other, and, more to the point, we know we are being watched. The level of scrutiny and judgment hurled at parents, and particularly mothers, is high. It has the capacity to go viral. Our mothers did not have that nuanced kind of pressure. It’s hard not to second guess myself sometimes in the face of all that, and I know at times it plays a role, particularly as to adopting broader styles or approaches to parenting that (conveniently) fall in line with what already feels intuitive to me.
But what’s curious is that while I might be cobbling together some of my mothering style from all of those factors—my husband’s role, my temperament, working, my own recollection of my upbringing, and living in the information age—one thing that doesn’t seem to be a leading influence for me (at least not right now) is other mothers who I personally know and observe. On that granular level of comparison and reaching for what’s “right”, I don’t seem to look to them very often to inform how I ultimately am as a mother. I wonder why that is, and it’s something I’ve been mulling for a while.
Above all, I think what shapes the mother I am is what I understand this role to be, and also the kind of relationship I’d like to have with my daughter when she is an adult. It’s that long view that has built the framework for what needs to be done now. I now know that how I accomplish that has many dimensions.
What about you? What shapes the kind of parent you are? How much of it is because of something you are trying to repeat vs. avoid (i.e. from your own childhood)? Is there one factor that dominates the rest?
Copyright (c) 2015 Kristen M. Ploetz
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