Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Readers

On a blog called Read All Day, a former environmental lawyer named Nina Sankovich writes a review of the book she's read in the past twenty-four hours. There are a lot of posts--she's made it through one every day of 2009 so far, and plans to do the same through December 31.

At a dinner party last week, I brought the topic up, and we agreed that would be a bit much for any of us. Yet I realized that everyone at the party was a serious reader, and when I thought about it afterwards it occurred to me that almost all of the people I like to be around are readers. We talked about our book habits. A couple have electronic readers, but only use them when they travel. We all agreed we enjoyed the tactile sense of turning a page made of paper, although there was divergent opinion about whether we could read a newspaper on-line. This is the only way I read news, mostly because it's faster, which arguably isn't a good thing at all, but I read widely and feel my universe is larger because I gather information this way rather than leafing through the local paper with my coffee in the morning.

Afterwards, I wondered what percentage of American adults actually read books. In my research, I found a 2004 report from the National Endowment for the Arts which contained a survey showing that readers of literature had fallen below 50 percent. The NEA proclaimed it a crisis. Think about it: in 2004, You Tube, Facebook and Twitter didn't exist. A good many of the heavy users of these have taken time away from television, but more than likely it's further eroded, probably drastically, the numbers of people who sit quietly with a book.

Does this mean the demise of our culture? I'd like to think not. Yesterday Penelope Trunk argued on her blog, Brazen Careerist, that the Internet is creating a generation of good writers, mostly because the kind of writing younger people do--Facebook and Twitter posts, for example--is for an audience, and one with a short attention span. Brevity is key if they want to get people's attention. And they read a lot on-line, although not traditional material. But to say they don't trade ideas may just be, to borrow a baby boomer phrase, a manifestation of a generation gap.

I am passionate about books, and my house has plenty of them. Yet I don't subscribe to any print publications. I regularly hit on a half-dozen blogs and digital news outlets a day, and listen to podcasts from my favorite NPR shows because my life is too packed to remember to catch them when they are on. I'm on Facebook, and obviously I am a blogger. So the two worlds are not mutually exclusive.

This week my son finished a History Fair project on William Shakespeare, and we talked about how some stories have pretty serious staying power, if they are told very well. And he, like his older sister, has caught the reading bug in fourth grade, to his mother's great delight. Last night we sat in companionable silence, all three of us, our noses in books until we stopped to proclaim some insight we'd gleaned. I got tired and got them off to their rooms. Mom, my son asked, how long can I stay up and read? As long as you want, buddy, as long as you want.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Referendum


On my usual Sunday call today with my parents, they mentioned they'd been at the Liquor Store (in Canada, this is a government entity, so there is only one retailer of hard booze; the current name is an improvement on the original, which can only be temperance-based or deeply Socialist: The Liquor Control Board of Ontario) near their house, and they ran into a guy who works there and recognized them because he'd gone to high school with me.

I've lived more lives than I care to contemplate since high school, and when they described him I had only the vaguest recollection of who he was. Laughing, I said, imagine, I could have dated him and now I'd be married to the guy who works at the Liquor Store. Well, they responded, in Canada it's a great job, and he'll have an excellent pension. Okay, then.

In a recent article (yes, in the Times again, but for the record I read a lot of other things, too) cartoonist and writer Tim Krieder talks about something he's dubbed The Referendum: "..a phenomenon typical of (but not limited to) midlife, whereby people, increasingly aware of the finiteness of their time in the world, the limitations placed on them by their choices so far, and the narrowing options remaining to them, and the narrowing options remaining to them, start judging their peers' differing choices with reactions ranging from envy to contempt."

Krieder writes that looking at our peers' choices is the the closest we can get to a glimpse of the roads not taken. He is a middle-aged man who has never been married, never had children--nor the desire for them, he makes clear. Most of the marriages he sees would, he says, have him discreetly hanging himself within twenty minutes.

A bit over the top, but I get what he means. Having been married for a long time, much of it quite unhappily, I now see plenty of unions that have a familiar glint of misery to them, though certainly I see a good many that have weathered time well. The vast majority of people in my demographic are married, and that makes me feel on occasion rather a square peg. But often there is also a little envy on their part. It may be because they imagine the life of a single person to be full of adventure--an idea a single person of any age or gender could disabuse them of over of the course of a single drink--but also because I have, at least every other week, a space that is strictly mine, and at least some leisure time that is mine to spend exactly as I please.

As time goes on, I wonder if I really ever want to give up this rather lovely life I've carved out for myself. As I write this, I am in my relatively small but serviceable kitchen, cooking an organic chicken I paid too much for and then seasoned in a way that I like. This morning I took a two-hour walk, then ate leftovers from a fantastic chowder I made yesterday. Then I went to my daughter's soccer game. After that I went and bought a pair of boots I've been deliberating over for a week or two, and in the course of that trip I ran into two of my good friends, one of whom I saw at dinner and a play only a couple of days ago. And now I am listening to Diana Krall and looking around my comfortable, orderly house, where everything is as I wish it. I don't have to negotiate with anyone about money, laundry, dinner, in-laws, or who took out the bloody trash bins.

Of course I have moments where I wish for a spouse--not just when there is a crisis, or at a school play when everyone but me seems to be paired off in happy families--but in odd moments, like when I am on my way home from a party and wish I had someone with whom to compare notes, or on a Friday night when I've had a productive week at work and want to share my trivial victories.

Should this person ever arrive (and if he does I may ask him to keep his own house so we can still like each other as time goes by) he must be: smarter than me, take care of himself, adore me, do something he cares about most days, and still be curious and adventurous no matter what he's experienced to make him feel the contrary. It would be nice if he loves New York and Paris, but these are negotiable. Because if he loves me, he'll encourage me to go on my own and listen to my stories when I get home.

In the meantime, I am going to enjoy the life I have because it's mine. And I like it.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Leaping

The NY Times website has a preview today of the Sunday Styles section--go to the Fashion and Style section on the site.

Ann Hood's essay is entitled "To Nuture Again, With Courage." After losing a child to a sudden illness, the author and her husband adopt another, and Hood articulates beautifully how we must overcome fear in order to love fully. Read it, but close your office door. This essay stopped my heart.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Community Ties

Last week I walked a mile and a half with my fourth grader for a Walk-A-Thon for his school. All six hundred kids donned their red school shirts, and they, their teachers and a good number of us parents did the same. It was one of those fall days in North Texas when the sky is so blue it hurts, and we walked through a neighborhood of houses with graceful lines from the 1920s and 1930s. As has happened to me before, I felt like I was in a Norman Rockwell painting--with multicultural bent, I must mention--because we have a very special place in a school where a good many kids can walk there, and because the event reminded me that the school is part of the broader community. Given that on four days out of five someone is parked across my driveway (I live across the street from the school) when I need to leave for work, it's a good thing I love the place so much.

At any rate, it didn't just feel good: the school raised more than twenty thousand dollars through donations, and we all went out and enjoyed a bit of exercise. It reminded me that once upon a time I was really involved in my broader community: I got to Fort Worth and, having been gainfully employed and now finding myself at home with a toddler, I immediately sought out a non-profit that I might do some things for. I found The Parenting Center and went on to write a monthly column in a local parenting magazine, taught some classes, and then, when I became a full-fledged professional again, ended up serving on the board.

Then I went to work in Dallas. In addition to the distance--about 40 miles--there is a huge cultural difference between Fort Worth and its fancy pants Big City counterpart to the east. Finding volunteer opportunities there is an unpalatable option to say the least. The time commitment has made it easy to pass off my lack of engagement in my home city as a natural thing, and since I am a single mom I can easily beg off, but I still wish I could find the time to be involved. And yet not really.

Being really, really involved in community projects means you are incredibly engaged in your local world. When I was a teenager, my father was adamant that I do something the community, because in his volunteer experience, he got much more than he gave. Happiness studies tell us that we are better off when we feel we are part of something bigger than ourselves, and of course doing communuity work takes us out of our self-involved little minds. But here's the rub: once word gets out who we are and that we can be effective volunteers, the requests keep coming.

So what's better, from the standpoint of personal happiness? If we put ourselves out there, we get that nice feeling that we belong, that maybe as part of something bigger we can make the world a little better than how we found it. But then we find ourselves in the position of saying no an awful lot, which makes most of us feel badly, even if we understand intellectually that there is only so much we can do. I do what I can for my children's school, although clearly the bulk of the work there is carried out by the parents (and let's face it, they are mostly moms) who don't work outside the home. Guilt is a useless emotion, yet there it is again.

When that voice in my head tells me I'm not doing enough, I respond in the following way: when I get past the intense years of child-rearing and that my work life is ramping down rather than up I can find a way again of making a contribution and engaging in a world beyond my office walls.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

My Twelve-Year Old Self

My friend Julia found a set of questions--I know not where--to designed to generate discussion. These were better than the usual ice-breaker things I have seen in the past, and did in fact generate some discussion in her chosen group via email and in person, especially when a little wine and good food was involved.

The one that gave me most pause was this: if you could take your twelve year-old self to lunch, what would she or he think of you and the way your life has turned out? Perhaps it's that I've reached middle age and I also have children around this age, but I had to really consider this idea.

My young self was living in a microscopic town in the Canadian hinterland and didn't know much beyond Friday night hockey nights, but she was lucky enough to be considered a "good kid" who babysat for people with university degrees and a world view outside the mypopia of life in a sleepy berg. (When I moved to bigger cities, I was shocked to meet people whose views were just as provincial, and realized that keeping the circle small allows most people to feel they belong, not to mention to keep tabs on where exactly they stand in the social pecking order.) But she was a practical girl and looked to the immediate next steps. I got the best grades I could, and managed to get into my dream school, Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, which was only three hours away but might as well have been on another planet, since I was surrounded by kids from fancy Toronto prep schools whose fathers were diplomats and investment bankers.

It was my first experience with imposter symdrome, and overcoming it has served me well, since I've been able to scale the kind of career cliff I'd imagined, although I thought in those days that I'd be working in some sort of industry like publishing. I thank my lucky stars I didn't end up in that racket and therefore likely unemployed, but I did wind up working with really smart people from around the world and get to use my mind most days, so that's worked out rather well.

What else would my adolescent self asked me about? The fact that I'd gotten to Texas would have floored her, as it still does my older self at times. Where I'd traveled to would impress her, although I feel my two trips to Europe and most of the major cities in the US are pretty standard for most people I now know. I would be sure to tell her should time and money allow in the future, I've vowed to go further afield, and that she should do so before doing what is expected of her gets in the way.

She would also wonder about my romantic life and if I'd had a family. She envisioned a big life in work and then marriage much later, to an older man who would have already had a family. (I don't think she'd worked through how complicated this might be, but she thought of him as relatively unfettered and supportive of her work and intellect, a dream to be sure and not one I've yet to realize.) To know she had children might have horrified her early feminist sensibilities, although I could certainly assure her that it was the most satisfying thing I'd found to do.

She might also wonder if what I was doing made the world better in any way. Here I would express regret and urge her to do more. When I worked for a smaller company here in Fort Worth, I had time for volunteer commitments, but when I got into the global world and started commuting back and forth to Dallas (at least six hours a week on the road) it fell off my schedule. It's not that I feel guilty, exactly, but that I miss feeling I am part of my community. My children's school gives me a lot of that, but I don't do nearly enough to keep up my ties here. So what I would say is, figure out what you care about, and find the time to do it. You will get more from it than you give.

It's a good question for those of us who have become, in our minds, who we are: what did we expect to be, and have we achieved it? For me, the answer is almost all yes, although it reminds me how much more I have left to experience and learn.