24 May 2012

Shaking

I read a fair number of blogs on a regular basis.  I guess if you're a blogger, it's part of the job.  Some of these blogs are really good, and some of them are not.  But I read them all.  Many of the ones I think are terrible are far more widely read than my own.  I am trying to figure out the secret to success.  (If you know, would you please e-mail me?)

The best blogs are the ones that get me thinking, or that inspire me to write posts of my own.  This week, I again owe a debt of gratitude to Misty of The Family Math.  You might remember Misty; she does not plan to encourage her son to believe in Santa Claus, and her post on that subject inspired me to write one of my most popular posts, In Defense of Santa.  She has inspired me again this week with her post Five Reasons I Won't Read Fifty Shades of Grey.  (I encourage you to read her post, as it will help you understand what I am talking about below.)

Fifty Shades of Grey is a bestselling novel, currently popular among women's reading groups.  As of this writing, like Misty, I have not read the book.  I understand that it contains passages that are sexually explicit, and that makes it the Wifey of the current generation.  By that, I mean that, like Judy Blume's iconic novel, it has been roundly criticized as obscene, stricken from library purchase lists, preached against, banned, discussed, and read in the subway under a plain brown wrapper (or on a Kindle or Nook), for anonymity's sake.  No one wants to admit it, but everyone wants to read it, to see what the hubbub is about.

Except for Misty and her readers.  Misty, who, I repeat, has not read the book and does not plan to, says her friends who have read it tell her that "[i]t's terribly written, but it's sooooo good!" Despite what sounds to me like a pretty enthusiastic endorsement from her friends, Misty has concluded that the book is not worth reading because it is - and these are her exact words and her emphasis - "poorly written shit."  She worries that reading such works will damage her own writing craft.  (Misty claims to be a professional writer, so she has legitimate concerns about the ongoing quality of her work.)

Misty lists other reasons why she thinks the book won't appeal to her.  She's not into erotica, she's uncomfortable talking or reading about sex because of her upbringing, and she is sure her husband wouldn't be "into" it.  I usually don't clear my reading list with my husband (or my parents) ahead of time, but those aren't the big problems I see with Misty's approach.  The big problems I see are twofold:  (1) the ethics of calling another writer's work shit without having actually read it and (2) the generally anti-intellectual refusal to read something that might expand a reader's preexisting limits and make her uncomfortable.  I'll address each in turn.

1.  The Ethics of Shit.


When I was a child (and I believe I'm a little older than Misty), shit was what we called a bad word.  Bad words were words that you did not utter in the presence of anyone older than yourself, or anyone in a position of authority.  When you were around Grandma, your friends' moms, or the parish priest, you would never, ever, in a million years, say the word shit.  Seeing it in print was titillating, and hearing someone say it aloud in public was scandalous.  (Remember George Carlin?  He made a career out of the scandal associated with saying bad words out loud.)  Though shit and many of Carlin's other favorites have lost some of their shock value over time, mostly because they have come into common use, there is no denying that calling someone else's craft shit is a stinging insult.  I also can't get past the idea that the use of shit to critique someone's work evidences a lack of a more creative and expansive vocabulary.  In criticizing a novel I don't like, I might call it uncomfortably and gratuitously explicit or stylistically unappealing.  But poorly-written shit?  What does that even mean?  It does not give your reader the slightest clue as to what you think is wrong with the work.

The bigger problem, though, is the ethical one.  To my great disappointment, I am not a professional writer.  Despite my best efforts, I have never had a single creative word published for profit.  Nevertheless, I do consider myself a writer, because that's what I spend big chunks of my day doing.  In this day and age, anyone can call herself a writer by setting up a blog and publishing an essay or three.  My blog, while not widely read, does have a small, fairly devoted readership, and I feel I owe my readers a responsibility not to be misleading, mean, or disrespectful - to them or to other writers.  I do not review products that I have not used.  I do not accept money to say things I don't necessarily believe.  I do not criticize art works that I have not seen, or music that I have not heard.  And I do not review books that I have not read.


In response to a comment I left on her blog, Misty assured me that she was not reviewing Fifty Shades of Grey - she was merely explaining why she did not plan to read it.  I see a distinction between saying "I have heard a lot about this book, but I don't plan to read it because I'm not into erotica" and saying "That book is poorly-written shit, and reading it will damage my own craft."  That's a heavy criticism to levy against some other artist's work, and if you plan to say things like that, I think you have an ethical responsibility to know what you're talking about.  Read the book, and then criticize away.  But do not use a blogging platform to publish uninformed opinions that insult other writers - and readers.  Doing so is, in a word, unethical.

2.  What's Wrong With the World These Days

Now, let's jump from the small picture to the big picture.  Being a well-educated, intelligent human being means, sometimes, reading something that you don't necessarily want to read, because doing so will push your limits and challenge your tastes.  If you think about it, that's the essence of education.  Raise your hand if you really felt like reading The Catcher in the Rye or To Kill a Mockingbird when your high school English teacher assigned it.  Not too many hands, I bet.  But if you read these books, are you glad you did?  Did you learn something?  Did Holden Caulfield or Atticus Finch teach you something you hadn't known or make you think about something you hadn't thought about before?

Now, I'm not saying that Fifty Shades of Grey is on a literary par with Salinger.  The fact is, I don't know, because I have not read Fifty Shades.  What I'm saying is that sometimes it's possible to be pleasantly surprised by a book that you thought - or even heard - was going to be terrible.  The opposite situation is also a possibility.  You simply can't know until you push yourself to try.

And the trouble with the world today is that there are too few people out there who are willing to try.

There are toddlers who refuse to taste green peas because they look funny and unfamiliar.  There are legislators who don't know a single openly gay person but swear they will never vote in favor of same-sex marriage.  There are people who say they hate rock and roll music who have never bought a single rock album.  And there are people who say classical music is "boring" but have never listened to it.  (Good classical music is anything but boring.)  One of my favorites, which I hear all the time, is the old stereotype that the German language is "harsh."  Nobody who says that actually speaks or understands German, or has read Rilke in the original.  German is a beautiful language.

It's willful ignorance.  It's "I can continue to hold onto my preexisting beliefs as long as I don't think about their basis in reality."  It's an unwillingness to educate oneself, or to do anything even remotely uncomfortable, for fear that one's prejudices might fall apart upon close examination.

Does reading a book about sex make you sexually promiscuous?  Does speaking German make you Hitler?  Or Mozart?  (Does speaking English make you Churchill?)  Does reading something that's poorly written make you a bad writer?  Of course not - unless you were predisposed to being promiscuous, dictatorial, musical, or illiterate.  If your foundation is firm, you have nothing to fear by giving it a little shake.

The toddler fears the peas because they're green, they look funny, and they taste different.  Trying them will not make him turn green, and the taste in his mouth will be temporary.  If he doesn't like them after he tastes them, he can move on and try something else.  Or he can go back to his familiar snacks, having made an educated decision about the unfamiliar food.  But he just might like the peas, and if he does, he'll have broadened his world view just a little bit.  He'll have more options the next time he's hungry.  As he gets older, he'll be able to discuss different kinds of food, and express an opinion as to which ones he likes.

So it is with books.  And from books, we graduate to ideas.  And with ideas, we make decisions about how to run our world, and how to treat the others with whom we share it.

Please, writers and readers, treat each other, and each other's work, with respect.  Be willing to try something new, or something you think you might not like.  Shake your foundation a little, and see if it holds fast.

18 May 2012

Accelerating, Part Trois

I know you're impressed that I can count to three in French.

My husband and kids got me a motor scooter for Mother's Day.  I was absolutely floored.  I'm the kind of mom who has always gotten a bunch of flowers and some homemade cards.  Once, my husband snuck behind my back and bought me a silver necklace I had admired at the mall.  But I have never, ever gotten a Mother's Day present like this.  We got home from church about noon on Sunday, and when we pulled into the driveway it was sitting right there.  "Whose is that?" I asked, wondering if we had a visitor.

"It's yours," my husband said.  "Happy Mother's Day."

Me and Sparky on our new scooter

I have been riding around on my new vehicle pretty much nonstop ever since.  I run a lot of errands in my little hamlet on the Hudson; about 50% of my trips involve just me, or just me and one child, and 90% of them take me no more than 10 miles from my home.  This little motorbike is absolutely perfect for me.  Not to mention that when the shock wore off, euphoria settled in.  If you've never ridden on one of these things, I highly recommend it.  It's the greatest antidepressant ever invented.

Yesterday was a gorgeous late-spring day, and I rode my scooter to Westwood, New Jersey (about a half an hour from my house, all on very familiar roads) to meet my mom for lunch.  My route took me alongside a reservoir, across some railroad tracks, and through a beautiful wooded area.  As I scooted down the main road in a little town called Harrington Park, the church bells were pealing.  I arrived at my destination in a fabulous mood.  I pulled my scooter into a metered parking spot.

A woman got out of the car next to me.  She appeared to be my mom's age, or maybe slightly younger.  She gave me a big smile and said, "I'm so happy to see someone else enjoying a scooter!"

"Really?" I said.

"Yes," she told me.  "I have a disabled daughter, and she and I ride our scooters together.  We even got motorcycle licenses together.  It's a great thing for her - it gives her the sense of independence she needs and lets her get around on her own."

The lady told me her daughter was 36 and had Down's Syndrome.  The daughter could not drive a car, because the radio and the passengers would pose a dangerous distraction to her.  Nevertheless, she needed to be able to get around, and she needed to be in charge of her own transportation.  The scooter, which has no radio, requires both hands on the handlebars and both eyes on the road at all times.  It's the ideal solution for her.  It allows her to get to work, to the grocery store, and safely home.  Although a small scooter does not require a motorcycle license in our state, this lady and her daughter had taken a motorcycle safety course together anyway, because it seemed like a good idea to have some formal instruction, and they got their licenses together.  Now both of them were hooked.

I listened to her story - the best story I had heard in a long time.  I asked the lady a few more questions, like whether I had to park my scooter in a metered spot (yes) and whether she ever took her scooter on a divided highway (no, apparently forbidden).  She then wished me a great lunch with my mom and drove away, waving merrily at me as I took off my helmet and got my purse out of the seat compartment.  I stood there and watched her drive away until she was out of sight.

I thought about my perfect, beautiful daughter and her shiny new New Jersey driver's license.



I thought about how incredibly lucky I am.  That lady thought she was lucky too.  She was smiling as she drove around, happy to chat with a stranger.  I wish I had gotten her name and phone number.  I bet we would have ended up being good friends.

This gift I got for Mother's Day is worth a lot more than I initially thought.

11 May 2012

Accelerating, Part Deux

My oldest daughter, Sarah, turns seventeen on Tuesday, and she already has an early-morning appointment at the Department of Motor Vehicles to take her driver's test.  Thanks to lots of practice, she is already a good driver.  I have no doubt that, by ten o'clock Tuesday morning, she will be fully licensed by the State of New Jersey.

My neighbor asked me the other day what I think it will feel like when Sarah gets into the car by herself for the first time and drives away.

Sarah was born by cesarean section, and for the first couple of weeks of her life, I felt like I had been hit by a truck.  Not only could I barely move, but I was also terrified.  Nothing had prepared me for the feeling of having a new baby in my arms.  She was tiny and delicate and seemed to do nothing but scream.  I was exhausted and didn't know what to do about it.  Because of my fragile physical state, and in preparation for my ultimate return to full-time work, my husband had insisted on hiring an au pair from Iceland.  The au pair's name was Disa, and she was lovely, sweet and helpful.

Except that I gave her very little to do.  I sat in my bathrobe all day, holding the baby, afraid to put her down for even a moment.  I was worried that something might happen to her in a moment of inattentiveness.  What if I hurt her?  I didn't know the first thing about taking care of babies.  Sure, I'd read all the books, but that didn't help me.  That was all theory.  I now had a real, live small person in my arms.  There was no way I was going to let anything happen to her.  I was never going to let go.

One day, Disa, tired of doing nothing and probably annoyed at my disheveled state, said, "Give me the baby.  I'm going to take her for a walk downtown in the stroller.  You need to go take a shower, get yourself together, and put on some real clothes.  We'll be gone for an hour.  That should be enough time, right?"

I knew she was right.  I needed to start recovering from the shock of motherhood and become a person again.  I reluctantly handed Sarah to her and watched her bundle the little girl into the stroller and head for the door.

"Go," Disa said over her shoulder.  "Take a shower.  Do your hair.  Put some makeup on."

I went upstairs to the bathroom and turned on the shower.  Comforted by the sound of the water, I went over to the window, knelt by the sill, and pushed aside the curtain.  I watched Disa push Sarah down the front walk.  When they reached the sidewalk, they turned left, proceeded a few feet, and then disappeared from view.

Something indescribable gripped me.  I wasn't ready to let go.  What if they never returned?

That, I imagine, is how I am going to feel on Tuesday morning.

09 May 2012

Curlers

*Snark Alert*  If you are not fluent in sarcasm, please enlist the assistance of someone who is before reading the following post.


This morning, I was minding my own business, sipping a cup of coffee on my neighbor's couch, when I received this horrifying e-mail message on my phone.  (The names of the principal, superintendent, district, and school have been deleted or changed to protect them from ridicule.)


On Wed, May 9, 2012 at 11:10 AM, <InstantAlert@honeywell.com> wrote:
Alert Name: Suspicious Woman in Car Approached Student
Alert Type: Notification
Complete Message: Dear Parents, 

This morning I received the following information from the Principal of Your Local Elementary School. 

This morning on the way to school near Franklin Street, a student was approached by a woman with dark hair in curlers in a four door [sic] sedan. The woman rolled down the window and said, "It is raining. Do you want a ride?"

The student said "no" and walked away toward school. The vehicle drove away. The Town Police Department was notified immediately.

Once again, please take this opportunity to review with your children basic safety guidelines. Specifically, they should never approach a strange vehicle, should ALWAYS run away from strangers who attempt to lure them to their cars, and ALWAYS report any such incident to an adult and the police immediately as this student did.

Thank you for your attention to this important matter.

Superintendent of Town Public Schools
School Name: Town Public Schools



Like you, I am absolutely terrified.  There appears to be a woman on the loose in my town, driving a four-door sedan without a hyphen.  Wearing curlers in her hair.  In public.  Good heavens, she must be stopped.


I'll have a talk with my kids this evening about our family's views on wearing curlers in public.  In the meantime, I propose that the FBI set up a sting operation.


On an upcoming cold, rainy day, they should put a young child out on a street near the local elementary school.  He should be dressed inappropriately for the weather, loaded down with books, and running late.  Ideally, he should be on crutches.  Every woman who slows down and offers him a ride should be arrested immediately and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.  There should be a sentencing enhancement for any perp found to be wearing curlers in her hair.


I mean, sheesh.  People like that are a true danger to society.  Leave the kids alone, folks.  Let them walk six blocks in the cold rain.  It's good for them.  And do your hair in the privacy of your own home, okay?

08 May 2012

Baby Blanket

Some years ago, on a quest for an affordable but fun vacation, we swapped houses with a British couple who live right outside of London.  While we stayed in their house, they stayed in ours.  They brought with them their two adult children, their daughter's best friend, and their son's girlfriend.  While they were here, the son and his girlfriend got engaged - in a romantic fashion, on a carriage ride through Central Park.

We remain good (if long-distance) friends.  I fancy that I am somewhat responsible for the newlyweds, given that they became engaged while staying in my house.  So I was delighted to hear, this past winter, that they were expecting their first baby.  I sharpened up my knitting needles.  What to make for the little one?  The gender of the baby was to be a surprise, so I settled on one of my specialties: a blanket.  I consulted the grandma about the couple's preferred colors and, with her advice, decided on a cotton/linen blend (for a spring baby) in a color called "lilac."  The yarn is darker than lilac, though; it should more properly be called "aubergine."

Now, making a baby blanket is a huge undertaking.  It takes weeks of work under the most ideal of conditions. I don't knit full time; I am what I like to call an interstitial stitcher, picking up my work during those otherwise-unoccupied moments in life.  I knit in between work assignments; at the orthodontist's office, while a child is in a singing lesson or a rehearsal, while waiting for dinner to be ready, or while waiting at night for a teenager to get home.  In this manner, I can usually finish a sock in a couple of days, but even the most basic baby blanket can take several weeks.

No matter.  Simply said, I like these people a lot.  They are genuine and kind, warm and friendly.  This sounds silly, but those are actually hard qualities to find in friends these days.  It's awful that people are too busy to find the time to be warm.  I wanted to make sure that the newest member of their clan stayed warm, too.

I chose a classic pattern, basketweave, for the blanket.  I've made this pattern before, but never in such a lightweight yarn.  At the beginning of April, I cast on my blanket and knitted a few rows, just to see how it would look.

Note my Saint Bernard stitch markers (far left).  Few people know that I have a weird affinity for Saint Bernards.

I liked the effect.  Now the marathon began, filling every empty space in my days with knitting.  I carried my knitting bag everywhere:  on college tours (yes, my oldest daughter is already looking at colleges), to my twentieth law school reunion, to meetings, rehearsals, lessons, and karate classes.  My knitting bag lived alternately in my car or in the front hall of my house, where it was frequently tripped over or kicked aside.

There is something wonderful about knitting that I can't quite put my finger on.  My grandmother taught me to knit and sew when I was a little girl.  At age eight, I could have won a prize for World's Most Careless and Useless Knitter.  My stitches, when I didn't drop them, were uneven and ugly.  I gave up in frustration and took up sewing, which required less direct concentration.  I became a pretty accomplished seamstress; by the time I was in college I had a good collection of handmade clothes.  Once, a classmate complimented the suit I was wearing to a job interview:  "Is that Christian Dior?"

Nope. Simplicity.

But sewing became impractical after I had children and started spending my days in the car or in waiting rooms.  I wanted something just as creative, but more portable.  Knitting seemed to fit the bill.  I took it up again and found, to my surprise, that I wasn't as terrible at it as I had thought.  At thirty, I had much more patience with myself than I had had at eight, or even at twenty.  I'd call myself a good knitter these days.  I love the feeling of starting with nothing, and then seeing something - a sock, a blanket, a sweater - take shape out of thin air.  I love the infinite variety in patterns and colors, and the fact that I will probably never be an expert.  There will always be a new technique or a new pattern to tackle.

My friends became the proud parents of a healthy baby girl on April 23.  I finished tackling the aubergine baby blanket on Sunday night during a particularly harrowing session in the emergency room of our local hospital.  (Everyone is fine, thank God, but you see what I mean?  I knit everywhere.)

I blocked it in my little basement workshop, on the cutting/blocking table my husband made for me.


Then I treated myself to a trip to the Container Store, for a nice box, and to the local craft store, for some silk flowers.  Wrapping up a hand-knitted gift is lots of fun.  I always want the recipient to be awed when she opens her present, and little details make the difference.



I made a quick stop at the post office, and my blanket is now winging its way from New Jersey to Buckinghamshire.

There is no better news than the birth of a new baby.  It's a reminder that, amid the minor stresses and major hardships that everyone faces, there is still room for joy and the possibility of a bright future.  There is no better feeling than packaging up a gift for a new little one.  Whether you choose it carefully at the store or make it yourself, you become part of the joy.

Postscript:  I have bought myself two new knitting books, and I am now trying to teach myself to knit socks from the toe up (I have heretofore made them only from the top down.)  Stay tuned.

03 May 2012

Giving It Away

Every once in a while, someone in a position of authority gets an idea that is so brilliant, so edge-cutting, and so original that its implementation is met with a flurry of confetti, either real or virtual, widespread reporting, and a lot of back-slapping.  Such was the case the day before yesterday when, as the New York Times reported, the Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals announced that all new lawyers applying for admission to the bar would be required to provide 50 hours of free legal work to the needy.  The completion of such work, starting next year, will reportedly be a prerequisite to licensing as an attorney in the state of New York.

I should back up just a little bit.  It may be misleading to say that the Court came up with this brilliant idea out of the blue, or to represent the idea as edge-cutting.  The profession of lawyering has a long tradition of providing free legal services to the poor.  This tradition is so longstanding that it has a Latin name: pro bono publico, "for the public good" (pro bono for short).  What's novel about Judge Lippman's announcement is that it makes New York the first state to require lawyers to provide pro bono services before receiving a license to practice.  Several other states, not to be left behind in the race, are expected shortly to follow suit (no pun intended).

Let me be perfectly clear here.  I am wholeheartedly in favor of the provision of pro bono services to the poor.  My husband and I (both attorneys admitted to practice in the state of New York) have spent countless hours providing legal advice to economically disadvantaged individuals (i.e., the poor) and to charitable organizations.  While employed by some major Manhattan law firms, I got involved in supporting the voting rights of people turned away from the polls on Election Day, filing complaints against abusive landlords, writing wills and powers of attorney for soldiers about to be deployed, and seeking orders of protection against violent spouses.  My husband, who is now a highly-skilled, sought-after criminal defense attorney and an officer in our local bar association, spent the first several years of his career working for the Legal Aid Society, an organization that provides free representation to criminal defendants in New York City.  He spent many nights drinking strong coffee in the Bronx courthouse, arraigning petty thieves, prostitutes, and anyone else arrested in the wee hours.

Both of us, while performing these services, had at our disposal the resources of some of the best legal organizations in the world, as well as the supervision of well-established, thoroughly experienced practitioners.  We were admitted to the bar of the State of New York, covered by our firms' malpractice insurance policies, and paid regular salaries for our work.

And that's why I am concerned about the Court of Appeals' announcement.  It is absolutely wonderful to require young lawyers to play their part in defending the rights of all people, regardless of economic circumstances.  Valuable experience is gained in the trenches, and everyone benefits.  But who will pay for all of this?  Who will supervise these unlicensed, inexperienced not-yet lawyers as they take poor people's livelihoods and constitutional rights into their hands?  How will the poor be protected from the inevitable missteps of these junior practitioners?  Who will insure unlicensed lawyers against malpractice?

Young lawyers make lots of mistakes.  I myself narrowly missed deadlines I knew nothing about; once, I actually forgot to serve an appellate brief on my adversary.  Each time something like this happened, a senior lawyer in my firm rolled up her sleeves, made an apologetic phone call, and helped me fix my error.  No harm, no foul, and lesson learned for next time.  It was simply part of the process of becoming an experienced lawyer.

Sure, there will be the few elite students who become first-year associates at big firms and will participate in well-run pro bono programs sponsored by their firms.  There will be new suits and briefcases, training sessions with buffet luncheons, cab rides to and from the courthouse, and all-night word-processing staff to type the briefs.  One firm I worked for even had a staff whose job it was to keep track of lawyers' pro bono hours, to be bragged about in the firm's annual report and marketing materials.  All of that will still go on.

But what about the rest of the new lawyers? Most new lawyers are graduating these days with huge amounts of debt and no jobs.  They cannot count on the supervision of seasoned practitioners, the cushion of big-firm insurance, or the resources of well-funded organizations.  Many of them will not be able to find jobs at all until they are actually licensed by the state.  The new requirement of pre-admission pro bono service places a high barrier to entry to a profession that is already hard, and expensive, to enter.  As a result, the New York Court of Appeals, and the regulating entities in other jurisdictions, will need to think long and hard about how to implement the new requirement.

I am lucky enough to have attended two law schools, and so, this past month, I attended two twentieth law school reunions.  At both schools, I attended information sessions and presentations, and I was impressed with the amount of clinical experience and training that law students were receiving.  (Check out, for example, the Innocence Project at Duke Law School and the Veterans Benefits Clinic at William & Mary.) The focus in legal education seems to be shifting from the old Socratic lecture-hall to the hands-on counseling and writing that characterize actual legal practice, and this is a great development.  Gone are the days when recent law school graduates were unqualified to do anything but draft forms and review discovery.  These new lawyers are now graduating equipped to analyze complex issues, to appear in court, and to write sophisticated persuasive documents.  They spend their second and third years in law school doing great things for the public good, under the close supervision of admired legal minds and experienced practitioners.

Why shouldn't they get credit for that?  If the Court of Appeals and other regulating bodies will credit students with the unpaid work they perform in law school, everyone will come out ahead.  Those who need it will get great legal representation at little or no cost.  Students (while still housed and fed at school) will gain useful experience that will help them find employment after graduation.  The invaluable clinical programs established by the law schools will find encouragement (and, perhaps, increased visibility and funding by alumni).

I encourage members of the bar and people involved in the education of new lawyers to give this situation  some serious thought.  There is a solution out there, but it will require us to use the kind of creativity and courage for which our profession is known.  I have no doubt we will succeed.