Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Critical Mom's Rejection Letter

 . . .  For a memoir from a rather well known and respected literary journal, (circulation 2,500) once deemed "the most valuable journal in the U.S. today" : 

It was a fascinating read; it just was not for us.
So who is it for?  If it's so fascinating, why aren't you publishing it?  These are not the questions that rejection letters answer, of course.  Usually I get the form letter instead: "not right for us at this time."  Actually, I think I'd prefer that, since what I did get sounds like at least one of the following:
(1) It's good, but we don't do scandal, and shame on you.
(2) You made spelling mistakes, but we'd like for you to feel good. 
(3) This is weird and disgusting and makes us squirm when we read it.

What they wrote praises with faint damns. But if interpretation (3) is correct, I think I'm on the right track.  I just printed the thing out and re-read it and feel not inclined to change One Damn Thing.  So I'll just Google around until I find a magazine with a circulation of more than eight (yes, 8) readers.  Since my last memoir appeared in such a publication, I think I have a right to move up to one with a circulation of at least twenty-five, if not 2,500. 

P.S.  Last night when I was asking my very sleepy husband what the SAM HILL "a fascinating read . . . not for us" could mean, and he was saying "I don't knowwwww"  we both feel asleep.  And he dreamed a dream, a very odd dream, he reported in the morning, that we were living in The White House, and although Obama was still president, he was living in some little guest house on the grounds, and sitting around in his pajamas answering a call from one of us about not publishing Adrienne Rich because she might offend guess who?  MOI.  I love his sympathetic dreams.  When I was pregnant with our first child, he dreamed his mother would have the baby for me, so that I would not experience labor pains.

Well, in the wake of all this, I changed three words and removed one, and I'm going to ship the thing off again.   Now is the time to chant mantras like, "The Iowa writers workshop rejected Gary Shteyngart!  And they didn't think Sandra Cisneros had any talent!" 

P.S.  Then I looked the thing over.  Trimmed a word here, a paragraph there.  Oh, that paragraph really doesn't belong there.  It belongs here.  Or out.  Or no, half of it stays in and the rest out.  

This is why it is much harder to write something that is 4,000 words instead of 11,000.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Critical Mom Turns Fifty-Eight

My husband makes the best marble cake I've ever had--sweet, flavorful, dry but not too dry. Perfect with whipped cream.  Breakfast with birthday cake and everybody giving me favorite things--dried papaya (which is delicious with a little goat cheese and that sweet, but not too strong Macedonian  König Arthur red wine from Aldi.)
My tastes in wine are close to those of Elaine May.  In A New Leaf, the most brilliant screwball comedy ever written by a woman--easily rivaling Woody Allen--she plays a character whose boyfriend is trying to impress her by wondering whether the 1955 vintage he has just ordered is better than the 1953.  She takes a sip and shrugs.  It's "nice," she concedes, but "have you ever tasted Mogen-David extra heavy malaga wine with soda water and lime juice?"  she asks, expounding on the delights of the Mogen-David wine cooler even as he reflects on how he spent his very last dime on the expensive heliotrope that sits all but untasted in her glass.  Yum.  I know just what she's talking about.  Sweets are still one of my favorite things.  Which is why I weigh six kilos more than I did when I was young, and why part of every New Year's resolution is to lose them.  But now, lose 'em or not, I'm going to get strong:  ballet Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.  The gym Tuesdays and Saturdays.  Belly dance Thursday evenings.  Tap on Fridays.  No osteoporosis for me!
Although I'm in a pretty good mood for me, I'm still wishing I were as wonderful a writer as Gary Shteyngart, as I gulp down his latest, a memoir called Little Failure.  The title resonates, since I often think of myself as a big failure.  With each passing birthday, I daydream about getting to re-do my life, rectifying all mistakes.  I imagine otherworldly post-life scenarios, in one of which I die, only to wake up as some tiny toadlike creature in a basket in a market somewhere, and remember immediately how I got there.  I got there by having purchased the life that I just lived, and "it was a bargain."  I learn that I paid to have "some" happiness, because I couldn't afford to be happy all the time.  That's for rich little toad creatures, who purchase, at ten times the sum I offered, lives that stay charmed from start to finish, including deaths that are painless.  I, on the other hand, have purchased the deal that starts with the rotten childhood, makes its way through the rottoner adolescence and the miserable mid-twenties and thirties to the life beginning at forty phase, when things really start to get better.  My imagination hasn't yet produced an answer to the question of how the little toad creature (some sort of a soul) acquires the currency needed to purchase a life, but I do daydream about the possibility of re-living the very same life and improving it (when I was eight I would have done this . . .when I was fourteen I would not have done that . . . had I known more about babies when my firstborn emerged I would have . . . .) as opposed to moving on to an entirely new life and forgetting the old, even moving on to an entirely new language, solar system, or gender.  But each beloved person in this life reappears in a new identity in the next . . . a child might be a father, a mother a sister or daughter.  Then I start to play with the idea of karma:  you store up points for whatever the fates decide is doing good, or you lose them for causing harm.  I think of the end of C.S.Lewis's The Last Battle, a judgement-day scenario in which Aslan glances into the faces of all creatures passing him as they leave life, sending those who have followed his rules to some glorious heaven containing everything they want, and the others off into oblivion.  Or maybe you'd be reincarnated as a toad.  And then a prince would kiss you.  Or vice versa.  These are the thought of someone determined to publish her novels and writings, perform in a few more tap dances, and generally live it up before hitting that most sobering of birthdays--sixty.  I should be so lucky.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Critical Mom Crusades for Socks

As any mother knows, doing the laundry involves crouching on the floor in bathrooms and bedrooms where the dirty laundry piles up in corners, and pulling the inside-out underwear off the inside-out blue jeans before dumping both in the hamper you're taking downstairs to the laundry room.  But before you get to cart all that stuff down to the laundry room, there's hauling the bunched-up socks from inside the knee area of the jeans, where they've burrowed down for the winter after the kid stepped out of his clothes.  Or sometimes they fall out while you're picking up the jeans and skitter across the floor as if they had legs, landing right underneath the used dental floss that is somehow dangling from the wastebasket and clinging to it for dear life.
So, memories of helpful hints from Heloise and others dancing through my head, I picked up some of those small mesh bags with zippers at Tchibo, intended for laundering delicates--or a load of socks.  Each child--and each has frequently complained I DON'T HAVE ANY SOCKS, MOM!  WHERE ARE MY SOCKS???--received two of these, plus instructions on how to place their dirty socks in them.  I even laundered a whole set of my older son's new socks in one of them, returning said socks to him clean, in the bag, and he was very happy indeed.  All three children have received two or three reminders from me about using those bags, which they seem most pleased to possess, and have even hung on their doorknobs.  But yesterday, today, and the day before, the socks have taken control again . . . .they're back in the knees of the blue jeans.  They're barricading themselves behind doors.  They're mobilizing themselves for an all-out attack again.   But still, I've always had a whole bunch of them cleaned and folded and piled up in a laundry basket in the guest room, although finding a pair that actually fits anyone in our family involves a major excavation.  
Socks of the world unite.  You have nothing to lose except your owners.

Friday, January 16, 2015

The Critical Mom Goes Belly Dancing

I've always wanted to try it.  But up to now, since my options for dance classes were limited, and since I had to choose between ballet, which really does keep you in shape, and belly dancing, I took the ballet, which I could only do twice a week anyway 'cause that's all the local dance school offered.  But then my life changed.  First, I encountered a dancer in the local Lidl.  He was standing on line ahead of me and I almost changed lines, thinking "here's a lunatic."  He seemed to be jogging in place but his face suggested that he might be on drugs, so I'm-in-another-world were the eyes and the slack-jawed concentration.  Then he did a plié to the side and it hit me like the proverbial bolt of lightning:  "The young man is rehearsing a dance he's going to perform while he's waiting to buy his cream cheese and potatoes!"  I've been seeking--for a very long time--a decent dance school--the kind that offers ballet classes lasting an hour and a half at the least, and follows the traditional exercises, including grands pliés.  Now or never!  I thought to myself.  And I asked the young man, in my terribly accented German, if he were a professional dancer.  He answered in another accent--clearly not German, and we got talking, and it developed that I could probably attend the school he's attending which is technically closed to outsiders.  Thanks to him I can go there, and take the best ballet classes I've found anywhere in this godforsaken region.  And yes, he was rehearsing a dance but no I did not get to see it, since my daughter had a performance that day too.    But now that I get to go to these very good ballet classes I'm not stuck with the ones at the other place, where they make you spend ten minutes doing aerobics before starting the barrework and don't do grand pliés.  
So now was the time to try belly dancing, which also fit with my New Year's Resolution of doing core-strengthening exercises in order to regain the abdominal strength that I lost after three C-sections.  And I'm doing the core strength exercises at the University gym, and NOW I'm doing belly dancing.  Which is a lot more than strengthening your core muscles.  I always knew it would be fun--and that I'd get to wear colorful scarves and sequin-covered outfits and shimmy around the dance floor.  But I somehow hadn't grasped (not having seen enough YouTube videos) how very sensual, indeed just plain sexy, it is.  Wow.  But what gives?  How is it that Egypt, a country that practices female genital mutilation on more than 97% of its women--the Unicef statistics from the summer of 2014 say the practice is "nearly universal"--at the same time creates a culture in which women dance in a style that, if you've still got your clitoris and also have really good technique, which I can see takes years to develop, must be orgasmic?  Where do Egyptian styles of "purity" (the most frequently offered rationale for the cutting)  coincide with belly dancing?  Is my teacher, who is in her fifties like me and who was raised in Egypt, among the women who were cut?  Another question I can't ask, like most of the questions I want answered.  Are belly dancers women who are shimmying toward a lost sexuality?  Trying to gyrate into something that's been cut out?  And looking very beautiful while they do so, too.  Well, belly dancing is a technique-- I had not realized how much it is really a technique, as demanding as ballet--and one I sure can't wait to develop.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Paris, the City of Haters, and the Critical Mom

I'm with the folks saying, "Je suis Charlie" ("I am Charlie.)  The Americans are saying they're "not afraid," but that's whistling in the dark.  We're all afraid, and we all want our voices heard.  We want to tell the truth, and we want to live to say we told it.  We are these twelve brave people who dared to speak the truth even though they'd already lived through an attack and even though, maybe, they knew their days were numbered.  The words of the courageous Malala--"they can only shoot a body.  They cannot shoot my dreams," come to mind.  I wonder what she'd say about all this?  Charlie Hebdo didn't target Islam any more than it targeted Christians and Jews.  Charlie Hebdo just didn't go for religion in general.  I get this!  Oh, do I ever get it!  But the problem goes way beyond saying Judaism is dreck and Christianity is dreck and oh, Islam, too.  The problem is usually much more personal.  It starts in families.  It starts with being the one who utters the family secret out loud.  Maxine Hong Kingston's bestselling autobiography, The Woman Warrior, begins with "You must not tell anyone . . . ." and it's her mother speaking and she's warning and threatening her daughter with the tale of an aunt who got pregnant out of wedlock and ended up drowning herself and her newborn child in the family well.  The villagers had violently shown their scorn, destroying the family's possessions, animals, and much of their food.  The aunt died of shame.  We all die of shame when we don't tell the truth.  Bernadette Devlin, Britain's youngest MP at 21, in 1969, remarked that "to gain that which is worth having it may be necessary to lose everything else."  I don't go for extremes and I don't go for violence and I wouldn't have gone on a hunger strike to prove a point--this quotation is often taken to be a reference to Irish Revolutionary hunger strikers--but I do go for telling the truth, at the very least to myself, and lately, far more openly.  What if my family goes online and comes across the stuff they said that I invented?  Well, the farthest I'll go, to save myself agony or lawyers or both, is to call some of my memoir "fiction."  (after all, the family's been calling real events "fiction" for years, and went into a real rage when I remarked on some undiscovered realities about my grandfather and my father and my uncle.)   If telling the truth means giving up my original family, well, it wasn't much of a family to begin with, but it was everything for the longest time.  And I would never have the strength to tell the truth if it weren't for the family I chose--my husband and children, as opposed to the one into which I was born.   I don't expect to be shot, but I suppose I'll be ostracized.  Ostracism is something with which we can all live.  But murder, cold-blooded murder of those who reject or ridicule your god, your saints, your folks, or your beliefs, kills you, not those who laughed at what you cherish.  That is the truth that I wish the Paris killers could absorb.  Longue vérité en direct! (Long live truth.)  It's always mutating.  It's never stable. It's a living, breathing thing.  A bullet kills us--not it.