Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Joe Abercrombie's First Law Books: "Small" Stories in the Guise of "Epic" Fantasy

After diving in several months ago into Joe Abercrombie's "First Law" series, I have finally finished The Red Country the most recent of the books set in this world.  I decided to write this blog entry as spoiler free as I can so that I can convince as many people as I can to give his books a try, and to explain why I enjoyed them so thoroughly for people who have not read them before. I read many fantasies.  I read stories set in worlds modern and ages past, in societies much like our own and those completely foreign.  When I say that Abercrombie's books out "Game of Thrones" Game of Thrones I do not say so lightly.

Aww yeaaah dragons! 
In George RR Martin's books, the political manipulations and lives of ordinary men/ women are contrasted with/ influenced by the otherworldly ever present threats of the supernatural.  How effectively these two combine is debatable.  It is a common complaint among readers and watchers of the show that certain elements of the series seem superfluous given the greater context.  It is the Song of Ice and Fire, after all, not the song of the Boltons, the song of the Greyjoys, the song of the Lannisters.  Put another way: everyone who reads or watches Game of Thrones knows that eventually there will be some kind of battle between dragons and White Walkers, that this is the culmination of the prophecies in world characters have foreseen.  While the fates of many characters remain up in the air, and there are several other stories within the books/ show that remain to be told, in the end there remains that certainty that the fire and ice will combine somehow. It is the certainty of that knowledge that has caused many fans of the series to become impatient.  Who cares about what Daenerys does in Meereen, they complain, why can't she just ride her dragons into Westeros already? It is this frustration that made A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons so deeply unsatisfying for many readers.   While Neil Gaiman is correct that "George RR Martin is not your bitch" and no writer is obligated to finish writing on a timetable of their readers' devising, Martin has set himself up for some of this frustration by the very nature of the structure of his books.  He has placed himself in the position of setting up a final confrontation, a conclusion, an epic battle, a world-shattering event.  "Winter is Coming" is the common refrain.  You can only say it so many times before you ask yourself, "Well when is Winter going to bloody well get there already."  The problem with these books, and I say this as a fan of them,
Alright, alright get here already
is that often times it seems that character development is in the service of the greater plot.  We want to see Jon Snow become that man he is meant to be, we want to see Dany become the queen she should be, we want to see the Lannisters fall because they "deserve" it, we want to see the Bolton's punished, but ultimately we want to see some people riding dragons and burning some motherfucking ice zombies because that is what we have been promised.

The "First Law" books are fundamentally different in their attitudes towards fate, towards characters, towards the supernatural.  They feature a character, Bayaz, First of the Magi, whose political and magical manipulations quite literally drive the fate of nations.  Bayaz' conflict with Khalul is positioned much in the way the the "Ice" and "Fire" are in Martin's books, an overarching battle between forces beyond normal men's comprehension.  And yet in Abercrombie's books these otherworldly forces, this great and epic conflict, is not the focus. Bayaz' scheming and the Gurkish power are forces which influence the lives of characters in ways that are both direct and unspoken, and yet rather than having the characters service an overarching plot, Abercrombie creates conflicts and plots whose ultimate purpose is to service the characters.  Abercrombie does in his original trilogy, The Blade Itself, Before They Are Hanged, and The Last Argument of Kings, what Martin has tried to do in 5+ books.  He establishes a world, puts characters on a quest, makes a few cities come under siege, crowns a few kings, uncovers a few plots, kills a few villains, and ultimately culminates in a kind of conclusion.  But this plot isn't the end all be all. You come to care about Luthar, Logan, about Sand de Gloka, about Ferro, about Collum and Ardee West.  They are characters whose inner workings you really want to understand beyond how they service the story.  THEY are the story.   Abercrombie's books are stories that are not about kings, but about men and women, some men who happen to be kings, maybe, or maybe just kings for a little while, perhaps, but regular people first and foremost.  We don't just read chapters from various POVs in order to find out what is happening in different places, we read them to really understand life from a variety of points of view, which is something I can't really say about Martin's book to the same degree.

Instead of focusing on epic struggles, Abercrombie's books focus on more broader questions of morality and fate, whether men and women can every truly be good, whether goodness is a relative term.  It is for this reason that I actually found his later "First Law" books: Best Served Cold, The Heroes, and The Red Country to be better than the original trilogy. Best Served Cold combines the elements of the best heist stories and the best revenge stories, a mixture of John Wick and Kill Bill, featuring a women (Monza Murcatto) whose drive for vengeance is both satisfying and sad, and a man (Caul Shivers) whose attempts to create a better life, to become a better man, ultimately culminate in him becoming a worse one, while also asking the question whether revenge can ever truly be satisfying.  The Heroes plays out like the best war movies: a single three day battle told from a variety of perspectives, while simultaneously examining what heroism really means.  Finally, The Red Country, a beautifully crafted Western with elements of Shane or Yojimbo, featuring a man with no name (though his name is quite obvious) and a plot reminiscent of The Searchers, but with interesting twists, that forces the reader to examine whether leaving the past behind us is every really possible.  At the conclusion of Red Country, many loose ends from the previous books are concluded, but the war between the Union and Gurkhul remains, nothing is really "over."  According to Abercrombie, there is another trilogy set in the First Law world in the works.  He could very well go on to write more books set in this world or he could never write another one and it wouldn't matter. He doesn't have to. You read his books for his stories, for his characters, NOT because you particularly care who "wins" in this big and epic struggle.  He can go on and tell smaller stories that ultimately resonate more with me as a reader because his characters are more important than the "epic" part of the story he is telling.

Ugh don't even get me started
Last week I watched Age of Ultron, and it struck me that many of my complaints about that movie are similar to my complaints about A Song of Ice and Fire.  Thanos' looming threat, and the knowledge of upcoming films, made the danger of Ultron seem so insignificant.  Put another way: who cares about your robot army, "The Infinity War is Coming."  Contrast this with my love of Captain America: The Winter Soldier.  There was a movie that was about characters and relationships first, about moral ambiguity, about the competing forces of what is "right" and what is "good" and what is "necessary."  In many, many ways, this goes right to the heart of what I enjoy about the "First Law" books.  Rather than raise the stakes after his original trilogy, Abercrombie does not give us a world shattering confrontation between Bayaz and Khalul, but instead a series of smaller stories with the ongoing conflict between the two playing out in the background/ via proxy.  You don't always have to make the plot become more and more grand, more and more "epic" for a story to be successful.  Abercrombie's books don't just feature the intersection of magic and modernity, of science and the supernatural, of good and evil and all things in between, that is what they are about. There is just more depth to them than I think Martin is capable of.  

Abercrombie's books are not perfect by any stretch of the imagination.  There are racial characterizations that, for a lack of a better word, are "problematic" as is common in many Western fantasy stories.  However Abercrombie does do a far better job than Martin at least in integrating characters from different backgrounds with different ethnicities.  Monza Murcatto and Shy South and Ferro are fascinating characters, but Abercrombie still could have done a better job with his women. All because you like something doesn't mean that you completely ignore their faults.  However, if you are somebody who enjoys Game of Thrones the show or The Song of Ice and Fire the series, I would say pretty unequivocally that you will enjoy the First Law books as well, and you may see, as I did, the areas in which they succeed more than Martin's works.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Good Days and Bad Days

In life we all have our good days and our bad days.  We have the days that challenge us, the days of pain, the days of heartbreak and heartache, the days of mourning, of sorrow, of misery.  Then we have the great days, the days that we remember fondly for years, the days that bring us profound joy. Then we have all the days in between: days full of the regular bullshit of life, the little triumphs, the simple pleasures of watching a favorite TV show and the discomforts of a stubbed toe. There was a time in my life when every day felt like a bad day, when the good days were so far and few between that I wondered if there even was such a thing as good days in the first place or whether everyone had simply deluded themselves into thinking that these terrible days were actually good so they could get on with their lives.  Then I realized the difference.  I realized the difference between one person's bad day and the way I experienced a bad day.  I realized the difference when I was no longer clinically depressed.  Which is not to say that I simply stopped having bad days.  Rather it means that the way I interpret those bad days, the way I contextualize them in the broader scope of my life has changed.

So right now I'd like to share with you my day today.  It wasn't a great day.  It wasn't a horrible day, but it wasn't great.  I felt like shit most of it.  But I want to share this day with you, I think it is important to share this day, because while it was fairly shitty it didn't defeat me.  While I didn't feel great, I was able to get what I could out of it.  I think it is important to talk about bad days, to remember bad days without dwelling on bad days, so all that being said here we go...

6:00am - My daughter opens my door and climbs into my bed.  I try to sort of fall back asleep but she just wants to cuddle me.  Last night I came home from work at 8:30pm and only had a little bit of time to basically hug and kiss her goodnight before she went to bed.  I hadn't seen her all weekend since it was her time with her dad.  That's just how it goes.  In the mornings I don't mind if she cuddles me, I like the little bit of time I get to spend with her, even though I am tired and I'd rather get all the sleep I can.

6:20-6:35am - My alarm goes off.  "All that sleep" I was talking about before amounted to a measly 20 minutes that I spent lying in bed trying to pretend like I wasn't still completely exhausted, snuggling the cat, giving my daughter kisses and mentally trying to get myself together for the day.  I get up, shower and get dressed, do my hair and makeup while my daughter snuggles the cat in my bed. I tell her she should go pick out her clothes.  She does not.

6:35am-6:55 - I ask my daughter what she wants for breakfast.  She tells me she wants pancakes, but there just isn't enough time.  I tell her as much.  I ask her if she wants me to make her one of my chicken apple breakfast sausages.  She says no.  I remind her she likes hot dogs and ask her what the different is.  She tells me she doesn't like that there is black on it (any kind of charring she is adamantly opposed to and for this reason will not eat toasted bread even though she likes croutons). I offer her yogurt and cheerios and a cup of juice and she accepts.  I open the fridge and she sees a container of whipped cream.  She asks me to put whipped cream on her Cheerios.  I tell her that that doesn't sound like a very healthy breakfast and say no.  She proceeds to throw herself on the floor crying.  Meanwhile I toast an English muffin, fry a sausage, and and make myself a cup of coffee.  I tell her if she stays on the floor she won't get any breakfast.  She gets off the floor and eats her yogurt and Cheerios.  Dry Cheerios.  Cheerios with milk in them is "gross."  She then proceeds to put the Cheerios in the yogurt because she likes the yogurt crunchy.  I don't even argue anymore.  I eat my breakfast, she eats hers

6:55 - 7:15 - Food eaten, I tell my daughter to get dressed, that we need to get going to school.  I remind her it is St Patricks day and asks her if she wants to wear her ninja turtles shirt.  She says yes.  I locate said shirt and a pair of pants and underwear.  My daughter in the meanwhile has thrown herself on her bed under her covers and tells me she is too tired to go to school.  I tell her we are running late and she better get here right now or else. Except there is no or else.  We have no time for "or else"  We need to get going.  She finally comes over and I give her pants to put on.  She doesn't want to wear those pants.  I tell her to put them on anyway that I'm tired of her nonsense.  She refuses.  I put the pants on her myself and discover they are a bit too small.  I find other pants.  I put her socks on myself because she is not being cooperative and I need to get going.  She keeps telling me again and again that she doesn't want to go to school, that she is too tired, that she wants to stay home, that her best friend doesn't want to play with her anymore, that she misses me, that she just wants to cuddle me, that she's sad.  I brush her hair, or attempt to anyway.  I sit with her for a minute or two trying to get her to stop crying.  I know this cry.  It is overtired cry.  I know she needs more sleep but I can't exactly force her to fall asleep when she is put to bed or make her wake up 20 minutes later. She is often clingy after weekends with her dad.  Eventually she calms down.  I tell her to put on her shoes.  I grab a yogurt and a pack of edemame for a snack at work.  Thankfully, I have a micro meal at work so I don't really need to worry.  

7:15 - 7:25 At this point I know that we are going to be late.  I leave the kitchen ready to go with her lunch box and my lunch and my purse and her homework.  She is hiding inside the blanket box next to the couch and still tells me she is tired.  I make her get her shoes on.  Finally we are leaving the door.  She tells me she is freezing.  I run back to her room and grab a jacket and hand it to her.  She puts it on.  I zip her up when we get to the car as she still can't figure out out to start a zipper.  I put her in her carseat.

7:25-7:35 - we drive to school.  I know I am late already.  There is nothing I can do about it at this point.  We talk about leprechauns in the car.  She tells me leprechauns are pretend and somebody is making a joke.

7:35-7:42 - I try to quickly drop her off but she is unusually clingy.  She doesn't want to leave.  She tells me she just wants to stay home, just wants to be with me.  She says she misses me.  I pry her fingers off my body and close the door.

7:42-8:10 - I drive to work.  I'm tired and I don't feel particularly thrilled about working either.  I listen to my "Happy Place" mix and try to relax.

8:10 - I arrive at work 10 minutes late

8:11-9 - I start setting up for my Parent-Child workshop, moving in the toys and supplies.  I try to save myself a trip by stacking this rolling cart way to high.  I am blissfully lucky it doesn't fall on my face.  I put all the toys where they are supposed to go, put the sign up sheet near the entrance, and the parenting materials and flyers and things in the back.  A library page helps by putting the blocks up.  She always pre makes block houses so the kids can see what they can make with the blocks.  I try to think about how my workshop is going to work today since last week I had a lot more kids than I had parents (one mom has 3 boys, one mom comes with her sister and has 4 with her, but they also have an early interventionist who helps.  Then there is another mom with 3 who just dropped in last week but I said could return.  The rest of the moms/ dad have one kid thankfully).

9-9:20 - I make play dough with flour, salt and oil.  To save time during the workshop, I decide to pre add the food coloring so the page/ helper doesn't have to

9:20-9:35 - I catch up on emails.  My library director and I have been going back and forth because of this performer contract.  She seems to think we need the insurance of the performer before we send the contract.  We have never done this.  We just get the insurance with their signed contract back/ ahead of the event.  Emails, emails... I check the news.

9:35-9:50 - I take my morning break now because if I don't then I won't get one.

9:50-10 - I get my CDs together for the workshop, make sure I know which track I need for the circle time

10am - My workshop is supposed to start but nobody is here.  Last week I had like 26 people and they register for all 5 weeks so I don't know what the deal is. 

10:10 - 2 parents finally decide to come.  I end up opening up the workshop space for them because I might as well.  A rep from an early intervention company is there as my presenter.  I know he goes on for the whole time.  I don't want him to start too late but I want to wait for some people to arrive.

10:15-10:55 - The one mom with the 4 kids finally comes.  I tell the presenter he might as well start.  All the parents elect for him to present in Spanish.  I have heard the whole thing before numerous times and I know just enough to get the idea when he is talking.  I end up playing with this little girl whose dad is trying to listen to info about brain development and synapses.  I help her up the play stairs, I play blocks with her.  She is just under 2.  The workshop is designed for 1, 2, and 3 year olds.  I never got to take my own daughter to the workshop because of scheduling.  I couldn't see how I could have made it work taking her to work while I tried to set up with her running around and then me trying to give her attention while playing with other kids.  It just never happened.  I play with the almost 2 year old and think about my daughter crying and saying she missed and wanted me.  I step away to use the restroom and find myself a little teary.  Another mom shows up.  Kids play.  I help them with the play dough.  I keep having to add more and more flour as it keeps getting sticky. 

10:55-11:15 - We pick up the toys from the floor and then gather in a circle for story/ circle time.  We sing Head Shoulders Knees and Toes in English and Spanish and the Spanish song "Juanito" which is also about the parts of the body - these are the only two Spanish songs I know.  I read "Perros, Perros Dogs, Dogs" which is one of a handful of bilingual books I feel comfortable reading.  The kids like it.  Everybody is happy.  I have a few random adults stop and watch me and tell me I do good a good job with the kids.

11:15-11:45 - I put the toys properly away, back on the truck, back in the storage closet.  I help move the tables and chairs from the area that always have to be moved back and forth to make a big empty space for the workshop in the first place.  I wash the mixing bowls for the play dough and clean the cookie cutters and trays the kids used. 

11:45-12:15pm - I work on storytime stuff, finish up on emails, talk to my coworkers about the ridiculous report that will be presented to council that evening about how horrifically our HR department and our city in general has been mismanaged over the past few years.  It comes as no surprise.  Everybody is miserable and the whole city is a corrupt, poorly run, backward government.

12:15pm-12:45pm - I eat lunch.  I had gotten a message from my lawyer about divorce stuff.  I call him back and leave him a message.

12:45pm-2pm - I drive to a local elementary school.  The preschool on site scheduled me to come out for a storytime after they visited the library the other week.  I go to the front office and they say that I should just walk around the other side to check in with the preschool.  I walk around the parking lot trying to find how to get in, but I don't see it.  I notice my feet are hurting: apparently my heel insole thing is falling off and my heel is all scraped.  I walk back to the office, half limping, and they say that I need to walk ALL the way to the street to the other side to get to the preschool entrance.  I do that and the gate is locked.  I hail the guy trimming the hedges.  He lets me in the gate.  I do a very nice colored themed story time for the preschoolers.  We sing a St Patricks song and my favorite color train song. Their classroom is really gorgeous and well organized.  It is nicer than my daughter's classroom.  That makes me think of my daughter.  I realize I am doing a storytime for 4 year olds and not my own 4 year old who is listening to somebody else tell her stories.  I shrug it off in the car on the way back from the school.  I drive to Ralphs and pick up Big Hero 6 and some chips for my movie screening tomorrow, I drive back to the library

2-3 - I work on storytime plans for the next week, I try to figure out this nonsense with the contracts and insurance, I admittedly dick around a little. I hear back from my lawyers assistant who tells me that she wanted to follow up on the thing she emailed me back in February.  I don't remember receiving anything.  I check my emails.  There is nothing from her.  She tells me she will email it to me again.

3-4:15 - I work at the reference desk.  It comes in ebbs and flows.  I work a little on my American Sign Language course while at the desk. I really like the class a lot.  I respond to the questions about this panel discussion on audism and bias toward deaf people.  I read an article about cochlear implants.  I help some kids find some books, I help some lady print, I help some guy find a book on World War I, I put holds on mystery books for an old lady, I put a hold on 50 shades of Gray for a 17 year old and inwardly wish I didn't have to.

4:15-4:30 - I take my afternoon break.  I realize that I ate my afternoon snack for my morning snack because the yogurt tasted gross.  Thankfully somebody brought mint Oreos for St Patricks day.  I am no longer hungry

4:30-5:25 - This grumpy old man who frequently comes into the library grumps to me some more about how kids are loud and everybody speaks Spanish and why hasn't his book come, and how come the computers are so slow.  He comes back and forth to my desk 3 times within this hour period.  Meanwhile I try to help an adorable little girl find a Frozen book and a book on ballet, a women locate a book about aircraft carriers, tell a mom that no she can't access Google classroom on our shitty old computers because we are running a version of IE that isn't compatible and no, there isn't anything I can do about it and yes it is bullshit and sorry and yeah this city isn't managed very well is it, and hey you might want to check out the city council meeting tonight to find out just how really shitty it is.  I hastily answer a few more questions before locking the computer because if i don't leave the library building exactly at 5:30 I will not be at school before it closes

5:30-5:52 - I drive to my daughter's school.  I decide to listen to Flogging Molly in the car because it is St Patrick's Day

5:55-6:06 - I drive my daughter home.  I had been thinking about going grocery shopping but decide against it.  I am just too tired and looking at her I know she needs a bath and there is no way we can do both.  She tells me leprechauns came to her school and made footprints.  These are real leprechauns now

6:06-6:30 - I make mac and cheese for dinner because I am lazy, I help my daughter with the homework that she didn't finish at her dad's house because she hid her homework packet in the recycling bin "accidentally."  I inwardly debate the merits of homework for a 4 year old in the first place, but decide that it doesn't hurt for her to at least try it, even though I am basically doing some of it for her because she can't write her numbers or lower case letters without tracing them.  She tells me she is too tired to write.  I don't argue with her.

6:30-7:20 - We eat dinner on the couch watching Jake and the Neverland Pirates.  Jake goes to London to meet Wendy.  10/10 better story than the actual Peter Pan because it is free from sexism and racist Indian crap.  I internally judge myself for letting my daughter eat mac and cheese on the couch, but I like being able to cuddle with her while we watch and she has been talking about this stupid special Jake episode forever. I know that I shouldn't have rewarded her for acting up this morning, but by this time, I just want quiet time with the two of us and she has been running around the playground and not even in the mood to play.  Even if we didn't watch TV she would just color pictures by herself probably.  At least I get to spend time with her.

7:20-7:45 - I give my daughter a bath.  She actually lets me rinse her hair, a little miracle.  We squirt each other with water toys and act silly. 

7:45-8:15 - I dry her off, put a new bandaid on the owie she got the other day, put some lotion on her bug bites, blow dry her hair.  She picks out jammies and puts them on, brushes her teeth.  We read a passover book before bedtime.  I open up this new glowing ninja turtle light that I hope will help her not be so scared of the dark.  I kiss her good night

8:15-9:50 - I write this stupid thing

10-11 - I watch last night's Better Call Saul, probably.


So there you have it.  A day in the life.  No photos, nothing flashy.  I wanted to actually get this up in the day it was written so here you go.  I didn't even edit it. Enjoy.  Or not.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Does God Live On a Mountain in Egypt? - How to Be a Jewish Atheist and Raise a Kid

Sometimes I'm Jew-ier than others
So I face a dilemma.  I am a culturally Jewish woman who doesn't believe in God and I have a kid.  Teaching her about her cultural heritage is really important to me.  Celebrating holidays, attending Tot Shabbat services, putting money in the tzedakah box, learning about Jewish history are all things I couldn't imagine depriving her of.  They were so integral to my youth, so a part of my idea of what a Jewish childhood should be, that I make an effort to introduce them to my daughter when the opportunity arises.  We don't light candles every Friday, but every once and a while we do.  We don't make challah all the time, but she enjoys when I make it, and enjoys eating it when I take her to Tot Shabbat.  She loves attending the Sunday school Parent and Me class once or twice a month.  I eagerly look forward to the day I get to watch her
What? Baymax and Donatello
don't go to your Sedars?

dress up in a homemade dreidel costume and sing a little song on the bimah with her kindergarten Torah school class.  She has a little Passover play set and thoroughly enjoys putting all the pieces on the Sedar plate and setting up all her little toys around the table so she can tell the story of the Exodus.  Well, her version.  In her version, the frogs come and lock all the bad guy Egyptians up in a cage and then all the Jewish babies come back and everybody is happy and eat matzah and charoset but not maror because that is yucky and she doesn't like it so nobody has to eat it.

But despite all my efforts in raising her Jewish, I am at a quandary when I am asked questions like:

"Where does God live?  Does God live on a mountain in Egypt where Moses went?"

"What does God look like?"

"Who is God?"

Oooo Magical Photons!
Now a person of faith might have reasonable, age appropriate responses to those questions.  Maybe they would say that God lives in your heart or that God is all around us or that God is blah blah blah... But... the thing is, I don't believe in God.  Neither, for that matter, does my ex.  He was nominally raised Jewish most of his life and converted when we married, but is not practicing beyond lighting Hanukkah candles with her, which isn't terrible all things considered.  I have had people ask me, "Well if you don't believe in God why are you celebrating Jewish holidays?" to which I ask them, "If you don't believe in Lent, why are you getting drunk at Mardi Gras? If you aren't Christian, why are you giving presents for Christmas?  If you aren't Irish Catholic, why are you wearing green on St Patrick's day?  If you don't believe in the Resurrection of Christ, why are your kids making cotton ball bunnies at Easter?"  The answer to all these questions is simple: cultural celebration is often times removed from actual religious observance.  Being Jewish is more than just believing in the Torah.  Being Jewish is who I AM.

Believe it or not, there are quite a number of Jewish atheists/ agnostics, even
This book is GREAT
whole congregations of Reconstructionist Jews for whom belief in God is not required.  But the dude (lady? genderless spirit-deal?) comes up in the stories. So what do I tell her when she asks about God?  She is 4. Now for background, I have brought home the book Older Than the Stars for her, a book that discusses the Big Bang, the formation of the universe, the creation of the solar system.  She has other books about space that talk about cosmology and universe expansion.  If you were to ask her how the universe was created, she would tell you that a long time ago there was a big explosion and all the bits that came from that formed the universe.  She actually gets it, or as much as a 4 year old can. She is a scientist.  But then there is this God character that keeps showing up.  What's up with that? 

Thus far I have sort of dodged the conversation.  Unlike other random questions that she has asked me lately ("Mommy, what is a pillow?"  "Mommy, what is a rock?") she hasn't mentioned the "G" word in a few days.  And I am grateful.  Because I know when we have the conversation it will go like this:

"Well some people believe... "
Ok this is good.  I'm not being dismissive of other cultures.

"Some people believe that God created the universe and that God helps people sometimes."
Is this enough?

"But I don't believe in God, I believe that the universe was created in the Big Bang like in your book."
Ok, point made

Kiddo - "So who did Moses talk to?"


So for now I avoid.  And I hope she forgets about it until I come up with a better answer.  Do I say that the stories are made up?  If I do will she start asking why we celebrate the Sedar in the first place?  Is "because we are Jewish" enough of an answer?  I don't even know.  Thankfully she often forgets her train of thought and something she was so curious about one day, is forgotten the next. Like how she forgot to follow up on that "Where do babies come from?" question.  That one I answered as honestly as I could until we got to the, "Yeah, ok but HOW does it come out?" to which I responded that it came out through the mommy's vagina, to which she responded by laughing hysterically, "WHAT?!  A baby in a vagina!  WHAT?!" and rolled around on the floor maniacally as if I had told her the funniest joke in the world.  For the record, to her the funniest joke in the world is:

"The chair fell in the yogurt"

That's it.  No set up.  "The chair fell in the yogurt."

So maybe that is a good solution to my God Dilemma.

"Where does God live?"

"Banana butts"

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

I Am Not A "Single Mom": Musings From a Mom Who Happens To Be Single

Why is this guy 10x hotter than he would be
without the kid with him? 
When people look at a single dad playing with his kids at the park there is this implication that he is doing a "great job."  "Look at him," people say, "He's actually being a part of his kids' lives instead of fucking off and abandoning them. Good for him."  Our expectations for men are so low that the most basic of parental responsibilities is treated as though it is a great accomplishment.  I think this is very unfair to men. If you watch commercials, they will show these befuddled dads who barely know how to take clothes out of the laundry or cause messes that the beleaguered mom/ housewife has to clean up.  Men are expected to be loud, boorish, crude, incapable of caring for themselves, and when they do then its this remarkable thing we need to hold up and value.  This attitude doesn't give guys enough credit.  But it is still there.

Ann Dunham and her adorable future pres
The attitude toward single mothers is very different. People can become very judgmental when they talk about "single moms," both from a philosophical and political viewpoint, and a personal one.  Ever since I found myself grouped together in this category, I have become extremely protective of other single moms, especially those that I don't know (and I don't really know many irl).  Since I have been a "single mom" for a little over half a year, there are several types of conversations I have discovered when I hear people talk about or to "single moms," including myself:  

Conversation 1: "Well I would have just stuck with it for the sake of the kids."

Hmm.. Boy I never thought of that!  Let's go back and make that an option for me instead of how my ex told me he didn't want to be married any more and I had to move out of the house that I couldn't afford on my own.  But you are right, it was just I didn't TRY enough.  Thanks for the advice, stranger.  This also is completely dismissive of the happiness/ well being of the adults in the relationship.  Why don't their feelings matter too? 

Ahhh!  Not Statistics!!
Thanks for the info, Heritage Foundation!
This will be SUPER useful to me

Conversation 2: "These women shouldn't be having children if they aren't in a committed relationship."

Oooooh don't even get me started on this one.  First of all the implication is that being a single mom is a voluntary decision for everyone.  Some women lack the knowledge or ability to acquire birth control.  Some women, because of religious indoctrination, have been told that birth control is wrong, seemingly implying that they just shouldn't have sex their entire lives outside of marriage.  Some women WERE in committed relationships, some married, some not, when they conceived their children.  To imagine that everybody has the foresight to know whether a relationship will stand the test of time presumes that women have some kind of precognitive powers from a Philip K Dick novel and aren't, ya know, human beings.  Finally there are those women who DO choose to have children on their own and they seem to be doing just fine.  I think that episode of Murphy Brown is like 20 years old now.  The world has moved past your notions of traditional family, asshole.

Welp, I guess I have to be an octopus now
Conversation 3: "Wow I don't know how you do it all on your own."

Well, I don't.  I have joint custody.  People have this preconceived notion that being a mom who happens to besingle means that you are a "single mom."  A "single mom" is a women who raises her kids entirely on her own with the ex absent entirely or neglectful.  A "single mom" is somebody who overcomes adversity and puts herself through school and with the support of her parents ends up raising the next President of the United States.  By this metric I am not a "single mom."  I have joint custody of my daughter with my ex, truly joint custody where we split every week.  Her father is just as much a part of her life as I am.  She spends just as much time with him as she does me.  That burden of responsibility isn't on me all the time and, if I am being honest, I don't hate it.  After 3.5 years of being the one who woke up to breastfeed, who took care of nightmares, who woke up at 5:30-6 nearly every single day, who made lunches, who planned play dates, who bought clothes, it doesn't suck that now I have a few days to myself in the middle of the week.  It certainly doesn't suck when I can make plans to go to see comedy shows or to the movies on the weekend or go out to drinks with people I meet online and I don't have to worry about a babysitter.  Nope, it's just time for myself, just for me.  I look at my friends who have two, sometimes three kids, who work full time and care for their families all the time with no break, and I recall my life before I separated from my ex and I think, "Gosh... I don't miss that at all." There was a time when I felt so guilty for even entertaining the notion of enjoying my life outside the role of mother.  Now I have no choice.  Now if it is a Tuesday that she is scheduled to be at her dad's it is a Tuesday she is scheduled to be at her dad's.  That feeling of shoulds, that weight of responsibility, that guilt all just goes away. The question of course is what remains?  That has been my real journey these past few months.  After "mother" defined me for so many years, just being "me" has been something that I have genuinely struggled with.

Apparently this is how I am supposed to look
So how do I respond to somebody who says, "I don't know how you do it on your own."  Do I tell them that I don't?  Do I tell them that separating from my ex is the best thing that ever happened to me?  Do I tell them how I get to have the freedom that they don't get to enjoy because they are burdened with a kid 100% of the time?  Because that's not what they want to hear.  When people make these kinds of statements, they are trying to show sympathy.  People hear bad news and they want to say "I'm sorry to hear that" and then go home and think "Boy, I'm such a good person, I'm such a good friend.  My relative/friend had something bad happen and I was there to comfort them.  Good for me."  No, what those people really want to hear is how I am struggling to pay my bills each month, which I am. They want to hear what it is like spending nights alone in bed without somebody to lie next to them.  They want to hear about how I drink a glass of wine and watch Downton Abbey with my cat.  (I did that too.  It made me feel like THE most "divorced 30-something lady" in the history of the world).  Then they want to go back to their own significant others and hug them a little harder, and appreciate them a little more, and thank their lucky stars that they have somebody loving and supportive in their life.  They want to revel in my misery porn like they would watching a documentary on starving children in Africa.  I am not judging people for thinking this way, because I have certainly thought this way before too.

Conversation 4: "That fucking asshole"

Yikes! Did you really need to buy a shirt?
These people want to hear you bitch about your ex.  While we have our disagreements regarding the coparenting of our child and some of the logistics of our impending divorce, truthfully I spend very little time thinking about him.  I might mention something that happened that frustrated me, but this is not an opportunity to get into the psychology of my ex, to bitch about him, to get all the messy details.  Maybe it is because their notion of ex is somebody that you never have to see again except for a chance run in at the grocery store where you get to tactfully avoid them hiding behind the grapefruit.  I have to see him on a regular basis.  I have to communicate with him about the goings on of preschool, about a weird rash I noticed on her back, about the logistics of our divorce.  He is, for better or worse, a part of my life, and will be for the foreseeable future.  He is part of my daughter's life for the rest of hers.  Badmouthing him or doing a lot of complaining isn't really healthy, nor is it particularly productive.

Isn't this FUN!
I can't wait to do it again in two days with
somebody completely different

Conversation 5: "Soooo are you seeing anybody?"

These people want to hear about sex.  They want to hear about all the single lady sex you are having now.  I hear this a LOT from married people who are always super curious about what it is like to date again, who want to relive glory days, who want some new real life romance novel shit to think about while they are having hurried sex with their spouses before Fallon comes on.  They are also sometimes SUPER set on this idea that everybody who is single must be immediately looking to get into another long term relationship.  Fun fact: They AREN'T!  Sometimes they want to hear that you are dating people because they want to know if you are happy, as if happiness is defined by being in a relationship or having a ton of sex. 

So maybe the key to talking to "single moms" or "moms who happen to be single" is to just go into a conversation without preconceived notions. Don't assume that they will be sad about their relationship ending, but don't assume that they are over the moon happy about it either.  If you are wondering how they are doing then ask open ended questions, rather than ones with answers you have already come up with in your head.  Nobody died.  This is really important to remember.  The kind of sympathy you would give to somebody over a lost job or a lost loved one is not the same as you would give to somebody who lost a marriage.  Emotions can be very mixed.  For some people the rawness of the breakup can be very painful and they might not want to talk about it.  For others, the implication that they should be sad about leaving a relationship that was unhealthy for them makes them feel as though they did something wrong. Also don't assume that they "lost" a marriage/ relationship.  Maybe they are single moms by choice. 

Have an open mind.  Know that being a single mom or a mom that happens to be single CAN be very challenging, but for reasons that you might not have considered.  When you are the only single mom taking your daughter to Sunday school classes, this can be very isolating.  Seeing happy families together or going to weddings can sometimes trigger feelings of sadness, but this doesn't necessarily mean that you want to get married again now, soon, or ever.  Being the only single person among married friends with kids can be frustrating.  Everyone has unsolicited advice or opinions, and it is hard to find people to go to a club with even though you don't really like going to clubs and you are at the age where they are kind of too loud, but still you wouldn't mind trying to go to one if you had a winglady but they are busy with their own mom stuff you used to have to worry about when you didn't have your days off from the kid.  Try to withhold judgment and opinion until you really understand what it is like.  And unless you plan on becoming a single mom (which for some people is physically impossible) and not just one kind of single mom, but every single mom in existence, then you really can't know.  So just do the best you can as a friend, and know what you don't know. 

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Creating Baby Feminists: Or How to Raise a Superhero Princess

Seriously, this tent is legit
Yesterday, my daughter turned 4 years old.  I had off work early and had been planning on taking her to the park or out to dinner, but all she wanted to do was stay home and have mac and cheese for dinner and play with her birthday present from me: a spaceship tent.  So that's what we did.  She wore her knight costume (because her astronaut costume might be too slippery inside, she said) and played in her spaceship tent all evening.  Her spaceship tent stood in the middle of her room decorated with Frozen stickers and Frozen sheets and Frozen posters.  Oh and a Star Wars poster.  And robots.  On Saturday we will have her big birthday party with all of her friends and her dad and my parents at a local children's museum.  She decided on a Ninja Turtles theme.  Lately she has
She likes Donatello
because he wears purple
gotten very interested in Ninja Turtles; she even dressed
as Donatello for Halloween, despite the fact that she can't sit through a whole episode of the actual cartoon since she thinks it is too scary.  A lot of things are scary to her.  She can't sit through pretty much any Disney movie with the exception of Frozen, Wall-E, and Toy Story 2 because she has an aversion to bad guys.  Cinderella: the mommy isn't nice, Tangled: the witch mommy isn't nice, Lion King: the bad lion is bad, Toy Story 1: Sid is scary and the toys in his room are scary, Beauty and the Beast: the wolves, Winnie the Pooh: bees (Seriously.  She doesn't like Winnie the Pooh because she is scared of bees).  On the other hand, she likes the original Star Wars just fine because Darth Vader is cool.  In fact she enjoys playing AS Darth Vader when we have lightsaber battles.  However, Empire Strikes back and Return of the Jedi are out because the Wampa and the Rancor are extremely scary to her.  If we watch those, we have to fast forward.  We can watch parts of How to Train Your Dragon but not all of it: Toothless is adorable, the other dragons not so much.  Despite all of this aversion to "bad guys," her preferred method of play is to have battles, to attack balloons with her knight sword, to pretend we are superheroes saving the day from the evil Loki (our cat, not the actual Marvel villain. Sometimes the cat plays the role of Lok-a-roid, a deadly asteroid that is attacking our space command).

Seriously, this movie
can't come soon enough
So why do I mention all this?  Because I have noticed through the course of talking to her and her play, that more often than not she plays as boy characters, except when she plays as Elsa.  Not because I believe she is experiencing any kind of gender identity issues or doesn't like being a girl, but because, just as I did when I was a kid, she finds the boy characters to be more interesting.  When she plays Big Hero 6 she wants to be Hiro and Baymax, not Go Go or Honey Lemon.  They were perfectly good "strong" characters, but they weren't the MAIN characters.  She has latched onto Frozen, to Elsa in particular like many little girls her age, I think because Elsa is truly the first female superhero to star in her own children's movie.  Think about it: can you think of another kid-friendly film that stars a woman who has superpowers?  Princess Leia is great and all but she doesn't have the Force (unless you are counting the now not-canon EU books).  Plus Princess Leia wasn't the star of the film.  In every other kid's movie, women with power are the villains: the witches, the evil fairies. 
Who WOULDN'T want to be
this badass bitch
Elsa was never truly a villain, simply a young woman with powers she couldn't control who eventually uses them for good.  And her power is cool!  She shoots ice from her fingers!  This readily translates to games of freeze tag!  Frozen is the PERFECT movie for little girls who want to have that feeling of power and strength that boys get playing Spider-Man or Batman or Superman or ANYTHING-man.  Which is why I think the new Wonder Woman movie and the Captain Marvel movie will be so important.  But they aren't enough.

Even at 4 my daughter has experienced our sexist culture.  She has been told by friends at school that certain things are "for boys," she has walked into the toy store and seen the separation of the gendered playthings, she has seen movies where women only serve as objects to be rescued (even though she doesn't particularly care for them).  There are two tacks that you can take to address this problem.  The first is denial. You can simply refuse to allow your children to watch princess movies, to limit their exposure to media in general, or to presume
Oh look, another boy off
on an adventure.
 that even worthy "classic" books and "quality" shows don't perpetuate our patriarchal culture.  But lets face it, most of your favorite "classic" children's books feature women more often than not in the role of mother and caretaker.  Not that there is anything wrong with being a mother, but if that is all your children are seeing then maybe you are "indoctrinating" them more than you know.  I sure as hell know that I would rather emulate the adventurous Peter Rabbit than be one of his demure, obedient sisters, even though they were rewarded.  The second option is to face reality, to acknowledge the fact that even if you never show a princess movie in your home that the IDEA of "princess" is so infused into our culture that exposure to the concept is inevitable.  You can deny a girl the right to princess crowns and pretty dresses all you want, but are you really taking the desire away?

One of these is astronaut Karen Nyberg

I actively try to read my daughter my issues of Captain Marvel and Ms Marvel when they come in each month, I show
her pictures of female astronauts like Karen Nyberg, an engineer formerly on board the ISS, whose flowing blonde hair is so similar to her own, and I bring home books about inspiring women like Jane Goodall.  I do these things very consciously.  I do it because without taking the time to actively select books and videos about inspirational women, without actively "indoctrinating" my daughter into the idea that women can accomplish the same things as men even at this early age, she could very easily go through life passively indoctrinating herself into the idea that they can't.  There are several moments in my daughter's favorite book, Daredevil: the Daring Life of Betty Skelton, where
Seriously, go read this book
young Betty faced adversity and sexism in trying to pursue her dreams.  She got her pilot's license at 16 but could not fly as a commercial pilot because she was a woman.  Instead she became a stunt pilot and did her own thing.  She trained with the Mercury 7, but was denied the right to be an real astronaut because NASA wasn't ready for a woman astronaut yet.  The book ends on a positive note, with a mention of the women who did break the barrier, Valentina Tereshkova and Sally Ride, and with Betty in her later years, a confident older lady who drove a Corvette well into her 80s.  It is an amazing book and Betty lived a remarkable life.  It is an important book for girls like my daughter, too.

Trying to raise confident children is challenging regardless of gender, and much has been written about how too much of a "You can do anything, Billy" attitude has shaped a generation of young people whose aspirations outmatch their skills.  But I think the challenge of raising confident girls is unique.  Boys, by the very nature of our culture, will naturally fall into a belief that they can do anything.  In school we teach them about presidents, about kings, about soldiers, and heroes and revolutionaries.  They might spend a few days during their school career learning about notable women.  So yeah, I take it upon myself to make sure she knows about those women who came before her.  I make sure to tell her that women can do anything that men can.  I acknowledge the sexism that exists, I actively correct her when she tells me a blue shirt with a dinosaur on it is "for boys."  When my daughter tells me she wants to be an astronaut I tell her about all the wonderful women in NASA, but I also make sure to tell her how hard it is to get into space, and how few people really make it.  She will have to work really hard, she will have to do really well in science and math, and pass all sorts of tests.  Even if she is strong and smart she might not make it, but there are lots of things that she could do with her passions: work at NASA on the ground, work at a science museum, be an engineer.  I want her to be able to "reach for the stars" but I also don't want her to feel inadequacy if she doesn't make it there. Most of all I want her to be a feminist.  I want her to proudly be able to declare the simple idea that boys and girls should be afforded the same opportunities, I want her to one day say confidently to someone who would deny her, "yes I can."  And that doesn't mean I deny her the right to wear pink, the desire to be a princess too.  I simply make sure she knows she can be so much more.