Summer is Coming

June 17, 2015

by AlixClyburn

Jon Snow knows…

In 7 days school’s out, summer begins. This is cause for great rejoicing among the shorter set in my household but I’m in a state of dread and panic.
Summer is coming and my life changes completely. I go from having a stretch of 6 hours when I can be alone to never ever being alone. I go from having near-absolute control over how I will spend my day to having to please three entitled fun-seekers while simultaneously continuing to write, job-hunt, and maintain my sanity (which is not solid even on a good week).
This stirs up all my anxiety. I’m sad that this year is ending, nostalgic about how the kids are getting older, and I’m nervous about how I will keep them occupied all summer.
My big fear is of course that instead of the potential joy summer can bring, my kids will numb themselves into a pixilated stupor. I will take advantage of their hypnotic distraction to become equally transfixed by my own screen. We’ll fritter away every day, inside, staring at Gawker, Facebook feeds, Minecraft farms, and “Barbie in the Dreamhouse” episodes when we could be exploring NYC, reading, learning how to play guitar, or just outside enjoying my favorite season of the year.
A Facebook friend posted a promising summer time management idea. Mommy blogger posted how her solution is to give the kids UNLIMITED SCREEN TIME… just as soon as they do a couple things. For instance, as soon as they read for 25 minutes, do something creative for 45 minutes, make their beds, then do a couple chores, the screens are theirs.
I’m definitely giving this a try. Especially because she reports that even though it wasn’t a raging success, it did help create some good habits in her kids. I think that’s part of my fear and anxiety about summer. While utter sloth sometimes seems to be my natural state, I’m doing everything I can to put my kids on a different path. I want them to be better than me, and I’m willing to ruin their lives to make it so.

A Fictional Rescue

Thanks to a recent article in the New Yorker, I have discovered my new dream job. Bibliotherapist. You tell me what’s troubling you, and I prescribe a few titles. Anxious about the mean girls in your daughter’s school? Try Cat’s Eye, by Margaret Atwood. Feeling sorry for yourself and how hard your life is? Read The Worst Hard Time, by Tim Egan. Want to just laugh your ass off? Take a little How I Became a Famous Novelist, by Steve Hely, or of course anything by David Sedaris.

For Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin, bibliotherapist is their actual job. Obviously, a good librarian does this, as does a good bookseller, but these two go beyond “you might like ____” to “This book will help you with your low self-esteem.” Patients fill out extensive questionnaires and submit to probing interviews., the website that promotes their book, is fun to explore. You can peruse some of their suggested novels-as-remedies for various mental conditions, including “Lovesickness” (The Price of Salt, by Patricia Highsmith), and “Death, Fear of” (White Noise, Don DeLillo). Fear of failure is apparently remedied by reading The History of Mr. Polly, by H.G. Wells. I guess I’ll put that one on my list.
Self-help books have nothing to do with this. Like the recent research study that showed reading literary fiction made people more compassionate and empathetic, Berthoud and Elderkin say they are “dedicated to fiction as the ultimate cure because it gives readers a transformational experience.” I could not agree with them more. In fact, I want these kids I’m in charge of all summer to be given exactly that transformational experience.
Ultimately, reading a self-help book is about you. A great novel immerses you in another world, another person. Sometimes the best way to deal with your shit is to set it aside and focus on someone else. Sometimes, reading someone else’s story can help you better chart your own. I’m not saying reading To Kill a Mockingbird will turn my son into a junior Atticus Finch, but it might give him a textured layer of understanding the next time the boys in the halls of his middle school act like angry fools.
I think fiction often tells more truth about our world than history, science, and newspapers ever could. I more deeply understand love and relationships because I’ve read Garcia Marquez, Milan Kundera, and Jane Austen. A Mercy, by Toni Morrison, explicated the devastating legacy of slavery in a slim 167 pages, and utterly destroyed me. While Behind the Beautiful Forevers certainly revealed a textured and detailed picture of India (and is as superbly written as any great fiction), I feel like I got more out of that book because I’d first read A Fine Balance,by Rohinton Mistry. I could go on and on.
Suffice it so say I will be acting as an amateur bibliotherapist this summer with three young people, especially my oldest. He isn’t much of a reader and I intend to cultivate this gracious and restorative habit in this boy even if I have to bludgeon him to do it.
In later years, he can seek out a bibliotherapist to work out his mommy-anger issues. Maybe she’ll prescribe Portnoy’s Complaint, by Philip Roth? Worse things could happen.

Reading that requires therapy

It’s clear my love of writing and reading is rubbing off on the next generation. Take for instance, this story Naomi wrote in her Kindergarten class. It’s called Aulisubith(Say that out loud. It’s Elizabeth).
The story starts with Aulisubith baking a cake for her friend. But she burns the cake. She brings it to her friend who says this is burned and it isn’t even my birthday. (Honestly, this gal seems sort of imperious — how about a thanks for thinking of me?) Naturally, Aulisubith runs home crying. Her mom’s response: “Stop crying and start shopping!!”
Where do I begin with this story? It seems Naomi-Aulisubith is surrounded on all sides by really poor influences. Her friend sounds like a bossy tyrant, and her mom is clearly an idiot.
Is this a peek into how Naomi sees herself in the world? Why is she making cakes for her friends who aren’t grateful? This seems like a pretty desperate plea for friendship, especially considering Aulisubith didn’t even know this girl’s actual birthdate.
And oh my gosh, the mom!? Who is this shallow woman? I promise you, I have NEVER said that to her. I mean, I don’t think I have. Maybe I have, but I was joking, I’m sure. God knows what I say to stop her from crying. Did I say that? Jesus. Do you see why all this unstructured alone time with ME this summer seems like a bad idea?
Not to say shopping doesn’t have the capacity to cheer me up. It has countless times. Call it the lowbrow kin to bibliotherapy: retail therapy. But I sort of wish I hadn’t somehow passed this trait onto my daughter before she could even spell.

She Blinded me with Science

Imagine the kind of badass shit Aulisubith would do if only Naomi had a mom like one of these sexy scientists. Did you hear about the #distractinglysexy campaign? This is the sort of stuff that makes me grateful for social media. Apparently, Nobel prize-winning chauvinist pig Tim Hunt said this about the trouble with girls in science: “Three things happen when they are in the lab,” he said, “you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry.”
In response, a weepy horde of lovelorn lady scientists took to the internet and displayed how distractingly sexy they are when they work. These women are truly the triple threat — funny, smart, and do not care how they look in hazmat suits.

Our Spines are Misspelled

If slouching had a season, wouldn’t summer be the one? Lazing around on the sofa in the AC, lounging in a beach chair, slogging your way through the humid air. Who can stand up straight in this heat?
Turns out slouching is a construct of the western/developed world. Esther Gokhale, a Harvard-educated acupuncturist has done extensive research to show that the world’s indigenous cultures don’t suffer from chronic back pain the way that we do, and it’s largely because of the way they carry themselves. It does beg the question, who knew Harvard taught acupuncture?
Her theory is that the widely accepted “S-curve” of our spines illustrated in all anatomical texts is inaccurate. It should be J-curve, a straight line until your butt. Apparently, we westerners, in addition to putting obesity on the map and destroying the ozone layer, can also claim the mantle of distorting our spines.
My back has hurt for years. It was once so bad I couldn’t even figure out how to bend my stiff wooden body into the car to go get it looked at. Years of near daily yoga and a dedicated commitment to my posture even while sitting has helped.
But trust me, I’m not cured. As I write this I’m laying on my bed, with my laptop propped on my soft midsection. Sitting is such hard work, after all, when you have no musculature.
Gokhale says that if you can cultivate the mindfulness and ab strength to sit and stand straighter, you’ll probably have less back pain. Gokhale offers free one-hour workshops on this around the country and I’m tempted to take one.
The best advice I ever got was from the former team physician for the Washington Redskins. He said surgery isn’t worth the trouble. Instead, keep moving and build a strong core. He also prescribed valium, which was incredibly delightful when combined with a cocktail. It really made the debilitating back pain that secured me the pills worthwhile. (Who needs a bibliotherapist when an MD can give you valium?!)

Only a Superhero Needs an Origin Story

Did you hear that Hilary’s stump speech is now about reintroducing herself to America by telling the story of her mother. Insert your cynical statements about Hilary’s political calculus here — I guess it’s fair enough. I’m a cautious Clintonite; I know they’re flawed, but I do love my Hil and Bill. What’s more, I see her point. I think who I am is a function of who my mother was in ways I love, ways I’m grateful for, ways that make me angry and resentful, and most importantly — in ways I don’t even understand. We are the next iteration of the women that went before us. Makes you think about who you are to the little women coming after us (“Stop crying and start shopping!”??)
From what I read, it sounds like Hilary’s mom had a truly horrible childhood and a not-so-great adulthood too. It gives Hilary’s relentless ambition an origin story, but don’t we always assume turbo-driven go-getters have something to prove or some score unsettled? If her goal is to show how she understands the plight of the working class, I’m not convinced. My mom grew up working class in a strict Irish Catholic household in Queens. How was this infused in my childhood of international travel, gourmet meals, and a big house with a pool? Very little: She was opposed in principle to Gloria Vanderbilt jeans, and I had a daily list of chores to do because we never hired a housekeeper. I still grew up a spoiled entitled suburban princess.
Bernie Saunders, on the other hand, is not trying to connect to voters with warm soft-focus stories of his family. He’s taking principled stands on what’s going on in the country. For instance, here’s a quote from Bernie:
“Let me be very clear. There is something profoundly wrong when the top one-tenth of 1 percent owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent, and when 99 percent of all new income goes to the top 1 percent. There is something profoundly wrong when, in recent years, we have seen a proliferation of millionaires and billionaires at the same time as millions of Americans work longer hours for lower wages and we have the highest rate of childhood poverty of any major country on earth. There is something profoundly wrong when one family owns more wealth than the bottom 130 million Americans. This grotesque level of inequality is immoral. It is bad economics. It is unsustainable. This type of rigged economy is not what America is supposed to be about.”

Can Hilary say that and still mooch a ride in her pal’s private jet? Even the greatest origin story can’t change who you are today.

The Rhubarb-Colored Lens of Memory

When they sell rhubarb at the farmer’s market I buy it without hesitation. Growing up in Michigan, my mom grew rhubarb in our backyard. My father built her a big garden plot on the side of the house but the rhubarb grew beside the sliding glass doors. Its off-the-res growing location was reason enough for my brothers to declare it gross and inedible. This is the sort of illogical, nonsensical bullshit I have to put up with now as a mother.
Anyway, she would make this strawberry rhubarb compote out of it, and we’d eat the fuchsia -colored gooey soup in beautiful blue glass goblets. I liked the way it looked, but this dish was never on my list of favorites — it wasn’t like her apple crisp, or the chicken Kiev and artichokes she’d make every year for my birthday dinner. It wasn’t chocolate mousse — something I learned how to make under her tutelage (and haven’t made since I was a teenager — I now find it too intimidating.)
Maybe it’s because chicken Kiev is out of fashion and obscure fruits and veggies are chic, but rhubarb holds a special place in my heart. It takes me back to that house in Michigan, to how my witty mom championed this outlier vegetable as if she felt a kinship to it. No one else I knew was eating rhubarb, but of course, the meals in my house were always strangely different from everyone else in my subdivision. (I didn’t eat a casserole until I got to college, but I frequently made my own Vietnamese spring rolls from scratch.)
I don’t even know why my mother grew rhubarb. I don’t think it was some proclamation, some testament to what an independent thinker she was. For all I know it was growing wild in the yard and she decided to try cooking it.
These days, when I buy it I don’t make that soupy compote she would make. I make a cobbler and think of her the whole time. Needless to say, my kids won’t come near it.

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