August 31, 2010

For the Lurve of Birch

The downside of Ball Hill Trail in Leominster State Forest is where you can smell the town dump, so that's unfortunate, but the upside is where the mushrooms grow. R is becoming a mushroom connoisseur, and while he promises never to eat them, we spend a goodly amount of time inspecting and photographing fungi.

We took Buckaroo for a few hikes last weekend as it's becoming our new favorite pastime, at least until the chill is upon us. Ball Hill was supposed to be a short hike that went rather long, but I spotted this lovely, curling birch. I think of silver birches as the princesses of the forest, so fancy in their ball gowns, but the paper birches remind me of, well, paper. I see one and feel inspired to write a poem.

So hiking=writing + ice cream-- because a long hike must be rewarded with something sweet and delicious for the tummy as well as the mind.

August 17, 2010

Buckaroo's Song

Buckaroo and I are reading the complete tales of Winnie the Pooh. Buckaroo likes Pooh's songs best, so yesterday as Buckaroo began to nod off in the car during the long trek home from Sparkle Mama's house, I asked him to make up a song with me-- nap time interferes with bed time these days. I was trying to encourage rhyming, so it goes a little something like this:

One Two Three
I'm busy as a bee

Four Five Six
Let's play pick up sticks

Seven Eight Nine
You play, too

Ten Eleven Twelve
All the shovels with you

Hey, it got us home nap-free!

August 11, 2010

Then Again, Maybe I Will

I've mentioned somewhere in this bloggity world that Judy Blume's book Deenie changed my life, turned me into a reader of chapter books. What I didn't remember about that time, until recently, is that after reading Deenie I set out to read more Blume books and checked out Then Again, Maybe I Won't from the library. I never finished the book, but not because I didn't like it.

I was twelve-ish. I loved the way my Nana Pat described her Agatha Christie mysteries to me, and I wanted to emulate her, so after I'd read a few chapters of Then Again Maybe I Won't, I set out to find my mother and began describing the book to her. I think she may have been folding laundry in the living room. I said something along these lines: "I'm reading a book about a boy named Tony who has dreams at night, and when he wakes up in the morning his bed is all wet."

Now, my mom had explained the female reproductive system long before this time, but I'd either spaced out during the male half or we'd skimmed over it. In any case, I didn't have a clear grasp of what was happening to Tony, so my mom explained it to me and mentioned that I might not want to bring up the topic in polite conversation.

I want to be clear: My mom never said, "Don't read that book," so I can't blame her for what happened next, which was this: I was horrified. I returned the book to the library and never read another Judy Blume book again, which now makes me sad for my naive and prude-ish tweenie self.

In fact, I didn't even remember the masturbation scene in Deenie until I read about it during my research for this post, which makes me think that it went right over my twelve-year-old head. Fortunately, I'm not the only reader who missed it. Yes, the other oblivious readers were younger; I was a late bloomer.

So yesterday I took Buckaroo to the library, and while he was meandering through the picture books I pulled Then Again Maybe I Won't from the shelf and finished the tale I began so long ago. One of Blume's main story lines does address Tony's sexuality and how he manages it:

"Just as I finished writing the figures on the math board I started to get hard. Mind over matter . . . mind over matter, I told myself."

He solves his problem by holding a text book in front of his pants. He also talks about his wet dreams, fantasies, his guilt about watching from his bedroom window as the neighbor girl undresses each night. But here's what struck me: this book was written in 1971. Sure, there were other books about sexuality written before 1971, but how many were written for kids?

I'm beginning to think Judy Blume is a genius.

Yes, I was too embarrassed to finish the book, but it sparked a conversation between my mom and me that we would not have had otherwise. It gave me my first glimpse into the life of an adolescent boy. And think of the boys! So many not only understand Tony's plight, but live it. I hope they all read this book if for no other reason than to learn that they're not alone-- that boys have been trying to will their penises into submission since the dawn of time.

Which reminds me: Sweet P's dad once mentioned that he was required to write a book report on Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret after he teased a girl in school about wearing a bra. I love that teacher!

I was not surprised to find that so many of Blume's books have been banned at one point or another in so many places. The Reagan years were the worst for book censorship, Blume writes on her Web site, but after buckling under the pressure to remove lines about masturbation from her book Tiger Eyes so that it wouldn't be another victim of censorship, Blume became an anti-censorship advocate.

"If someone had told me then [while writing her first book, Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret] I would become one of the most banned writers in America, I'd have laughed," Blume writes of the impetus for her activism.

I don't think too much about censorship. I'm an adult, I live in a fairly liberal area, and if I or my kids want to read a book that's not available at my library, I buy it online or at the bookstore. But now I'm starting to think about what might have happened if I'd never read Deenie, the book that was so instrumental in making me a reader. What if it had been banned from my school library? Would there have been another book to take its place, or would I be watching a soap opera right now instead of writing this post?

And what about the kids in places like Wasilla, Alaska, whose parents might not have the means to order books not available at the library? Will those children find the book that drives them to become a lifetime reader, thinker?

Ok, it's not true that Sarah Palin tried to ban a giant list of books from the town library, but she did threaten to fire the librarian if she couldn't see eye to eye with Palin on censorship.

Scary stuff. Right now, in fact, the radio program Fresh Air is banned from the airwaves in Mississippi because a comedian talked about his need, because of his poor self image, to wear a shirt while having sex. I cannot imagine life without Fresh Air.

Here's what I don't understand about censorship: Why would we want to keep kids (or anyone)from reading about the very experiences they're living? Especially if those books are going to enlighten them in some way. And if we're going to ban books because they contain stories about infidelity, prostitution, rape, or murder, I guess we'd better start with the Bible. Just sayin'.

August 6, 2010

Figgy the Singing Squirrel

I wish I could be funny in my poetry, but I tend to take myself way too seriously. The funny factor is probably what I admire most about Billy Collins's poetry. I just found this poem in the Spring 2010 issue of Poetry East.


It was foolish of us to leave our room.
The empty plaza was shimmering.
The clock looked ready to melt.

The heat was a mallet striking a ball
and sending it bouncing into the nettles of summer.
Even the bees had knocked off for the day.

The only thing moving besides us
(and we had since stopped under an awning)
was a squirrel who was darting this way and that

as if he were having second thoughts
about crossing the street,
his head and tail twitching with indecision.

You were looking in a shop window
but I was watching the squirrel
who now rose up on his hind legs,

and after pausing to look in all directions,
began to sing in a beautiful voice
a melancholy aria about life and death,

his forepaws clutched against his chest,
his face full of longing and hope,
as the sun beat down

on the roofs and awnings of the city,
and the earth continued to turn
and hold in position the moon

which would appear later that night
as we sat in a cafe
and I stood up on the table

with the encouragement of the owner
and sang for you and others
the song the squirrel had taught me how to sing.

It's the clutched forepaws that get me every time. The furry squirrel face full of longing and hope. Oh, how it makes me giggle. It also reminded me of one of my first dates with R, in Oakland, California. We picnicked in the park on a Sunday afternoon and spied a squirrel sizing us up. As the squirrel scurried closer and rose up on his hind legs we couldn't help but notice that he had the most abnormally large testicles. Like figs. Really, it was obscene, and I think I may have blushed. I'm not even sure how he could make his way through the park with that burden. It would explain why he was on the ground and not leaping among the branches.

So when I read "Palermo," I was, in fact, imagining our old friend Figgy singing his heart out. It makes the poem that much more delightful.

Oh, and just so's ya knows: there are many excellent poems in this issue of Poetry East, so you should go ahead and get yourself a copy.

August 5, 2010

Old Goodies

While sorting through some poems, trying to spiff up my old manuscript and possibly pull together a new one, I discovered a pack of poems I wrote in college. They're fairly lousy, but I love this one. It certainly doesn't foreshadow any great writing career, but I love it mostly because I'm so much further away from sixteen now than I was when I wrote it, and now I have teenage children of my own. Sheesh. I have to laugh at myself-- and remember that, with any luck, in twenty years I'll be laughing at my thirty-eight-year-old self, too.

County Fair
For Gentry

We painted our lips cotton candy pink
and drove your dad's '65 Ford
(the one with the broken radio)
past the cows resting their weight
against the evening grass
and down the highway
to the county fair.

We screamed our laughter from the ferris wheel,
giggled past toothless men in booths
shouting, "Come on over pretty ladies
ball in the basket, three tries for a dollar!"

I think we understood, even then,
about growing up, bills, marriage, babies,
our lives moving in different directions.

But that July night, hot enough to melt
snow cones to a blue stain on our hands,
as the bright lights flashed around us,
we didn't think about tomorrow, or our mothers
who waited under porch lights.

That night, we were forever sixteen years old,
and you, always my friend.

August 3, 2010

Summer Sundries

Here's an update on the fam for the folks in California. I'll try not to sound too much like a Christmas letter.

We took Obo and Sweet P to the airport yesterday, and they flew off in opposite directions. It's hard to watch them say goodbye. After a month of being nearly inseparable, singing Lady Ga Ga and Taylor Swift tunes at top volume and whisper-giggling at any phrase remotely resembling bathroom humor, they can't bear to hug in the airport and so just fling a wave from the security line, very cool-like. They are nothing if not cool. Oh, and they have instructed me that I'm not to use the word hip to mean cool. No one says hip.

Nana Sandy (aka my sweet mama) visited while Obo was here, and I dragged them from one end of New England to another. Then we stayed up extra late playing board games and watching Jane Austen films. Obo tried to boycott the Austen films, but we drew him in with our arts. After her whirlwind visit, I think Mom must have been happy to return to her one high-energy dog. Our dog is low energy, but our plethora of children are not.

So today Buckaroo and I are back to our old quiet-ish ways, except that Sweet P won't be off the bus at 3 p.m. to stir things up. I wasn't sure how we'd spend the day, how he'd be feeling, but Buckaroo woke up and announced that he wanted to give his toys away to children who don't have toys, so we spent a big part of the day sorting his bedroom.

Buckaroo's bff, Frog Boy, is moving south to a warmer climate. I have yet to explain this to Buckaroo, and I'm running short on time. Frog boy is taking my good friend Frog Mama with him, and I've been living in a blissful state of denial about it for some time. The walls are beginning to crumble, though. Just this week I finally let myself imagine how preschool will be without the pair of them there to greet us in the morning, and it felt like a stiff smack in the face. Even as I write this my eyes are stinging.

So we're off to music class tomorrow morning and then to the library to find a book or two about friends moving away-- one for him and one for me.

August 1, 2010

Leave Your Misogyny on the Porch

Every year on Fourth of July the neighbors around our lake have a fantastic fireworks competition. They begin lighting off whoozles and hoolyboppers long before sunset and goad each other by shouting jovial insults across the water. The friendly rivalry results in a lovely display for those of us too cheap or law-abiding to provide our own pyrotechnics.

This year as R navigated our boat through the dark water, jockeying for the best out-of-danger view, I held my hands over Buckaroo’s boom-sensitive ears, and tried to concentrate on the beauty above me but was continually distracted by the ribaldry happening on the shore. In particular I found myself resisting a growing annoyance with one tipsy and jocular man who referred to his young, male rivals as, “ladies,” as in “Is that all you’ve got, ladies?!” and “You ladies better hold on to your panties for this next round.”

It’s not something I’d normally notice, but I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the use of the word pussy as an insult among men, which has always bothered me, originally for its vulgarity and later for the inherent suggestion that if a man is a pussy he is feminine and femininity is the equivalent of weakness. Another, perhaps less vulgar epithet is girl, as in “You run/throw/squeal like a girl.”

A few days ago my mom related a bit part from a Survivor-type reality TV show where one man tells another, “If you’re going to make it out here, you better leave your skirt on the porch.”

I have to admit that I laughed. Then wondered why that insult didn’t offend me the way the others do.

Maybe because ladies, girl, and skirt are words that suggest not just the feminine, but the prissy, the froo froo, the pampered princess—femininity taken to a whole new level, but even that stereotype isn’t necessarily accurate. I’ve known some froo froo women who possessed an inner strength I envied, and I’ve also known a few brutish men who-- well, didn’t.

But disregarding any of that for now, why pussy? According to Wikipedia, the word has a few possible derivations, all of which are unrelated to female genitalia, and for a moment I felt hopeful that I was overreacting, that people weren’t actually insulting each other with misogynistic slang, but were calling each other purses and kittens, but then I realized that although the word’s original definition may have been kitten, that’s not today’s intended use; if it were, the word would come up more often in polite conversation, which, obviously, it doesn’t.

Here’s why I don’t understand its use: The female reproductive system is so much more powerful than a man’s. Yes, a man has the ability to penetrate, but a woman not only creates life, she bears down and brings another human being into the world through her pussy. As a former birthworker I’ve attended a birth or two and if a laboring woman isn’t an example of strength then I don’t know what. So I could maybe understand the epithet among men in the days when men were rarely allowed to attend a birth, but these days partners, fathers, brothers, uncles, and male friends are witness to women’s miraculous ability. So, is it womb envy? A skewed version of sour grapes?

My one hope is that folks insulting each other with the word pussy are using it mindlessly, not really considering its meaning, the same way we rarely think of dogs when we say bitch—again with the female! There must be a word that means male dog?— but is turning a blind eye toward misogynistic insults akin to allowing ignorance as a reasonable excuse for the use of racial epithets?

Here are a few more words to ponder:

Cunt: There’s no connotation of weakness here, and I’ve never heard anyone insult a man with this word. So why the difference? Is it just the sharper, harsher, angry sound, unlike the soft Pu and child-like y in its counterpart (I’m thinking of words like piggy, puppy, pony, as well as an assortment of nicknames).

Dick: Possibly the male counterpart to cunt. Again, no connotation of weakness, and the word is generally not applied to a woman, but I can think of no masculine word that connotes weakness. Can you? Maybe we should create one? Ball sack, for example, seems like a perfectly vulnerable body part. But then, why spread the negativity?

Asshole: Well, everybody’s got one, but this word is usually only used to describe men. What’s up with that?

I mulled all of this over for quite a while before I realized that no one ever uses the word women as an insult. I’ve never heard a coach call out to an all-male team, “Come on, women, you can move faster than that!” in real life or in fiction. Are women respected while ladies and girls are not? Meanwhile, “The Man,” the patriarchy, the powerful system that holds people (men and women) down, is a menace everywhere.

Sometimes I get all worked up about this, and then I tell myself I’m just being too uptight, too persnickety. Maybe it’s no big deal. Then again, as a writer I know the power of words, how they shape our ideas and beliefs, how our use of them represents our culture, and I don’t want to be part of a culture that mindlessly demeans half of the population, myself and my daughter included, with its inappropriate use of language.

So I’m trying to think of a funny, polite-ish, non-bitter way to respond when someone like my neighbor spews a feminine word as an insult, so I can focus on the good stuff (sparklers, for instance) but I haven’t come up with anything yet. Maybe you’ve got an idea?

Meanwhile, if you’ve ever known a strong woman (girl, lady) you know what I’m going to ask of you.