Friday, September 27, 2013

Let Us Now Praise Famous Women . . . Writers

Oh, the irony that at the same time we’re celebrating Banned Book Week a well-known male writer declares that he will never teach women writers in his classroom. “I teach only the best,” David Gilmour said in an interview about what he reads and what he teaches. Apparently women’s lives and ideas are banned from his classroom because for him “the best” is defined as “[s]erious heterosexual guys.” He’s all about manly men.

I know, I know. “Banned” is probably too strong a word to describe this situation because he’s not fighting to get all women writers stricken from the department curriculum. He’s happy to allow someone else to handle the lesser, estrogen-influenced literature. However, his students are aware enough to realize at some point that they’re not reading any contemporary female authors in his class. Their education is missing something. To that he explained, “I say I don’t love women writers enough to teach them, if you want women writers go down the hall.”

When social media and book bloggers went crazy over this admission he tried to hide behind the standard jerk’s response of “my words taken out of context.” In its defense, the website that posted the original interview immediately came back with the complete transcript of their discussion.

So why should you care that one writer-teacher has such a Neanderthal approach to his classes? Over on Book Riot, one columnist wrote a thoughtful response about the danger of this limited vision coming from a teacher. The classroom is where we explore a wider world-view, not study only what we like. How can we allow a classroom instructor to declare from the beginning that the ideas of women as a whole are not worthy? That talents of an entire gender are particularly lacking?

While I know that Gilmour doesn’t care what I think about anything, my first thought is that if we can’t find female writers whose works will live for centuries to come, is that because they’re inherently lesser writers or is it because there are great writers not being given the chance? Virginia Woolf (whom Gilmour places on the lower rings of not-a-hetrosexual-guy purgatory) ruminated on this exact question in her essay, “Shakespeare’s Sister.” Who knows what “Judith” Shakespeare could have accomplished if cultural prejudices hadn’t held her back?

In a more modern method, the VIDA organization tracks the role of women in the literary world by maintaining statistics on how many females have their books reviewed by heavyweight book review sources and how many females are published in literary journals. The numbers they’ve charted can cause sleepless nights among those of us women who want to be published. Is this because women don’t write as compelling pieces or because there are a bunch of male editors who hold an opinion similar to Gilmour? Or because of the age-old problem of not enough women in the decision-making roles at the office?

This week I was originally planning on telling you about a book I’m reading. Mira Bartók's The Memory Palace, a mesmerizing book about family and love, and forgiveness. After leaving for college she and her sister sever all ties with her mother, who had once been a promising classical pianist but who had sunk deeper and deeper into mental illness. The book tells about reconciling as a family when Bartók receives word that her mother is dying in a homeless shelter. There are many memoirs about dysfunctional families, but Bartók stands out because of the “memory palace” she created to tell her story. After a car accident, she’s left with extreme memory loss and inability to remember things from one day to the next. A Jesuit priest told her how to build a memory palace, where everything she wants to remember has an image. Each image has a particular place in this palace in her mind. Throughout the telling of her story, she returns to her memory palace often, guiding us through her rooms and making connections for us between the abstract images that make her memory. Bartók teaches us how to map our lives, how following the path backward through landmarks can lead us forward to reconciliation with the present.

More than once a man has said that they don’t read women writers or books with female protagonists because they just can’t relate to the story (go ahead and ask your guy friends; I’ll wait). But you rarely hear women say they don’t read male authors.

And so I’m also reading Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It. I know nothing of murder, or fly fishing, or the rough characters of bunkhouses in the West, or of the wild outdoors. But that’s why I read it. I want to understand. And I want to soak in the clean language: “I am haunted by waters.” Ultimately, both Maclean and Bartók talk family -- something which we all experience.

Maybe that male inclination to avoid what they just can’t relate to explains a whole lot in the world.

So in recognition of Banned Book Week, pick up one of many books by women writers who have enough trouble getting the literary respect they deserve from a bunch of people whose minds are the size of lentils. They just don’t need Gilmour disrespecting them, too. Here are a few to get you started:

Harper Lee To Kill A Mockingbird
Alice Walker The Color Purple
Kate Chopin The Awakening
Lois Lowry The Giver
Isabel Allende The House of the Spirits

Share titles of works by your favorite female writers, fiction or non-fiction,
in the comments box. Or just share what you’re reading now.

Friday, September 20, 2013

5 Random Thoughts On Travel

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The whimsy of French windows

I’m a month away from hitting the road, or rather hitting the river since Brad and I will be boating it up the Seine north to Normandy in France (more about that when the time comes). But already my head is full of travel. “Travel” is one of my favorite words because it’s so expansive. Travel expands my mind, my connection to the world, and my circle of friends. I’m up for it whether it’s an overnighter just down the highway or another country. Whether city or country. It means I’m about to bring something new to my life.

Here are 5 random thoughts on travel. I hope they might spark random thoughts of your own that you’ll share.

1) Today my better half, Brad, leaves for a research trip and won’t be back until after Christmas.  First Germany. Then France. Then Tunisia. The transportation logistics have been a challenge. The packing for changes of weather over that extended time hasn’t been easy since he always does the “one suitcase plus a backpack” thing. There’s the “not speaking German” thing, of course. Mostly, though, I wish I could be with him for the entire trip.

Sometimes, though, there are things that tie me to home. And my furry girl, Skyler, is that. She is getting old and had a bad summer when I was gone. At this stage of her life I can’t abandon her. I couldn’t enjoy such a long trip from worrying about her. I’ll just join Brad for a short time.

A French dog, not Skyler
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2) I’ve become enthralled by several travel blogs since I myself started blogging. However, there are two I never miss. Kristin Espinasse’s blog French Word A Day convinced me that France wasn’t such a scary place. She introduced me to the day-to-day life of the country beyond Paris and taught me something about the personality of the place that made it seem manageable. She offered her American take on her adopted homeland with great good humor and enviable photographs, all of which you can see in her two books Blossoming in Provence and Words in a French Life.

The second blog that is a staple in my week is Southern Fried French by Lynn McBride. Most blogs about France focus on Paris or Provence. I was so glad to find Lynn’s because it was based in the Burgundy region, which is my home away from home. She chronicles all the little village festivals, tells us about people we’d love to have as neighbors, and like Kristin she teaches us a thing or two in her book about learning language as an adult. But most importantly, she ends most posts with a creative recipe that melds the culinary elements of her American Southern background with her new country’s love of food.
A marquise - I learned the word for this glass cover from Kristin Espinasse
after so many years of loving and photographing them.
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3) When I’m in France I’ve become addicted to watching the video channels. First, it’s because American pop culture is everywhere, so it gives me a chance to hear a familiar language. But I also love to see what other cultures are obsessed with. For the most part the French videos don’t do much for me. The females are waifs who sing in little girl voices and float around in something gauzy, longing for an impossible love (at least that’s what it seems like because I don’t understand all the words).

However, the French pop singer Zaz just blows them all away in my book. Her influences range from Edith Piaf to Ella Fitzgerald. She has a unique jazzy vibe that makes you want to stop what you’re doing and bop to her tune. I ask myself how Zaz can have over 17 million views on one video, yet her fame never spreads to this country. Whether you understand the language or not, her talent is universal. Get your weekend off to a good start by listening to her most popular song, “Je Veux” (I Want). This version is the original video. This version is live with English subtitles for the lyrics.

4) I’ve fallen in love with Henri, Le Chat Noir. This tuxedoed cat covers both the sublime and the ridiculous as the premier French cat philosopher on the internet and winner of the “Best Cat Video.” Can you say ennui? From his website you can access his videos, his Facebook page, and his tweets.
Paris graffito
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5) And finally, travel for me means photography. And I’m already trying to come up with a photo theme for my next trip to France. I’ve done dogs. And windows. And flowers. And doorways, And street art.

What have been your best photo themes when you travel? I’m taking all suggestions.

Share in the comments box what travel means to you. If you’re more of a homebody, I’d love to hear about that, too.

French doors and flowers in one photo
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Today's post is part of the Random 5 Friday theme. Click on over to the site to see other interesting takes on randomness.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

What's In A Name Change, Mrs. Justin Timberlake?

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Even the cars are fashionable for French weddings

When I was young and so full of optimism and a sense of empowerment I made a decision that I was so certain put me squarely in the world of the new normal. Now I’ve found that I’m living in the world of dinosaurs. Or maybe it’s the world of the Giant Panda – there are some others like me, but we’re in danger of extinction. And we owe it all to Jessica Biel, the new Mrs. Justin Timberlake.

She just announced that she’s officially (as in paperwork and everything) changed her last name to “Timberlake.” She’ll continue to use her original name professionally, though, since she’s created quite an extensive body of mascara commercials under it. Maybe she’ll use her last name to take up the role of backup dancer in The Mrs. Carter Show of another name-changer, Beyoncé (aka Knowles-Carter)

And so I ask myself as part of the measley 8% who maintain their last name after marriage why so many women continue to go down the traditional route when generations of women who came before fought so hard that we could join country clubs under our own name, and own property, and vote without our husband’s permission, and be on the verge of perhaps becoming the first female president. (Alas, I’m aware of the whole controversy when Hillary went from “Rodham” to “Clinton” to “Rodham Clinton.” What a shame.) Why do more than 60% of the people in a poll – men and women – think that women should take their husband’s name when they marry?

It didn’t take much effort to decide to keep my name. When I got married and was spending all my time in a bastion of liberal progressiveism, i.e., the university, keeping my name put me in extensive company. I already had started down a professional life and thought it would be too complicated to notify colleagues across the country or to connect past articles I wrote with future ones. Plus, -- and more importantly – I liked my name. I liked the family it connected me to. It wasn’t any kind of political stand. However, it seemed that by that point in history more women would be staking claims on their own identity.

At first, my husband-to-be tried to convince me to change it, but then I said, “If having the same last name is so important, then why don’t you change yours to Farrar?” That pretty much closed that discussion. I had no problem giving our kids his name without any fancy hyphenation (although in college I knew a couple who hyphenated their names and then both took the new name). All of the friends of my kids called me Mrs. C instead of Ms. F, but I was fine with that. When relatives we rarely saw addressed Christmas cards to Mr. and Mrs. C, I could let that go. However, when telemarketers call asking for Mrs. C, I can honestly say, “There’s no one here by that name.”

However, finding that the women in my kids’ generation are still opting for the traditional route, with only 8% changing compared to 23% in the decade after I got married, I’m confused. This generation does nothing traditional, from the careers they follow to the technology they adopt to the styles they wear. Yet young American women – who are now marrying in their late twenties and have careers of their own – are still willing to do all the paperwork necessary to do what women did back before they had the vote or owned property under their own name. One researcher theorizes that name changing is a symbol of unity and commitment. Since I’ve been married 28 years I don’t think that reason flies. I’m sure actress Demi Moore was envisioning long-term commitment when she set up the now-abandoned Twitter account @MrsKutcher.

This issue of a different last name has stalked me doubly recently. Ever since we bought property in France we’ve had all of the France-related mail showing up in our American mailbox addressed to “Mme. Farrar.” This means “Mrs. Farrar” because the French have yet to develop any word or abbreviation the equivalent of “Ms.” Madamoiselle” is for unmarried women while “Madame” is for married ones, no matter your age or name situation. One rebellious town in that country, however, has passed a law that proclaims nothing but “Madame” should be used when dealing with adult women. It’s not a perfect solution, but at least they’re taking a stand while the rest of their country continues to dither over this language issue into the 21st century.

And so here I remain, a symbol of the Boomers generation, realizing I'm practically extinct.

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So what about you? Are you a name changer? What were your reasons for whichever direction you went? What are your theories as to why young women continue on this traditional path? Talk to us in the comments box about what’s in a name.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Back To School With Random 5 Friday

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Fall is in the air in the Black Forest of Germany

Fall is so quickly blowing in. During the day it may be almost 90˚, but I take my dog out at night and I see dried leaves curled on the sidewalk and the air feels like I should build a bonfire. Soup weather is quickly approaching. I need to find some Jonathon apples and make my first pie or apple crisp of the season. Of all the signs of fall, none signal it more than the march of children back to school.

And so as part of Random 5 Friday I offer five memories of starting school each September when I was young.

1) Mom took us to The Model, a clothes shop in downtown Kirkwood. This was before shopping malls, or boutiques, or national chains. We got to pick out our first-day-of-school dress – always a dress per 1960’s dress codes – and our saddle shoes, sometimes black and white, sometimes tone on tone. My oldest sister recently told me that she had found out at some point after our mom had died that Grandma always paid for our shoes. With four girls in the family, paying for so many shoes a year was an issue. Grandma paid for a pair of school shoes and a pair of Keds for summer. If we were good and patient while all four of us tried on the clothes, sometimes Mom would take us to The Velvet Freeze ice cream shop across the street for a scoop of the world’s best ice cream.

2) We walked to school. There were no buses except for students who lived on the far edges of the suburban community. So all the kids on our cul-de-sac gathered by 8 a.m. in the morning and walked together, down Wilson then half a mile straight uphill on Simmons then right on Peeke to cross at the crosswalk on Geyer guarded by Pete, the retired policeman. He lived on Evans, across from my Brownie leader, who held meetings on Tuesdays. And we reversed it on the way home after a quick stop at the gas station across the street to buy some Bazooka gum. Often I walked alone because I dawdled or because I had Brownies. We only got a ride if it rained hard. Not even in the cold winter months. We didn’t live in a world of “stranger danger” and “Amber Alerts,” unlike now when parents are buying GPS trackers for their kids, anticipating every possible horror.

3) The best part of starting the school year for me was buying the supplies. Such a cornucopia of folder and notebook choices! Even down to the small spiral assignment notebook. Oh, the colors and themes. The perfect color for each subject. And the excitement when I finally was allowed to switch from wide-ruled to college-ruled. From fat #2 pencils to thin ones – even to mechanical ones in high school. And then blue Bic pens. I never have outgrown my obsession with just the right notebook. I will buy them now assuming before I die I will have filled them all with writing. And I’ve started buying even more when I’m in France because, well, they have different kinds.

When I started back to school to earn my MFA this year, I stocked up on notebooks for writing, found my best pens (2 – one in purse, one by computer), and wandered the aisles of Office Depot hoping I would spot some special school paraphernalia that I absolutely had to have. This go-round for my education, though, it’s just going to involve taking my student ID to the Apple store and getting a new computer. Not half as exciting as new notebooks.

4) The buying of the metal lunchbox (with matching thermos, of course) took more mental space than anything else I ever did in grade school. I’m pretty sure of it. I gravitated toward animal themes over teen heartthrob themes.

5) We actually carried everything to school each day. Like, in our hands, unless we rode our bike, at which point we put stuff in the metal basket on the handlebars. We didn’t carry it in a car, or in a backpack, or on a computer. We carried actual stuff in our actual hands and shifted the books from side to side in response to that biting ache that came from keeping the wrist bent just so and arm straight to hold it all tight against your body to keep it from tumbling to the ground. Which it did on several occasions, so you hoped that you were with friends who would help you chase down handouts, permission slips, and homework that needed signing as it blew down the sidewalk and into the street.

Most schools around here start long before Labor Day now. However, for me it’s the early part of September that always brings out the nostalgia. It also is my emotional New Year’s Day. Perhaps that seasonal cycle became so deeply ingrained because I also taught school for so long. So all I want to say today is Happy New Year!

The tiny notebooks I carry in my purse on a daily basis for writing ideas, taking notes at the doctor's, or jotting down the name of a contractor someone recommends. The Moleskine notebooks are for travel because they're lightweight and flexible. The larger Mead are for writing at my desk.
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What memories do you have about the start of school for you as a child or when you were a parent sending your own children off to school. Share them with us in the comments box.

And you can find other wonderful Random 5 Friday writing here.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

I Could Kick Diana Nyad's Butt

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It's important to keep your eye on the goal . . .

I could easily kick the butt of sexagenarian Diana Nyad. Yeah, over the holiday weekend she took a little 100-mile swim from Cuba to Florida protected only by a small electrical current to keep the sharks at bay and a head-to-toe rubber suit to avoid the jellyfish that doomed her last attempt while I floated around my sister’s pool sipping on a strawberry margarita. But I could so totally beat her in the complaining-about-getting-older contest. Hands down.

This has been one of those years when I’ve considered throwing in the towel when it comes to fighting the aging process.  I’ve fallen twice, which has meant that much of my weekly socializing has been done in my physical therapist’s office. For the first time since July I’ve lifted a big 5 lbs.! But my shoulder hurt, and my rebuilt neck hurt, and my arthritic knee hurt after “chasing” my arthritic dog down the sidewalk. I finally broke down and hired landscapers to whip my garden into shape because I’m not really good at the kneeling or pulling thing. I huffed and puffed when trying to put an elasticized slipcover over my couch cushion. Yes, I made enough noise when putting on a slipcover that my husband came in to see if I needed help.

So I could totally beat Nyad at a getting-older-sucks complaint contest.

This complaining about age is new to me. And frankly, I think I’m finally getting as tired of my complaints as everyone else is who’s had to listen to me.

even when the goal seems out of sight at times . . .
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I wonder what Diana Nyad complains about? Certainly not jellyfish or she would just decide against jumping into the wide ocean. Does she complain about Miley Cyrus twerking? She probably is too busy laying out the steps to accomplish grand goals to watch Entertainment Tonight.

Diana Nyad is example to all of us in mid-life or later. The example of this daunting feat, though, does not imply that we all have to set extreme goals to become the best on the planet in something. If that’s what you want, fine. Go beat some 20-something hipsters at their own game now! Nyad’s example is more simply that we should never stop setting goals. Chasing dreams and achieving specific goals gives us direction. It gives us focus to our day. It brings us peace because we know what we want each day.

But as we get older and give more thought to family, work, aches and pains we probably begin to sabotage ourselves. Or maybe we can just blame it on our brains. Psychologists have found that the more we fantasize about our ambitions, the less likely we are to achieve them. We visualize the success so completely, that we let up on the motivation to actually achieve it. Furthermore, our mind loves robotic motion, i.e., busy work. It gravitates toward work that gets “something” done, but not the kind of work that produces measurable results.

And that’s where, again I say, I could kick Diana Nyad’s butt. I’m such a champ at busy work that I’ve branched off into the related sport of complaining that I can’t accomplish any of my dreams because I’m just so “busy.”

 or you feel about to go over the edge
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Instead of those young literary or technological upstarts who were already on the way down by the age of thirty I’m going to join the ranks of those who followed dreams after mid-life. It’s really not that hard, I decided. Today after spending half the day researching phones, phone plans, and the process of switching from one provider to another, then researching it all again after lunch because, well, you know, choosing the perfect phone can make or break a life, I was all ready to put hand to head in a dramatic fashion and say (although there was no one but the dog to see), “Oh woe is me! I’m too tired/there is not enough time left in the day/my mind is too muddled with phone business to sit down and get any writing done. I guess I’ll make a frozen pizza and go to bed.”

But then I pulled up my big girl panties and decided Ms. Nyad didn’t get to be the only one to have an aim in life and follow through. I sat down at the computer and sketched out bits and pieces for essays, THEN followed it up by writing the blog piece I should have published Tuesday.

(and the crowd goes wild! cheers cheers cheers!)

Share in the comments box what gets you off track from setting or achieving goals. How do you regain that motivation?

I’m finally getting around to watching the Netflix series “House of Cards,” starring Kevin Spacey and a terrific cast. Seriously – it’s a reason to subscribe to Netflix. He recently gave a speech at the Edinburgh Television Festival about the future of mainstream media. And what does this have to do with being Diana Nyad? Nothing, really. Except perhaps it reminds us how much people with vision can accomplish. You really should watch him say many smart things that matter to all of us.

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