Thursday, May 21, 2009

Hollywood Parenting - Book Review #10

Are you familiar with the books in the how-to section of the bookstore that promise to provide the secrets to raising the children of your dreams?  I began reading  these mothering/parenting/child rearing/family books eleven years ago.  I began parenting nine years ago.  Simple math will lead you to the conclusion that I'm more experienced in reading about child-rearing that I am about actual child-rearing.  Recently, I realized that I spent so many years immersed in the research of raising amazing children that I did not read on many other topics for a while.  A while?  I stuck to one genre for a decade, people.  The genre of Child-Rearing Non-Fiction.  Do you think I'm exaggerating?  I went to my closet to count the number of mothering books that line my bookshelf.  I scanned the impressive collection, realized that reporting a number would be embarrassing, and returned to sit in front of my computer.  Many - I'll say over 15 - of my prized books on mothering have pages falling out of them.  Several of them I've practically memorized.  Such extensive research should lead to flawless implementation, right?  Ahem.  Not quite.  This implementer is seriously flawed.

Little did I know that I could have been reading Tolstoy for that decade.  All I really needed was David Gilmour's The Film Club.  It is a memoir of the three years that David Gilmour spent watching movies with his son.  And I have to tell you that it is one of the more remarkable books on parenting I've ever read. Don't look for it in the mothering/parenting/child-rearing section of the bookstore.  It won't be there.

David Gilmour is a writer, broadcaster and film critic in real life.  He is also a father.  And when his 15-year old son, Jesse, was failing every single class in high school, he knew he had to do something to help his son.  Gilmour says this about Jesse and school:  "To my nightly question "Is that all your homework?"  my son, Jesse, responded with a cheerful "Absolutely!" When he went to stay with his mother for a week that summer, I found a hundred different homework assignments shoved into every conceivable hiding place in his bedroom. School, in a word, was making him a liar and a slippery customer."

Gilmour tells Jesse that he can drop out of school with two conditions.  The first condition is that Jesse can not take drugs.  The second condition is that Jesse has to watch three movies a week of David's choosing and discuss them with him.  That's it.  No other academic work has to be completed, David will financially support him, he can have free reign of the house with no conditions on behavior other than no drugs.  And three movies a week.  Note that none of the  1,763 (not really) parenting books that line my shelves have a chapter titled "Let Your Teenager Drop out of High School and Watch Movies With Him for Three Years".

Gilmour doesn't describe much of a grappling with such an unconventional solution.  What the reader does experience is the intense, internal wrestling with how to parent a troubled teen.  Gilmour does this remarkably well.  Some of you won't agree with Gilmour's family values, if you will.  Some of you won't have a problem with them.  If you read this  book, I'd encourage you to try to take your focus off what Gilmour does or doesn't allow in terms of boundaries for his child.  The impressive thing is that he knows what he believes those boundaries are and he has to decide how to enforce consequences or, in some cases, give mercy.  He does an amazing job of deciding when to give advice and when to abstain.  As a reader we get to know what he, the parent, is thinking and then what he decides to say.  As a parent, I could certainly relate to that little dilemma.  Here is an example:

"I asked him about his evening; yes, all fine, nothing special, though.  Dropped over to see a friend.  Uh-huh.  which friend?
Pause.  "Dean."
I don't know Dean, do I?"
"Just a fellow."
Fellow?   (You hear language that out of character, you want to call the police.)  He could tell I was looking at him."

Films?  Oh, yes, they did  watch some films.  Gilmour chronicles what they watched. Often he explains the reasons for his choices and sometimes he doesn't.  The films he chose are absolutely fascinating, as are the highlights of the discussions that Gilmour chooses to include in the book.  The films he chose over the three year period are very much in line with the values with which he wants to instill.  Should you choose to allow your child to drop out of school and only watch movies, you'd likely choose different films.  The bottom line is this:  David Gilmour wanted to help him and found a way to spend time with him that would allow for dialogue, learning, and love between father and son.  It was profoundly inspiring.

A little Tolstoy aside before I close...  Gilmour finds himself in the precarious position of having to give his son advice about girls on a regular basis.  At one point, Jesse was hurt by a girl.  He asks his father what will happen if the girl hurts him again.  This occurs toward the end of the film viewing experiment and Gilmour responds with this:

"You know what Tolstoy says?" I said.
"He says that a woman can never wound you the same way twice."

A few days later Jesse sees the girl and reports to his father that after only speaking for a few moments, she whispers to him, "If you keep looking at me like that, I'm going to have to kiss you."  And this brilliant little line is what Gilmour thinks after listening to his son's recounting:  "(My God, where do they learn this stuff? Are they all at home reading Tolstoy before these parties?)"

Perhaps the greatest sentence in the book is the one Gilmour chooses to include just before the title page.  The quote from Michel de Montaingne reads:  "I know nothing about education except this:  that the greatest and most important difficulty known to human beings seems to lie in that area which deals with how to bring up children and how to educate them."

And then, there is this from Gilmour that captures the beauty with which he describes the love of a parent for a child: "Still, and I don't want to get maudlin here, some nights I walk by his bedroom on the way to my study and I take a peek inside.  The moonlight falls over his bed, the room is very still, and I can't quite believe he's gone.  There were other things we were going to do to that room, other prints, another clothes peg for the wall.  But time ran out."

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Ahab's Wife - Review #9

Do you remember reading Moby Dick in high school?  Whether you weathered the epic or sloshed through Cliff's notes, you'll certainly recall this fact: Ahab's wife's name was Una.   In Moby Dick, Ahab briefly mentions her.  Sena Jeter Naslund writes an epic about Una in Ahab's Wife.  An epic from an epic.  Intriguing, don't you think?

Ahab's Wife is a magnificent story.  Ahab's wife, Una, is so much more than just a wife.  The cornerstone of the story is that at a young age, Una vehemently rejects the existence of the God of her father.  This fact angers her father so much that Una's mother has to send her away because she fears her husband will kill Una simply because of her rejection of his faith.  She goes to live with her aunt and uncle, who run a lighthouse on a New England island. While on the island she falls in love with the ocean and makes a decision that will have astounding ramifications.  The reader follows her life as she encounters repetitous patterns of love, heroism and tragedy.  Abundant with historical and literary references, this book is more of a project than a liesurely read.  It is a project well worth the effort.  Discussing this book is essential to enjoying it fully and this reviewer hopes that someone will read it and comment.  There are many major events in Ahab's Wife, but if I highlight any of them I will ruin the story for you.  A few points of interest follow.

Friendship is a fairly major theme in Ahab's Wife.  The reader meets a number of Una's friends but Naslund develops them primarily in terms of how they impact Una's life and not as stand alone characters.  When I finished the novel, I thought about the characters in the story of my life.  Who would I highlight in telling my story?  How would I describe their contribution to my being?  In doing so, would I be blind to their character traits, focusing only on their participation in my life? The pondering of such questions provided some quality soul searching and subsequent repentance.  I highly recommend it.

I'm still grappling with just how much I appreciate the feminist theme in  the book.  I don't even know if feminist is the correct adjective.  After you read the book, please provide me with a better adjective.  Anyway, Una thinks she can do anything.  She believes she can conquer the sea, overcome gender boundaries, abolish political bias, win a battle with an eagle, and master the most difficult literature, among other things.  I am confident (and the confidence is often misplaced, for the record) that I can do just about anything I set my mind to do and I identified with some of this woman-power Una exudes.  But conquering the sea?  Fighting an eagle?  Sometimes this theme was a little overstated and somewhat annoying.  And at times it was motivating.  One such motivating quote follows:

"I only mean we all change by degrees," I said.  "Neither in good architecture nor in nature is there any abruptness, but gradual modulation, requiring planning and patience."

Speaking of motivation.  The literary references in the novel are stunning.  The manner in which the author weaves thoughts of the writers of old into the story is fabulous.  For example, Shakespeare is abundantly referenced, quoted and used to develop Una's character.  At one point, Una tells her cousin that she never found Hamlet convincing because of "...All that hesitation.  A person would either kill the king or go to another country."  Her cousin responds with this telling observation:  "Hesitation is more natural for some of us than it is for you, Una."  Ahab's Wife motivated me to return to Shakespeare (high school was long, long ago and my college engineering classes just didn't seek the Bard out) and I stumbled across this book, which I highly recommend as a helpful reference to such a return.  

The most prominent theme in the book is a lack of faith in the Christian God, the God of Una's father.  She searches for God throughout the 666 pages of the book (hmmmm...), but ultimately only finds faith in herself.  Every single Christian is either a hypocrite or a disappointment.  Susan, the runaway slave Una befriends, is the only Christian in the novel with Christ-like character.  But when Susan is given a chance for freedom, she "finds freedom sterile" and makes a decision that disappoints Una.  All of the other Christian characters are portrayed as hypocrites because they claim to be Christians but then don't live up to the assumed standard of Christian behavior.  And since they don't follow the rules and subsequently disappoint her, the conclusion Una makes is that religion must be rejected.  The "Christians" in Una's life were following rules; they were being religious.  And no one can follow the rules perfectly.  The logical conclusion for her to make was to reject the religion.  But should she have rejected God on this particular basis?  The author makes this point in the following dialouge between Una and Captain Ahab:

"Are you, then, religious after all?"  I felt disappointed.  He had seemed a fellow skeptic, like Giles, like Kit.
"Religion and God usually have very little to do with each other," he said.

Una never does grasp the distinction between religion and God.  Such a distinction is the difference between faith in one's self and faith in God.  Now there is something for you to ponder.    

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Restaurant Reminiscing - Review # 8

I spent a good number of my teenage years working in restaurants.  The days spent in a black and white waitress uniform at a New Jersey diner provided the funds with which I bought my periwinkle Acura Integra.  I learned to carry four glasses at once.  I could (still can) balance four plates on one arm.  More valuable lessons included learning how to remember names of the regulars, providing good service even when the customer was less than polite, and settling into the realization that one's boss might be downright mean.  Most importantly, I learned how to work hard when I was at the diner.  Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O'Nan provides a moving commentary on the value of hard work with a restaurant as the backdrop.

Last Night at the Lobster chronicles the final day in which a Connecticut Red Lobster will be open for business.  Manny, the manager and  main character, is tireless in his desire to work hard, even though it doesn't matter any more.  His work ethic and his leadership skills are inspiring.  He works hard because it is his job to do so, not because his next promotion depends upon the day's numbers.  He works hard because it is the right thing to do.  

My favorite scene in the story occurs a few hours before closing when an obnoxious toddler overeats and vomits in front of a table of grandmothers trying to enjoy their late afternoon lunch.  The toddler's equally obnoxious mother is furious that the restaurant staff is not immediately providing a glass of water for her son.  O'Nan writes about what Manny has to do to rectify the situation:

"While he scrubs the stinking rug and fills a bus tub with nasty rags, Nicolette has to relocate the grandmothers to a booth as far away as possible, which is the equivalent of seating and serving them again.  Jacquie takes a tray over.  So does Kendra, as Roz shares an open-mouthed look of surprise with him.  While he's down there, he notices a couple spots of gum on the underside of the table and before he can stop himself, he thinks he should find the putty knife later and take care of them...
The wetted carpet reeks like and overpowering cheese.  He fogs the spot with disinfectant, then spends a couple minutes at the hygiene sink washing his hands.  Once the mess dries he'll vacuum, but not with guests present.  The idea is to let things settle, let them all forget.  Impossible in real life, and yet here it works perfectly.  In fact, once the kid and his mom are gone, and infectious laughter circles the room as if they've all been holding it in, the grandmothers included, hooting and slapping the table top so hard their silverware rattles."

There is no surprising climax to this novel.  It is about hard work, plain and simple.  O'Nan captures the environment of a restaurant so well; if you are working or have worked in such an environment, you'll find your self nodding in agreement throughout this entire book.  If you decide to check it out, I think you'll be pulling for Manny the whole way.  You'll wonder if "corporate" will show up and decide that the restaurant shouldn't be closed after all.  You'll hope he wins the lottery with the ticket he buys for his staff on the last day.  And you'll remember a time in your own job when you really were getting the short end of the stick even though you were working as hard as humanly possible.