Tag Archives: Identity

The House Fire Chronicles: Why I Almost Kidnapped Someone’s Dog

It is a strange feeling, for a mostly home mom to be displaced, living with your family in the home of another family with another mostly home mom.  My host is the best imaginable.  Not only is she generous enough to put us up while we look for alternate housing for the year (minimum) that it will take to rebuild our house, she is also flexible enough to let my family’s schedule and quirks melt naturally into the flow of hers.  Somehow a routine is forming for us all.  If your house is destroyed in a fire and your kids are in school and you need time to find a big-enough-for-four, comfortable-enough-to live-in-for-a-year rental, there simply could not be a better situation.

Still, the fact remains that I cannot go home.  Not all the way.  I can go look at my home, I can smell my home, but I cannot provide a life for my family there.  And that’s a big piece of my mother-identity, on hold until we can go back.

People are amazed at how upbeat I seem, how well I’m taking it, how calm  I am.  They say this because I am not usually calm.  I am normally type A, with a long checklist of daily rituals and  requirements—for exercise, productivity, family care—in order for  the day to count.  But now that I’m removed from all that, I am indeed surprisingly calm.  I’m able to be so thanks to our god-sent host family and also to the fact that I have to be calm for the sake of my kids.

Still, the loss hits me in strange ways when I least expect it.  For example, our local paper ran an article about someone else’s generator fire.  In it was a flippant mention of another freak fire that had taken place the week before.     Something about “a house fire, just last week, when a family went out, leaving a lighted candle.”   By “a family,” I realized they meant us.

We hadn’t gotten the fire report yet, so it was news to us that we’d left a lighted candle.  The truth was we’d blown the candles out before going upstate and checked the house twice for stray ones.  However, there was one big pillar candle, a fat one—the kind you don’t think you need a base for—which we had blown out, but apparently NOT WELL ENOUGH.   There was still an ember, deep inside where we didn’t see it, an ember just strong enough to reignite.  It took all day and probably most of the next night to melt all the way down to the dining room table, for the wax to melt, serving as an accelerant, igniting the table, which burned through the floor, which fell into the basement, and so on, and so on.

But we didn’t know that yet, and reading the quote in the paper felt so demoralizing.  Careless couple torches own houseGoes up state to do laundry.

This enormous sense of helplessness hit me while I was driving, running some post-fire errand.  Helplessness because I could not undo this horrible thing, which was such a fluke, after all.  Helplessness because it was now something that felt so public casting a harsh, cold light on what should have been our private pain and loss.  Helplessness, because no matter which way I drove, I could not drive home.

As I came to one of the town centers, I noticed a small, white dog—a poodle mix of some kind, running across the street.  She was alone, no Frisbee in her mouth, no leash dragging behind her.  She scurried through the traffic, now up on the sidewalk, now back into the vehicular current.   Clearly frightened, she ran in circles; I was terrified that she’d get hit.  Now I noticed three young men in pursuit of her, meaning to stop her and keep her safe, but the dog didn’t understand.  All she knew was that three big humans with deep voices were chasing her.  She turned a corner and they followed.  I thought fast, made a three point turn (on a busy street), and drove around the other way, where I hoped to head the dog off and save her myself.  Surely she wouldn’t be afraid of a nice lady with a soft mommy voice, right?

Suddenly I knew: I had to save this little dog, whom I took for a stray.  I wanted to take her home, though I myself had none to share with her.  It didn’t matter; I had children, a husband; we were the perfect family for this animal (who looked like a non-shedding mix, which would be okay for Jon and Zoe’s allergies).  In fact, it was kismet that I had seen her on this day, of all days.  She was my phoenix, rising from the ashes of our home.

The morning after we learned our house had been destroyed, before we returned to New Jersey to view the damage, my husband and I had taken our kids to brunch at a little Rhinebeck diner.  We’d been talking about the year ahead: where we would live?  What we would do, while our home was being rebuilt?  We’d all cried and bemoaned the loss and now were at a new stage of grief: crisis management and making the best.  Without consulting one another, my husband and I had made the same, seemingly spontaneous promise to the children:

“When this is all over and we move back in, we’re getting a dog.”  The ultimate silver lining, as far as the kids were concerned.   My gaze had met Jon’s over the remains of an omelet.  Did we mean this?  Yes we did.

It wasn’t that spontaneous an idea.  Unbeknownst to the kids, we’d been thinking of it for almost a year, but now, we felt suddenly ready.   Partly, it was the loss of our gerbils in the fire, the tiny triumvirate who were themselves dog-placeholders.   But the fantasy of family life, complete with dog, somehow eased our homesickness.  As if having a dog in place would make our new home more solid than the one we’d lost.

The runaway pup had disappeared around the corner of Walnut and Christopher, where there was a big, leaf-covered schoolyard.   Once I’d made my illegal three-point turn, I sped ahead, whipped around Label Street and then onto Christopher, anticipating that the dog would be running toward me.  She was, with the three young guys still in hot pursuit.  I stopped abruptly, which startled the dog.  She froze, staring at my car.  I got out, approaching her slowly, one hand extended, addressing her in the gentlest tone I could, as I might talk to a lost toddler.  The guys followed my lead, but this seemed to make the dog even more uneasy.  She cowered just a little, black eyes darting from me to the guys and back.  I asked if they knew her; one guy said he’d seen her
around.   But when he took a bold step toward her, the little dog growled at him.   The young man jumped back as his friends chuckled.

“Uh—she really doesn’t like people.”

I refused to believe it.

“Hi sweetheart,” I said, keeping my voice high and soft.  But she was afraid of me too:  the crazy lady with a minivan who seemed to be sniffling for some reason.  I knelt and repeated my words until she began inching toward me, meaning to sniff my outstretched hand, anxiously seeking  someone to trust.   How I wanted to be that someone.  But then, one of the guys made a sudden move which spooked her again.  The dog bolted, ran through the school yard, across the street and up the front steps of a house on the far corner.   By the time we caught up with her, she was pawing at the door, though no one seemed to be home.  The guy who knew the dog explained: he’d seen her there before and thought she lived there.

So the dog had a home, a rundown little home where no one seemed to be missing her at the moment, but still, a home with toys out front: a red wagon, a Little Tikes house and truck.  A home with children.  And now I could see that the dog had a collar and tag: a red, heart-shaped tag.   Someone had taken the care to provide her with that.

Finally–since no one seemed to want to harm her–the dog allowed one of the guys to get close to her.  First he let her sniff his hand, then gently he patted her.  She didn’t growl or otherwise object, though her tail did not wag.  The guy rose to ring the doorbell.  We all waited.  No one came.  The dog seemed to relax nevertheless, trust growing; we might be her friends.

The guy rang the bell again and still, no one came, so he called the phone number on the dog’s tag.  By now, I knew they had her under control.  There was no reason for me to stay any longer.   I was glad the dog was safe, glad that I might have played a role in her rescue.  Though as I walked back to my car, I felt this overwhelming sense of empty-handedness.

Here was my real fantasy of the rescue: I whip my car around the corner of Label and Christopher, the little dog stops, unsure, but sensing a loving presence behind the darkened windshield.  I get out, slide open the side of my minivan, crouch down to her level and say:

Here, Sweet Doggie.  Come: be safe and loved.   I have a family who needs you, who have lost a home just like you have.  Together we can make a new one.

It doesn’t take much coaxing, because her instincts are strong and she understands truly who I am and what I mean.  With a little yip and a wag of her tail, she hops inside and rides shotgun as I bring her home to begin a new life for us all.

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Race 2012 Post #2: “A Like-Me Presidential Candidate”

The following is my second (technically third) post for the blogging project affiliated with Race 2012: A Conversation about Race in America, the PBS Documentary that airs tonight, right after the presidential debate, and will be rebroadcast on October 19th.  Check your local listings; the air times are approximate and different everywhere.  Read more details about the blogging project on my friend Monica Medina‘s website.  Tune in!

“A Like-Me Presidential Candidate”

You are on the subway, on your way to work, the train hurtling through the tunnels, when suddenly it screeches to a halt.
“We are experiencing delays,” the conductor announces over the aged, whistling speaker system. “There is a sick passenger on the train directly ahead of us.  We expect to be moving shortly.”  Maybe he expects to be moving shortly because he’s new in town.  You, however, have been riding the subways for 20 years.  You know that “a sick passenger” on the train ahead equals roughly a 45 minute wait.  So you settle in.  You sigh, you look around the train car for a kindred spirit with whom to make eye contact, share a sigh and a headshake.  You’re a woman in your thirties.  Chances are the one with whom you make eye contact is also a woman, also in her thirties, or else forties, or twenties.

Or maybe you’re not heading to work; you’re going to the zoo and have your child in a stroller.  Your child fusses with the sudden motionlessness of the train, the noise of the speaker.  Some riders glare at you as the baby gets louder: maybe it’s not your fault we’ve stopped, but it is your child making the wait less pleasant.  But now a woman, clearly a mother herself, smiles at you.  It helps because you guess that she’s been in your shoes.  Another woman offers a baggie of crackers she usually saves for her child in situations like these.  She asks how old your baby is and tells you a story of her child at that age.  And just because of who you are and what you represent: a mother with a child, you have a community.

Your child is calm now, munching away on crackers.  You look up to notice that two elderly black men who did not get on the train together, who were not sitting near one another, seem to have introduced themselves and struck up a conversation.  Now they are laughing, warmly, with the acknowledgement of some shared experience.  They are too far away for you to hear what they’re saying but you can feel it between them: community.

And those college age girls, both dressed in black, eyes outlined in thick kohl—now they’ve exchanged the eye roll, the headshake.  Community.  You’re like me; I’m like you.  We’ll be here for a while.  But at least we’re a we sharing this nightmare.  And that we-ness, belonging to a group defined as much by who we are as who we’re not, really helps you get by sometimes.

Sometimes the we-ness comes from age, gender, being a parent or not a parent, sometimes from religion, class or marital status and sometimes from race.

Ah, race.  I see it as just one of many aspects of the person, but it’s often the one you see first, the one that’s most loaded, hardest to talk about and therefore the one I’ve been asked to discuss in the context of this current election.

How much does racial solidarity impact how we vote?  How important is it to have a “Like-me” president?   And when a candidate reflects our race, are we more likely to approve of him?  Are we more likely to find fault with a candidate of a different race?

In some ways, this election, like the last, is all about identity.  The issues that matter to a voter depend on his or her personal history,  socioeconomic status, education level and yes, in some cases, race.  Each of us wants our president to suit who we see ourselves as being.

Last time around each ticket had its own flavor.   We had the dynamic, black community-organizer-attorney and the older white guy with down home appeal.  On the other side was the aging, white war hero and the plain-spoken hockey mom who said things like “you betcha”?  Which ticket felt like YOU?  Were you one of Sarah Palin’s Mama Grizzlies?  Or were you an Obama Mama?  Were you a member of the chai-drinking, tree-hugging liberal elite?  Or were you a gun-loving bible thumper?  Wherever you stood, whatever the candidates’ styles and values, right there in all our faces was this brand new development that meant something in history and to most everyone in the country as well.  The next president might be a black man.  A big deal, no matter how you felt about it.

Before 2008, only white, straight, Christian men had the option of picking a “like-me” candidate.  But with the last election, for the first time in history, it seemed that people of other descriptions might get that choice in the near future.  Those who supported a “liberal agenda” (and I mean liberal in a good way, going by the dictionary definition which is something like “applauding progress”) came in all persuasions, all races, orientations and religions.  Many saw themselves in Obama.

For affluent, educated blacks, Obama was more than a black candidate, he was a stereotype buster.  He made very public the image of a black man that we identified with and wanted the country to see.  Educated, well-spoken, passionate and above all, a family man through and through.  That the number one criticism of Obama, as he campaigned through the grain belt and the rust belt, was that he was too elite, too aloof, didn’t understand the concerns of the “working man” (remember Joe the plumber?).  For all of us who’d been living in the shadow of the angry-lazy-violent black stereotype, this was vindicating.  So you guys don’t want him because he’s too smart to be president?

Jump ahead four years.  It’s 2012 and we’ve been living with a biracial president for four years.  The fact of his race is no longer a novelty, but  there are those who still see the president first and formost as a black man.  He has been accused of hating white people, and at the same time, due to his mixed heritage, of not being black enough.

In any case race still matters in this country.  I know this when I Google words like African American, or black women, or interracial families.  I come up with blogs where strong opinions are voiced on everything race-related.  Some of it’s intense: white-separatist, Afro-centric, and everything in between.

Alas, we are not a post-racial society—as some jumped the gun in declaring, back in 2008, popping open the champagne bottles, tossing the confetti, cheering not just the election of the first African American president, but also the end of the Age of Race as we know it.   I think it was foolish to believe that electing a black president might somehow make racism a moot issue.  The higher any minority rises, the more of a threat he is to bigoted haters, the more vocal those haters will become.  All over the blogosphere are so called “patriots” who “love” the country and are heartbroken to that anyone with roots in the African continent should be running it.  They openly admit to hating Obama because of his race.  They call him horrible names, and the caricatures—don’t get me started.  But I believe those so called “patriots” (who flaunt their rabid disrespect for the president of our country) are on the fringe.

For the many of us who want him around for another four years, I think it’s less about Obama’s race these days than what he stands for. This time, it’s about the president’s policies.  How do you think he handled the mess he was handed?  Do you believe Obama truly saved us from another Depression?  And what about his approach abroad?  Do we want to keep him at the helm going forward?   Regardless of race, I do.

I won’t vote for Mitt Romney—not because he is white or Mormon or rich.  I won’t vote for Romney because I have no idea who he really is.  I don’t believe a word he says; I don’t trust him.  And maybe I think it’s cool that the president is biracial like me, but it’s not why I’m voting for him.  I’m voting for him because his worldview—not his skintone—matches mine.

Snapshot of Innocence

Who is that kid?  No it’s not another picture of my daughter.  It’s another child I care for quite deeply, actually.  I’ll give you a hint.  It was taken in 1970.

Yes, it’s me.  Looking pretty pleased with myself, my life and the mess I’ve made of my milk and strawberry ice cream.  My best friend Claire still lived on the ninth floor of my apartment building, I still went to the Manhattan Country School.  My favorite toy was a big, green and white corrugated cardboard puppet stage and I still believed I was going to get a dog and a baby sister one day, somehow.  I didn’t hate my hair.  I didn’t think I was fat.

The reason I love this picture is that I can see in my eyes all of the above.  I can see how safe I felt, how trusting and truly innocent I was.  When I look at that picture, I see the good, sweet, silly little girl I was and it makes me want to be good—to her and for her.

I know the expression “inner-child” has been used ad nauseam, fodder for cheap sit-com laughs for more than thirty years, but there’s something about remembering who we were as children, and how we were back then—that goes a long way toward banishing negativity in our present lives.

If you can, go and get a picture of yourself when you were little, say four or five.  Still the age of magical thinking, but old enough to have the language to order your thoughts, and an idea of what was going on around you.  Look at the picture for a minute.  A whole minute and see what you’re feeling.  Imagine that the child can see you and your life.  What conversation might you have?  I know what you wouldn’t say.  You wouldn’t tell the child she’s stupid or worthless or an idiot or a fat pig or ugly or incompetent.  You’d never tell her: “I can’t believe you screwed that up!”  “What’s wrong with you?” or anything so harsh.

I hope you don’t talk to your big-adult self that way either.  But sadly, a lot of people do.  Not all the time, but sometimes and sometimes is enough to count as beating yourself up.  Now think back to the last time you put yourself down, called yourself dumb or fat or anything intended to hurt yourself.  Imagine what you’d do if you saw someone treating the child in the photograph that way.  You’d probably defend the kid.  You’d stand up to the bully on the child’s behalf.  And finally you’d try to rectify the situation by building the child up, telling her something positive and hopeful.  You’d work at it until you saw her smile again.

Why?  Because children are all potential, all hope, all beautiful dreams.  No matter what their circumstances, they are blameless and deserving of the chance to be and do anything.  As adults, we have to recognize life’s and our own limitations.  We set more realistic goals, but strive, hopefully, to be the best we can at what suits us.  Sometimes there are false starts, unfortunate career choices, misguided relationships.  From every experience, good and bad, you learn and use that knowledge the next time you’ve got a choice to make.

I love that everyone is writing letters to past versions of themselves these days.  I think it’s such a wonderful mix of reflection and self acceptance.  Oprah had a whole section of her May 2012 issue devoted to  letters written by celebrities to their younger selves (hers is first).  And there’s the upcoming Dear Teen Me, to be released in October, edited by Miranda Kenneally and E. Kristin Anderson, an anthology of YA authors’ letters to teens they once were.

All these letters are full of advice and reassurance: It’ll get better, don’t eat so much sugar, don’t smoke, have more fun.  The idea is to look back tenderly at your old self, nurture Kid You with the perspective Grown-up You has gained over the years.  Since we’re generally nicer and more patient with children than we are with adults, this might be a step toward showing yourself love.

When I’ve done trauma work—with teens and young adults who were victimized as children— there is a visualization exercise we do.  The following is a generic, sketch-description (and note that this kind of exercise is never done too soon in the therapy, never too early in a support group).

Close your eyes and imagine yourself a small child again, at the time when [the abuse] took place.  Remember yourself, your room.  Tell me some of the details, what toys are around? What’s on the walls?  Where are you in the room?  Remember the place where [the abuse] happened.  Tell me what is happening.  Now, I want you to choose someone from any time period in your life—even the present—an adult who is strong and loyal and can protect and defend you.  Now bring that person back with you.  Let that person protect you and stop [the abuse/abuser]. (Can you tell me what’s happening?  How the protecting adult stops [the trauma]? 

Now, Can you tell me who it is that saves you?

More than once, when I did this exercise, either with an individual or with a group, the answer to the last question was:

MYSELF.  That’s who saves me.  Myself as an adult, how I am now.”

There is something very powerful in the notion of you—the grownup—saving your past self.  Only you can be that loyal to you.

You are not that child anymore.  You are not reliant on other adults to guide you, nurture you and cheer you on.  (Maybe you’re parenting kids of your own, caring for your own parents at the same time.)  But that child is still part of your identity.  You carry her with you always.  Remember her: the hope she had, the small joys and big dreams, no matter how much they’ve changed over the years.  You can honor her by being true to your current goals, your current dreams, by believing in yourself.

So have standards for yourself, for your work, for your parenting and treatment of others and care for the environment.  But don’t make those standards impossibly high, and don’t chastise yourself on those days when you fall a little bit short.  Instead, look at the picture, look into the child’s eyes and believe you deserve the same love she did.

The Story of Your Identity

Mom, Writer, Therapist, Wife, Self …

My blog has shifted a little in the nine months since it began.  I’m writing more and more about parenting, less lately about body image.  My Mom-identity—as multifaceted as that is—is really dominant lately.  I’m restarting my therapy practice, so I’ll be home less—which, ironically, is why motherhood is so much on my writing-mind right now.  I’m aware of the upcoming changes, preparing to miss being home as much as I am now, yet exhilarated by the idea of all the adventures my kids will have to share with me when we’re together.   In any case, my mom-self has been driving this blog lately.  So today I thought I’d go back to basics—and do a post about identity itself.

The subject of identity is so broad; so much has been written on it.  There’s gender identity, racial and religious identity, national identity.   Your identity comes, not just from the place you live in, but also from your place in the family.   Were you the parentified first-born?   Were you the “troubled middle child?” Were you the baby?

Think about your roles too.  How different you are with your colleagues, with your friends, your spouse, your children.  Do you surprise yourself by regressing every time you visit your parents’ home?   Or maybe you manage an office full of employees, yet have to stand on your head while singing Old MacDonald just to get your toddler to try a single mouthful of peas.

Children have different identities too.  Think of the little girl who’s quiet and shy at school, but a wild, silly cut-up at home?  She’s cautious in the school environment where “good” behavior is stressed, then lets loose where she knows she’s safest.  (Both sides to her are normal and healthy.  You only worry when she seems anxious and withdrawn in the place where she’s usually at ease.)  It’s good to be flexible, adapting the different sides of you to the situation at hand.

In addition to being a mother, I am a daughter, a wife, a writer.  I am a therapist, a friend, a former dancer.   I’m the old friend who makes you laugh. I’m a city kid, an only child, a Biracial Jew, and a member of two different PTAs.  My identity is made of all these pieces and more.

Heidi W. Durrow, the author of Bellwether Prize winning The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, a favorite biracial author (right up there with Zadie Smith) describes her identity in an NPR interview as “a story.”  She is talking about her parents’ backgrounds, how they met, how she grew up–how all that added up to who she is today.   I love this description.  I believe we are all stories.

When I was doing my post-grad work at the Ackerman Institute, we studied Gregory Bateson and the Milan Group and learned about “Circular Questioning,”  also the work of David Epston and Michael White on Narrative Therapy or Re-storying.  We’d encourage families to tell the stories of their problems, asking for different perspectives from the different members present.  Sometimes a client would have difficulty breaking out of a destructive behavioral pattern and we’d find this linked to an inner personal narrative.

“I’m the lazy one in the family,” or “I’ve always been the trouble maker.”

We’d ask, “Who in the family might have a different description of you?”  “Who might tell another story?”

A pause, some thought.  “Well Grandpa always said I was a late bloomer, a diamond in the rough.”

The idea was that thinking about yourself in a new way stretches your identity and opens up new doors.

Sometimes you get to tell the story of your identity; sometimes it comes from others you know.  Sometimes it’s something pinned on you that you take issue with.  For example, when one sister is called “the beauty” and the other is called “the brains.”   No matter how unfair or limiting those designations might be, they are still part of each sister’s identity–if only as something she’ll want to break free from one day.

Sometimes the part of your identity that feels most difficult to bear, or most threatened or most outnumbered, is the one you’re most aware of.  For example, if you’re the only woman in a room full of men, if you’re the only grown-up in a mini-van full of rowdy tweens, the thing that sets you apart is the identity you’re most connected to.

Which parts of you come into play the most?  Which piece of your identity is dominant right now?

Blog Vs. Book

One of the things I like best about blogging is the other bloggers I’ve met this way.   Wonderful writers, women and men, who live all over the globe, some of whom share my day-to-day routines of parenting, writing, house-maintenence (or house-neglect which is more apt these days), others whose schedules do not revolve around carpools, pick-ups and drop-offs.  I look forward to reading the blogs of the people I follow, many of whom follow me.  Through my followees (and followers) I am exposed to lives I’d never have discovered on my own.

There’s responsibility in blogging, though.  Your blog is more than an expression of yourself and your take on the world.  As it gains an audience, your blog becomes a thing of its own.  When I am asleep, someone on the other side of the planet might be reading, sharing, commenting on my blog.  When I check it again, it’s got new growth.   Like a garden, you have to care for your blog, feed it, nurture it, recognize when it’s stagnating and then do something about that.

When the bloggers I follow are silent for a while, I might miss them, but I won’t judge them.   I know we all have to live our lives and that often the blog is the piece we can leave unattended while we’re caring for a sick relative, working, hosting the in-laws or, what was that other one?–writing a novel.   For me it’s that last one I’m having trouble balancing with the blog, though it seems like everyone else online manages to do it.

(Yes I know, everyone chooses what they reveal of themselves online; some let it all hang out, others show only their most glowing selves.  Recently I read a great article about social-network envy–the perception that everyone on the internet is accomplishing more than you and having more fun doing it!)  I am sure everyone struggles balancing blog and life, or in my case, blog and book, but I find myself occasionally overwhelmed with guilt for choosing one over the other.  Not that I believe there’s a galaxy of fans who would be devastated if I took a hiatus to power through my novel.

The most regular of my followers and commenters happen to be kind and supportive and understanding (and yes, I feel like I know you and wish I could have coffee with you sometime!).   But I’m not worried about letting other people down.  Instead, I’m concerned about missing out, which I know is a piece of my character that stems directly from being an only child.  What was the sibling world doing while I was home with my parents?   With all their brothers and sisters around, would they forget about me?

If I took a month off from my blog, what would happen?  If I abandoned Twitter?  Would I have to start from scratch?  Would people remember me and still be my friends–I mean followers?  I don’t know, but I have decided not to find out, not yet.   I will slow down here, though.  I’ve actually slowed down already.   I’m giving myself until June to finish a draft of the new WIP, and will post here only about once a week for now.  (Don’t worry: I’ll still read your blogs because they are often so wonderful and mentally sustaining.)

But, as much as I don’t like to blog about blogging or write about writing, I’m going to temporarily let go of that to make this blog a better partner for my fiction.  Actually, that shouldn’t be hard, because my new WIP is all about body image and identity, which is the tagline for this blog.

I’m almost done for tonight, but first I’m going to share something about my WIP’s protagonists and why I think their struggles are relevant here.  They’re seventeen year old twins, both pre-professional ballet dancers, one male and one female.  Here I’ll just call them GT for girl twin and BT for boy twin.  Here are their conflicts:

  • BT is bullied by his homophobic father who suspects (correctly) that BT is gay.  BT’s father makes BT promise to give up dancing, but BT continues behind his back.
  • GT is bullied by the directors of their pre-professional ballet company because of her weight.  GT is a normal, healthy weight for a seventeen year old girl and the powers-that-be find this unacceptable.

I’m not going to share plot details because, though I’ve written over seventy pages, I haven’t yet finished the outline.  But these twins will face major obstacles to their dream of succeeding in ballet–all directly or indirectly related to the themes of body image and identity.  (See?  There’s my blog tie in.)

Anyway I hope to finish a draft, possibly a second draft, by the end of the school year, when I will lose a good chunk of writing time (as my angelic children will be home).  Please root for me!  Thanks!

Stay tuned …

Who’s Afraid of The Little Mermaid?

Aged three. Make mine the Princess cup, please.

Visiting middle schools with my daughter last week has me musing about change: the upcoming changes in my daughter, in our relationship—as she relies on me less and less, on herself and her friends more and more.  I’m thinking about practical changes too: the changes in our schedule, as I’ll have two kids in two different schools in two different parts of town come September.  But as well as looking to the future, I can’t help glancing back with bittersweet nostalgia at the days of baby teeth and mispronunciations, of Dora and Blues Clues, Bob Books and Hop on Pop.   I also remember my parenting then, the things I thought were big deals: how meticulously I mixed water in every glass of juice, how white flour products hardly ever found their way into my kitchen—never, ever made it into my kids’ lunchboxes.

When it came to playthings, I was a little easier going.  Though I never bought my son a toy gun, I found it amusing that—from the time he was eighteen months old—Theo turned every object he got his hands on into one.  He’d take the letter “L” from an alphabet puzzle, grip it like a pistol and chase his sister around going: “Rahr!  Rahr!”  (Never having seen or heard actual artillery, the most aggressive sound he could come up with was the noise the lion made on Nature.)

I didn’t even object when my daughter, at three, became passionate about Ariel and the other Disney Princesses.  The way I figured: a plastic Disney Princess cup at Target cost about seventy-five cents.  If it would make her drink milk happily, why not?  I didn’t see it as anything that might one day harm her character.  (If one day she began to lament her lack of a fish-tail, we’d cross that bridge then.)

What follows is an article I wrote about two years ago, as a belated response to the Princess backlash I’d heard around the playground during my daughter’s Ariel days.   At the time, Zoe was nine, way finished with the Princesses and had entered a tomboy stage, banishing all dresses, all pink from her wardrobe.

 Don’t Throw the Mermaid out with The Bath Water

Fear not the Disney Princesses, nor their impact on your daughter!  They will pass, my young mother friend, as will the lure of Bratz dolls and even Hannah Montana.

When my daughter Zoe was three, turning four, Cinderella was released on DVD.  Everywhere you turned there were little girls in long, blue gauze dresses marked at the breast with the blond heroine’s picture.   Zoe’s fourth birthday party was a costume pageant, where she and no fewer than four guests showed up as Cindy—not to be confused with the three pink Auroras and two yellow Belles.  (Someone’s sleeping, stroller-bound baby arrived in Ariel’s seashell bikini top and tail).  It was a craze I succumbed to halfheartedly (yet another franchise, preying on children), but without too much guilt.  An Ariel cup?  No biggie.  Belle underwear?  Sure.  A Cinderella beach towel?  Well—Zoe would need cups, underwear and towels anyway; why not make her happy?

“Aren’t you concerned about the message it’s sending?”  said my friend Anne, who was writing a book on feminist parenting.  She was referring to the beauty myth laid out so eloquently by Naomi Wolf back in ’92.  The Princesses all perpetuated unrealistic standards of feminine beauty—dainty hands, feet, and noses; huge eyes with fabulous lashes; succulent lips, microscopic waists and flowing blankets of hair.  Anne, whose daughter Emma was younger—just breaking into Elmo—emailed me articles every week on how mass marketed toys undermined girls’ self esteem.

As a biracial woman whose daughter has inherited both my tightly curling hair and my brown skin, I admit, I was a little concerned.  The new African American Princess, Tiana, was years away and stores rarely stocked products featuring the darker Princesses—Jasmine, Esmeralda, Yulan and Pocahontas.  More than once I watched Zoe prance around in her blue Cinderella outfit with a real blanket on her head, simulating “Princess hair,” swinging it this way and that.   Oh, how I remember doing the blanket-head thing myself as a child;  Look, Mommy; I’m Marcia Brady!  (My generation’s reigning Princess.) Were we rejecting our real hair and identity, or just pretending for an afternoon to be something we weren’t?   Frankly, at four, Zoe was more inclined to pretend to be a pig.  I don’t think she was rejecting her species; just imagining a different sort of existence.  And isn’t imagination the place to be if you’re four anyway?

Emails from Anne kept coming: the Disney girls were just the tip of the iceberg; Bratz Dolls were next!  Worse than the Princesses, worse than Barbie back in her 39-21-33 measurement days—Bratz dolls were—and I suppose still are—eight-inch plastic renditions of big-haired teenage hookers with oversized heads, eyes and lips.  They all wore perpetual sneers, demonstrating cool—or, rather, a Brattiness that might appeal to the fashionably precocious five year old.  They were a horror, I admit, and thanks to successful marketing, Zoe wanted one.  (My emphatic NO made them all the more appealing.)  She never got one, however, and her interest quickly faded.  By the time Zoe was in first grade, Disney Princesses themselves were passé among Zoe’s crowd.  Hannah Montana held their interest for about a summer; High School Musical, about fifteen minutes.

Beginning in second grade, an aversion to all things girly—dresses, ballet, the color pink, the word pretty when offered as a compliment—had set in and persists to this day.  (Zoe, nine, is wrapping up third grade.)  Part of this is about asserting her identity as a being separate from me; I’m a former ballerina myself.   Zoe has heard me comment that she has natural dancing gifts that I myself wasn’t born with.  “If only she wanted to …” I’ve lamented, failing to make sure she’s out of earshot.  Which, of course is pressure just begging for rebellion.  Not to mention the treatment she gets from everyone who knows I used to dance.  The first thing they say to my daughter is, “Are we a little ballerina too?”

“No,” says Zoe.  “We are not.”

I haven’t the heart to stress politeness at times like these.  She is not a little ballerina, certainly not a little me.  Still, I see her dancing around the house when she forgets herself, leaping, pirouetting—riffing on all the steps she learned in ballet class when she was too young to decide she hated it.   Similarly, when we go clothes shopping, it’s the pink top she goes for first, then checks herself and asks for green.

I am proud of my daughter for designing her own code for dress and behavior.  I am proud of the individual that she is.   She loves pigs, snakes and insects; she can name the super powers of every member of the Justice League along with their back stories; she’s good at gymnastics, tennis and drawing; she runs like the wind; she’ beautiful (okay so I’m biased) and while adults tell her this all the time, she could not care less.

I confess, though, while the “girliness allergy” doesn’t worry me, at times it makes me a little sad.  I fear Zoe is holding herself to her own unrealistic standard, where skirts, pink, and dancing are off-limits, even if she secretly longs for them.  Whenever I fear that she’s cutting off the part of her that enjoys girly things, I reassure myself by remembering how quickly phases come and go.  The pendulum swings one way and then it swings back.  This applies to both my kids in terms of sleeping patterns, eating, quirky likes and dislikes and yes, style.

On a recent visit to the Gap outlet, Zoe grabbed a t-shirt and thrust it at me.  “I need this top,” she said with a grin.  Under a picture of the seven main members of the Justice League was the slogan: “I love Super Heroes.”  Typical Zoe, right?  Yeah.  Only the top was pink.

Writing is Identity

With so many great blogs out there about books and writing, why blog about books and writing?  Especially since my blog is supposed to be about body image and identity.  Well, writing is identity.

I’ll confess, ever since I got back from the Writer’s Digest Conference in NYC last weekend, I’ve been struggling to come up with a decent post.  A (minor) shoulder injury has put off my next installment of “To Dance Again;” my kids haven’t done anything special to inspire a new mixed-race-parenting piece—nor have I had any ah-hah moments about my own biracial, Jewish, black, ex-dancer-shrink-ness.

Frankly, though I’ve been proof-reading, not really writing, I’ve thinking of nothing but my writing, which is itself an identity topic.  My writing is made up of all the pieces that make me myself.  (I think most writers would agree.)

I am in full writer mode this week.  My kids get it: they scrounge for their own snack and start their own homework, work out their own little squabbles, knowing that somewhere upstairs in the fire-hazard, dust-bunny haven of the study, is Mommy-as-Writer-Lady (they know I’ll be down to cook and feed and hang out later).

I haven’t posted here for a whole week; I’ve been too busy giving my novel one last comb through before sending requested pages to agents I met at the conference.  (Still insanely giddy over the fact that they were interested enough to ask!)   And now that I’m finally posting, what do I post about?  Writing!

Here’s why I write: Certain aspects of being human either vex, amuse or fascinate me.  I need to get them down in my own quirky way, ultimately to see whether or not others feel as I do.  In The Marriage Plot (which I haven’t finished yet), Jeffrey Eugenides’s Madeleine finds in Barthes “the reason she read books in the first place … a sign that she wasn’t alone.”  In Heidi W. Durrow’s The Girl Who Fell from the Sky (which I will post more about at another time), when Rachel says, “…the other black girls in school think I want to be white … I don’t want to be white … I want to be nothing,”  I think, yes, it’s something I’ve felt before.

So maybe you’re not biracial, black or Jewish, maybe you’ve never obsessed about whether your thighs touch when you stand with your feet together, maybe you’re not an only child or even female.  But when you read me you just might see a small part of yourself reflected back.

Now, let me take this opportunity to say what a thrilling, magical weekend I had at the Writer’s Digest Conference (#WDC12 in Twitter-speak).   I met so many fascinating people: other aspiring authors, some successful ones, editors, agents and others in this great, old, but rapidly changing field of publishing.  Though everyone says, “go to conferences with an open mind, ready to learn everything you can,” I’ll admit I went mostly to pitch Birch Wood Doll.  Once I got there, though, I inhaled information, from “Writing about Yourself in the Digital Age,” with A.J. Jacobs , to “Conflict and Suspense” with James Scott Bell, to a fantastic kid-lit seminar with Mary Kole , which convinced me to make my next project a YA venture.  Of course the Pitch Slam—60 agents, 400+ unpublished authors, 3 hours—was the high point.  I was fortunate enough to walk away with business cards from five of the agents on my top-six list.  I got home and immediately read through BWD again for typos and awkward phrasing, sent everything out on Tuesday and found myself coming down with a cold and an utter loss for words.

Fortunately, I had signed up for a Pitchapalooza workshop at Watchung Booksellers  last night.  I decided not to pitch Birch Wood Doll, since my pitch had been successful at the WDC.  Instead I challenged myself to formulate a pitch for the (as yet unwritten) YA book, just to see if “The Book Doctors” would think it sounded worthwhile.  The good news is that they did.  And with that project to look forward to (yet another novel heavily featuring body image and identity) my blogging voice seems to have returned.

Lastly, to the wonderful fellow writers I met last weekend—Grace, Joanna, AG, KSZ, Harry and others—I am rooting for you all!