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September 2010

Great Mama's Boys in History

Fdr1 "Dear Mummy, you know that nothing can ever change what we have been & what always we will be to each other - only now you have two children to love & to love you - and Eleanor as you know will always be a daughter to you..."

So wrote Franklin Delano Roosevelt to his famously intrusive mother, Sara, as he was trying to appease her about his engagement to be married. It didn't exactly work. One historian referred to Sara's "severity of shock" over the news. 

As Mama's go, Sara was a poster child for lack of boundaries. When FDR was a boy, quarantined to an infirmary with scarlet fever, she borrowed a workman's ladder, clambered up it, and peered into a high window to check on her boy. When he went to Harvard, she took an apartment in Boston. When she had a house built for Franklin and his new wife, she had her own bedroom placed between bride and groom.

When I talk about mother-son closeness, this is NOT what I have in mind! Still, whatever damage this smother/mothering inflicted, it somehow didn't affect either his masculinity, courage or leadership abilities. Making FDR one of many Great Mama's Boys in History.


Let's Hear It From The Boys

Bigstockphoto_Mother_And_Son_1348777 Mothers are generally delighted to talk about their sons. As I research the mom angle for my book, my only problem is sorting through which of the more than 1000 women I've surveyed and interviewed to quote in more depth. 

Sons, I assumed, would be a different matter. And it's true that guys (and I only wanted sons 18 years and older) weren't responding in droves like mothers did. But as I approach them individually, I find them surprisingly willing and open to talk abut the relationship. And here's what is striking - many of them say that no one has ever asked them about this topic before. It's simply not talked about. 

The men I have interviewed so far represent a wide range of backgrounds and perspectives. Here is a quote from one I spoke to recently:

“When I was growing up, I got tagged the Mamma’s Boy, because I was the youngest and I would run to Mom. If someone called me a Mamma’s Boy today that didn’t know me and they meant it seriously, well, I don’t fight anymore, I got all that out in the army. But I would have severe disdain for that person, because it shows their ignorance. The relationship is really important to me and I don't need to feel bad about it.”


The "Genius" Awards

Unknown That's funny. I seemed to have been omitted from the MacArthur Foundation "Genius" awards again this year. Seriously though, folks, I am always fascinated to see who receives these $500,000 no-strings-attached grants for their work. I actually met a woman this weekend who had been given one last year. She is an artist who works with technology to create these amazing, interactive works. She had been just about to hang it up and find some paying, graphics job when the money came in, allowing her to continue on her truly original, breakthrough art.

When I was reading about this year's crop of awardees, I came across a bee keeper, a woman who studies sign languages, an historian who has written about Thomas Jefferson's slave family, and many others. The guy who wrote the TV series "The Wire," David Simon, also won. In his interview he said he was flattered, of course, and then went on to demur about being in the company of people who had done "tangible things to improve conditions." But then he added something that made me smile. He said that storytellers can also make a difference. I completely agree - storytelling is powerful. And I loved reading the stories of all these creative people.


The Old College Try

Billsville
I snapped this photo on my way home from a long weekend at my old college in the Berkshires. There had been a number of festivities, not the least of which was the induction of a new college president. It was not only interesting but also visually compelling - all sorts of other colleges and universities - Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Bowdoin, Colby, Bates, Amherst, etc. etc. sent representatives to the ceremony in their own full academic garb, making for quite a colorful procession.

But what was more compelling were some of the meetings I attended on current college life - addressing multiculturalism in new ways, by recognizing and supporting affinity groups with strategies that don't end up balkanizing people socially, supporting first generation college students and other low-income kids with resources beyond financial aid and scholarship money so that they can thrive at school, and on and on.

Back in the days when I was a youngin', it was all about incorporating women into the student body. The times are changing, and all for the good, and it made for a fascinating weekend.


Mother-Son Quote of The Week

Obama-mom-gallery

“I think sometimes that had I known she would not survive her illness, I might have written a different book, less a meditation on the absent parent and more a celebration of the one who was the single constant in my life.” 

-Barack Obama, in the preface to his autobiography Dreams of My Father, published after his mother's death.

 


Mothers and "Sons"

GENDER-articleLarge Still reeling over yesterday's NYT cover story about little girls in Afghanistan who are "turned into sons." Boys are so valued, and girls so devalued, that families without sons sometimes dress their daughters as boys so they can pass for the other gender. This not only elevates the family's status, but also allows that child to help out the family in ways she couldn't if she were not disguised, like helping earn money or escorting her sisters outside. This is so appalling on so many levels that it's hard to know where to start. Please check out the link and see for yourself.


Just Between Us

Images It never ceases to surprise me. The other day, I was interviewing a woman for a story I am writing for the NYT. Mind you, this isn't some investigative reporting piece or a politically sensitive story for which I'm trying to get deep background. No, it's a little arts story. We're chatting about the exhibit and the woman says, "Now, just between us...." 

Whoa! I have already identified myself as a reporter and we are in the middle of an interview. This isn't just between us, it's between us and a couple of hundred thousand readers - more if you count online readership. What she was talking about was pretty innocuous, but I still had to take the time to interrupt her, remind her that anything she told me was for print, unless we specified ahead of time what was off the record, blah, blah, blah.

Maybe it's my chatty style of interviewing people or maybe that's just a phrase she weaves into her conversation frequently. But Sheeesh.

 


The Tillman Story

Pat_tillman_lg Some people assume that my book is a bunch of heart-warming stories about how much mothers love their sons. It's not. You could certainly write such a book, but to me, that's like writing a book about how kittens are cute or ice cream is sweet. It's a given, just a starting off point for examining that relationship.

This weekend, The Weatherman and I saw "The Tillman story," a documentary about the Tillman family's efforts to find out the truth behind Pat's death in Afghanistan. Tillman was an NFL player who enlisted in the army after 9/11. When he was killed, the Defense Dept. first spun his death as that of a hero, announcing that Tillman had died while leading his troops to fight the Taliban, and saving many of his men in the process.

They lied. In reality, it was fratricide. He was killed by his own troops. What galled the family - and most especially Pat's mother Dannie - was the army's initial efforts to turn her son's death into propaganda bonanza and recruiting tool for the war. She would not allow her son's death to be politicized, particularly when it had been based in lies.

In her efforts to get at the truth, which included sorting through 3000 pages of Tillman-Story_PatTillman_Wife_15660_400 redacted documents, she is dogged. She fights the government for years, finally leading to a congressional hearing about the cover-up. (If you aren't already angry enough watching this movie, the images of a smirking Donald Rumsfeld after his testimony should do it for you.)

The movie is dramatic, political and heartbreaking - but most of all, at least to me, it is  mother-son story. Not the kind I am writing, but the kind that is everywhere - a mom's fierce protection and devotion to her son, in this case, even after death.


Not My Cup of Tea

Alice_in_Wonderland_Tea_Party_5814880 There are many things about Tea Party candidates that leave me scratching my head. There are the obvious ones, like the new Republican New York gubernatorial candidate's idea to put welfare recipients into converted state prisons and give them hygiene lessons. (I thought that was a joke when I first heard about it.) Or the Republican Delaware Senate candidate who, among other things, believes that masturbation is a form of adultery and that evolution is based on "soft science." 

What really confounds me is this idea that government is bad and must be rolled back, along side of a social agenda that would involve government in people's bedrooms, doctor's offices, in ways it has never have been before.

Like many people, I think the Tea Party movement is the best thing that's happened to the Democratic party in a long time. But then again, you should never underestimate the anti-intellectualism of the American people.  


Great Company For A Long Journey

0140133488.01.LZZZZZZZ I have to drive more than 300 miles this morning to get home. I'm not a terrific driver - more the skittish kind. I get spooked by the big logging trucks and tractor-trailers that are making their way South on the Route 87. But never mind, I will have excellent company.

This week I took Wallace Stegner's Crossing To Safety - the audio version - out of the library. I had read the book years ago and loved it, and decided to revisit the novel. Oh. My. Goodness. Stegner is such a wonderful writer. Part of what makes this book so compelling is the author's love of humanity. He actually likes women. And men. He is insightful and compassionate, creating and embracing his characters in all their complexity, strengths and weaknesses. 

Stegner won the Pulitzer Prize for Angle of Repose, also a masterpiece, and next on my list of library loans. Having such a wonderful companion to listen to during the trip makes the miles fly by.


The Chick Has Flown

Emptynest(2) My baby has left the nest. No, not that baby. The Boy is back at college for his senior year and already busy with classes and a multitude of other activities. I mean my little fledgling chapters. They have bravely made their way to an editor's office at a publishing house in Manhattan. Now they have to stand on their own two feet. I hope they are alright. As a mother, I did all that I could in preparing them. Now I just have to wait and see how they do.

Meanwhile I have plenty to keep me busy - all their little siblings, like chapters five and six, still need me. Also I am going to do another assignment for the NYT. But my fledglings are on my mind every day. Hope they're treated gently as they make their way into the great, big world.


The Writer's Fraternity

5698_WittyWomenWriters Last night as I sat down to dinner with my friend Joanne, she handed me a thick binder which contained the manuscript of her latest book. "I don't know if it's good or terrible," she sighed. Amen, Sister. I hear you. Joanne, by the way, has published a series of successful mystery books and garnered quite a few awards. "It doesn't mean a thing," she told me darkly. "It's more - 'what have you done for me lately?'"

Lord, I love getting together with fellow writers. It makes me feel like I am not entirely crazy. Joanne told me she is terrified to send the manuscript to agents. And since today is the day that I am absolutely, positively hitting the send button on this computer, sending off four chapters to the editor, I can completely relate. (Yes, only four chapters are going out. I chickened out on chapter five which needs a lot more work.) 

Here is how nuts I am about this - this morning it suddenly seemed like a good time to clean out the shoes in my closet - you know, put the sandals away for the year, find that missing slipper. I mean why head to the office when such compelling tasks await? Enough procrastination. Today is the day.


A Moment in History

Stonewall-riots I had never heard of Seymour Pine but when the NYT gives someone a prominent obituary, I usually check it out. It turns out that Inspector Pine was the police officer who led the raid on the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village, in 1969.

Of course I was familiar with the Stonewall Riots, when patrons of the bar fought back and their resistance started three days of protests in the street. Historians say it was the beginning of the gay rights movement. The NYT quotes David Carter, author of Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution saying "It is to the gay movement what the fall of Bastille is to the unleashing of the French Revolution.

But getting back to Seymour Pine. He later apologized for the raid. At a discussion of the Stonewall uprising at the New York Historical Society, he said that at the time, police "certainly were prejudiced" against gays "but had no idea about what gay people were about." And according to Carter, he later said, "If what I did helped gay people, then I'm glad." 

 


Laboring on Labor Day

55962507 Look at this happy couple painting their railings. Why do they look so energetic?  Did they put on the primer coat? Did they notice that this made the cedar kind of rough in places and debate sanding? I hope they put down a lot of newspaper, because any spilled oil-based primer is hell to get off the slate steps. How many coats of paint did they use? And how long are the stairs, and how many railings are involved?

By now you have probably guessed that I spent Labor Day weekend painting. Some of it was kind of fun - the weather was gorgeous; I set up my Ipod in a window facing outside, so the Weatherman and I could paint to the beat. As of yesterday evening the project was finally finished and it looks great. The problem: all the areas around it look faded and dim, and clearly the house trim needs a touch-up.

But this week it's on to a different kind of labor - finish the edits on five chapters and send them off. Yikes! Painting is much less stressful.


Mother-Son Quote of the Week

Mother-and-son “My Dad was in the navy and he was a man’s man, very stoic, very Type A, very critical. Mom made up for it by teaching us compassion and that not everything is as it seems or black and white, no matter what Dad says. Those hunting trips with my Mom and those talks made life bearable for me and my brother.”

-Jim N., 43, of Tennessee, in interview for the book

 


Ugh

Mammogram_anxiety

 

Mammogram this morning followed by ultrasound. Or maybe it will be an ultrasound followed by a mammogram. Ugh. But it must be done. Also schlepping into the city for said tests, so it will take hours. Must go take pre-emptive Advil. Okay, I am done whining. For now.


Rabbit, Rabbit

21509large_rabbit1 This morning I remembered to say it first thing: "rabbit, rabbit." I can't 21509large_rabbit1 rememberwhere I picked up this superstition. The idea is that if the phrase "rabbit, rabbit" is your first utterance on the first day of the month,  it will bring you good luck for the rest of that month.

The whole family follows this tradition, though we have our own peculiar twist: we often add "pig, pig, turtle, turtle, penguin, penguin, cat, cat." It's quite a mouthful, but acknowledges My Daughter's former love of pigs, The Boy's love of penguins, and our family's pet turtle and cats. 

 

Although we have personalized this crazy superstition, it turns out that it is fairly common, and may date back to the 1800s. It is thought to have originated in Britain, and may have something to do with rabbits being associated with luck, i.e. the rabbit's foot. (Not so lucky for the rabbit, I dare say.) When I looked this up, I was concerned to see that most people say, "Rabbit, Rabbit, White Rabbit," while others go with a full three repetitions: "rabbit, rabbit, rabbit."

I hope I haven't messed up my luck with our family version, especially since those chapters are going to the editor next week.