Monday, April 26, 2010

On Fiction

What, after all, is fiction? Can you give me a good, clear definition? Bet you can't, beyond "something that didn't really happen." But I really can't offer you a much better one. The border zone between truth and fiction is a hazy place. However, most of us would assert that "real life" is not fiction, because it's, well, real.

But it's not so simple. We tell ourselves fictions, and they become our realities. Truth is often stranger than fiction—but only for the simple fact that the truth is often ignored. Fiction, it seems, is often more palatable.

I think of this because my mother-in-law, bless her heart, recently asked my husband if our marriage is doing poorly. Not long before, when I had explained that I'd likely be leaving one of my part-time jobs soon, so that we have more family time together, she said, "So your marriage isn't doing that great." There's a difference, but it's she apparently only sees binaries. Truth is, we've been tag-team parenting for about 18 months—more about that in a later post—but I'll just say that it's exhausting. I can't tell you how much we're looking forward to sharing weekends together again. My dear MIL has apparently imagined us on the rocks—but nope, we're here, same as it ever was.

When we were married, my mother in law (bless her heart) asked me repeatedly whether I was sure I wanted to marry her son—as if she couldn't quite believe it.

When I look at the track record that has emerged, I would say that my fictional life, in her mind, is filled with much more drama than my real life actually features. While I'd like to be sitcom-worthy—we all like a good story—the truth is, things are more or less fun and okay.

Our lived realities are created in large part by what we tell ourselves—it's not what is true, but rather what we convince ourselves is the truth.

My mother-in-law isn't the only one imagining a better real world, though. If you've watched Food, Inc., or read anything by Eric Schlosser, or Michael Pollan, you know that the way we eat in these parts is a case of willed ignorance. Food, Inc., didn't tell me anything I didn't know already about our top-heavy industrial food systems, but it highlighted the clandestine nature of the way much of our food is produced. We imagine transparency—healthy farms, lush plants and animals, and even fairly paid and well-treated laborers—but much of our food comes from places that would turn our stomachs. Sure, this food is inexpensive and readily available. But we kid ourselves about its origins. We don't want to know the path from cow to hamburger—facing the truth would leave a bitter taste in our mouths. So we keep telling ourselves stories, imagining nice farms, happy animals, and various iterations of agrarianism.

I may come across as pointing fingers, but if I do, rest assured that four fingers point right back at yours truly. I still grocery shop like anyone else.
More "ethical" food comes with its tradeoffs, like cost and convenience, and those are biggies. And I tell myself other fictions, too. I live in Westwood—is there any other way, if you live in Westwood? "This is a really nice neighborhood," I tell myself. It is--mostly. Good neighbors, it's generally quiet, access to public transportation, a local library nearby. But it has its problems: plenty of casual theft; drug traffic; underperforming public schools. Ignoring the problems makes the place seem nicer, but only if I remain ignorant. And if I remain ignorant, I'm complacent. I'm a bystander. I'm not part of the solution. Optimism, and believing in the possibility of something better, is only healthy when one's eyes are wide open to the problems.

So, in terms of truth and fiction, I suppose it's important to be aware of the stories we tell ourselves, about how the world works and why we do what we do. And if we don't like the stories, we need to try to retell them. Try to change the endings. Imagine ourselves as protagonists. Reading the world around us can be a challenge—and rewriting it even more so.


Sunday, April 18, 2010

Sweet Little Bites

Sure enough--give a finicky boy a plate of heart-shaped sandwiches, and they disappear! We finally whipped out the mini-sandwich maker that Elliott got for Easter, and I must say--little bits of food never looked so appetizing. If you're feeling a bit down, or can't figure out what to eat, why not make it heart-shaped, or triangular, and see what happens?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Mom Vision

Being a mother twice-over qualifies me to chime in on a whole host of mom-related issues. Perhaps I give myself too much credit. But the way I figure it, plenty of non-moms are telling moms how it is, and how it should be. I’m at least as qualified as all y’all, I say. So hear me out.

One of my starkest realizations, as I spiraled deeper into motherhood, is that mothering changes the way I see the world around me. I’m not talking about the phenomenon of seeing other moms everywhere, or noticing the countless cute kid things I could spend money on now that I’m child-laden.

I’m talking about how living with children—say, when I’m cooking, or talking on the phone, or taking them somewhere outside my house, heaven forbid—changes how I perceive and absorb what’s going on.

This new way of seeing is not to be confused with a state of distraction. And this I state emphatically, for the mother, especially the stay-at-home mother (whose ranks I count myself within) is often as misunderstood and denigrated as she is loved. I mean, how hard can it be, right? All you have to do is watch the kids all day!? Oh, gentle reader, were it that simple…

Take my trip to Ye Olde Muffler Shoppe a couple of weeks ago. As I herd my two boys into the shop, Half Pint is caught off guard by the New Situation, which can balk a toddler as quickly as a housecat suddenly finding a dingo in the house. Half Pint whimpers, shields his face from the other waiting customers, and immediately wants me to pick him up. When I hand over my keys, he’s wise, even though he can’t see the countertop, and starts calling, “Car, white car, white car,” in a distressed tone. “Mama home. Mama car.” He senses trouble.

Little Bit, the darling sack of potatoes on my hip, gets interested in things and starts squirming. As I try to explain my car’s symptoms, the when-where-and-how, hoping to guide Muffler Man’s prognostication, I simultaneously try to keep Half Pint and Little Bit calm and cool. At this point I’m holding both of them, trying to keep them happy, as I continue talking with Car Man. As we manage out the door, I silently say to myself, “Ahhh. Crisis averted.”

This situation is remarkable only in its ubiquity; it replays itself whenever we go to the grocery store; doctor’s office; any store; church; restaurants; friends’ homes. You name it. And I’m sure countless other moms are out there, trying the same aversion tactics. The best way I can describe it is that only half of my brain is engaged in whatever I’m trying to do, and my eyes only occasionally focus in the same direction at once. Though my visage may suggest serenity, make no mistake: I’m constantly on damage control duty.

Multitasking? This may be what I do, but true multitasking is a myth. What I do, as a mother, is more like driving while trying to see clearly through bifocals. I’m trying to handle the immediate task at hand while also scanning the terrain for stormy weather brewing. Have you tried to coupon shop while managing two kids in the cart? I’m not sure if it’s an amazing feat or a sign of my own persistent haplessness. Depends on the day, I guess.

I know I do this because I notice how it’s difficult for my better half, who is easily frazzled by such situations—and rightfully so. I’m only marginally frazzled, and it’s mainly because I don’t have a choice. Like it or not, the groceries must be bought, the car must be fixed, and we simply must leave the house. And as a result, though Half Pint and Little Bit rarely melt down in a store, or at church, or at the library, I often do the most harebrained things. A few weeks ago I left groceries in my cart when I drove away from the grocery store. The kids, of course, were fine, strapped in and safe. But some of the groceries mysteriously didn’t make it into the trunk. It’s as if I just didn’t see them, didn’t really focus on the groceries by the time we arrived back at the car. My mind had refocused on more important things, ostensibly.

As a person who has long valued her solitary time—time to write, recharge, and generally spend time on whatever I wanted to focus on—this new way of seeing the world is unsettling…and necessary.

Monday, April 12, 2010

It Takes All Kinds

Those of you who know me know that I may live in Cincinnati, but I don’t LOVE Cincinnati. I complain about a lot of things. I’m trying to become more positive. I hope that, someday, maybe 85 percent of the words I speak will be affirming, optimistic, glass-half-fullisms. But that’s someday.

When you live in the Queen City, you must either embrace its complexities—fascinating and thoroughly disorienting, the way I imagine having a deep relationship with a bisexual person might be—or you must have one sick case of willful ignorance. I have neither, so I settle for chronic , if measured, displeasure. There are great things about this city. But there are many shitty things about this city.

Take today, for example. Driving to work, a guy in front of me at a light calmly opens his car door, places a Colt 45 tallboy on the pavement, and closes the door. Like waitstaff will come along shortly to pick it up.

Turns out, surprise surprise, our neighbors—and I use “neighbors” loosely, meaning “people who constantly drive through our neighborhood”—include drug peddlers. Though dealing drugs IS a home-based business of sorts--Flexible schedule! Be your own boss (sort of)! Meet all sorts of interesting people! Unlimited earning potential!—it’s also ILLEGAL and attracts UNSAVORY characters. And they park in front of our house. These qualities might make playing porchmonkey more INTERESTING—you know, DRAMATIC, SUSPENSEFUL--but drama isn’t what I’m looking for in a neighborhood, if you follow me here.

So E and E, and I, dressed as we were, were having a great good day today, eating lunch on the lawn, horsing around, ringing the doorbell, eating sand. All the usual stuff you might do if you’re 32, or 2, or 0. Of course, along with the food, and toys, I’ve brought out a pen and paper, just in case I see something interesting I might want to recall later.

Nothing transpires, of course. But when I get home from work tonight, Jay gives a full report.

Not only the two main cars, but a third car this time, and they all sped by twice. Our casual talk now includes druggie details, scenarios, speculations. Jay’s an expert on it, from my way of thinking, because (1) he has watched “The Wire,” and (2) well, that’s my only reason.

I explain that I sit outside with a pen and paper, and sometimes a camera, because the local PD said that tag numbers would be helpful.

“I don’t think I’d make it obvious that you’re taking pictures. Or writing things down,” Jay says. “They’ll know we’re watching them.”

What I should’ve said is, “Well, I don’t think THEY should make it obvious that they’re dealing drugs. If they don’t want people watching, they should go somewhere WHERE THEY WON’T BE SEEN.”

But it was more like BLAH BLAH BLAH Damn it I’m taking pictures BLAH BLAH BLAH. What I was trying to say is that, damn it, the cops don’t care, the dope fiends don’t care, and the local civic association looks the other way because property values are—whisper it—de-li-cate. These people can suck it.

The whole city, it seems, turns a blind eye on bull like this. I KNOW it’s hard for cops to catch these guys. But that doesn’t mean I should PRETEND I don’t see it. If you are reading this, and happen to BE one of the drug dealers, then YES, we’re watching you. You make us unhappy. I’d like you to secure gainful, legal employment and cease tearing ass through my neighborhood.