Catching up – Quips!

I am alive!  Who would have guessed it?  Not anyone reading this blog.  You would have thought I had finally nailed myself into a coffin with my worsted weight noose, but NO!  I am still here!  I am still knitting and reading, but with this PhD program, suddenly writing isn’t something I really want to do in my spare time anymore.  Which is a pity.  So we’ll have ourselves a little catch-up post here, and then maybe I can keep a little better track of things after that.

So last you heard, I had read The Beautiful and the Damned and it was a stirring experience.  After that, I figured it was time for some comfort food…book style.  So I used the power of my Kindle to find all those wonderful little Arthurian romance/legend novels I loved so much.  I read Persia Woolley’s Guinevere Trilogy, which is a long time favorite of mine.  I found the third book at a library book sale back in late middle school.  The cover was SUPER romance novelly — Guinevere sitting on a throne with billowing red hair, an look of defiance, and full, painted lips with a brilliant velvet dress spilling onto the floor around her.  It was definitely a cover I was embarrassed to be seen with — I think I read most of it at home.  But you know the old saying…regardless of the crazy artwork, the third book is fantastic — the fall of Camelot, with relate-able characters who I really grew to love.   Eventually, I went back to the library and found the first two books, which were fun, too, but the third one takes the cake.  Rereading them again after so many years was comforting and provided a fantastic escape from the stress of starting my graduate education.

I also struck out on new Arthurian territory, with a book called Gawain and Lady Green by Anne Eliot Crompton.  The author has also written an excellent and unique Arthurian legend called Merlin’s Harp, which I devoured in high school.  Merlin’s Harp is a feminist retelling through the eyes of Nimue, but it isn’t easily recognizable as the Arthurian tale.  Not at first.  The main character only hops in on the tale we’re all familiar with every now and then.  Gawain and Lady Green is, as you English majors out there might expect, a retelling of Gawain and the Green Knight.  It’s cute, and also comfort-foody, and unique again — if you don’t know the story of Gawain, you might not recognize the novel for what it is.  But I’m not sure you can only enjoy it if you know the story…I could see many a young adult enjoying this book simply for itself.

I also received a book from meine Mutti-in-law, called Bringing Up Bebe — One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting by Pamela Druckerman.  HIGHLY recommend!  Especially if you’ve ever been weirded out by the stress American culture brings into parenting.  If you’ve ever stumbled upon the kind of crazy that only we Americans can come up with on Facebook or blogs — fatwa on [insert trend here], why aren’t you afraid of this?  don’t you realize how your child’s life will be RUINED if they do thing x? — then you know what I mean.  This book is the perfect remedy.  It helped me breath a sigh of relief, that we weren’t raising Patrick like a weirdo — we were kind of raising him like a little Frenchman.  Which he is, to a certain percentage point.  The section on food is fantastic.  I wish I could enroll in a creche and eat like that — amazing.  A really fun read that helped me feel like I wasn’t the only one who thought our society’s expectation that being a mother = living in a constant state of freak-out is a bogus expectation.

Devil’s Advocate: Obviously, if you’re not freaking out, you’re not paying attention.  Am I right, America?!?  Who’s with me?!?  Let’s be sure to stress ourselves out about every feature of our child’s life, because if we don’t, then mass ax-murdering is CERTAINLY in their future.  (Did I conjugate that correctly?)

Then, Christmas rolled around, and I got a couple books for the jolly holiday!  The first one I read was from Drew, a T.C. Boyle novel that took place in our new home.  It’s called When the Killing’s Done and it was excellent.  By far the best of his novels I’ve read.  Subtle themes that progressed as the plot unfolded, characters who were true to themselves throughout, and realistic to boot.  Really excellent.  A literary treat, after all my Arthur comfort diving.  It also takes place in …drumroll… the Channel Islands National Park!  Right across the ocean from us!  And parts of it take place in our HOME — Ventura, Oxnard, Santa Barbara, Ojai — so fun!  Nothing like a book based on where you live to make you feel special.  Of course, almost all the boats in it sink to the bottom of the sea, and it does live up to it’s title, but…it’s still kind of a trip.

Let’s start with that for now.  I’ve got three more books to add, plus the one I am currently reading.  But I think if I don’t publish this post now, it may be the end of poor little Knitquip: the blog.  And I can’t have that.  PUBLISH!

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Castles in the Air by Judy Corbett

Ah, dreams.  The kind of things that keep you up nights, wondering about the future, fantasizing about the excellent romanticism that awaits you, and of course, panicking about what possible eventualities you may not have planned for.  With the boat now purchased and ready to move on to soon, it seemed a good time to finally read this book — Castles in the Air by Judy Corbett.  My mom gave it to me years ago, and Drew read it right then.  I’ve been kind of waiting for the right moment, and this was definitely it

A couple bought a castle for like a nickel and a wish in Wales.  The castle, Gwydir Castle, was falling apart, roofs caving in, gardens in disarray, bats inhabiting — but they set about fixing it up to restore it to its former glory.  The book takes us through their first year or so of work on the castle as they live in it while trying to repair it.  It’s a very sweet retelling of their story, filled with lots of luck and love — kind of a romantic and Romantic tale.  They run a little bed and breakfast out of it now, along with hosting weddings, which you can check out on their website here.

I’d classify this as a great summer read, or a wonderful “beach read.”  SO, since this book was passed along to me with the intention that I would pass it on when I was done reading it, I’ll put it up for grabs right now.  First to put forth their nickel and a wish gets it!

Walking to Canterbury by John Ellis

Way back when, or, as Spinal Tap would say, “before the dawn of history,” I fulfilled the author study component of my English degree with an Interim class on Chaucer.  I had read bits and pieces of The Canterbury Tales in my survey courses, but I was unprepared for the diligence required when reading in Middle English, but that was tempered by the bawdy, hidden humor of Chaucer’s poetry.  The professor was extremely influential to me, academically and otherwise — she was the kind of woman I continue to aspire to be.  There were only 9 of us in the class, all girls, and our fearless leader helped us to understand Chaucer through the lens of a medievalist.

So a few months after the class, I was spending a lazy moment perusing through the St. Olaf Bookstore, when I came upon this book, Walking to Canterbury by Jerry Ellis.  I didn’t know the author’s name, but after being captivated by the ideals of pilgrimage, I was curious to see what kind of person would try this — a walk from London to Canterbury — in our modern times.

For those of you that don’t know, Canterbury Cathedral is the location where Saint Thomas Becket was murdered by four knights, mistakenly sent by the king, his old friend, Henry II.  After the knights killed Becket, he was declared a martyr and many (thousands? millions, maybe?) made pilgrimages to the place of his martyrdom.  This eventually led to Geoffrey Chaucer writing The Canterbury Tales, a story in which a group of pilgrims are traveling to Canterbury from London, and they each tell a tale along the way.  Enter our intrepid author who decided to make this pilgrimage himself in 1999.

Apparently, I wasn’t as curious as I thought.  I bought the book.  It waited on my shelf through graduation, through my wedding, through two years of teaching in MN, made the move in a cardboard box to Las Vegas, waited on a bookshelf in first one apartment, then a house, where it languished gathering dust for 5 more years, never touched.  I couldn’t ever bring myself to give it away, thinking, “But I AM going to read it someday…” so it would travel with us, making its own mini-pilgrimages from state to state, abode to abode, just biding its time.

Finally, this summer, when we sold the house and moved into another apartment, I had to decide.  Was I actually going to read this book?  Ever?  Or should I pass it along to another reader at my local library?  I decided to give it ONE MORE shot, and moved with the book again, this time promising myself (and the poor book) that I would read it before the next adventure.

And I did!  Promise fulfilled!  It’s probably best, actually, that I waited, because Ellis spends quite a substantial amount of his musing time musing about what life was like in Chaucer’s England.  Lots and lots and LOTS of paragraphs begin with something like this… “Handguns did not exist in the middle ages…” and then he goes on for a few pages on the types of weaponry used in the middle ages, and how the pilgrims might have protected themselves on the journey.  His transitions from narrative to history are weak and nascent — which I didn’t appreciatee now, but would have appreciated FAR less just coming off an extensive month-long study of an author from the time period.

However, what he lacked in eloquent weaving of prose, he made up for in philosophical ruminations.  Part Cherokee, Ellis is constantly discussing his Native American teachings and finding connections with all the people he meets on his trip.  It gets a little “bubble-gum” at times — too much about how we are all brothers, and the past pilgrims on this journey are just like his ancestors, which is true, but he never quite says it honestly enough for me to really FEEL it — but then he has moments of clarity about the time we live in that really strike home:

Often in debt up to our necks and working at jobs that we don’t truly love, we have become modern-day serfs, bowing to a lord whose face we can’t quite see there in the shadows between paychecks.  we just know down in our guts and hearts that something isn’t right, and we dare not talk about it too openly for fear it will become more real than we can dare bear.

That gets to the heart of it, doesn’t it?  Honesty — dark and brutal like that — is what makes me feel a connection to the medieval soul — we have not come as far as we’d like to think.  There is so much beauty in the world, in our lives, and STILL, we are not given enough opportunities to worship, to contemplate, to consider what our lives really mean.

Okay — I’ll back off now.  It was a good read, but I think now its next journey is upon it.  Time for a new adventure, book!  Off to your next reader!  Hopefully they won’t keep you waiting as long as I did.

Maiden Voyage by Tania Aebi

When I was eighteen, I was embarking on the biggest adventure of my life thus far, heading to college, which was about an hour from where I had grown up.

When she was eighteen Tania Aebi began a circumnavigation of the world, embarking on an adventure that would take her 2 and a half years, and segue her into her adult life.

Whoa.

I just finished reading her book about the trip, called Maiden Voyage.  Whether you are into sailing or not, it is worth a read, just to see the power of adventure and feel the vastness of our world.  Ever since Drew and I have been together, we’ve talked about sailing…always in little increments.  First it was learning how to sail — which we’ve done in Marina del Rey, CA with a fantastic class from the Blue Pacific Boating folks.  Then, it was to charter a boat — just the two of us — which we’ve done in the BVI.  If that little adventure was just a taste of what we could have cruising, then sign me up.

Now, Tania did this all on her own.  She single-handed the whole trip, from New York down through the Caribbean, transiting the Panama canal, making the “puddle jump” across the Pacific to the Marquesas and the rest of the South Pacific, down to Australia, back up to Sri Lanka, then through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal into the Med, making her final landfall in Gibraltar and then crossing the Atlantic amid storms and squalls back to New York.  All by herself.  Well, with the help of a cat, named Tarzoon.

Whether you’re interested in sailing of any kind or not, this is a cool book.  It starts a little slow, because, like many books by journalists, she peppers the first few chapters with flashbacks to how she ended up in this place.  Her familial relations are sympathetic for anyone, and her father is a character himself.  (It’s his idea to have her do this, and every time she makes landfall somewhere, his first question when she calls is, “When do you leave?”)

But especially if you like sailing, this is probably a required read.  It’s the kind of book that makes you all that more determined to cruise someday, and to realize that unless you just DO it, it won’t ever happen.  Conditions will never be perfect, you’ll never have “enough” money — you just have to go.  I have yet to visit a cruising blog that doesn’t state that.

It’s true of any adventure, though, isn’t it?  You just have to do it.  You can’t wait for things to happen to you.  Oh yes, readers — the wheels are turning, and soon, very soon, I will make my adventure happen too.  And if I don’t, it will be no one’s fault but my own.   But I’ll settle for less that a complete circumnavigation — maybe just Mexico someday, or Mexico to the South Pacific and back via Hawaii and Seattle. Or maybe even just living on a boat for awhile, do some small cruising on the weekends, just try it out.

Whatever I do, I don’t wish to just envy the adventures of others  — I want to have them as well.  And I’d like my little man to grow up with adventures already behind him, not just waiting on the horizon.  Other people are doing it — why not me?  If you’d like to see some of those other people, check out the blogs listed on the right under “Blogs I Read.” There’s also a great website, where most of these pictures came from, http://www.womenandcruising.com, which has tons of information and testimonials from the ladies who have been there or are there right now.

But, of course, the expert (which I am not) sums up everything I want to say about her book and about any kind of adventures, big or small, when she’s contemplating her return to “civilization” in the Atlantic.

I remembered back to the days before leaving New York, when I worried if I would ever adapt to life at sea on my own.  Having done it, I realized now how much more is possible.  But I could never have known had I not tried.

Now, in the same spot as I had been as a an eighteen-year-old setting off on her maiden voyage, scared and apprehensive of the future, I realized that the future wasn’t something to worry about.  If living at sea had taught me anything, it had revealed the importance of taking each new dawn in stride and doing the best that I could with whatever was presented.

And now, two last pictures that inspire me, and that I aspire to:

Tania now, during a circumnavigation with her two sons -- just the three of them.

Lin Pardey, a total hardcore cruiser, points to land from the boom. I daydream about being her in the picture at least once a day.

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua

First of all, American mothers everywhere need to just calm down.  Deep breaths.  In and out.

Better?

Okay, now we can actually have a conversation here.

Tiger Momming It Up

It’s a fun memoir about all the questions you ask yourself as a mother, all the answers you give yourself as a mother, and all the doubting choruses that can fill your brain as you steam ahead.  I loved this book from the beginning…how could I not?  As I read more and more, I kept bothering poor Drew…”Listen to this!”  “Oh my gosh, can I read you just one thing?”  “Drew– just one more paragraph — check this out…”  So on and so on.  I was in amazement of Chua’s honesty, her philosophies, and the relationships that evolved with both of her daughters.  Striking and amazing — that sums it up.

Here’s the basic run-down of the Tiger Mom concept:

Some might think that the American sports parent is an analog to the Chinese mother.  This is so wrong.  Unlike your typical Western overscheduling soccer mom, the Chinese mother believes that (1) schoolwork always comes first; (2) an A-minus is a bad grade; (3) your children must be two years ahead of their classmates in math; (4) you must never compliment your children in public; (5) if your child ever disagrees with a teacher or coach, you must always take the side of the teacher or coach; (6) the only activities your children should be permitted to do are those in which they can eventually win a medal; and (7) that medal must be gold.

The first shocker of the book was that, after all the controversy I’d heard about, this list didn’t seem crazy or militant to me.  In fact, as I read it a second time, a lightbulb began to warm up in my brain…was my mom a quasi-Tiger Mom?  Wait a minute…I was never allowed to question my teachers or their methods, even if she did.  Schoolwork was her first priority for me.  I always felt the engaging pressure of high expectations.  Although I always knew with certainty that she was proud of me and my accomplishments, I didn’t receive many compliments in the presence of others.  I have vivid memories of other people saying what a nice girl I was, or how talented, and I can see my mom, smiling at the compliment, and sometimes agreeing, but rarely initiating.  Okay, the gold medal thing doesn’t fit, but suddenly I had a very personal reason to give Chua’s thoughts a chance.  Perhaps I was the product of Westernized Tiger Mom parenting…a contradiction in Chua’s mind, but not in mine.  A style of parenting with high expectations for both performance and etiquette, but with a slightly relaxed fit.

Be sure to read the type on the cover...

But I am having trouble summing up my feelings on the book as a whole, because there are so many different ideas and striking chords that I found fascinating…so we’ll just go one by one.

Classical music was the opposite of decline, the opposite of laziness, vulgarity, and spoiledness.

Isn’t that lovely?  Chua insists that both of her daughters play classical music, and classical only because she is invested in the truth above.  This book made me wish I were a better pianist, that I had practiced more, or had more drive in college and continued piano lessons at that point. 

What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it.

So true.  That’s half of the fun of living — working hard to become better at something, so that you get that rush of adrenaline one day when you realize you’re fantastic.  Then it’s fun.  Being able to sightread piano music now?  Fun.  Working hard to get there?  Worth it — but not necessarily fun.

But as a parent, one of the worst things you can do for your child’s self-esteem is to let them give up.   On the flip side, there’s nothing better for building confidence than learning you can do something you thought you couldn’t.

This is one thing that my own Western Tiger Mom did for me.  There came a time in middle school when I wanted to quit the piano.  At the time, I couldn’t articulate why — I was an adolescent — but I knew I wasn’t improving and I wasn’t getting any enjoyment out of it.  My mom, being smarter than middle school me, knew exactly why I felt this way, and switched me to a new teacher, who became a fantastic musical role-model for me all through high school.  I began improving again, and really enjoying the piano — even if my practicing left something to be desired.  At another point in high school, I also wanted to quit playing French Horn.  Now I can look back on my reasoning and see it for what it was — insecurity, because even though I was a junior, the underclassmen were better than me.  I didn’t like to be out-performed, and it was happening on a daily basis.  But when I asked my mom if I could switch instruments, the answer was no.  She didn’t let me give up on anything, and I am better for it.  Even if I still get out-performed on the Horn.

“Never ever make fun of foreign accents,” I’ve exhorted them on many occasions.  “Do you know what a foreign accent is?  It’s a sign of bravery.”

I don’t think this one even needs any reflection from me.  It’s just a beautiful and TRUE statement.

In the words of Lulu’s violin teacher Mr. Shugart, “Every day that you don’t practice is a day that you’re getting worse.”

Gulp.  This quote made me feel a little sad.  It’s true.  Sadly true.  I am not the pianist I was at the end of high school.  My sight-reading is much better, but my overall technique is poor.  Practicing would fix it.  But I don’t.  This is why I did love teaching piano lessons for awhile — it gave me a reason to practice.  Every time a student missed a lesson, which happened more often than not, I had nothing else to do but practice.  And I had a whole music store at my perusal.  It was fantastic.  I felt my fingers returning to some semblance of their former glory.  But now, 4 years later, it’s gone again.  This doesn’t mean I can’t play — I’m still doing fine.  But I’m no longer as good as I want to be, or sometimes, as good as I think I am. 

I’d made a career out of spurning the kind of Western parents who can’t control their kids.  Now I had the most disrespectful, rude, violent, out-of-control kid of all.

But this quote, out of all of them, was the most honest statement she made in the whole book.  Any parenting style has flaws.  Let me rephrase that: EVERY parenting style has flaws.  As I try to piece together my own parenting style for my son, I find so many contradictory statements — philosophies I agree with, philosophies that I’ll see in hell, philosophies that are just banal and confusing.  All parents believe that if you don’t do things a certain way, your child is doomed either to inanity or to jail.  I’ll admit that even now I feel that way about other ways of parenting that I don’t agree with.  Obviously that person’s child is going to grow up severely troubled.  But not my son — because I’m parenting the right way.  We all feel like this, and in a way, we have to.  It’s so overwhelming, that if we don’t create a shell of self-confidence, we’ll crumble into ourselves.

Monkey Mom!

I would hope that most people, rather than judging Amy Chua or becoming deathly afraid of the Chinese Children Who Will Take Over Our Land, will be able to see this book for what it is — an honest memoir.  And, whatever your beliefs, I’m sure you can see that honesty anywhere is hard to come by these days.

And, since I’m not a Tiger anyway, I guess my son won’t have a Tiger Mom.  He’ll have a Monkey Mom.  Only time will tell exactly what that will look like.  Chua says in her book (even though she prefaces this by saying she doesn’t always buy in to astrology), Monkey people are curious, intellectual, and “generally can accomplish any given task.  They appreciate difficult or challenging work as it stimulates them.” Watch out, son — you are my given task right now.  And I shall accomplish you!  Ha!

But the final word should go to one of the daughters herself.  Be sure to check it out — it really makes all the critics look pale by comparison.

Packing for Mars by Mary Roach

Drew has always talked about space travel.  It’s never really been my thing, and, honestly, most of conversations about Mars have gone something like this:

Drew: I can’t believe NASA isn’t going to be doing any more manned space flights!  It’s so depressing that our astronauts have to hitch rides to the International Space Station!  Liz, don’t you think we should be working on travel to Mars?

Me: [shrug]

Poor Drew.  Now, having read Mary Roach’s book, I know why he is so excited about space travel.  I always assumed it was no big deal — we’d gone to the moon, how much more do you want?  I had never considered that modern day astronauts are truly the explorers they are.  Without exploration, what do we have left as humans?  Regular life?  Blah blah?  The human spirit needs to be finding out more and more about the world AND worlds around us!  Mary Roach and all of the astronauts, cosmonauts, and scientists she interviewed have me convinced: Mars is important.

Curious Science, indeed

If you haven’t read a book by Mary Roach, do it now.  She asks all the questions you are very interested in knowing an answer to (how exactly CAN someone go to the bathroom in zero gravity?).  She writes the best footnotes ever, like this one: “I had to look up BAMF on Google.  It stands for Bad A** MotherF***er, but don’t tell that to the Berkeley Avenue Mennonite Fellowship or the Builders’ Association of Metropolitan Flint.”  Awesome.  I get the impression, reading any of her books, that some regular person like me just wandered in to a documentary film made by the biggest experts around.

Then, last week, we were watching “The Daily Show” and Neil Degrasse Tyson was on.  For the first time, I found myself gung-ho for Mars.  The biggest question of mine that Mary Roach answered?  Who would want to go to Mars when there’s the possibility you might not come back?  Turns out, every astronaut ever.  Apparently, I am not an explorer either, but now I do see the value of exploration and the need for it in our world.  Or out of our world.

http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/tue-january-18-2011/neil-degrasse-tyson

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