I felt out of sorts yesterday, as I’m sure many of us did all over the world.

I don’t want to overemphasize events in the U.S. as opposed to elsewhere, but I do feel that the events of 9-11 sent reverberations far beyond our borders.

The aftermath of that day have included two wars, numerous tensions in other countries and the deaths of thousands.

It’s one of the ultimate tragedies of our time.

Despite the fact that there has been extraordinarily bad behavior on the part of many Americans, both on a large scale and on a small scale, there is cause for hope.

In case you aren’t aware of these small pockets of hope and sanity, I wanted to share them with you:

Here is a report on an interfaith conference in D.C. that calls for support for the Park51/Cordoba House project in New York City. (And by the way, do you know that there are worship spaces planned for both Jews and Christians in that same building?)

Nicholas Kristof profiled these two amazing women who are trying to turn their personal losses of 9-11 into a program to help Afghan widows.

And through the wonderful blog, Guilia Geranium, I learned about this fabulous project – The Girl Effect.

So what I did with my feelings of distress and disaffection was to send money out into cyberspace to young women all over the planet who are trying to make a difference.

What did you do to observe 9-11 yesterday?

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

The Last Time

Yes, I know what Labor Day is for. My family’s background was to the Left and then some, and I grew up going to a hippie school where our music curriculum consisted of Joe Hill, The Springhill Mine Disaster and Charlie and the MTA, among others.

But as a teacher, Labor Day has been more a focus of new beginnings for me – the start of school. Everything from first day classroom nightmares, to the new pencil smell, to laying in stores of supplies for lunches or a new jacket or binder. It’s all part of the ritual.

For the past 12 years, that ritual has also included getting my son prepared for his first day of school. Even during the six years that we homeschooled, we had our rituals about the “first day”, so that it felt honored, new, fresh.

This will be the last year for those rituals, this thirteenth year.

My son will be a Senior this year.

To say that my emotions are complicated is to give the whole subject horribly short shrift. My son has grown into a responsible, caring, humorous young man. He’s someone I would be proud to have as my friend. He’s someone who’s as trustworthy as someone on the edge of adulthood can be. He’s not perfect, but I’m damned proud of him.

From that viewpoint, he and I are both ready to have him head off to college next year. I know he’ll be prepared – academically, socially and in terms of life skills and good judgment.

There are also little perks of his leaving – no more mystery about what to send for lunch with my sandwich-aversive kiddo, no more check-ins about homework or major projects, no daily “did you remember to contact X about Y?”

The predominant emotion, though, is that this glorious adventure that has been his childhood is almost over. The discussions about literary themes, blowing off steam watching the Colbert Report or Leverage together, having pizza on Friday night, even the grouchy responses I get from under his covers when I’m reminding him that he was supposed to wake up 20 minutes earlier – each of these mundane moments feels precious. Something that must be captured in crystal and preserved.

We had a full weekend – my son had a group of boys over for D&D on Saturday and he went off with another group for some kind of Star Wars simulation for a good 12 hours yesterday. As the boys ate dinner with us on Saturday night, one kept saying “I can’t believe we’re going to be Seniors.” They were making plans for dressing up strangely the first day of school and telling the Freshmen that it was required of all Seniors. Last night, as we had friends over who are the parents of one of his closest friends, the mom discussed Senior trip plans with us.

Yeah, my son is grouchy today. It’s the last day of summer vacation. But even as he grouches, there’s a twinkle in his eye.

He knows.

It’s the last time, ever.

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I was watching something while folding laundry yesterday and there was this commercial for the Dove campaign for real beauty. I like this campaign; I don’t like Dove products, as I’d prefer products that do less damage to the earth, but if I were going to buy commercial soaps and creams, I would probably by Dove products, simply due to this campaign.

Many women grow up and continue as adults feeling inadequate in terms of their bodies or faces. We speak today about the constant onslaught of the media, the airbrushing, the dangerous eating disorders, etc., but while these particular attacks on our self-esteem are new, the issue is as old as gender-based division of labor.

As far as I know, we are one of the few species where female “plumage” is expected to outshine male plumage. It’s yet another aspect of women being all things to all people.

Later, I went to a meeting at my son’s school. We saw a young woman there, a good friend of my son’s, of whom I’m very fond. She’s one of the most high energy people I know, but she’s not giggly or flighty. She works her tail off, takes the hardest classes regardless of how she’ll perform, because she just “likes to *really* learn new things”, and she has a huge group of people who truly admire her and enjoy her. She’s far, far more popular than she realizes.

I asked her mom how their summer had gone. She told me, to my surprise, that her daughter had had surgery.

“Really? What for?”

I know this young woman has some congenital health issues, and I was concerned.

It was for correction of cleft palate surgery that she received when she was young. I noticed that this young woman looked different, but the difference hadn’t really registered. When she fills my mind’s eye, she’s just beautiful – she has luminous eyes, beautiful hair and a strong, lovely body that is never still. She exudes health, strength and her amazing personality. And I happen to know that a fair number of young men (and possibly women) were already perfectly smitten with her pre-surgery.

Her mom explained that the surgery became really essential to her daughter. Apparently, her daughter had felt “less than” due to the still-visible cleft palate. The whole surgery issue was huge for her mother, who’d always seen her daughter as others tend to, and her daughter, being more of an active, roughhousing kind of girl, had never seemed overly concerned with her appearance.  Her mother told me that, much to her amazement, her daughter was now more bubbly and happy than she’s ever been. Her new face was really important to her.

For me, it will take some getting used to. I’ll comment the next time I see her – I wasn’t prepared the other night.

Thinking of her situation while doing yoga this morning, I thought of my own reactions to my inadequacies at her age. I’ve struggled with my weight my whole life, and while I was generally within normal weight ranges with a few, brief dips into overweight, I’ve always felt “fat”.  In high school, past mid-Freshman year (the last of my “dips”) I maintained a classic 24″-36″-24″ frame and while I didn’t have the greatest legs, I was deemed pretty attractive.

I was from a family, though, with parents who had started off from working class Boston and Jersey City and in the atmosphere of shimmering Manhattan, they were of the school of “you can never be too thin or too rich”.  While they weren’t real advocates of the latter (being long-term Leftists) the thin mantra was huge in our house.  My father, particularly, scrutinized every bite that went into my mouth.  He even maintained that my drinking ice water at a restaurant before the meal was served would expand my stomach and as a result, I’d eat more than I should.

Not only did this start an unhealthy relationship with food, but with men, as well.  As soon as I discovered my power over boys my own age, I was keen to exploit it.  I wasn’t particularly promiscuous – I was actually quite frightened of touch and deathly afraid of getting pregnant – but I was definitely a serial monogamist, and the more boyfriends, the better.

Also, due to other issues in my childhood, I always went after the guys who were the oddballs, the shy ones, those who probably didn’t have a chance in hell of being noticed by girls.  So, um, yeah, I usually succeeded when I set my sights on someone.

And now?

Now, I wonder what possessed me to enter into these casual, two-week drama games.  Most of the guys were social isolates for a reason.  Generally, we had nothing in common other than low self-esteem.  This is not to say that I didn’t have some longer, satisfying relationships along the way, and I certainly slowed down and found more appropriate partners as I grew more mature.  But now I can’t really imagine how my 13- through 15-year-old self made some of the choices that she did, and I wish I could tell her to “buck up” and let her know how many fabulous qualities she actually had had.

Our girls (and boys, to a lesser extent) are hit with enormous pressure to look “just right”.  Girls as young as 12 are asking for botox treatments.

Where are you with the whole beauty thing?

Posted in Uncategorized | 11 Comments

Gaiman versus Colbert with a dash of Art Spiegelman

It doesn’t get any better than this…

Stephen Colbert interview with Neil Gaiman

Just to stir things up a bit – where DO you fall on the children’s literature continuum – are the Brothers Grimm a better choice for children or Goodnight Moon-type feel good books?  Okay, so that’s not a great comparison due to age differences, but I guess what I’m asking is should children be allowed to be scared, to find literature complex and sometimes overwhelming, or should books be “safe” for young readers?

To start things off, I’m all for challenging sensibilities, although I think children are fairly good at understanding their own limits or communicating that to caregivers when they’re still young.  My son would not have done well with “scary” too early, but over time, he loved dipping his feet in bit-by-bit and the world of Tolkien (via the Hobbit) was a huge read-aloud hit even at age seven.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 12 Comments

Two of the Usual Suspects and One Absolutely Not So

I’ve been busy reading this summer. That might not seem remarkable, as I am an English teacher and an avid reader and writer. What is unusual is that I’ve actually learned to read for pleasure again, not read because I’m boning up for a class, or reading for a book club, or reading because someone has really pushed me to read this or that.
I spoke about this a bit in this post, but today I wanted to chat about my three favorite books of the summer – two that are probably very familiar, and one that I’m pretty sure isn’t.
The first, The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, has become a huge international sensation, so much so that the beautifully imagined Swedish films are in the works to become Hollywood knock-offs. (Which is likely to be a disaster, but that’s for another post). I hadn’t read this book earlier because my husband thought that it would be too “raw” and violent for my tastes. I appreciated his care and concern. I am a wimp when it comes to violence, but I think that pertains to visual violence rather than something that I read. I’ll admit that there are certain scenes that are indelibly printed in my brain – the bathtub scene from The Shining, along with several scenes in the early Kathy Reichs’ books, but I can handle most things as long as they are in print.

I’m a complete sucker, though, for fabulous characters, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has them in spades. I do think that the primary protagonist in this first book, Mikael Blomkvist is a bit self-congratulatory, and I very much doubt his extraordinary magnetism to women. My guess is that this was Larsson’s view of himself – and aggrandized. The other supporting characters were strong, the layers underneath them were strong, and needless to say, Lisbeth Salander has won hearts the world over.

I’d recommend this book for anyone with a tolerance for sadism and darkness, but who love unraveling characters along with a mystery. This is not a book lacking in surprises – always a good thing. I’ve heard that the second, and especially the third books are even stronger, but I’m saving them for future vacations/breaks.

The second book on my list is by another international success, Tana French. French’s  In the Woods probably won every award and accolade possible, and if it’s anything like Faithful Place, it certainly deserves the prodigious praise. I read Faithful Place again thanks to my husband, who read it over a weekend away and absolutely was enthralled with the dysfunctional Mackey family and the patterns of devastation that they had created over a span of twenty-five years.  The details of working-class Dublin were extraordinary; Dublin becomes a “character” in this book as London does in Oliver TwistFaithful Place is another story within a story, much like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but I enjoyed it even more because there was a layer of hope at the end, which was not really the case with Girl.

I must have really been in the mood for dark, international tomes of dysfunction, because the third book fits this same category.  I’m not finished with this one yet, but I’m really drawn in so far.  This one, Popular Music from Vittula by Mikael Niemi, was wildly popular in Sweden when it was published in 2002 and has gained quite a bit of popularity in England, as well, but I haven’t seen it take flight here in this U.S.  It was given to me upon my 50th birthday, as the protagonist and I were born one month apart and the person who gave it to me (my Swedish “daughter”) thought I’d enjoy the Swedish perspective of coming of age during the same era.  For various reasons, I didn’t get to the book until over a year later, and I was very uncertain when I started it.  This review speaks of the book as being both puerile and survivalist, which I thought was extremely insightful and accurate, and it was the puerile aspects of the book that initially turned me off.  I’m glad I persevered, however, as I’ve become completely engrossed with Matti, his odd Ladstaedian friend Niila and there adventures in Pajala – think Lake Woebegone set off the arctic circle.  The book has little of the harsh reality of the first two books – this is generally light and whimsical and very much an “in the mind’s eye” type of fictional memoir – fantasy takes place as effortlessly as reality, and while there are some harsh and dark moments (this IS a northern Scandinavian tale, after all) the overall tone is childlike and filled with the wonder of growing up.

So, readers, what have you read this summer that’s been particularly intriguing?

Posted in Books | Tagged , , , , , | 9 Comments

One of the Many Reasons I Love John Stewart

Just in case you haven’t had a chance to see this…  and then I think I’m off this subject.  I promise.

Wish You Weren’t Here.

I actually saw this around the time it aired, but I’d forgotten about it.  Now it’s hit my sensibilities all over again.

Posted in The Daily Show | 7 Comments

Us versus Them

I got an e-mail from Democracy For America yesterday asking me to sign this pledge.

I signed it immediately and responded by posting it to my status on Facebook.

Another woman I know who does not share my views on politics or theology, quickly posted this link. The personal status she wrote to accompany it was “Because it’s a slap in the face and not a question of freedom of religion.”

I’m really tired of the “us versus them” mentality in this country.  I’m tired of those who feel that the Second Amendment is more important than the First.

I’m tired of those who feel that freedom of religion only applies to their own narrow views or beliefs.  Like it or not, the right to worship or the right NOT to worship as we see fit is one of our fundamental rights as U.S. citizens. 

Our Constitution is a very, very old lady.  It’s the oldest constitution in the world, currently. While there are mechanisms in place to make amendments, in this current political climate the idea that any amendment can actually pass is slim to none.  Because currently, our legislation is not about making change of any sort.  It’s about us versus them.

This country was made strong by our working together, but it’s always been divisive.  To say that there were “good old days” ignores the most vicious war in our history (The Civil War, or the War Between the States, depending on which “us” you’re part of), ignores the European settlers’ abominable treatment of both Africans and Native Americans, ignores the early laws of Boston, which shunned any Christian who didn’t follow the narrow tenets of Puritanism, ignores the treatment of Italians, Irish, Jews, Chinese and more recently Koreans and Iraqis as they made their way to our shores for a better life.  When we have worked together, we’ve accomplished some extraordinary things (albeit groups were still harassed and denigrated throughout many of  these projects): holding together and making it through the Great Depression and World War II; building our extraordinary, original railroad and telegraph systems; setting foot on the Moon; creating the largest early network of air travel; and providing free public education and libraries for all.

We’ve always been a cobbled-together country: pieces of states, regional beliefs and laws, prejudices, and, yes, us versus them.

We can’t continue to afford this mentality, though.  We can’t pay the low (yes, low) taxes that we do and expect free public education, good highways, police protection and the world’s most expensive military.  We can’t demand Medicare and also say that a government-run healthcare system will necessarily be a disaster.  We can’t expect the freedom to worship and not let everyone worship where and when they want to (or harass them for choosing not to worship).  We can’t call the Constitution card about carrying arms and knock it out because those who’ve chosen the right to peacefully assemble say something that we don’t want to hear.  We can’t pass laws that give only some of our citizens rights (because, you know, we did manage to amend this creaky document and the 14th time we did it, it became the law of the land that every citizen is blessed – or cursed, depending on how you look at it – with the same rights and responsibilities).

Buck up, Folks.  You either support our Constitution or you don’t.  If you want to make amendments, elect Congressmen and Congresswomen who will have the courage to take a stand and truly fight for their constituents, as opposed to simply fighting the other party.  Who support your beliefs.  Who will cross party lines if necessary.  Who will think beyond “us versus them”.

I work in an environment where almost all of the other people there think differently than I do theologically and politically.  I’ve learned a lot from them over the years.  Lately, however, many of my earlier prejudices have been reinforced, rather than shattered.  The more I become a “them” in this environment, the less likely I can find common ground to join them in an “us”.  The fact that they all supposedly ascribe to a religion where one of the basic tenets is to “turn the other cheek” seems particularly ironic.

We live in a very big world.  The citizens of our country and our planet are going to have to learn to work together in order to solve the extremely complex environmental and economic challenges of today.  We can no longer afford to be isolationist and selfish, whether in our neighborhood, our place of work or school, our state, our nation or beyond our borders.  It’s time to include everyone in the conversation.

Whether we like it or not.

Posted in freedom of religion, the Constitution | 18 Comments

A Breath of Fresh Air: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

I love rock ‘n roll, so put another dime in the jukebox, baby!

I am a music whore – I love all types, but rock particularly gets me and grabs parts of me that the rest of the genres leave untouched.

I love U2, Led Zeppelin, George Thorogood, the Allman Brothers, Yes, Springsteen, Santana, Deep Purple, Blue Oyster Cult, the Ramones, Iggy Pop, The White Stripes, Daughtry, the GooGoo Dolls, Nickelback (okay, so some of my taste is questionable – I admit it).

I played rock ‘n roll in high school. 


I owned a 1959 pre-CBS Fender Stratocaster that literally rocked my world. I was part of three bands.  Something I envy about this generation was that I wasn’t part of an all-girl band.  (I’m not sure there WERE all-girl bands back then).  In fact, I was usually the only girl in the band.  And yes, I was the “girl” back then.

I was also a geek with a capital “G”. (Still am).

And I read comics.

And I fell for the nerdy guys – you know, the sweet, awkward types with no social skills.

So there was everything for me to love about Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

One of my favorite books is War for the Oaks by Emma Bull.  The setting is the Minneapolis indie rock scene and I think Bull really captures the fun, energy and heartbreak of up and coming rockers (albeit set against a war between Fae and other factions, which made it even groovier), and that’s one of the many reasons I’ve read this book three times so far.

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World has that same energy, and this time, instead of incorporating fantasy (well, traditional fantasy elements, in any case), geekdom, romance and graphic novel craziness is incorporated.

The Ecstatic Ones (my family) rarely see movies on the big screen anymore.  It’s just too costly.  If we do see movies, we tend to see art-type films at the Michigan Theater, mostly because we like to support the Michigan Theater.  We divide all movies into “must see on the big screen”, “must see, but who cares where” and “must not see” (see the last post).  Scott Pilgrim definitely looked like big screen criteria: dreamy animation, special effects galore, searing punk rock and all kinds of cool florescent hair (trust me, florescent hair is just so much cooler when it’s 10 feet high on the screen).
My son and I were totally pumped to see this.  My husband, less so, but wanted to join.  My son and I weren’t sure about that, because usually when we see something like this, my husband comes, doesn’t enjoy it very much and then puts it down while my son and I excitedly try to rehash.  Nevertheless, the three of us set out during Sunday’s blistering hot afternoon and felt this would be a fun activity even if it wasn’t up to expectations.

It was TOTALLY up to expectations.

What may have worked best here is that the hero is not really heroic.  He is whiny, wimpy and there is no explanation (other than cool hair) why he falls in love with the mysterious woman with seven evil exes.

The object of his desire, Ramona, is fickle, strange and disconnected.  She’s pretty, but other than being mysterious, and actually liking the geeky hero (and yes, she’s out of his league), she really doesn’t have that much going for her.

His gay roommate steals his sister’s boyfriends (and the show – Keirnan Culkin is just wonderful in this role).  His band, The Sex Bo-Bombs, kind of… sucks, when they’re not pissed.  When they are pissed, they’re actually pretty darned good.

Despite Scott’s anti-hero status, concave physique and nothing of interest to talk about other than the origins of the naming of “Pac Man”, our hero seems to attract legions of cool women.  He can shred muscle-bound evil exes.  He’s man enough to share his bed with his roommate and several of his roommate’s lovers simultaneously (as long as they listen to his whiny rehashing of increasingly bizarre dreams).

What makes this work?  Hell if I know, but if you have ever loved playing in a band, ever loved someone else who plays in a band, ever loved comics, ever loved a geek, then this is just a triumphant, soaring, giddily-fun breath of fresh air and a great “summer finale” movie. 

So tell me, what great movies have you seen this summer?

Posted in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World | 10 Comments

Why I’m not going to see "Eat, Pray, Love"

I have a truly great circle of friends.  They are loyal, loving and we share many of the same interests, including similar tastes in books.

When Eat, Pray, Love was all the rage a couple of years ago, it flew through my circle of friends (most of us 40- or 50-somethings) in the way that the Twilight series caught like wildfire with some of my high school students.

Two of my very closest friends adored it, and they were both excited to find out what I thought.

By the end of the first chapter, I was untouched.  By the time Liz Gilbert had left her perfectly kind, loving husband, taken up with a man who was clearly a jerk and decided to spend her year traipsing around the world looking for “fulfillment”, my skin was crawling.  I got through Italy and the first couple of chapters that took place in the ashram, in part because my sister, brother-in-law were followers of Gurumayi and I was curious.  I finally reached the point, though, where I couldn’t stomach Gilbert’s self-indulgence anymore, and I ended up returning the book to the library early.

I’m at the age where life is too short; I don’t finish books that I don’t like.

My friends were circumspect about this – there are areas where we agree to disagree and that’s one of the many reasons why I love my friends.

I might still have seen this film just for the eye candy, and I’m not talking about Javier Bardem (who is fine eye candy indeed).  I love travel reels, food blogs, great, hedonistic photography, and Italy is one of my favorite places on earth.  I’ve seen A Room with a View more times than I can count.  Italy, alone, might have pulled me in.

But there was also Julia Roberts.

I think the casting is perfect – the self-indulgent author chooses the uber-self-indulgent actress to play, well, “her”.  Julia Roberts of the mega-watt smile (does anyone else see the resemblance to a cartoon horse, or is it just me?), the husband-stealing, the perfect children and the “Hindu” lifestyle.  Hindu? 


Do you think she follows domestic worship and purification rites, which are an integral practice for many followers of the various branches of the Hindu religion, does she revere Ganga Maiya, or is she really referring to something much more Western-palatable such as the Siddha Yoga that her author doppelganger followed in India?*

I can see this movie as a guilty pleasure for many of my age-something friends who might fantasize about a year of eating, praying and falling in love with their “soul mate”, especially since their realities don’t reflect Gilbert’s lifestyle at all. Stealing a peaceful bath occasionally might be all the self-indulgence they have time for. 

As far as I’m concerned, I just don’t have patience for Gilbert’s ramblings, either on paper or on the big screen.

I’d rather spend my free time enjoying and being grateful for my not-perfect husband, my not-perfect son and my not-perfect life.

It seems apropos to start this blog by discussing a very different spiritual journey from my own.  Everyone has a right to his or her own journey, and I shouldn’t put down Elizabeth Gilbert or Julia Roberts for seeking theirs.

Mine is just more of a mix of pragmatism.  I think there are still beautiful sights, spiritual teachers and delicious, fresh foods where I live in the Midwest of the U.S.  I love travel, but I love home, too.  

Let the life that you lead be all that you need” – Ryan Star “Breathe

So tell me – where are you in all of this media frenzy?  Does Eat, Pray, Love float your boat or make you want to run screaming in the other direction? 

*Note: This is not in any way, shape or form a put-down of Hinduism.  I’m just surprised that Roberts has embraced this religion, which is very much a product of its culture and region.  I’ll probably be covering my feelings about religion, and cultural perspectives on religion, quite extensively in future posts.

Posted in "Breathe", "Eat Pray Love", Ryan Star | 26 Comments