So many disasters to choose from! Earthquakes! Ice storms! Ebola! Zombies!
I don't know about you, but I have a hard enough time preparing for the mundane events I know for certain will happen. Like school lunch. I know exactly when it happens and I know what I need for it, and yet somehow a kid gets sent to school with peanut butter and marmalade on a stale tortilla and a rapidly browning banana. If I can't even get it together for lunch, how do I begin to approach the subject of disaster preparedness?
Oh, I think about it plenty. But I'm curiously inert when it comes to the actual "doing something about it" part. Many of the books I've seen threaten to turn me into a version of Edvard Munch's painting The Scream. I want to be reasonably prepared without being told I must build a bunker and buy a year's supply of freeze-dried food. The Prepper's Pocket Guide : 101 easy things you can do to ready your home for a disaster by Bernie Carr is an easy way to wade into a kiddie pool of preparedness waters without jumping off the high dive and into the deep end.
But what about that biggest disaster of all? The one we all think about even if we don't want to think about it? That inevitable thing that will happen to each of us no matter how much seismic retrofitting we do or how many flashlight batteries we hoard? The event that mostly no one wants to talk about in American society (with the exception of my children right before bedtime.) The Big D.
Death is a difficult topic under the best of circumstances. Glimpsing Heaven: The stories and science of life after death by Judy Bachrach is one of the most interesting and hopeful books I have read this year. As someone terrified of death, the author began her long journey to the book as a hospice volunteer in order to overcome her own paralyzing fear of death's unknowns. She discovered that, thanks to modern medicine, CPR and technology, more people than ever before are returning from up to an hour of clinical death to report on what lies beyond.
Those reports are generally life-changing for the "death travelers", as she terms them, and completely fascinating for the rest of us. The experiences and scientific investigations detailed in the book are the tip of an enormous submerged iceberg. Published by National Geographic, these may be some of the most unique travel experiences in print. Death is an uncharted distant planet we have successfully landed on and awaits the courage and funding for more exploration. What we really want to know: Is death the end?
After reading this book even the most skeptical person might answer: Probably not.
What is home? Where is it? Who gets to decide? Would I feel at home without the constant chatter, sticky surfaces and bruises from over-enthusiastic light saber battles? Would you feel at home without your bare feet harvesting stray Cheerios and tiny plastic jewels? Can home be home without your consent? Is home a place? A thing? A feeling? A person? A mysterious amalgamation of all these and more? Under what conditions does home become something other than home--a holy land or a prison cell? Two books I have read recently ask compelling questions about the places we call home.
Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is Roz Chast's memoir of her end-of-life experiences with her elderly parents. Devastating, poignant, and laugh-out-loud funny, she must navigate senility, hospitalizations, assisted living and all the responsibilities an only child of elderly parents must shoulder. What is it like to move parents from a home of 50+ years to a place you--and they--know they will never leave? What does a childhood home mean once you've left it behind? What does it mean when you return? And what happens when you must sort through that home, object by object? Is it possible to concentrate the idea of home into other containers when it finally ceases to exist? This is a must-read book for anyone facing parental transition and a graphic novel for those who do not feel at home with graphic novels--you know who you are. (Think of it as a book-length New Yorker cartoon, and you'll be okay.)
California by Edan Lepucki is an apocalyptic fantasy posing interesting questions of home within a mesmerizing dystopian setting. Cal and Frida have left the world they've known in a crumbling Los Angeles to make a new life together in the wilderness. They disrupt their tenuous homesteading to seek out a nearby community when Frida discovers she is pregnant. Their marriage is tested by what they find. Is trust directly proportional to home? Or is trust a constant in the equation? While I found myself desiring more complex characterization, the setting continues to haunt.
Is home the beginning? Or the end?
Dear Summer Vacation,
What is it about you that makes my children bound out of bed at 6:00 a.m., ready for action and aiming their destructive laser beams at any hilariously misguided idea I had for a few minutes of extra sleep? School Year never did that.
All is entropy and my house looks like that not-so-mythical gyre of plastic garbage in the Pacific Ocean: Nerf darts, boomerangs, water balloons, molecule models, yo-yos, pieces of Risk and Stratego and little Monopoly houses and those dastardly Danish blocks I fully expect will one day require surgical extraction from one or both my feet.
And the sopping wet piles of clothing and towels--what's up with that, Summer V.? My children don't even bother with swimsuits any more. Because they're not going swimming. At some point during the day, every day, they just go outside and turn the hoses on one another while fully clothed. Because they can. Because of you, Summer Vacation.
Of course you have your good points, S. V. You've got your trips away, and dinner on the grill almost every night (mostly, it must be said, because the cook can park her rear in a lawn chair outside with a book and ignore the screaming children in the house), and ice cream, and that holiday with its permissions to play with fire and blow things up. Hello, sticky s'mores and raspberries growing in the backyard and fuzzy bumblebees in the lavender.
If I had any skills in photography I would take pictures before you get away again, Summer Vacation. There are a million books I could read, but looking at pictures seems the right thing to do now, while the sun shines and gifts us all with extra daylight. Here are a few recommendations should you find yourself in an Adirondack chair under a leafy tree with a tall glass of iced tea (or, like me, caught between a grill of burning hot dogs and a leaking half-full kiddie pool soup of toys and grass and dead or dying insects while holding someone's drippy purple popsicle):
Summer Food: New summer classics by Paul Lowe is that rare cookbook--photography gorgeous in its own right, with the added bonus of recipe after delicious-sounding recipe. The recipes are simple and straightforward without a bunch of strange "where the hell do I get that and what is it anyway" ingredients. I want to make almost everything in this book. But even if I never do, the pictures are enough. Just don't eat the book. I'll want to check it out again.
This Is the Day: The March on Washington is a striking photo-essay by Leonard Freed documenting the historic March for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963 which included the "I Have a Dream" speech Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave at the Lincoln Memorial that day. Freed's images seem illuminated from within by a moral beauty and the human dignity so central to the civil rights movement. This book is not about Dr. King or his speech or famous events but about the ocean of ordinary people who marched in peace for justice and ultimately carried the day and the movement.
Once Upon a Playground: A celebration of classic American playgrounds, 1920-1975 by Brenda Biondo is a time capsule. Careful: you may be transported to that park that you could walk to by yourself when you were nine, the one with the giant metal rocket you could climb. This book is a visual tribute to the iconic play structures rapidly vanishing from the collective cultural landscape. The book juxtaposes contemporary photos of structures along with vintage catalog advertisements, postcards and photographs of the same structures. The result is a ride on a haunted merry-go-round.
I can't decide whether I want you to spin faster or slow down, Summer Vacation. Just don't ever disappear.
It's that time of year again to think about those wonderful women in our lives who have sacrificed so much for us: Time. Sanity. The last slice of pizza.
It's time to think about and honor those mother figures in our lives. If we are mothers, it's also time to adorn ourselves with hand-painted necklaces made of macaroni, admire handmade cards and clean the kitchen after our offspring have endeavored to make us a "surprise" cake. It will look like a reenactment of a theater of war substituting kitchen utensils and food for soldiers and weaponry, but the real surprise is when you discover an entire thriving colony of ants a month later. They will be busily subsisting on a dripped mound of faintly familiar pink frosting. Try not to scream when you find this.
This year I told my husband I wanted to celebrate with pizza and a movie. (And possibly a Dairy Queen run. I attribute part of my survival as a parent to Peanut Buster Parfaits.) The pizza, just this once, will not be ordered with my children in mind and, thus, will not involve pineapple. The movie will be The Bad Seed starring the inimitable Patty McCormack as everyone's favorite psychopathic child murderess, Rhoda Penmark. You can watch this movie instantly using the library's streaming service, Hoopla. If you have never seen this gem of a movie, you are in for a treat. (If you can define a treat as the escapades of a cold-blooded serial-killing eight-year-old in pigtails like I can.)
Another unconventional look at motherhood on film I recently enjoyed was Fill The Void, which provides a sensitive and riveting look inside a Hasidic community and the dilemma of one young orthodox Israeli woman. Shira's older sister dies in childbirth, leaving a husband and brand-new baby boy. Does Shira continue on the traditional matchmaking path or step into the life and family her sister left behind? The last shot of the film made me want to watch the whole thing all over again.
Whatever Shira does or does not decide to do, we can be reasonably sure her choices will not involve alcohol consumption or inappropriate language. Or Dairy Queen. Which is the polar opposite of the parental musings of Nicole Knepper in Moms Who Drink and Swear: True Tales of Loving My Kids While Losing My Mind. This book is hilarious if you do not mind a potty-mouth or someone comparing the chore of preparing dinner to a sexually-transmitted disease (see the chapter "Dinner Is Like Herpes"). As she so eloquently puts it:
Like a turd hitting the fan, motherhood touches everything. Nothing in your life is the same after you become a mother. Not your marriage, your friendships, your career, your ass, your breasts, your mind or your heart.
And there's really only one thing left to say to that.
It is perennially fascinating to me to observe what children see and don't see. Taking Child the Younger shopping provided a teachable moment and lovely conversation about gender identity and sensitivity when he noticed a happy boy his age dressed in a long pink ball gown Cinderella would envy. Child the Elder recently failed to notice that he had spray-painted the cement walk in front of our house while priming some models or that he had permanently super-glued two of these same said models to my dining room table. (No one failed to notice my screaming when I discovered these tiny unwelcome dinner guests.)
The things and people closest to us are often the last things we see. I was in middle school before it dawned on me, only with the comment of a friend, that there was something immediately noticeable to everyone else about my father's appearance. Later in life I met someone who had a similar experience with her father. He got up and put on two prostheses each and every morning. This was the norm at her house. It never occurred to her that her dad was missing both his natural legs until a friend happened to mention it.
What if normal means growing up in a vast underground silo? Wool by Hugh Howey was just the dark dystopian page-turner I needed while Portland was buried in snow. Juliette is a smart and scrappy mechanic from the "down deep" lowest floors. Her brief and tragic love affair and her loyalty to those she lives and works with counters the shadowy IT department that maintains control of the silo. The many generations and over one-hundred floors of the silo come complete with a unique history, class system, and form of justice. The story begins with Sheriff Holston investigating and processing the death of his wife. The secrets he uncovers about the silo go with him when he, too, commits the ultimate taboo and asks to go outside. Will Juliette survive becoming the silo's new sheriff? Will her human connections be enough to sustain her in a dangerous quest to save the only society she knows?
Our children, too, are growing up with a new normal. Our day-to-day behavior as parents seems largely invisible and unimportant--unnoticed--until something happens and we realize our children are constantly watching and learning from our actions, large and small. One child, a seven-year-old in a play therapy session, had this to say in Catherine Steiner-Adair's book The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age: "My parents are always on their computers and on their cell phones. It's very, very frustrating and I get lonely inside." Clearly, we need to take a hard look at how our use of technology is impacting the fabric of family life. This is an important book. As the author says, "We can't afford to wait and we don't need to wait to see this much of the picture clearly: Technology, social media, and the digital age have converged on the American family, first transforming it and now threatening to replace the deepest and most vital human connections that children need to grow and thrive." The good news is that we can, as parents, mindfully use technology as an ally to strengthen family bonds instead of allowing it to erode them. This is the best parenting book I have seen in a long time--timely, interesting, easy to read and full of practical advice with a positive and hopeful outlook on our connected age.
Sometimes the birds that don't stand out for their songs or plumage are the ones we should be noticing. Corvus: A Life with Birds by Esther Woolfson combines anecdotes of raising and living with corvids with beautiful prose. Set in her town near Aberdeen, Scotland, Woolfson describes her life with Chicken the rook, Spike the magpie, Ziki the crow and a whole cast of supporting doves and other more conventional pet birds (including a crabby cockatiel named Bardie.) The total brain-to-body mass ratio of ravens, crows, magpies and other members of the Corvidae family is equal to that of great apes and whales and only slightly smaller than that of humans. These birds recognize faces, mimic speech and sounds, and use tools. Their impressive capacity for long-term memory and complex problem-solving has been proven. Woolfson's close proximity and careful study of the birds in her life provides a rare glimpse into their fascinating minds. Read this and I promise that the ordinary crow you curse for picking open the garbage bag on trash day will never look the same.
Because now you see it.