Never. Never ask for what ought to be offered.

These are the words of sixteen-year-old protagonist Ree Dolly in Daniel Woodrell's book Winter's Bone, giving her younger brother a lesson in conduct. Their father has not been home in days and they are hungry. A family across the way, to whom they are related, has freshly killed carcasses hanging in the trees; he is wondering about requesting some of the meat.

Ree's father cooks crank and the story picks up after he is missing and in danger of skipping a court date; if he does, the family will lose the house and land--their only security, pledged to a bail bond. Ree's mother, mentally ill and a vacant shell of her former self, is a burden Ree carries without question, along with her two younger brothers. They are family, and family is all.  

This novel is atmospheric, darkly lyrical and devastating. While the gritty portrayal of hardscrabble Ozark life is striking, even more compelling is the seeming resignation and acceptance of the status quo by adults, children and the law. The questioning Ree is a lone and exposed nail waiting for the hammer of the system to come down. She is clear-eyed about the risk she is taking but she also knows that without that risk she will sacrifice her life and the futures of her small brothers to the ravenous and self-perpetuating cycle of drugs and poverty.

She knows that searching for her father will take her deeper into darkness than she wants to go, but she also knows it is her only chance of finding the light.

After a day of work, I sometimes wonder what it would be like to sit on the sofa and have obedient and loving children welcome me with my slippers and a cup of tea while a well-trained dog fetches the newspaper (which has not been torn asunder and scattered to the winds in the required-by-law daily comics raid.) This imagined scene gives me a hopeless little chuckle as I enter what I affectionately call "The Battle Zone of Wars Eternally Lost", also known as "My House." For the sake of brevity (the soul of witless parenting) my dear husband and I call this place, simply, "The Zone."

My homecoming assessment of "The Zone" begins on the street as I monitor the noise level from outside the front gate. Silence does not guarantee détente, but screaming, yelling, and whining do almost certainly guarantee impending misery. The sound of a child practicing piano is a good sign, but the sound of, say, deafeningly determined Rachmaninoff means that my co-parent is waving the white flag of surrender and is completely ignoring the children in a last-ditch attempt to save any scraps of sanity he might have left after a day of endless screeching demands. There is no sitting on the sofa (unless my spouse has gone beyond Rachmaninoff and is huddled in the far corner of the couch with a blanket over his head.) There is no tea if I do not prepare it, and instead of a dog we have a cat with a personality disorder who bites only me, routinely and somewhat enigmatically, with no provocation or warning. Whatever The Zone holds, the objective is always the same: survive through Bedtime. If I live to tell the tale, my reward is a little television. I am sorry to say there are only three existing seasons of my latest favorite BBC show, Clatterford. On British soil it goes by the title Jam and Jerusalem, but they changed it for the American audience. Don't ask me why--trading reference to a familiar food and a known geographical place for the name of an obscure English town is the sort of sensible exchange that goes through my cat's brain just before she sinks her fangs into my flesh.

The show is a kinder, gentler comedy from the brilliant mind of Jennifer Saunders, creator and star of the searingly hilarious Absolutely Fabulous. The show centers around the life of Sal Vine (Sue Johnston), a nurse and recent widow in the small town of Clatterford St. Mary. Sal's efforts to reorder her life after her husband's death orbit around her grown children and the town Women's Guild, which is populated with fascinating minor characters. Outrageous comedic bits--Rosie (Dawn French) nursing a lamb in the pub; accidental vacuuming of church displays of the Nativity/Palm Sunday/Resurrection in which the primary players have been carefully crafted using stalky roadside weeds with googly eyes; Caroline's (Jennifer Saunders) constant misuse of pornographic sexual terms--are balanced with sincere drama. Loneliness washes in and out of lives as the characters struggle with relationships lost and found. Clatterford is complicated and messy. It's funny and familiar and at the end of the day you can't wait to go there. Just like home. Without the cat bites.

I'll start with this: I don't hate to cook. I just hate to cook for my current captive demographic, which includes a child who begs for sushi in his wretched school lunch every day and a child who maintains a firm company policy of automatically rejecting anything that is not a fruit. Which kids in America scorn spaghetti and

meatballs for dinner? Mine. Or homemade macaroni and cheese? Mine again. In all honesty, we would do best to just cut out the middleman and throw the children's portions of most any given meal directly into the garbage.
 
Verily I say unto thee, the joys of the kitchen are never-ending. When it falls outside of the Three Most Favored and Accepted Meals (as it is wont to do most every night given the laws of physics and statistics and the fact that I can only consume so much frozen Trader Joe's Orange Chicken), supper can degenerate into an elaborate theatrical production of gagging noises and dessert bribery or the very occasional pyrotechnic parental meltdown, quickly proceeding to premature bedtime for the juvenile offenders and a brat-banishment victory trip through the neighborhood Dairy Queen take-out window for celebratory Blizzards and onion rings by the most fed-up adult. For parents of picky eaters, maintaining maturity is a rough and rocky road. You are practically guaranteed to fall off a cliff or find yourself gnawing off a limb at some point.
 
Imagine my delight to discover that another woman declared my same sentiments of the superior suckatronic suckitude of supper fifty years ago. Peg Bracken published The I Hate To Cook Book in 1960. While there are a few recipes I might actually try (Hellzapoppin Cheese Rice!) the brilliance is in the confessional sarcastic tone and the wary wearied optimism of it as a whole. It is book before cookbook and time travel to a place where there are no locavores or slow food movements. Tempeh arugula wraps have yet to be invented. If a can of Cream of Chicken got you out of the soul-deadening kitchen and back in front of the typewriter (or other preferable creative endeavor) faster, then all the glory and honor to advancing food science and pass the scotch and soda. And just to put some Fake Hollandaise on the Sole Survivor (or icing on the Hootenholler Whisky Cake) there are fantastic little Hilary Knight drawings to introduce each cleverly-named chapter. If I lived in 1960 I might be tempted to scoff copyright laws and embroider these on tea towels.  
 
I was even more delighted to discover that this is only the most famous of Bracken's many books. I am happy to have a whole treasure trove of material written by a woman who once lived here in Portland (and worked as an advertising copywriter along with Matt Groening's father, Homer.) If Erma Bombeck was a character in The Simpsons, she would sound like Peg Bracken--eternally lighting cigarettes while staring sullenly at the sink, waiting for some souped-up thing to simmer and declaring that dinner should never take longer to cook than it does to eat. 
 
Amen, Sister.

As a high school sophomore I once earned major nerd street cred by getting my coach to excuse me from junior varsity tennis practice so I could go home and watch Jane Eyre on PBS. This earned me snorting laughter from my teammates and a used copy of the book later presented at the tennis awards dinner. (That battered paperback was--and remains--the only "award" for sports participation I have ever received. It was the "most creative excuse for skipping practice" award.) In any normal universe I would have been embarrassed. But on my own nerdy planet, I was proud. I may have been assigned to play bottom-of-the-roster doubles with a partner who hated my weak backhand in particular and my bookish guts in general, but in my mind I had struck a blow: a mighty blow for all the girls picked last.
 
I was not embarrassed then and I am not embarrassed now to admit that Jane is my homegirl. I have been finding Jane's tale compelling since I was twelve and bored and desperately scouring the house for something I had not yet read. My exasperated mother shoved a volume from a set of books we kept on our coffee table as décor into my hands and ordered me to read it. I was doubly astonished: at how riveting the story was, but also that it had been living there under my nose for my entire life as an ignored piece of red leatherette furniture.

The 2007 Masterpiece Theatre production of Jane Eyre is my favorite screen version to date. The casting is near-perfect and even minor characters (notably Adèle and Mrs. Fairfax) have warmth and depth they are not usually allowed. The chemistry between Jane and Mr. Rochester is undeniable and plays out against a visually lush landscape in an astonishingly sensual manner. (Fluttering red scarves in windows! Flocks of birds exploding from trees! Jane and Edward getting horizontal--in a completely clothed and Victorian way, of course!) The ending is satisfyingly triumphant in all its "Reader, I married him" glory. If you gravitate to underdog stories and have a need to spend 240 minutes with your television and a pan of brownies, this is for you.

I sat down to dinner recently and noticed something amiss. My otherwise-perfect and untouched plate of food sported an ear of corn with a shaggy crop circle in the middle of the cob about the size of a preschooler's mouth. I looked to Child the Younger, sitting to my right, and asked him if he knew what had happened. He smiled jubilantly, his baby teeth clotted with yellow kernels.  

"Sowee, Mommy."

Sorry indeed.


I have learned from parenting that there is birthed, along with the child, a never-ending list of things-- both done and undone-- for which to be sorry on both sides. This parenting thing is a project without blueprints, continually under construction, using tools that are as frequently inadequate, shoddy, missing or downright dangerous as they are right for the job. If a day on the parenting jobsite is particularly heinous, I may think of the list I have posted at my desk just to remind myself to laugh:

The Six Phases of a Project:

1. Wild Enthusiasm
2. Disillusionment
3. Panic
4. Search for the Guilty
5. Punishment of the Innocent
6. Praise and Honors for the Non-Participants

One project I managed to complete on my recent vacation was reading Brady Udall's magnificent novel The Lonely Polygamist. This is a Big Book, in both a physical and an existential sense; it is the American family writ large. Golden Richards is a big man (known to some as "Sasquatch") with three houses, four wives and twenty-eight children. He has problems. Big problems. While his lifestyle creates and magnifies difficulties, his internal struggles could belong to anyone. He attempts to keep his contracting business and his family finances afloat with a morally questionable project: his wives think the brothel he's building in Nevada is a senior center. His wives don't understand him and his children don't really know him. The story builds upon the alternating points of view of Golden, Trish (his fourth and newest wife), and Rusty (the eleven-year-old son of his third wife.) Trish is at a crossroads in her marriage while Rusty hatches a revenge plot for the bungling of his "special" birthday. At the center for each of these characters is a smoldering sun of grief blinding them in various ways to the complicated landscape. Golden grieves a lost daughter, Trish grieves a lost son, and Rusty is a ticking time bomb of grief waiting to happen. In all of this Udall manages to find the inherent humor in each situation, much of it laugh-out-loud funny. Within the mundane Udall raises Big questions, but the one that percolates through and ultimately lifts the book far above anything else I have read recently is this:

How big is love?

This is a question echoed by the deservedly popular HBO television series Big Love which I also highly recommend. Bill Henrickson is a modern-day polygamist living in suburban Salt Lake City with his three sister-wives, their numerous children and houses, and all of the complications and frustrations of his chosen lifestyle. His ties with a fundamentalist compound bring trouble, as do his business arrangements. Can one man find a way to keep it all together when forces both internal and external threaten constantly to tear it apart? Faith and love are big, but are they big enough?

In her memoir The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance Elna Baker discusses the issues that come with Big Faith. By turns utterly hilarious and painfully embarrassing, this described "Mormon Tina Fey" tells tales of what it's like to be an abstinent and religious single young woman in a city that's pretty much...not. Along the way she loses eighty pounds and takes a series of fascinating jobs ( I was entranced by her description of life as an "adoption specialist" for ridiculously expensive baby dolls at FAO Schwarz.) The heartbreak that ensues is predictable, but Baker finds the humor in each situation and manages introspection along with stories such as showing up to a Halloween dance dressed in a failed costume that makes her look, quite accidentally, like a giant part of the female anatomy.

The holds lists may be lengthy for some of these, but believe me: the love is Big. And worth the wait

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