I've been thinking about what we all experience the same way and what's different for everyone. I've been thinking about it because the two biggest, most demanding, most brian-occupying things in my life right now fall into the latter category: books and parenthood.
I had been a mother for about an hour and a half -- on a 12-hour flight home from Korea which is itself another story -- before I realized children are all different and therefore all assumptions I had which began with phrasing such as, "When I'm a mother I will never..." or "Good parents always..." or "My children will never do that due to my superior parenting skills and general attitude as a human" were in fact a load of shit. Parenting seems like it's going to be a universal experience. It seems like one of those things that brings people together and unites us all. It seems like there are standards of good practice which will apply across the board. It isn't true. It isn't even almost true. In some ways, this is very freeing. I am now nearly judgement-free where parenting is concerned. Think Gatorade is a better choice than milk for your infant? Maybe. Prefer to dress you kid in a plastic trash bag than in clothes? Sure saves time. I say no to kids and guns and to Halloween costumes which equate children with sex. Otherwise, all bets are off.
And books. You know why they say there's just no accounting for some people's taste? Because there's not. Lots of books are bad. Lots of books that are bad -- that I know are bad -- garner great reviews, sell millions of copies, and/or are beloved by otherwise seemingly reasonable people, thereby encouraging more bad books. And conversely, lots of books are good, and it seems like nobody knows it but me. In contrast to parenting, I am right about books, and everyone else is wrong. The books I like are good, and the books I don't are bad. I have seriously great taste in literature. This is true. Pissing into the wind. But true.
In contrast, everyone experiences weather the same way. NYC darkens, floods, and we all feel either a) wet or b) helpless/empathetic/terrified/hopeful/appalled/alarmed/intrigued/ashamed which is something of a complicated emotion to be shared by everyone all at once. This is true of less dramatic weather too. As a writer, I find weather to be useful shorthand for all sorts of things. As a human, I find myself flirting daily for nine months a year with moving somewhere where it isn't raining. There is a reason why weather is the stuff of small talk. It's the thing we all share, not just the experience but the experience of the experience. I can't think of another thing about which this is so true.
When my husband and I moved into our current home seven years ago, we set up our four big bookshelves and then unpacked books onto them. When they got full, we did creative things like pile books on top of the bookshelves, and on the lips of the shelves in front of other books, and on and under chairs. Then we were out of bookshelf space, but we still had boxes and boxes of books. We couldn't buy more shelves because we had nowhere to put them (it's a small house). So into the attic they went.
Last holiday season, we made a Christmas tree out of books in order to give more books someplace to be. We didn't use all our homeless books, but we used some. The tree is taller than I am. And it is still up. (For there remains nowhere else for the books to live.) This December, we might build a forest. We're that festive. (Or have that many books. You decide.)
What? Your tree toppers aren't a baseball and a Shakespeare action figure? How come?
The beauties of having books on hand are many, but the best is this: sometimes you need to consult a book for one reason or another, and instead of going to the library or the bookstore or the internet, you just go to your shelves and there it is. And not only is it there, but it smells like it did last you were reading it and so transports you right back to that time and place. Or some sand falls out because you last read it on the beach in Hawaii. Or a bookmark flutters out to remind you of the little shop where you bought it in London or the play you went to the night before you started it and whose ticket stub was then repurposed as a placeholder. And you've already made notes, written in the margins, underlined great passages, noticed smart connections. In fact, it's downright creepy the number of times I go to a book to look up something that has just this minute dawned on me only to realize that, nope, I've already written down that idea years ago right there in the margin. Once, I was reading about a book online which sounded interesting then on my way to the bathroom sometime later walked past my bookshelf where not only did I notice the book already there but found it already marked up, full of copious notes, and me with no memory at all of having read it. (Such useful memory-holes also mean I get to rematch tv shows as if for the first time. It's awesome.) And never mind I sometimes don't remember books I've read. I can often remember, years later, roughly where on a page and roughly where in a book a certain passage appears. So I can usually find a certain quote by flipping through because I remember that it was in the book's first third and on the top of a righthand page. And likely as not I've bracketed it and put exclamation points there from the first time through. My memory of books is tactile, olfactory, scavenged, and visual. Can't do any of that with an ebook my friend.
It is therefore very frustrating when I come up with a book I need to read/reread/consult/flip through, a book I know I own, and yet I can't find the damn thing. Is it in the tree? Can it be removed by jenga-ing it out and replacing it with a similarly-sized volume? (Often, I find myself in the book tree corner saying things to my husband like, "Let's go hiking this weekend. Find me an Inside Out Washington sized book.") Or is it still in a box in the attic? Or have I leant it out to someone? Or has it simply been lost in years of moving, packing and unpacking and repacking, shuffling books around and over and under and behind furniture, ready to reveal itself, perhaps, next time we move?
ATTN EVERYONE: I need a new, larger house to buy and my copies of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and About A Boy. If you have borrowed either of the latter, please return -- no questions asked. If you are in possession of the former, we might ask a few questions -- you know, like have the place inspected -- but we're pretty easy. Built-in bookshelves a plus. Thank you.
It's Banned Books Week, a time to give thanks for your reading freedoms and to consider that they are not shared by all. Lots of my favorite books are on frequently banned book lists (go figure), but at the moment, the one I read most frequently is And Tango Makes Three. Written by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell (writer and producer on The West Wing) and illustrated by Henry Cole, it tells the true story of two male penguins in the Central Park Zoo who become first a couple and then parents together. The book explains that usually penguin couples consist of one male and one female, but Roy and Silo spend all their time together and show all the behaviors of other penguin couples. When the heterosexual penguin couples sit on eggs, this couple finds a rock for their nest. Seeing this, a zookeeper finds a heterosexual penguin couple with more eggs than they can care for and puts the extra egg in Roy and Silo's nest. Roy and Silo take turns keeping the egg warm, and when it hatches, Roy, Silo, and the baby, Tango, are a family.
I live in Seattle, a pretty gay and gay-friendly city, and I love this book's message that, while most two-parent couples are made up of one mommy and one daddy, some are made up of two mommies or two daddies instead and that's great too. But what I really love about the book is the message that families are made by love and caring, not blood. My daughter is adopted. Like Tango, she needed adoptive parents because her birth parents couldn't care for her. And like Silo and Roy, my husband and I were thrilled to welcome her into our family.
I love And Tango Makes Three because I love its message about different ways to make a family. My daughter loves it because she loves penguins. I don't know for sure I suppose, but I bet it's oft banned for the former reason rather than the latter. If people wanted the book banned because they hated penguins, that would be mean (penguins are, obviously, awesome) but far less upsetting than the actual case: the people who want this book banned don't want kids to know that some parents are gay, don't want kids to know that gay people can be a family, don't want kids to know that there are lots of good ways to make a family rather than just the one. Depriving kids of that knowledge hurts them and me and you and families like mine which are non-traditional. And frankly, depriving kids of knowledge pretty much sucks in general. Certainly there are advanced topics -- say genocide or pandemic disease -- they're probably not ready for, but surely love and family don't fall into that category.
I say more love, more knowledge, more permutations that are also okay, more families that count, more books, more literate knowledgable kids. And more penguins.
About The Author
Laurie Frankel writes novels (reads novels, teaches other people to write novels, raises a small person who reads and would like someday to write novels) in Seattle, Washington where she lives on a nearly vertical hill from which she can watch three different bridges while she's staring out her windows between words. She's originally from Maryland and makes good soup.