NFBH Review: Fifty Shades of Grey

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Let’s get something straight here, I usually don’t read romance novels, even if they do win awards within their Genre, as Fifty Shades of Grey has. I find romance novels boring and repetitive. How many ways is it possible for part A to meet part B anyway? Snore.

But I wanted to read Fifty Shades of Grey because everyone is reading it. When I say everyone is reading Fifty Shades of Grey, I mean everyone. When I asked my hairdresser what she was reading she answered Fifty Shades of Grey.   When my mechanic’s receptionist gave me a ride home from the shop, there was a copy sliding around on the floor of her car. Several of my facebook friends have posted that they will read it, and fully eighty percent of the book covers I saw in the airport and on the beach during our summer vacation this year were the telltale charcoal and light grey of the Fifty Shades trilogy. The series was universally panned by critics and bloggers as really really awful, so what’s going on? Why the phenomena? Why are everyone and their grandma so captivated by a badly written bodice ripper? I wanted to read it because I wanted to know why. How can the reviewers and the readers be so polarized in their opinions?

So I did. I read it. Then I read the two nearly identical sequels that came after it. When I began the first book, I actually took it out in public with the cover showing, thinking I could while away my kids’ softball and basketball practice time with a light read. It was not a light read. Now that I know what’s between the covers (pun intended) of Fifty Shades of Grey, I’m a little embarrassed. Now all the softball and basketball mommies know what I’m guilty of reading. It’s a “bad“book. It’s a take-it-to-the-fire-pit-in-the-backyard-and-light-a-match book, so-my kids-won’t-get-a-hold-of-it-book.

The story is mostly about sex, dominant/submissive sex, with a lot of very explicit scenes. These sex scenes are linked together with choppy unintelligent dialogue. The plot, which is very similar to the plot in the Twilight series, is weak. The character development is even worse. The main character is an innocent, a very young woman who has virtually no dating experience, and who is convinced by a damaged and abusive man to join him in his “red room of pain” so that she can submit to his dangerous will in every way.

The subject matter of the book is shocking, but I have to admit the temperature in the room where I was reading Fifty Shades of Grey rose markedly as I read the “love” scenes, which is crazy because I believe that the things that happened to the character Ana in the red room of pain and in the bedroom of the character Christian Grey are abusive and wrong. My opinions, however, dissipated like mist as my body involuntarily responded to what I was reading. My intellect rejected what happened to Ana as abuse, but my body felt a hell of a tingle as I read the words before me. Geez, what is that about?

After I realized what the books were actually about, after I realized how the love scenes in the book made me feel, I hid in my room with the door locked to read the rest of the series. No one, I decided, would be allowed to see the way those ”love” scenes made me feel. Not without the benefit of marriage, anyway. One afternoon while I was reading behind my locked bedroom door, my husband knocked quietly. I got up to open it, novel in hand, and went back to my chair. He poked his head in and asked in his most non-judgmental voice “what’s going on in here? The kids are watching trash TV and eating chips. They’re making a lot of crumbs and the front door was standing wide open when I came in. You okay? I don’t want you to be mad when you come down.” I admit it: my kids were running wild while I read a trashy novel.

“I’m reading erotica” I answered. I’m pretty sure I blushed. His eyebrows went up. “It’s about this girl who falls in love with a guy who’s into S&M. The guy spanks her when he’s displeased with her behavior.” A little smile crossed his lips.

“Okay by me,” he said, and then added “Enjoy!” and winked at me. His little smile had grown into a big grin by the time he gently pulled the door closed again. I heard him chuckle as he padded down the stairs. I resumed my reading when I heard him banging around in the kitchen. I closed the back cover of the third book about thirty minutes later. I had mixed feelings. I could honestly say I hated the books, and that I really liked the books.

The critics were right, I thought, the books were badly written. But by the time I finished, I knew the answer to my original question. I understood what was going on. I understood the phenomena. I understood why everyone and her Grandma was talking about this book: the love scenes in the book were sexy, really sexy, and for that reason women were willing to put up with bad writing. This realization though, left me with another pile of questions. Why are so many women so turned on by these particular sex scenes? Why does the idea of being tied up, handcuffed, and/or being beaten by a riding crop work for us? Why does it work for everybody and their grandma? Why does it work for me? I, and women general, ought to be appalled.

A week or two later, my husband came home from work and told me that the book Fifty Shades of Grey had come up as a topic over his regular Friday lunch with coworkers, the majority of whom, on this particular day, were women. “Is that the sexy book you were reading before?” he asked me. He wanted to know because he had told the girls from the office that he thought I had read that one. “Is that the one where the guy spanks the girl?” He said he asked them. Apparently they all blushed and stammered, but then discussed at length how sexy the book was and made guesses about which muscular young actor would get the part of the main male character Christian Grey in the inevitable movie.

It helped me to hear this story. I worried less that I was some kind of sicko for reacting to the subject matter the way I did. Still I wondered, where are the feminists, the formally battered women, the mothers concerned for their daughters? Why are we all standing around giggling when the women’s movement is being reversed? What’s next? We give back the right to vote?

“I’m confused”, my husband said to me later, after the children were asleep. “I was taught to never hit a woman, but everybody’s all gaga over this book. Do women really want to be spanked? What do women really want? What do you really want?” he said, with his hands in the air, clearly frustrated.

At the time I laughed, and said “that is a question for the ages, my friend.” He laughed too, at my response, relating to the timeless impossibility of understanding women. But the truth is, I wasn’t able to answer the question. I’m still not able to answer the question. What do women really want?

Are we as women, telling the truth about what we want? Do we even know the truth about what we want? Does our collective response to Fifty Shades of Grey mean that deep down, women want to submit, sexually or otherwise, to men?

Are we hard-wired to respond to men who make our decisions for us? Are we hard-wired to respond sexually to men who control us? Are we hard-wired to be turned on by the possibility of being punished when we displease our man? Is this response I wish I didn’t have some insane leftover from our cavewoman days? What about women who are submissive for religious reasons, like members of that sect in Texas where the women all look like Ma Ingalls, and who seem happy to share their husbands with a crowd of other women, or like the famous sister wives on cable TV, or less dramatically, like my more mainstream girlfriend who vowed in her wedding to “submit to” and to “obey” her bridegroom? Do they know something the rest of us don’t know? Do submissive women have stronger marriages? Do relationships work better if one submits to her husband (or other male partner), for whatever reason?

Would I be happier as a submissive woman?

A question for the ages, indeed. Thank you E.L. James, for asking it.

Rain, Rain

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Rain, rain, please please stay.

I so enjoy a rainy day.

My wrinkles seem to fall away.

My curls are back and looking great.

The garden’s happier this way.

The kids are stuck inside to play (yay!)


Rain, we love to hear your sound

Of droplets dripping to the ground,

Of distant thunder moving in,

Of creaking branches in the wind.


Ha! There goes the satellite dish,

In answer to my fervent wish,

To shut that Disney channel down,

Put Sponge Bob’s whining out of bounds.


The oldest wants to read her book:


(Ankles crossed upon the table,

Bag of chips torn through the label,

She digs her way through Rowling’s fable.

She doesn’t even miss the cable).


The second child just wants to cook:

(Dinner bubbles on the stove, and

Scents damp air with spice and cloves.

Flour and yeast rise into loaves,

As rivers slide down panes in droves).


My third child only wants to look:


(She, out the steamy window sees,

And feels the violence of the trees,

And checks the dove’s nest in the eaves,

And worries over honey bees).


Puzzle pieces snap in place.

Cocoa’s drunk at dizzying pace.

“Remember when” by the fireplace.

I try to memorize her face.


For with the dawn of the shining sun,

I’ll lose my children one by one.

Gone from kitchen, gone from chair,

Into breezes warm and fair.


So Rain, Rain, please please stay.

Keep them home just one more day?





Cupcake Controversey



I have a friend who has been on a mission lately.  She, like me, is the mother of three.   We have developed a friendship of sorts, over the last couple of years, talking sometimes while I wait in her foyer for my kids, or she waits in mine for hers, or while we both wait to pick up our kids from their common extra- curricular activities.  One afternoon as we were waiting on the deck of the local pool for the kids to finish up at a pool party, she asked me quietly, in a conspiratorial tone, “What do you think about bringing cupcakes for your kids’ birthday at school?” 

“I hate it,” I said, and I do, for so many reasons.  I told her that in the last place we lived, the school had banned birthday cupcakes. 

Her eyes lit up.  “That’s what I want!” she said.  “I want to ban birthday cupcakes!”  She had a gleam in her eye that told me she meant business.  She went on to tell me that one of her children had some pretty severe food allergies, and that birthday cupcakes had been the chief cause of several bad reactions. “I’m trying to start a movement” she laughed, “Do you want to join?”

“I’ll join your movement,” I said, I didn’t have to think about it, not for one second.  Life would be so much easier without the thrice yearly school birthday celebration, which I must organize in addition to the friends birthday party, and the family birthday party. I also have the bad luck that two of my children have birthdays that fall during school vacations, so I’m expected to throw a school party on their half-birthdays.  Sigh.  I can hardly keep up with the scheduling and shopping for their actual birthdays. 

“Let me know what you need me to do.” I told her. This was a movement I could muster the energy to get behind!

“I’ll be in touch” she called out over her shoulder with a smile, as we took the hands of our little ones and started walking toward our respective minivans.”I’ll let you know what I need.”

“What was that all about?” asked Angel #2, looking at me sideways, through squinty eyes, just the way I look at her when I suspect she is up to no good.

“Oh, nothing” I answered, attempting to keep my facial expression neutral but feeling at once guilty and elated.  The Angels have always loved having cupcakes at school as another way to celebrate their birthdays.  I felt a little bit bad about working against what makes them happy, but I couldn’t help being in favor of an idea that’s good for their health and would save a lot of my time and energy, not to mention money.  For me it was a no brainer. 

I was surprised, no stunned, to hear a few days later that not everyone agreed with me.  One of the moms at the bus stop, someone I happen to really like, said angrily, arms crossed over her chest, that there was a mom at school making noise about a cupcake ban. ”It’s a free country,” she said.  “I ought to be able to bring cupcakes if I want to!” she said.  I burst out laughing, thinking she must be joking.  She wasn’t.  Based on the tornadic look on her face, I’m sure I offended her.  I apologized, as I often must, for things that come out of my mouth, and told her I respectfully disagreed.  What I didn’t say was that I live in a free country too; I thought her freedom to bring cupcakes to school infringed on my freedom to choose what my kids eat.  I hope she and I are still friends, but at this point I’m not so sure. 

A few days after that, I met a different friend for coffee.  Guess what the main topic of conversation was?  You’re right!  Birthday cupcakes!  Parents seemed to care about this, and they seemed to be choosing sides.  My coffee friend was also in favor of birthday cupcakes. She said she didn’t mind bringing cupcakes because it made her kids happy.  Her kids would be upset if they couldn’t celebrate at school.  I felt another quick flash of guilt (my primary emotion these days).  I knew the ban would make my kids unhappy too.  I knew I was for the ban mostly because I didn’t want to do the work of three additional birthday parties a year.  I so wish I was the enthusiastic-about-school-parties, smile-in-the-face-of-extra-chores, energetic-without-caffeine sort of mom, but I’m not.  I’m more of a feel-good-if-the-kids-are-still-alive-at-bedtime, can-hardly-stay-awake-to-be-the-tooth-fairy, try-to-think-of-ways-to-get-out-of-the-fundraiser sort of mom. I suspected better parents didn’t mind the whole extra project of birthday cupcakes.  But I’m not winning any mother of the year awards, because I do mind.

But then I checked my guilt.  Just because I was feeling lazy about my kids happiness doesn’t mean all those cupcakes are good for them.  Honestly, (I’m quoting John Rosemond here) “it’s a child’s birthday, not the second coming of Christ.”  Is it reasonable for my kids to expect three birthday parties a year, or am I encouraging the growth of their already inflated feelings of entitlement by doing it?  Is my perception that all the other mommies joyfully do whatever it takes to make their kids happy a true one, or do the other mommies, like me, fantasize that the PTA would take this one small thing off the to-do list?    Besides, wasn’t a cupcake ban the best choice for the kids’ health? I knew I should make the choice that’s best for the kids.  So what if that choice also had the positive side effect of un-sticking the “bad guy” label from my lapel for a few minutes.  It’s a win-win really:  not only would children be healthier both physically and psychologically, but the big bad school administration would accept the role of villain in my place, just this once.        

In any case, the idea that seemed like manna from heaven to me was upsetting to other parents.  My friend’s little ban-the-cupcakes idea was turning into a controversy.  As the few weeks passed between my first conversation about the issue and the vote at the PTA meeting, I heard a lot of moms say they were in favor of cupcakes.  I heard it in the grocery store line.  I heard it in the Starbucks line. I heard it from the next aisle at the Home Depot.  I realized two things.  One, the moms around here don’t have enough to worry about (there are death, disease, homelessness, and starvation in the world, and we’re all worked up about cupcakes) and second, my support of the cupcake ban was more galvanized than ever.  

There are so many good reasons to find some happiness causing alternative to food treats for birthdays.  The first, and clearly most important of these, as my ban-the-cupcakes friend knew all too well, is the issue of allergies.  Lots of kids are allergic to nuts; even more are allergic to Gluten.  At the very least, allergic kids get left out of the celebration, which doesn’t feel good.  At the very worst, it’s possible for a child to die from birthday cupcakes.  No joke here, no sarcasm.  Nut allergies and other food allergies can be lethal.   Do we really want to take that kind of risk?  Even for happiness?

Good nutrition and health are another issue to consider.  Think about it:  If each child has twenty-five children in his class, that’s twenty -five more chemical laden artificially colored cupcakes with two inches of shortening and sugar gracing the top per year.  Add that to all the other junk food our kids eat, like Halloween candy, Christmas candy, and now Valentine’s Day candy. (Valentine’s Day used to be about paper cards, now the cards are required to have a piece of candy taped to them.)  Then comes Easter, which has somehow morphed from hiding colored eggs, the kind that come out of chickens, into another day of gorging on high fructose corn syrup. There is no doubt in my mind that soon MLK Day, President’s Day,  Saint Patrick’s Day, and gosh-darn Confederate Independence Day will be candy holidays too.  Plus, it seems like everywhere we go, some well meaning person hands my kids a coke, or a lollipop, to be nice.  It never seems to end.  Couldn’t we just skip the birthday cupcakes?  Seriously, it’s not like the kids will go without sweets.

Even if it’s okay with you to exclude children who are unlucky enough to have allergies, even if it’s okay with you if your child has all those extra servings of junk food, let’s consider the time and energy spent by school staff on Birthday cupcakes.  My kids attend our neighborhood public school, nothing fancy, but the staff there is made up of highly trained, highly skilled, highly qualified professionals who get paid next to nothing.  Most of them hold advanced degrees.  I suspect the teachers at your kids’ school are the same.  Do we really want them to spend their precious time and expertise serving, supervising, and cleaning up the mess from cupcakes?  I don’t.  In these lean educational times, fraught with early release and furlough days, I want the teachers to spend their limited time teaching, not waiting on my children.  I want my children to spend their limited time at school learning, not being waited on.

Besides, there are so many other healthy and educational ways to make kids happy on their birthdays!  Songs, a special hat or badge, or having the kids all write a birthday message to the birthday girl or boy are some suggestions.  I would be happy to come to school and read my child’s favorite book to give them a treat for their special day (or in my case their special day plus six months).  How about we replace cupcakes with a non-food treat?

Then I got the E-mail from my brave ban-the-cupcake friend.  She gave me the date and the time of the PTA meeting and asked that I show up to speak in support of the cause.  Surprise, it turned out I couldn’t make to the PTA meeting because my schedule was already full.  (My three kids had three basketball practices in two locations and it was my husband’s bowling night).  It was just as well; I express myself much more clearly in writing, and after  all I had heard, I was feeling mildly intimidated by the opposition.  I know from experience that political dissent against the PTA has the potential to get very nasty.  So, I wrote a letter instead.  I gave my opinion, emailed it to my partner in crime, and told her she could use it any way she wished.   I don’t know if she used it or not, but low and behold, cupcakes were banned in a unanimous vote!  I guess I’m not the odd mom, out after all. 

The icing on this particular cupcake is that the Angels weren’t unhappy at all.  There were no fits or tears.  None of them mentioned it.  They didn’t even notice that cupcakes had disappeared from the classroom, which inspires me to start another movement.  Do you think they’d notice if blue ”juice” and candy bars disappeared after Saturday morning sporting events, to be replaced by a crazy little thing called a healthy lunch?

Anybody want to join?


Of Paula Deen, Scarlett O’hara, and Why We Should Give a Damn

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 Oh, fiddlesticks, Miss Paula, what ‘d you have to go and do that for? 

Until now I’ve found Paula Deen’s scandals to be kind of funny.  Remember when she got hit in the head with a turkey at a charity event? I know it makes me not such a nice person, but I couldn’t help but laugh about that one. Remember the accusations of hypocrisy she fielded when she announced she suffered from Type Two Diabetes?  Well, Duh. What did people expect with the way she cooks?  That she would be able to maintain a seventeen inch waist?

This time though, I’m angry.  This time there is no humor in her behavior.  I’m angry that she’s been cruel and bigoted.  It was wishful thinking, maybe, but I honestly thought this kind of behavior had gone the way of the hoop skirt.  It hasn’t.  I discovered while doing some research for this piece that cross burnings are still relatively common (and notably not limited to the American South).  I also stumbled upon more than a few white supremacy websites that contained language and images so violent they made the hair on my arms stand up, and brought tears to my eyes.  I’m angry I have to be reminded of the ugly truth.  The whole thing just ticks me off.  

 There is another reason I’m angry at Paula Deen. This reason is smaller and probably less valid than the other, but I’m angry nonetheless.  I’m mad at her because she has contributed, mightily, to the stereotypes assigned to southern white people.  You know the ones, that we are not very bright, and that we hate people of color.  For years I’ve been complaining that every time I see a southerner, male or female, in the media, they are ether acting stupid, or wearing a white hood.  As of now I’ve lived half of my adult life up north, and I see this alternate stereotype in practice all the time.  I am tired of acting as the ambassador whose job it is to represent compassionate/enlightened southerners up here.  And now, the “Lady” and her sons are perpetuating both stereotypes.  Thanks Paula, I appreciate that (insert sarcastic tone here).

Certainly the media, including Paula Deen, is largely to blame for making us look stupid.  Think Gomer Pyle.  Think Dukes of Hazard. I would be as rich as Paula Deen herself if I had a dollar for every time someone heard I was from Georgia, and said to me “Aren’t you the people who elected Cooter to congress?”  (I must answer “Yes”, although, to be fair, I hear he was a pretty good congressman).  How about Toddlers and Tiaras?  Don’t even get me started on Honey Boo Boo!   Not too long ago I saw a news report about a forest fire, and, of course, they interviewed a guy facing the fire on the roof of his trailer with a garden hose, saying in a decidedly southern voice, “I ain’t leavin’!”  Clearly this guy was not the brightest bulb on the tree.  Why do they air this kind of stuff?  Because the ratings are high, obviously.  And the ratings are high because people like to laugh at stupid.  Heck, I love to laugh at stupid.  The thing is, I’m sure there are idiots in every village as far north as Santa’s workshop.  Why oh why must they target the south?

Even southerners perceive people with a southern accent to be stupid.  I went to graduate school in Athens, Ga., and I was told that “all remnants of your ‘regional’ accent should be left behind because people outside the south might conclude that y’all, well…, aren’t very smart.” It’s a sad fact, this misperception, but it’s true.  In your mind, put a southern accent on the smartest person you know.  What happens, in your mind, to that person’s IQ?  See?       

It’s bad enough that people think we’re stupid.  It’s even worse that we are all assumed to be bigots.  Think of all the movies you’ve seen depicting racial violence and discrimination, like Mississippi Burning, The Help, A Time to Kill, and even Gone with the Wind, which is breathtakingly offensive to blacks.  Think of all the news clips we saw in September at the 50th anniversary of MLK’s dream speech, news clips of young men and women being fire-hosed, of white only signs above water fountains, of little girls in bobby socks and crinolines who needed police protection to go to school, and of similarly dressed white women (mothers!) screaming slurs at aforementioned little girls.  While these snippets of film have rightly exposed the history of the civil rights movement and the truth about how people were treated (back then?), they have also burned their cruel images into all our minds.  I think that to people who have no exposure to the modern south, those images feel current.  Think of the kindest white man you know, now dress him in a seersucker suit and a southern accent.  Can you picture him in a white hood?  Does he seem a shade sinister? See?  

Do not be mistaken.  If only half of the complaints listed in the lawsuit against Paula Deen, her sons, and her brother are true, she is a bigot, and stupid, and certainly NOT a lady.  According to Daryl K. Washington, a civil rights attorney and blogger at , the lawsuit alleged that one of Paula’s sons asked a black employee if he would like to “rub the black off” to be more like him.  Offended yet?  I am.  It is alleged that black employees in her restaurant were only allowed to use one bathroom, and weren’t allowed to work the front of the restaurant, and were referred to as the “monkeys in the kitchen.”  Angry yet?  I am.   Ms. Deen is alleged to have asked for some “little niggers” dressed like lawn jockeys to serve at her brother’s wedding!  Her use of the “n” word, no matter when it was used, is blatantly offensive.  Bigoted is what it is.

Treating human beings this way was inexcusable in 1893. It was inexcusable in 1963, and it was more than inexcusable in 1993. It was illegal.  On top of the moral wrong she has done, any business person worth her salt would know that federal law prohibits racial discrimination, and said business woman would have run her business accordingly, to avoid expensive career-ruining lawsuits.  Ms. Deen did not.  Besides, according to the census bureau, about 12% of the population of this country is black.  In the state of Georgia, fully 30 percent are black. One would think Ms. Deen would understand ahead of time that racist behavior would cause a huge loss of profit.  Stupid is what it is.     

Conclusions about southerners being stupid and southerners being racist have become so intertwined that they can no longer be untangled.  But wait, maybe racism and stupidity are entangled for a reason.  Bigotry proves stupidity, no?  

I would expect people to be angry, like me, about Deen’s behavior in this politically correct day and age.  Instead many are flocking to her defense.  All summer there was a campaign of Facebook jokes and cartoons, and photos in the media of Ms. Deen wearing woebegone and tearful expressions, all in support of her.  It is now October and I’m still being asked to ‘like’ Paula Dean by my Facebook page because so and so Facebook friend likes her.  Well, I don’t like her, and I don’t think I’ll start liking her anytime soon.  I even saw Oprah excuse her on Entertainment Tonight, citing the passage of time. (Who’s the ‘lady’ in this situation?  Oprah is.)

I wish I could be as gracious as Oprah, but I’m not.  I don’t buy the claim that discriminatory behavior doesn’t matter because it was so long ago. The reason I think so is this: everyone knows nigger is a bad word.  EVERYONE.  Everyone knows it, and has known it for generations.  I knew it as a child growing up in Georgia in the seventies. I can think of examples of bigotry from my childhood, but I can’t, for the life of me, remember hearing the ‘n word’ being used, not by anyone, not ever, and I attended an elementary school where the Civil War was elegantly called the “War of Northern Aggression” by a specific fifth grade teacher I won’t name.  Margaret Mitchell knew ‘nigger’ was a bad word in the nineteen thirties, and she lets us know she knew it by having Scarlett tell us, who, if she was an actual person instead of a work of fiction, would have known it in the eighteen sixties.   The word was never, ever permitted, not by anyone.  It didn’t matter how bigoted a person was, or is; a lady does not use the ‘n’ word.  Paula Deen had to know twenty years ago that the word nigger was, and is, flat out unacceptable, when the smallest school child knew it.  Therefore, unlike the rest of the world, I choose to hold Ms. Deen responsible for her actions, even if it was 1993.  Think of where you were in your life in 1993.  Did you know nigger was a bad word?  See?         

It makes me mad to see Miss Paula’s crocodile tears.   I’d like to say to her the same words Rhett said to Scarlett: “you are in the exact position of a thief who’s been caught red handed and isn’t sorry he stole but is terribly, terribly sorry he’s going to jail.” I’m not convinced Miss Paula is sorry for her behavior, but I am convinced she’s terribly, terribly sorry she’s lost a large portion of her income.  All that hand wringing is lost on me.

I’ve never really been much of a fan of Miss Paula’s, or much of a customer. I’ve seen her show a few times, and I confess my daughter owns one of her cookbooks, but it was a gift. I do have a Walmart frying pan that had her face on the label.  These things were all fairly accidental, but now I’m going to make an effort not to do business with Paula Deen.  I want to send a message, and the message is this:  I give a damn about equality. I give a damn about equal protection under the law. I give a damn about fairness and cruelty and honesty.  I think you should too.  I’m going send my message with my pocketbook.  I think you should too.  If I find myself in Savannah, which isn’t at all unlikely, I’ll go to Mrs. Wilkes instead of to any of the Deen restaurants, so I can have a delicious and culturally rich meal.  I hope you do too.  Lord knows I don’t need any more cookbooks with high fat recipes, so I’m not going to buy any from Paula Deen.  I don’t think you should either.     

And speaking of the Lord, don’t get me wrong here; I’m all for forgiveness.  I certainly forgive Ms. Deen her offenses, and her offensiveness, but I don’t want to excuse her.  If she is excused, won’t she and others learn that bigotry is okay, that there is no negative consequence for inexcusable behavior, that there is no need for her (and the wide world) to think about what she’s done, that there’s no need for change?  If she sincerely apologized and genuinely changed her thinking about race, I’d be glad to watch her show and/or buy her stuff (converting the recipes to more healthful ones, of course), and in that case, I think you should too.

In the meantime, please know that most of us from the south aren’t like that. Please know that most of us try hard to be fair and just and defend the fourteenth amendment.  Please know that most of us understand that minorities are people who possess thoughts, feelings, desires, goals, needs and opinions, just like those of us with paler skin. Please know that most of us, if we should be offensive, don’t want to be and didn’t mean to be, and in that case, please know that we welcome correction.  Please know that most of us are open to suggestion and education and are willing to work for change.   Most of us have compassion.

Please know that most of us who are raised and churched and educated in the south are neither idiots nor bigots.  Most of us know the truth: that skin is only skin deep, but character goes all the way through.


On Why I Craft:


I take a lot of heat from my friends about being crafty.   They think it’s funny that I like to make things, and that I like to make things that would be much cheaper and easier to buy.  When one of them joked that my living room was beginning to look like the lobby of the Cracker Barrel Restaurant, I started to give my craft projects to charity.  But I still make things.

Even as a child I liked to crochet.  My Grandmother taught me how.  When I was in high school and college, I earned my spending money as a lifeguard, and I crafted to dispel the quiet of the rainy days by making pictures with a scrap of linen and needle and thread.  In my thirties I learned to quilt.  Recently, I took up knitting.  I just can’t help myself; I like to make stuff. 

I used to tell myself I made things because I wanted to fill inevitable empty hours producing something useful, instead of wasting my time watching TV, or reading tabloids in waiting rooms, but I have gradually become aware over the years that I do it for a different reason.   Crafting is therapeutic.  It’s more than therapeutic.  If I do it right, it sets my thoughts to music.  If I find a quiet place, with good light, and allow myself to hear the rhythmic clacking of my knitting needles, or to feel the quilting needle hit my thimble as it rocks melodically through the layers of cloth, I can send my worries over the rhythm of the work, and if I am patient and listen carefully, the rhythm of the work will float the answers back to me.

For the time I embellished a story to a new friend to make a point (former therapists and writers of fiction are at high risk to do this. I am both),  and she perceived that as a lie, and I got a stomachache every time I thought about it: knit one, pearl two, knit one, purl two.  Am I a liar?  Knit one, purl two. Did I mean to hurt her with my story?  No, I meant to help her.  Knit one, purl two.  It isn’t nice to therapize your friends.  Knit one, purl two.  Telling the story, that way, was a mistake.  Knit one, purl two.  Apologize. Knit one, purl two.  A true friend will forgive.  Knit one, purl two.  If not, learn.  Breathe.  Move on.  Knit one, purl two.

For the time my daughter was late, really late, home from the movies with a friend, and I could hear sirens, and I hadn’t really trusted the parent that picked her up: stitch five across blue, five back blue.  The crosses formed by the stitches remind me the angels are with her.  Stitch ten across green, ten back green.  “She is fine,” I tell myself, “They must be out for a coffee, or a coke, or something.”  Stitch one and a half, yellow. The front door finally opens and I find myself misty, and I hug her hard and send her to bed, and I smell alcohol thick on the breath of the mother when she apologizes.  Four stitches down red.  Four stitches up.  Thank you God; thank you God, thank you.   Eight stitches across, green.  Eight stitches back.  

For the time I had a terrible, terrible argument with my husband.  I can remember neither the source nor the resolution of that argument, but it was so bad, it brought the children out of their beds, crying and afraid in their footie pajamas, wild eyed, not knowing where their loyalties should lie.  There was a week of terrifying silence to follow. Needle up, needle down.  Needle up, needle down.  I feared I would not be married at the end of it. Needle up, needle down.  Be patient.  Needle up.  He needs some time.  Needle down.  Keep making his supper and his bed.  Needle up, needle down.   It doesn’t matter.  Needle up, needle down.   Love him anyway.  Needle up, needle down.

For praying my dearest friend through her painful divorce, knit one, purl two. For watching the Twin Towers fall, two stitches across, two stitches back.  For raising children and keeping faith in a husband, needle up, needle down.   The stitches turn to a chant, the chant to prayer, and the prayer to truth.  No matter what I am called to mourn or worry, I can stitch my way through it. 

And that is why I do it; that’s why I craft.  The lobby of the Cracker Barrel be damned.      



Gone With the Wind


I first read Gone with the Wind when I was a child.  It was the summer between first and second grade.  It’s a huge book for a seven year old, I know.  I’m not sure how it came to pass that I got a hold of a 1000 page story of war and starvation, of unrequited love and true love, and of children wanted, unwanted, and lost, but I did, and I fell in love with it.  I read it over and over again throughout my childhood, so many times that when I let my old paperback copy fall open, I knew  at once which characters sat in the room where the dialogue was spoken, how that room was decorated, which character would speak next, and what he or she would say.  

The book served as a sort of travel guide to me, a guide to southern culture, and to the southern little girls with whom I played.  I needed a guidebook because I was the child of outsiders, New Englanders no less, who packed in the yad and had idears, instead of ideas.  Never did either of my parents “fix” to do anything, as in “I’m  fixin’ to go to the store.”  Nor did they “carry” people in their cars.  Instead they drove people.  They were openly thrifty, as New Englanders often are, which was considered tacky, if not downright immoral, in my social circle.  So you can see why I needed a little help to fit into what felt like, when I was only seven, a foreign country. 

The book was also a sort of How to Be a Woman to me.  Not only did it help me understand the differences between the people I lived with vs. the people I didn’t, but I think I learned who I wanted to become from the characters in the story.  I wanted to mix Ellen O’hara’s strength in the face of heartbreak with Melanie Hamilton’s ability to love and to trust despite overwhelming evidence that she shouldn’t,  add Scarlet’s drive and intelligence, and bake all that up into a me that was feminine perfection.  I wanted, and still want, to become a “great lady,” like so many of the characters in the book.

I hadn’t given the story even one teeny tiny thought for twenty years at least.  I had been criticized in my college literature classes, and later in graduate school history and sociology classes for loving the book because, they said, Margaret Mitchell was an unparalleled racist, and her story was rife with bigotry.  Never had I noticed this when I read it as a child, so enthralled I had been with the romance and the history of the novel, but I believed my learned associates.  I didn’t want to be guilty of bigotry by association, so I rejected the book and the movie too.  I stopped reading the book, but I never did get rid of it. So my hardback copy, scripted with my name inside the front cover in my adolescent handwriting, has lived quietly these many years on my bookshelves with the Brontes and the Janes, gathering dust, patiently waiting to be useful again.

But things were about to change.  I started to receive small, but unmistakable messages from the universe that it was time to reread my favorite novel of all time.

The first of these was in March when a writer friend of mine announced that he didn’t like the main character in the novel I’m writing.  “You know” he said, “I really don’t like her.”  He thought I should sweeten her up a little because readers (he said) won’t root for a character that isn’t likable.  “Can you think of a book you really liked that doesn’t have a likable protagonist?” he asked.  

I couldn’t, right then, but later I thought, “Well, duh. How about Scarlet O’Hara?” Scarlett is a self-serving, conniving, materialistic character with no sense of propriety, and yet generations of women want to emulate her for her strength.  Scarlett is loved because she is honest, real, and I want my Caroline to be that way too.  Scarlet isn’t likable, but is greatly loved.  The point is that the conversation put Scarlett back on my mind, banging around in my head like the memory of an old friend, lost in an aged argument you can’t remember the reason for.

There’s more.  In April my Dad recommended to me a book of essays called My Writing Life by Pat Conroy (the author of the The Great Santini and the Lords of Discipline) about books and events that have influenced his writing.  My Dad is a pretty good matchmaker between me and books, so I requested it from the library. I got to pick it up from my very own slot on the hold shelf in May.  Guess what I found in the table of contents when I cracked open the brand-new, cellophane-covered book?  A big fat chapter about Gone with the Wind!  (Apparently Conroy’s mother felt the same way about the book that I do, and his life and writing were greatly influenced as a result.) The message to me, though, was, maybe it’s time to reread.    

The messages followed me on our three week family vacation to Germany.  On one hopelessly rainy day, we decided to visit a German Shopping mall.  I was surprised to see that the book store there was dominated by a gigantic display of Gone with the Wind.  They had Gone with the Wind in hardback, Gone with the Wind in paperback, Gone with the Wind in English and German.  Huh?  Why in the year 2013 is a German book store pushing an American civil war Story, a racist American Civil War Story?  Later, when we were in the town of Fussen, the backyard neighbor to our bed and breakfast flew a rebel flag, not the retired Georgia flag or the Mississippi state flag that both feature the Stars and Bars, but the actual confederate flag.  What?  Why?  I couldn’t help but think it might be related to race. Some redneck found his way across the Atlantic to Germany, I thought.   I flew home still wondering.  Why does Germany care about Scarlett O’Hara?  Or is it that her presence there was an act of God for my benefit alone?

The messages got louder after I got home.  One day I turned on the TV and there was Carol Burnett with a drapery rod across her shoulders playing a silly Scarlett to Harvey Korman’s ridiculous Rhett.  Another day I turned on the TV and saw Kelly Clarkson in an episode of Who Do You Think You Are exclaiming in shock that her ancestor was a Yankee (gasp!) and then watched her spend the rest of the episode explaining why she was proud of him anyway.  A third day I turned on the TV and saw Vivienne Leigh resplendent in her own emerald drapery-made gown simpering at the always handsome Clark Gable, playing the exact scene Carol Burnett had spoofed the week before. This was getting to be too much. 

I turned off the TV and went to bed, but I lay awake for a while thinking about the way the red linen spine of my book peeked out from its more illustrious neighbors as if to say “you know you want to.” But I didn’t want to, not really.  My book list is a mile long and I didn’t want to fill my mind with all that racial negativity.  Besides,   I already felt worn out on the issue of race from the evening news.  I had been following the George Zimmerman trial for the racial profiling murder of Trayvon Martin, and Paula Deen had to go and call someone a nigger.  (Come on, Paula!  You must have known better).    

The day came, midsummer, when I could ignore the signs no longer.  The weather was hot and dry, and the kids wanted to go to the pool, but I hemmed and hawed and whined that my Nook wasn’t charged, so I would have nothing to read, and therefore did not want to go to the pool.  With no awareness whatsoever of the energy that had been passing between me and my beckoning volume , Angel #1 walked over to the bookshelves, surveyed what was available, and plucked Gone with the Wind from its place, and held it out to me.  She rolled her eyes and said “read this one. It doesn’t need charging.” It seemed that God himself wanted me to reread the book and now he had resorted to speaking through my children.

I threw my hands up in surrender and said to the ceiling,”Okay, Okay!  I get it!  I’ll read the damn book if you want me to!”  I ignored the she’s-really-lost-it-now looks I got from the Angels, and took the book, and the Angels, to the pool.   

It’s a good thing my children are strong swimmers because they could easily have drowned that day; for all that I was paying attention to them.  I was immediately immersed in an earlier time, a different geography, and an earlier way of thinking.  Just like when I was seven, I was immediately lost in visions of hoop skirts at barbeques, in relearning Scarlett’s rules for the effective management of men, and in smelling the smells of battlefield hospitals.  I was immediately mesmerized.

My colleagues in school were right.  It’s true that the story is remarkably offensive in regard to race.  In the first chapter there is a reference to “darkies, hanging from the rafters, popeyed.”   I lost count of the passages in which Mitchell compares her black characters to monkeys and apes, but I can tell you that there are a whole lot of them.  There is a scene near the end of the book where Ashley Wilkes repeats to Scarlett the great white lie that slavery was okay because slaves were well taken care of by their families.  (Uh, I don’t suppose anyone checked with the enslaved to find out their opinion on that matter?)  The bigotry was so complete and horrendous; I’ve begun to agree with the theory that Margaret’s Mitchell’s “accidental” death while crossing Peachtree Street may not have been an accident after all. 

I find, though, after consideration, that I sort of forgive Margaret Mitchell her bigotry.  The copyright of the book is 1936, so it had to have been written even earlier than that, say 1933 or so, and the world was very different back then.  Like us all, she must have been a product of her time, and in her time the civil rights movement was still twenty-something years away, lynchings were common, and there were still living, still bitter, survivors of the civil war and the reconstruction era to influence her.  Segregation was in full force, so she most likely had very little exposure to the black civil war experience.  How could she have been anything but bigoted? 

Besides, I think Mitchell left at least one piece of evidence that she was not an unsalvageable racist: She wrote the character Rhett Butler.  I think we women writers create male characters that in our minds are ideal, that are our own idea of heroes.   I create tall, silent, pick-up truck-driving, fence-riding cowboys.  Diana Galbaldon likes muscled kilted outlaws who whisper love words in Gaelic, and Jane Austin fell in love with the heroic Mr. Darcy for his protection of her through his social graces. Margaret Mitchell’s hero is the swarthy blockade-running and modern-thinking Rhett, who strives throughout the novel to earn the respect of Mammy, Scarlett’s slave caretaker.  That element of the story alone is revolutionary!  Why would a rich white man care what an old, female slave thought?  Because he believed her to be human, with human feelings and needs, that’s why!  Isn’t it impossible for a complete racist to create a character so enlightened as Rhett?  Somewhere in her subconscious mind, through the fog of her time and culture, Mitchell must have had the beginnings of a sense of justice.     

Mitchell also makes points with me on the issue of feminism.  The Scarlett she created was a successful business woman, a woman with whom we, of our time, can relate.  She, like us, had to take care of her house, her family, her friendships, and keep her small business going, which was obviously more than one full time job.  She, like us, had to stave off foreclosure, pay the taxes, educate her children, and  attempt to keep her marriages happy, all the while being made to feel guilty about having a career.  Sound familiar? Mitchell created in Scarlett an independent woman, someone who took care of herself and did not apologize for it, and isn’t that what feminism is all about?  

What’s more, generations ahead of her time, Mitchell made Rhett Butler a hands-on father, which makes just about any man a hero.  She made him his daughter’s primary caretaker. This is unbelievably forward-thinking, especially in consideration that only in the current generation has father-participation in child care been widely utilized.   Rhett Butler was brought to life four generations ago.  Way to get the ball rolling, Peggy!

I’m so glad I gave in and reread Gone with the Wind.  I’m glad I’ve grown enough to be shocked and disgusted, since my last reading, at Mitchell’s treatment of blacks.  Just like at my first reading, the writing is beautiful and poetic, and I, of course, reveled in the story’s rich details.  I especially noticed this time the lessons of history, like the very current lesson of how terror organizations grow from government enforced poverty, and of how far we have come in the civil rights movement since slavery ended and how far we’ve yet to go.  

There are personal lessons too, about the true nature and men and women and love, and how to recognize the people who love you based on what they do, rather than what they say. (That Ashley Wilkes was a cad and a liar, I tell you!)  In this reading too, I added Mammy to the list of great ladies I want to be like, because she taught me a lesson in motherhood.  She gave everything she had to Scarlett.  She could have gone free, but she didn’t; she stuck around and took care of Scarlett.  Scarlett repaid Mammy’s devotion with a smart mouth and by ignoring her advice at every turn. That definitely sounds familiar. Even so, mammy raised Scarlett to be undefeatable.  I find consolation in that.

The long and the short of it is this: the last time I read the story I was a girl, like Scarlett on page one. Back then, the story was about a selfish, spoiled child who threw herself repeatedly at a man who was wrong for her, and manipulated people to get her own way.  I didn’t really like Scarlett back then.  I was embarrassed for her. 

Now I’m a woman, like Scarlett on page 1037, and the story is about so much more.  Now, I understand the demands in Scarlet’s life because there are similar demands in mine.  I understand that sometimes you can’t help who you love, especially when you are very young.  I understand the necessity of personal sacrifice to protect those you love.  I understand mistakes.  I understand loss.  I understand regret.  Mostly, I understand that a woman doesn’t have to be likeable to deserve love. 

I think if I knew Scarlett O’Hara today, maybe from the PTA or from the neighborhood, I’d admire her. I’d ask her to lunch and I’d pick up the tab, because I know that she’s afraid of being hungry and broke.  I’d tell her about who I loved that I shouldn’t have, and she would say “I never understood what you saw in that guy!” And I’d tell her Ashley Wilkes wasn’t worthy of her, and we’d laugh and have a brandy, and we wouldn’t bother to gargle cologne afterword.   And I would tell her that Rhett would be back, because he always came back, and she would sigh and say she hoped so, and have another brandy.

Welcome home old friend.  I really missed you.




Ode to my husband on Our Anniversary


He does not write sonnets. He does not dedicate love songs. He does not fill bathtubs with rose petals. He doesn’t even unload groceries most of the time.

But when the time came for me to rent a car last summer, he made sure there was a Mustang GT, v-8, in red waiting for me at the airport. And yes, it does go from 0 to 60 in under five seconds. (Don’t worry, I didn’t try it with the kids in the car.) This is the kind of thing I appreciate about my husband.

Here’s what else:

1. He takes my old minivan to gas up before a snowstorm, and he’s the one who
cleans the salt and mud off after the snow has melted.
2. He never, ever hassles me about the bills.
3. He does laundry, even lingerie, and he does it RIGHT.
4. He makes a mean Margarita, and doesn’t count how many I’ve had. If there’s a little pressure behind the eyes at daybreak, he’ll bring me an Advil and tell me I didn’t say anything embarrassing, even If I did.
5. He encourages me to fall asleep on the sofa, in sweats and warm socks, if I am “tired.” (I’m not a person who can admit to being sick).
6. He stays up with sick children. If I am exhausted he will take a shift, even if he has to go to work in the morning. He understands how lucky he is to have a family, and doesn’t want to miss any of it.
7. He will help me clean up in a hurry if someone calls and says they’re coming over.
8. He will watch the PBS version of “Pride and Prejudice” with me for the seventy third (or seventy fourth?) time and listen to me sing the praises of the very young and handsome Colin Firth.
9. Sometimes, he even listens to country music, or takes me to a concert where some cowboy from down home is singing about Georgia red clay, turnip greens and/or drinking Tequila. It’s easy to forgive the eye rolling.
10. His recipe for banana chocolate chip pancakes is to die for.
11. He has a deep, hearty, and joyful laugh, which can drag me out from the darkest emotional doldrums. Nothing makes him laugh harder than the facial expression of a small child who has eaten something yucky, or if he hears someone use the word “poo”.
12. He can think on his feet. Once, when we were dating, my very pretty roommate walked out in a thong with her nether-regions fully visible from where we sat watching TV. He could have reacted ten thousand negative ways, but he looked at me with a puzzled expression and said “has she gained weight?”

There are so many more reasons to keep the guy around, but mostly it’s that he gets it that I really, really dig fast, shiny, loud cars, even if learning to drive a manual transmission is hopeless for me. “There’s nothing wrong with a girl who appreciates a big engine.” he says, and that’s why I love him.



Some days I just want to go home. Today is one of those days.

I live in Colorado, and walk with my children to the school bus each morning beneath what is arguably the most majestic view on planet earth, but it is not home.  The people here are wonderful, and supportive, and I have made a few true and lifelong friends among them, but they are not of home.

Home to me is south of here, way south, although I am not a true southerner.  I was not born in the south, nor was any member of my immediate family.  My ancestors who fought in the civil war served Abe Lincoln, not Robert E. Lee.  I do not speak with a southern accent.  I was born in Chicago.  I arrived in Atlanta at two years of age, when my father accepted a job transfer, so I have no childhood memory of being anywhere else.  It was in the south that I learned to be.  It was there that I was educated, and there that I fell in and out of love with the now enlightened grandsons and great- grandsons of slave owners.   It was there I learned to negotiate friendships with southern women, and became a southern woman, sort of.

Because I didn’t share their history, and so was not permitted to participate in their romance with the lost glory of the old south, I never really fit in with the true southerners who I grew up with, but still I feel, keenly, the siren call of the south.  It’s a feeling I share with those who were born there and whose people have lived there for generations.  I know my yearning for home is not only mine because I hear about it from others all the time.  All I have to do is turn on the radio.  Have you ever heard a tune called Sweet Home Toronto?  No.  Midwestern Chicken?  No.  The Devil Went Down to Arizona?  No!  You have heard, though, Sweet home Alabama, Dixie Chicken, and the Devil Went Down to Georgia.  There is something magical and poetic about the south.  Even the musicians, the poets of our time, feel it.  It’s no wonder that I feel it too.  It’s no wonder that I miss it.

I miss the oak trees and the azalea and the dogwoods of spring time.  Heck, I miss spring time.  We don’t really have spring in Colorado.  What they call spring is nothing like the long Georgia season that begins with the daffodils in February and ends with the perfume of the cherry blossoms being carried away into summer by the last of the cool breezes.  Springtime in Colorado is characterized by snowstorms, not flowers.

I miss hot nights (literal ones, not metaphorical ones).  I miss not needing a sweater on a summer evening.  I even miss the overcast, gothic, depressing heat of late summer.  I miss the warm damp rotten smell of the earth in the garden.  I miss home grown okra.  I miss red dirt.  I miss fireflies viewed across a suburban yard from an Adirondack chair.

I miss the slow brown roll of the Chattahoochee under a white sky, when the next bridge you can see from your innertube is blurred by the haze, and you can feel the faint tug of the plastic cooler afloat in the water behind you because it’s tied to your tube with bright orange plastic twine.

I miss the smell of honeysuckle that grows in the chain link fences around playgrounds. (I’d like to teach my daughters how to gently pull the stamen from the base of the honeysuckle blossom, so that they can taste the sweet drop of liquid that it carries, and drop the spent flower to crush under their flip-flops, to release the last of the scent).

I miss fall leaves.  I miss acorns.  I miss the sticky crunch of a Rome apple in season.  I miss the first cool crisp day of autumn.  All days are crisp in Colorado.  It’s so damn cheerful all the time. 

I miss the rain tap tapping on the roof.  Snow on the roof does not make a sound, and therefore does not create the restful, safe, and cozy feeling that rain does.  Snow, also, refuses to run helpfully into the storm sewers like rain does.  It demands to be shoveled.

I miss delicate shoes; they just don’t make sense in this climate.

I miss the low, lingering, musical voices of the people.  I miss the sense of history and the high ceilinged architecture.  I miss box fans in windows.  I miss sweet tea, and waitresses who call me honey.

Maybe it’s because today, I’m mad at my husband, and he is the reason I reside in what today seems like an airless, cold, treeless, brown and grey wasteland where the howling wind never calms, that makes me crave the feeling of home.  Maybe it’s because, today, I am weary of the staccato rhythm of life above the Mason Dixon line.  Maybe it’s because a few days ago we had a rare and precious rainy day, which reminds me of home, no, causes me to feel at home, and today we are back to the relentless glaring sunshine that somehow makes me feel guilty for needing to rest.  Maybe it’s because today, I just happen to be feeling sentimental.  

Whatever the reason, today I just want to go home.





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I answered him thoughtfully. “That the house would stay clean for fifteen minutes after the kids get home from school. That I could hire a cook. That the kids would read classics instead of books with corpses on the cover. That my best friend would find a man who treats her right. That tomorrow could be sunny and 75 degrees.

That we could get a tankless water heater! Did you know, I asked him, that those things kick out hot water forever? Even if you have three daughters living in your house?

I wish we could get tickets to the Florida Georgia Line concert. I wish your mother and I could find some common ground.” I walked into the closet to change into my coziest pajamas, and so raised my voice so that he could still hear me. “I wish I could tolerate more than ten minutes of playing Barbies with the girls. What does Barbie really have to say anyway, after she gets home from her date with Ken?”

“That we could spend all summer at the beach together. That our children will grow up to be happy, kind, contributing adults” I walked back to the bed as I considered the rest of my answer. “That I had more time to write,” I said as I let my tired body sink into the luxurious warmth of our aged and therefore very soft sheets. I let out a sigh of relief as I lay my head on my pillow.

This is my favorite time of day. It is quiet and peaceful and safe. I can be completely relaxed and completely myself. I don’t have to clean. I don’t have to think. I don’t have to plan. I don’t have to decide. I can rest.

As I felt his arm slide round my waist, I went on … “To receive a phone call from an actual publisher. To see a book in the library with my name on the spine! That someone would pay me for something I wrote. That a poem of mine would hit the charts in a song sung by Faith Hill.” I could hear my voice getting higher and my words coming faster. ”To be interviewed by Charlie Rose on PBS, or Katie Couric, or…or Barbara Walters! To appear on Book Notes, or on the today show, or on Good morning America!” I was really rolling now. “To see my name after the words ‘adapted from the novel by…’ scrolling up a movie screen. That the main character in my novel would be played by Julia Roberts in the movie version.” I heard him laugh.

That’s not exactly what I had in mind, sweetheart,” he said from somewhere over my left shoulder,”when I asked about your wildest fantasies.”

Up on one elbow now, he kissed my forehead and turned over. “I’ll look into that water heater tomorrow.” And then he was asleep.

Elite Sports for Kids

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Let me tell you our story; you decide what you think. 

My oldest dest daughter loved the game of softball.  She always had.  She’d been playing since the spring of her second grade year, when she asked to sign up to play.  Baseball is something my husband and I both love.  In fact, we conducted a good deal of our courtship at Fulton County Stadium, cheering for the Atlanta Braves. He played very serious baseball growing up, and was excited about her interest, so we let her do it.  She had a great time, some seriously great coaching, and the price was right. The whole family was enjoying her participation.  There’s something absolutely wonderful about a Saturday morning at the ball park with the smell of hot dogs, the crunch of the peanut shells under your feet, and the red dust wafting through the air.  Even better to soak up the sun from your folding chair, watch your baby turn a double play, and listen to the coach tell you that your kid has heart, and potential.  

We threw a wrench into the machinery of Daughter #1’s plan for greatness in the sport of softball when we moved to Colorado during the summer of 2009. We signed her up for the local recreational level team as soon as we arrived that summer, but it just wasn’t the same.  She had skills the other girls in her age group didn’t.  Nobody on the team could catch, even the easy fly balls, and the players didn’t know where to throw the ball if they did happen to catch it. There were grounders going between legs, and outfielders crashing into each other while the ball drops five yards away. To make matters worse, the league rules required the players to take turns at each position, which meant  Daughter #1couldn’t play shortstop, her favorite position, consistently. She was bored and frustrated.  So was I.  My husband couldn’t even stand to watch.   

The rec team coach sought us out after a game near the end of the season. He told us that daughter#1 had talent, and that we should seek a higher level of play if we had aspirations for her.  “We can’t teach her anything new at this level,” he said.  “If you want her to play in high school”, he said, “You should get her into a ‘competition’ level program, so she can maintain her skills and make the team.”  We listened for a few minutes about the stellar reputation of the coach at our local high school, about her winning record, and the fact that a lot of the kids she coached went on to play softball in college.  (I was to learn later that the words “play in college” were a euphemism for earning scholarship money, but I didn’t know that then).  My husband wore a huge toothy grin the whole way home.  He was bursting with pride.  I knew I should feel proud too, and I did, but I also felt pressured.  “Does this mean if we don’t get her onto a ‘higher level’ team, that she wouldn’t be able to play in high school at all?” I asked him from my side of the front seat.  My husband said he thought it did.  “If the other girls are practicing and playing,” he said, “and our daughter isn’t, the other girls will be much better than her by the time high school tryouts roll around, and she probably wouldn’t make the team.”  I really didn’t like that answer.  It made me feel like they (whoever they are) had us over a barrel.  Besides, I didn’t think it should matter whether we wanted her to play in high school or college.  The question was… did she?  

Then one beautiful Friday afternoon, the first week of school, she came home saying that she had been invited to try out for a “travel team”–a term interchangeable with “competition level team” or “elite team”– that very afternoon.  The wheels began to turn in my head.  This could be the solution our problem, I thought.  Maybe a “travel team” would be a better match for her ability. Maybe this team would help her keep her skills up so she would have the option to play in high school, if she wanted to.  I was willing to consider it for her, if she wanted it.   She said she did.

So I called my husband, who left beers with his buddies, and the three of us attended the tryout.  Daughter #1 did well that day.  She slammed a bunch of machine pitched balls far into the outfield, and she ran the bases fast enough to make the coach smile as he clicked his stopwatch.  The coach spent some time talking with her too, which gave her a chance to show that she knew the more intricate rules of the game.  Honestly, I was nervous during the tryout.  I wasn’t entirely sure she had the “right stuff” for this “higher level of play”.  Most of the other girls trying out outweighed her by at least twenty pounds and she was not so good at accepting constructive critism (I wonder where she got that?) but the coach said she was good enough to make the team.  I don’t know why I was nervous.  Girls who played at a much lower skill level also made the team that day.    

It was only $1200 dollars, the coach told us, a reasonable fee compared to most ‘elite’ teams.  That amount would include her uniforms, he said, a calendar year of instruction with practices twice a week and weekend games during the fall, spring, and summer.  There would be no games during December, January or February, but practices would be held all year.  What did he say?  $1200 dollars?  I was used to paying $75 to $100 for a six to eight week season in the spring and again in the fall, so $1200 seemed like an outrageous amount of money to me. My husband, however, didn’t bat an eyelash, and since he was the family expert on sports, I repressed my concerns about the money, tried hard to quash my incurable thrifty nature, and stayed quiet.

 My husband told the coach that we would sleep on it and give him a call in the morning with our decision, but I knew by looking at him that it was a done deal.   The kid really wanted to do it, and for some reason, some reason vaguely related to never having had a son, I thought, my husband was emotionally invested in letting her.  “I don’t want her to miss this opportunity,” he said, “like I did.”  (When he was a high school senior, he was offered a spot on the baseball team at Virginia Tech, but passed it up thinking he would not be able to manage the demanding engineering program and baseball.  It is a decision he’s always regretted.) In time for practice the next day, he wrote a check, and our girl was on the team.  She and her dad were excited, really excited.  I had some un-examined and un-named reservations about the whole thing, but I was determined to be supportive.  Since everyone else seemed so happy, I would try to be happy too.

 I learned pretty quickly that the $1200 fee was only the beginning.  The original fee only covered the basics: two jerseys, two pair of baseball pants, and a jacket.  We were responsible to buy everything else. To meet her potential, Coach said, Daughter #1 needed better equipment, including a three hundred dollar bat, special jerseys that would protect her heart, and a wide selection of Under Armor (like long johns, but sporty) to be worn under her uniform for comfort in various weather conditions.  There were special shorts that prevented injury during sliding. There were practice pants and t-shirts. There were the ten or so pairs of different shades of orange socks to match her uniform.  And then there were the shoes.  The “right” cleats were unbelievably expensive.  My softball player was twelve years old.  Really?  Even my husband took issue with the price of the bat, and got her a slightly less expensive one, but he bought all the other stuff she “needed.”  He replaced her shoes when she outgrew them, twice.  Plus, it seemed like every time I took her to practice I was shelling out cash for additional fees for batting cages, softball camps, and what they call “clinics,” which is a fancy word for more practice, except with a different coach.   What I call the “Band Aid budget” went up dramatically.  Every week I was buying gauze and tape, ankle braces, band aids, ace bandages, and gallons of Neosporin with the weekly groceries.  Expenses related to softball were beginning to add up, but I was still able, for the time being, to talk myself out of my worries over the money.  It was okay with me, I decided, if she was happy, and interested, and challenged by the game.  It wasn’t so much saying goodbye to money that bothered me, but the impression that we were being gouged.  But…I told myself it would all be worth it, if we can help her achieve her dream.

It wasn’t just the expenses I worried about.  I also worried about injury.  I worried about severe injuries like concussions, broken arms and legs, or a sudden heart attack from being hit hard in the chest with the ball. (The team kept a defibrillator on the field to deal with such incidents, so it must have been a possibility.) I had visions of emergency rooms and physical therapy.  Sarah already had a weak ankle from a bad slide when she was eight.  (She was safe, but her ankle wasn’t.)  It hasn’t been quite right since.  I’m not sure it will ever be quite right.  Just like the expenses, her smaller injuries began to add up.  She constantly jammed her fingers, which were often black and blue and purple.  Skinned knees and elbows were a regular occurrence.  I worried that all the little cuts and bruises would have a cumulative effect.  I had visions of my perfectly formed baby as an older woman in a tattered housedress, working her way slowly from a recliner in front of the TV to her kitchen for a cup of tea because her body didn’t work so well, with hip, or knee, or ankle, or god forbid, brain problems.   And for what?, I wondered.  Softball is neither an Olympic or professional sport.  If she worked hard she could play in college, but was that worth a lifetime of pain? Of course I said nothing.  Sublimating my worries was becoming a habit. 

I also learned pretty quickly that “travel teams” are called “travel teams” for a reason.  We traveled by air out of state for one tournament and my husband and daughter traveled hours by car every weekend for others.  I am not exaggerating.  There were tournaments every weekend, which started at 7:00 am on both Saturday and Sunday morning and lasted all day (so much for church, we now worshiped the sport of softball).  My younger daughters and I joined them when our schedules allowed, but most weekends, the family was split.  I missed them sorely, at first, and then I grew resentful that the team demanded so much of our family time.  Besides, I thought it was odd that our team always seemed to be playing against the same five other teams, no matter where we played.  The whole league, all five or six teams, would take themselves to another city, in another part of the state or country, and then play the same game that they could have played in the park where they practiced, which was within walking distance of our house.  I didn’t get it.  Certainly there must be enough girls who are good enough to play “elite” softball in our own city (population 2.7 million) to make up a league, but I dismissed my thought, thinking the experts must know what they were doing.   

Early on I noticed that every time I sat down on a set of bleachers, some parent said something to me along these lines:  “We are so pleased with this team.  Our daughter has improved so much since she’s joined.  We understand that college scouts attend club games more often than high school games.  We just know so and so (their daughter) will be able to get some scholarship money, so she can go to college.”  I would smile weakly, and say nothing, but I didn’t agree with the logic. I thought if we all put the huge amount of money we are spending on softball into a college savings plan, a four year education at a good in-state university would be paid for in no time. I thought if the kids put the time into studying that they put into softball they would all earn academic scholarships.  Every time I had this conversation, which was a lot, I got a sinking feeling.  Didn’t any of these parents know the statistics about how few kids get athletic scholarships?  Shouldn’t it just be for fun?   Was I missing something?  Was there something about this hope-for-a-scholarship thing that I didn’t understand?  

I wondered too, after these conversations, what about the kids whose families couldn’t afford the time or the money required for participation in “elite” softball (or baseball or football or soccer, or any sport)?   If what the other softball parents said was true, that college scouts came to more club sports games than to high school games, wouldn’t the players without a lot of money get left out of the mix? Wouldn’t the whole sport suffer as a result? What if today’s system had been in place thirty years ago, and the parents of Pele or Joe Namath or Mary Lou Retton couldn’t have afforded “elite” sports?  Soccer and Football and Gymnastics would have suffered a great loss.  This system, this race for scholarship money, seems fundamentally unfair to me.  It seems that you have to have the money for club sports in order to get the scholarship money for college. I began to think that the word “elite” in elite sports referred to a young athlete’s socioeconomic status, instead of their ability. It was a disturbing thought. 

Meanwhile, back on the field, our daughter was becoming disillusioned.  Her team was losing, a lot, and they were embarrassing losses, massacres.  If there is one thing I can tell you about my eldest daughter that can in no way be refuted by anyone who ever met her, it is that she likes to win.  No, she needs to win.  There were problems with the coaching too.  There was a lot of yelling, stomping around, and kicking up dirt on the field, which was tempered by precious little encouragement. This kind of coaching was a poor fit for daughter #1, who is a perfectionist (I wonder where she got that?).  When she made a mistake that caused the coach to yell at her, she couldn’t let it go and move on.  She would miss the next play because she was still thinking about it.  Her performance on the field got worse, not better.  She would come in from her games and practices with a hangdog look on her face, complaining of stomach aches.  Once, she threw down her glove and walked off the field, mid game.  Another time, she spoke disrespectfully to her coach.  She was exhausted from the long hours the team kept, and her school friends were dropping out of her life because she didn’t have time to spend with them.  She threatened to quit.

My husband and I were horrified.  We weren’t raising a quitter, or a brat that sassed adults and threw temper tantrums in public.  Her behavior was clearly unacceptable, and I told her so in no uncertain terms, but internally I was torn.  I didn’t want her to quit, especially after our mounting investment, but I could see how unhappy she was. 

When I spoke to my husband about it, he said I was coddling her.  When I suggested we were wasting our money if she was no longer happy in the sport, he told me I was insufferably cheap.   He was right, I was coddling her, and I am cheap, but to me, the issue was happiness.  To him, it was commitment.  People were relying on her, he kept saying.  She needs to be a team player, he kept saying.  I could see his point, but softball had become a constant source of anxiety for all of us. My husband and I disagreed about the importance of softball in our lives, and we argued about it sometimes. My other two daughters were missing things they wanted to do, like birthday parties and piano lessons, because of the softball schedule.  Softball was taking a toll on our whole family, but I swallowed hard, bore up to the strain, and encouraged my other daughters to do the same.  I wasn’t so sure anymore that we were helping her to pursue her dream.  She was no longer having fun.  Neither was I.  Not even my husband was having fun.    

When Daughter #1 and my husband came in from practice late one night, talking about going to a nearby ski resort for  yet another tournament,  I said ”Hey, let’s camp out!  It should be perfect weather up there this time of year, and we can save a few bucks.”  It just slipped out, the thing about saving money. I shouldn’t have mentioned it.  I told myself to get over the money issue. Nobody was going to go without because we were paying for softball. 

And then… my husband said to me (I remember this part in slow motion, because it was the moment of my epiphany about ‘elite’ softball) “Naw, we need to get a room.  If the team doesn’t buy enough rooms, we can’t play in the tournament.”  He leaned against the counter and chewed a bite of the sandwich I had made for him, not noticing the light bulb that was slowly illuminating over my head.  In my mind, the niggling discomfort that I had been feeling from the beginning crystallized into anger.  I began to feel like a chump, a mark, the victim of a scam. This is a business, I realized!  This whole exhausting, expensive, worrisome thing is not about teaching kids skills and sportsmanship.  It’s not about supporting our daughter in her goals.  It isn’t about financial help with college tuition.  It isn’t even about softball.  It is about out selling hotel rooms, and equipment, and batting cage time, and maybe even sports medicine appointments.  Suddenly it made sense to me why the girls who weren’t that good made the team!  It was because the only real criterion for making the team was the parent’s ability to pay the fee!  Then I felt the punch in the stomach of the harder realization:  my daughter probably isn’t talented either, but the coach/team/league just wanted to get the fee.  Suddenly it made sense to me why we always seemed to be playing against the same four or five teams, no matter how far we had to go to play them.  Suddenly it made sense how a grown man had the gall to tell me a twelve year old girl needed a thousand dollars worth of equipment.  It was because they were making a profit!  It’s a racquet, and the “experts” to whom I had been deferring were actually profiteers.  It isn’t just a business, it’s an entire industry!

I felt like an idiot.  Stupid!  How could I have fallen for this gigantic line of BS? How could I have believed in those sales-pitch words like ‘elite’ and ‘competition level’ and the worst of them, ‘scholarship’?  And what’s worse, how could my smart, athletic, and heretofore sensible husband have fallen for it too? How could he stand there chewing when our hard earned money was draining out of our accounts like water from a sieve, and our daughter was miserable?

I quickly added in my head all that we had spent in the past year on softball.  (I had been doing it all along, but I couldn’t admit it to myself.)  The total was in the neighborhood of $5,000.  $5000!     

It was then that I began to yell.  “Are you kidding me?  Are you kidding me?” I screamed.  (I am usually more articulate than this, but I was so angry that my vocabulary failed me.)  I didn’t care if the children heard me.  I didn’t care if the neighbors heard me.  I didn’t care if my husband concluded that I had lost my mind.  Maybe I had.  I was mad at myself because I hadn’t listened to my gut, and at my husband because he hadn’t listened to me, either.  I was mad because we were out $5000, a year of our lives, a thousand other more educational and valuable experiences that we had not had time for, and it was all because I had not spoken up.  Well, I was speaking up tonight.  I recovered my ability to speak intelligently, and I covered all my aforementioned concerns at the very top of my lungs.  It was a bad night.  My husband and I didn’t speak for a day or two.  He remained committed to the team.  I couldn’t.

When I cooled down and we were finally able to talk about the issue rationally, we decided to stick with it through the rest of the season, because we felt that it was better for our daughter to learn to stand by her decisions.  I yelled and clapped for her and the team just as loud as ever, but I was faking it, and I suspected she was rolling her eyes at me under her batter’s helmet, rather than resolving to hit a homer.  I had to drag myself, and her, out of bed for softball, where in the beginning she had jumped up eagerly to get ready for her games and practices.  When I sat on the bleachers, I felt like I had the word “sucker” tattooed to my forehead and wondered why the other parents didn’t feel that way too.  I had never quite fit in with the softball parents, but now I really felt separate.  I just wanted it to be over.

At the end of the season daughter #1 quit the softball team, to the great disappointment of her father, and to the great relief of her mother, and she has lost her love for the game of softball.  On high school orientation day this spring, she passed by the sign-up sheet for the freshman team without a backward glance.  She couldn’t get away fast enough.  She has moved on to basketball now, which was before, something she did in the off season to keep in shape for softball.   Even though she says she loves the game of basketball and shows off her scrapes and bruises with pride, I can’t say she loves basketball the way she loved softball, way back when.  I hope so, but I can’t see it in her eyes, or on her face.  She seems jaded and wary, as if basketball might hurt her too. 

I feel bad.

I feel guilty because I wonder if my feelings, which I truly made a herculean effort to keep under wraps, could have affected (infected?) her anyway, and ruined her first love.  I feel guilty because it may have been me that caused her to fall out of love with the game of softball.  If I had not behaved so badly, if I had been more supportive, if I could have found the right way to encourage her, or if I found a coach for her that was a better fit, might she someday be a star?  I don’t know.  I don’t know, and that’s the hard part.  There is no doubt I could have done a better job helping her achieve her dream, but for the life of me, I still can’t figure out how.

There has to be a better way. I just wish I knew what it was.

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