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?

 

 

 

 

On Why I Craft:

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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

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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.

 

 

 

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.

Notes From the Bored Housewives Club: An Overview

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Notes from the Bored Housewives Club:  An Overview

Once upon a time I was a professional woman.  I wore a business suit, jewelry, and pretty shoes.  Long ago, educated people trusted my opinion and followed my recommendations, and sometimes my recommendations changed lives.

My career was social work.  Over the course of ten years I worked in a battered women’s shelter, with the child victims of sexual abuse, and with perpetrators of sexual abuse.  I worked in a non- profit agency whose goal it was to end child abuse.  I worked in a modern day orphanage preparing teenage girls for the world. (It was a great job). I worked for the government finding educational opportunities for kids who didn’t respond to traditional teaching methods. I found foster homes for children who needed them, and I placed abused and neglected kids for adoption (the best job ever).

I had power.  I believe I was able to use it to change the world for the better.  But…that’s all over now.

About four years into my career, I got married (a good choice. I think it’s probably going to work).  Immediately thereafter we decided we would like a baby.  We both wanted to be parents and thought the time was right.  According to God’s schedule though, the time was not yet right.  It took four years, a team of experts, various pharmacological potions, more than a few hypodermic needles, countless hormone induced rages/crying jags, and about ten thousand chats with God to achieve our goal.

When I finally became pregnant, I chose, for a million reasons, to stay home with my baby.  After all, she was so hard to get, I didn’t want to give up even one minute of my limited time, with probably the only child I would ever have, to some child care provider who couldn’t love her like her mama would.  Besides, as a social worker, childcare cost more than my salary. (Sad isn’t it?) How hard could it be?”  I asked myself.  “It can’t be as hard as finding happy, permanent homes for 17 severely disturbed foster children,” I answered myself.  So, completely without trepidation, armed only with an overzealous work ethic and an overdeveloped sense of guilt, I became a stay-at-home mom.

It turns out I was right; being a stay-at-home mom isn’t harder than finding forever homes for severely disturbed children, but it is almost as hard, The challenges are different than I expected.  The most difficult part of my job is boredom.  I mean, how many times can one perform the same task, say, picking up the same tiny pair of shoes, over and over, before life starts to feel a little meaningless?  The next most difficult part is the isolation.  Some days, no, most days, I spend alone with very little adult interaction, and that for me, is hard.

Regardless of the challenges, I’m very glad I quit my job to become a stay at home mom. We were lucky and blessed (and surprised) enough to be able to have two more daughters, which has caused joy beyond my wildest dreams, and the pride I feel in my children is worth all the hard days and short nights.  It’s been fourteen years since the fateful day I began my second career.  It was a good decision.  When I miss the power, my husband lets me boss him around, a little.

To combat the boredom and the isolation, I write. I write about the things I think about, from my perspective as a woman, as a wife, as a mother, and as the maker of a home.  I write about the issues that affect my life, and maybe yours.  I care about education, the environment, the food supply, how to raise good kids, how to keep a marriage happy, and how to keep myself sane, so I write about all that.  When I just can’t keep my mouth shut any longer, which will be pretty often (my husband says), I write about politics.  For fun, I review books and movies; I’m especially interested in the ones that are relevant to family life.  I also write responses to the magazine and news articles that get me thinking.

I fancy myself a sort of Carrie Bradshaw, but for the older and less fashionable, or something like Andy Rooney, but for the younger and more fashionable, or, I know, an Irma Bombeck for the new millennium!

Here’s what it is, basically: smart girl settles down to keep house, and trouble ensues.