Running on Empty

A newspaper column on the Internet.

Month: June, 2012

Your Dreams Are a Bad Idea: Lessons From a Failed Author

Four and a half years ago I quit my job and moved continents so that I could write a book. This book was to be a serious yet eminently readable work of narrative nonfiction. It was going to be the kind of book that earned stellar reviews in respected publications and land me a segment on “The Daily Show” where you could tell that Jon Stewart thought I was funny.

In the years since, many well-meaning people have asked me, “How’s the book?” This once-innocuous question falls upon my ears today like “How’s your chlamydia?” or “What happened to those lewd conduct charges against you?” The short answer is that I did write a book, I couldn’t get it published, and these days I am much more familiar with failure than talk show green rooms.

The rest of today’s column is at Salon.


The Mommy War Profiteers

Surely by now you have seen last month’s Time Magazine cover of the breastfeeding mother. I’m not going to post it again here. If for some reason you haven’t seen it (or if I just live in a parenting bubble, and no one who doesn’t have some combination of children and/or breasts knows what I’m talking about) the cover featured a photo of a striking young blond mother breastfeeding her three-year-old son and staring down the camera like she was about to shiv the photographer. It was accompanied by the headline “Are You Mom Enough?” suggesting an inside story about some kind of underground parenting fight club or the rise of an armed militant wing of La Leche League.

Today, a Google search of  “Time breastfeeding cover” yields 9.6 million hits. It launched a million blog posts with a billion comments that ranged from crazy personal attacks on the photographed mother to crazy personal attacks on women who don’t breastfeed to reasoned, thoughtful arguments to which no one paid much attention. It also gave countless other media outlets a chance to throw up tired, click-attracting headlines about “mommy wars.” More on that later.

In reality, the provocative photograph and doubly provocative headline led to an innocuous profile of Dr. Bill Sears, a pediatrician and the leading figure in a decades-old trend called attachment parenting. As an adherent of the faltering print media industry, I can only say: well done, Time. What does it matter that the cover bore only a tangential relationship to the story inside? It was the bestselling issue of the year, and more impressively it got people talking about something they saw in Time Magazine, like it was suddenly 1997 again. This marketing strategy deserves further exploration. Is Your Spouse Gay?: Inside the Collapse of the Eurozone. Should These Hot Girls Kiss?: Romney’s Foreign Policy, Explained.

As a woman in her thirties with a child, this cover image and the uproar it caused permeated every corner of my social media universe. It seemed like every publication or blog I read had some comment on it. So many friends were talking about it here in the UK – where Time used a different cover – that I asked my mother to buy a copy and mail it to me, again like it was 1997. I could not turn away from the lurid quality of the online discussions it sparked – so many of which took on the personal, baiting, judgment-slinging righteousness that marks any parenting-related forum – and as I read I got madder, and madder. You see, I have a 16-month-old daughter, and when it came to her feeding . . .

Ah ha! That was a trick! When it came to her feeding, it doesn’t matter what I did! It doesn’t matter if I breastfed her because the literature said it was healthy, or because I am a fetishist who gets a sexual charge from using a breast pump! It doesn’t matter if I fed her formula because I had persistent breast infections or because I own stock in Nestle! It’s a private matter! It’s nobody’s business!

I did not realize when I became a mother that every decision places you in one of opposing camps: breastfeeders versus bottle feeders, sleep trainers versus co-sleepers, stay at home versus working mothers, each with their own message boards full of bitterness and insecurity masquerading as righteousness. I also did not realize how much the media likes a girl fight, even when the girls are in their mid-thirties and sporting a couple extra pounds of baby weight, nor that the people watching these arguments had given them their own infantilizing term: the “mommy wars.”

“The Mommy Wars” make me insane. It’s not just the false premise that these personal choices fall into neatly delineated binary camps, that the selection of one way of life implies criticism or rejection of another. You can’t do everything, all the time. A woman’s status regarding breastfeeding or working outside the home could be the result of conscious personal convictions, or simply the product of circumstance. Stop looking for flaws in other people’s reasoning as an excuse to defend your own choices.

It enrages me that American women are pissing away their collective power sniping at each other over superficial details instead of uniting against the infuriating reality that a country that can successfully interbreed Doritos and tacos makes it unnecessarily difficult for the average woman to have a meaningful role in the workplace and care satisfactorily for her children. Before you get all huffy about handouts and Scandinavian-style taxes, remember that family support doesn’t have to mean free cash. In the United Kingdom an employer is required to allow a new mother one year of leave from her job (the amount of pay you get during that time varies by company) and to consider a request for a flexible working schedule upon her return. This isn’t just a mother’s issue, by the way. Flexible family policies make life healthier and happier for women AND the partners with whom they are raising their children. People are arguing this point more eloquently here and here. I just think it’s bullshit that America treats maternity leave like some kind of perk on par with beanbag chairs in the lunchroom.

And God Almighty, do I hate the term mommy wars. Or mommy blog. Or mommy anything. To slap the word “mommy” in front of anything instantly trivializes it. That word belongs to children. If you are more than nine years old and use the term “mommy” in relation to me, I will not take you seriously because I assume you are not taking me seriously either.

So women, men, editors, writer, all of you, all of us – just stop it. Banish the term “mommy wars.” Stop wasting time on petty pissing matches over who’s back at work and who’s still breastfeeding. Stop ignoring important discussions about family policy for stupid sensationalist click-bait. Don’t let yourself be goaded into a fight that isn’t worthy of your energy. Don’t let Time magazine treat your choices like the latest news in pet BFFs.

And if I’m not your mother? Don’t call me Mommy.

A Right Royal Cock-Up: Watching the Diamond Jubilee

My family moved to London in April 2011, just weeks before the royal wedding, and the day after that spectacle I was watching an evening news program criticizing the BBC’s coverage of the event. The presenters were unbecomingly star-struck, the pundits grumbled, pointing out celebrity guests like Victoria Beckham instead of former King Constantine of Greece. They were concerned that this pandering, lowest-common-denominator attitude would not be rectified by the Diamond Jubilee.

That was the first I heard of the Diamond Jubilee, the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II’s accession to the throne. Like the commemorative paperweights or coffee mugs awarded at less nepotistic workplaces, Jubilees are doled out to monarchs after 25, 50 and 60 years of service. “Jubilee” refers to both the whole calendar year in which the anniversary takes place, and to the four-day pageant officially commemorating the milestone. It is an unusual word to associate with a woman who only smiles at corgis.

When Jubilee Weekend finally rolled around earlier this month, banks and other businesses shut down for a four-day public holiday. People held street parties all over England, while in central London thousands of flag-waving revelers lined the banks of the Thames and the Mall for a series of parades and concerts honoring Her Majesty. It felt like a repeat of last year’s wedding – Union Jack bunting hung from every vertical surface, a run on Pimm’s at the grocery store, horses, hats, bugles, and my daughter and I watching the festivities from a safe distance on the telly, marveling at the customs and ceremonies of this strange tribe we now live amongst.

In the run-up to the Jubilee I read an online debate analyzing Americans’ fascination for an institution it so bloodily rejected 200 years ago. There were a range of solid theories – we’re subconsciously longing for what we relinquished when we broke away from the Crown; the couplings and machinations of the royal family have the lurid appeal of a living soap opera; we are magpies who love brass buttons and furry hats – but none that quite capture the impression these archaic performances have on an outsider looking in, in the 21st century. It’s like watching Civil War re-enactors, or Darkon – the elaborate costuming, the commitment to staying in character, the sense that carefully choreographed human interactions are the only kind the participants are comfortable with. The difference is that an entire nation has agreed to treat it as real, with tens of millions of pounds of public funds annually shoveled toward the maintenance of a performance that seems of little benefit to anyone but the actors themselves. We let our role players use the parks and turn a benevolently blind eye when they show up at 7-11 in costume. We don’t let them open Congress.

And just like Civil War re-enactors who must endure the illusion-shattering effect of a car horns in the distance and kids on Razor scooters hooting from the sidelines, even Her Majesty’s most ardent supporters must contend with the reality that the monarchy’s power falls short of divine.

The centerpiece of the Jubilee was a boat parade on the Thames. Let your imaginations run wild, the event’s official website suggested in a breathless tone. Square riggers. Wooden launchers. Oyster smacks. If it floated, and was not a dead body, it would be proudly sailing past Her Majesty on the afternoon of June 3. It sounded like a lovely thing to do on a pleasant early summer afternoon, which makes me wonder if the Jubilee events were originally scheduled to take place somewhere other than England.

England has no summer. It has no seasons. For 340 days of the year the island sits beneath a gray, cloudy, drizzly sky that veers wildly between 50 and 63 degrees. There are a few dozen days of glorious weather sprinkled at random between April and October, but you can no more count on a sunny day in June than you can upon a winning lottery ticket coming into your possession. And yet people were shocked – shocked! – to wake up on Sunday morning and find rain dumping upon London (though not on Belfast or Edinburgh, a sign that God might be a Republican.)

As the wind kicked up, boats backed up on the river and the whole thing turned into a soggy, sorry mess, the army of television reporters stationed across the channels clung resolutely to the script that viewers were watching something magical. On CNN Piers Morgan called it an “orgy of excitement,” a baffling statement that only raises questions about the kinds of orgies Piers Morgan attends. The BBC collapsed upon itself, its coverage a pastiche of awkward camera angles, cuts to people clearly unaware that they were live, a minute-long shot of the controls of a ship, and a long debate between two presenters wondering if the trash boat currently on air was part of the parade, or was in fact transporting trash.

Someone noted on Twitter that requiring an 85-year-old to stand outside in the rain for hours is more assassination attempt than party, and in fact the Queen’s 90-year-old husband spent the rest of the weekend in the hospital with an infection. But there she stood, this tiny little white-haired lady, looking and smiling and waving and acting like this didn’t suck when so obviously it did.

I don’t know what monarchs do now that they can’t have rivals beheaded or commission portraits of themselves as virgin fairies. I don’t know how you justify the public expense or how voting taxpayer can conceive of him- or herself as a subject instead of a citizen. But as a woman who finds herself increasingly short on patience, I can respect what might be the Queen’s most singular accomplishment: to endure sixty years of tree plantings, garden parties, ship christenings, wing openings, polite chatter, endless parades and English weather without getting caught complaining.