Abraham, Rachel, Soren and Liam. Our life together in Smalltown, Idaho.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Sunday Afternoon

Abe looking proud and a little surprised.
Soren's not allowed to eat bark, but that sure doesn't stop him from trying.
There is nothing more adorable than a toddler toddling.

Book Review: The Secret Life of Bees

The Secret Life of Bees
By Sue Monk Kidd

Insightful. Warm. Glowing. Alive. Elegant.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Book Review: Escape

by Carolyn Jessop
(with Laura Palmer)

Escape is the memoir of a woman who was born into the Fundamentalist church of Latter-day Saints, a group she now refers to as "a radical polygamist cult." At the age of 18, Carolyn Jessop was coerced into becoming the fourth wife of a 50-year-old man. This book describes her personal experience of living in an isolated religious polygamous community. It follows her through 17 miserable years in an abusive marriage, 8 pregnancies, and her final decision to take her children and leave her husband, her community, and her church.

Escape offers a fascinating glimpse into a world that, because of the illicit nature of polygamy and the separatist doctrines preached by FLDS leaders, has long been hidden behind double veils of secrecy and isolation. The book sheds light on this American enigma-- and also draws you into the emotional aspects of that world. After reading for a while, you can't help but feel as though you, yourself, have been repressed, controlled, abused, manipulated, isolated, and mocked. During the four days that it took me to read this book (Escape is another book I dragged around with me like a security blanket), I found myself overflowing with anger at my husband, not because of anything he had done, but because the injustices inflicted on the women in the book were described so clearly that they made me feel as though my life, like the lives of so many FLDS women, had been taken from me by a powerful patriarchy. (Poor Abe would walk into the kitchen and innocently offer up some friendly words, like, "Hi honey!" which I would immediately pounce on with, "Don't look at me like that! I know the Male Gaze when I see it! I've got skills! A college education! I don't have to live like this!")

That said, this is not a book you'd pick up for the writing style, though it's not bad or even distracting; it's just not terribly spectacular-- and it can wax repetitive from time to time. Reading Escape occasionally feels like spending time with one of those people who tells you the same things over and over because they don't think that their their stories, perceptions, and ideas are important enough for you to remember. It sometimes feels as though the authors don't trust you enough to remember that Barbara was a wench or that Merrill treated his wives like naughty children. And once in a while, you start to wonder if they think you're just plain dumb. "Yes, yes," I wanted to say, when the authors kept spelling out things that were perfectly clear from the stories and experiences shared within the text, "Ruth's behavior spoke for itself in that situation. You don't actually have to say, 'Ruth was acting a little crazy.' I could draw that conclusion all by my big self."

Another issue I have with the overall novel is the gaping hole left in the text by the complete omission of Carolyn Jessop's spiritual journey. We hear about her expedition out of a culture and out of a marriage, but not much about what it was like to leave her faith. And while she speaks a great deal about the FLDS society and its expectations, and occasionally mentions that she remained faithful to her church for much of her life, she doesn't delve deeply into the spiritual aspects of her life as a believer. There is very little mention of her relationship with God, her prayers, her study, her spiritual experiences, or her thoughts about any doctrines besides those related to "the principle of Celestial marriage." Though she mentions receiving one priesthood blessing that was important to her, she doesn't elaborate on her feelings about that experience, nor does she describe any other spiritual experiences. I'm uncertain as to whether she left out spiritual content for personal reasons, or if the absence of spirituality (vs religiosity) is representative of how the entire FLDS church functions.

But despite its deficiencies, and the toll that it might take on your marriage, Escape is a book that I would recommend to anyone, not only because it's interesting, but also because it addresses an issue that is growing more and more important to contemporary Americans. While the Texas compound affair brought modern American polygamy to the forefront of American consciousness, increasing debate centering on the legal definition of marriage has also forced many Americans to take a second look at a long-outlawed marital practice. And while you may think that Escape simply underlines the reasons that polygamy should be illegal, Carolyn Jessop believes that decriminalizing polygamy would improve the lives of members of the FLDS, allowing families to "live honestly and in the open and with dignity," giving their children more opportunities to interact with the outside world, gain an education, and observe other lifestyle options-- key experiences that would allow them to confidently choose their own way of life.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Or maybe I could sell him to the gypsies.

Today is one of those days that has forced me to pull out the phone book, turn to the yellow pages, and start analyzing area daycare centers. I'm honestly starting to think that, despite what everyone at church says, it would be better if someone else raised my child and I just checked in on weekends and evenings to offer a smothering of mommy kisses and unconditional love.

It's just that every day is the same:
-Wake up to son's increasingly agitated whining sounds.
-Drag sorry butt out of warm, cozy cocoon of bed.
-Waltz into baby's room singing, "Good morning, good morning!"while baby bounces up and down angrily, rubs the back of his head, and does not smile at all to see you.
-Change baby's diaper while he kicks and thrashes. Wonder if you should be doing something different to make this diaper-changing process go more smoothly. Would a nicer voice or a meaner voice do? Would it be better to pin him down with your feet or follow him around with a baby wipe while he plays with his toys? Wonder if you've irreparably damaged his personality by not making/letting him "cry it out" when he was six months old.
-Follow baby around while he plays. Surreptitiously change him out of his jammies and into the day's outfit.
-Sit on couch in oversized floral muumuu while baby wanders around house, looking for something interesting to break or choke on. When baby starts whining to go outside, tell him it's "Bounce and Bounce Time." Hang up baby jumper in bathroom doorway. Insert baby. Remove oversized muumuu. Shower while baby opens every bathroom drawer and removes all items from each drawer. Periodically leave shower to confiscate any particularly dangerous-looking items from baby, who screams in rage and ends up slamming his head against the door frame in the process, increasing the fervor and volume of said screams. Feel resentful because baby has infringed upon your sacred shower time.
-Towel off, dress in one of the three outfits you own, remove baby from bouncer, replace him in a high chair. Bustle around kitchen in an attempt to find some food item that will at least plug up the child's cry hole until you can find something more nutritious for him to eat. Tell him that instead of yelling, he should say, "Please, mommy, I would like some food. Please." Wonder why he's not talking yet. Think of all the other babies his age who can say please. Wonder if it's your fault he doesn't use words. Wonder if you should get his hearing checked. Wonder how much speech therapy will cost. Calculate necessary budgetary adjustments to accommodate said therapy. Remind yourself that people all over the world eat nothing but rice and beans every day.
-Feed baby canned fruit, an egg, and some granola. Watch him devour the egg, play with the granola, and throw fruit pieces onto the floor--plop, plop, plop. Wonder if he's going to die of a fruit and vegetable deficiency or egg overdose. Ask him not to throw food on the floor. Take his tray away. In the nick of time, stop him from diving headfirst onto the floor below. Wash his hands and face while he squirms and fusses. Ask him why he's being such a Mr. Grumpypants.
-Follow baby into front room. Read to him from the three cardboard books he hasn't eaten yet. Play chase and giggle. Build a tent. Play in tent. Sing a song. Note time. All of these activities have consumed all of ten minutes of the day.
-Discouraged, leave child to his own devices. Pick up current read and try to distract self from stifling boredom and guilt. When child begins to whine to go outside, pick him up and say, "Why don't you help mommy do the dishes?" Attempt to clean up kitchen with a 25-pound baby in one arm. Worry that you respond to whining too much. Wonder if you're encouraging him to whine. Fret that he might grow up to be a whiner and that nobody will ever like him.
-When baby starts whining to go outside again, show him his other toys. Build towers out of blocks for him to knock over. Sing another song. Tell him a nursery rhyme. Play with the ring stacker.
-When baby starts throwing a fit about something he doesn't like, heave a great big sigh, say, "OK. You can throw a fit right there." And sit back down with your book. Decide that when he calms down you'll take him outside.
-Outside, baby is only interested in dangerous and forbidden things: climbing the crumbling porch steps, toddling off the sidewalk into the street, playing with the neighbors' toys. After five long, mindless minutes of removing him from said danger/forbidden objects, pick up child (who arches back and kicks legs) and wrestle him into his stroller. Push strollered child, who immediately calms down upon realizing that you weren't trying to force him into a vat of boiling tar after all. Worry that you should be able to exert more control over child using verbal commands, rather than brute force. Wonder if spanking should become a part of disciplinary tactics. Fret that he's growing up to be a spoiled brat.
-Allow child to run freely in the neighborhood park. Think about how handsome he is. Watch him toddle/running across the asphalt and feel a little prickling in your eyes. Build woodchip hills together. Kiss baby's chubby cheeks. Sit on swing with baby on lap until nauseated. Slide down twirly slide with child on lap until exhausted.
-Load arching/kicking baby into stroller. Walk home.
And by now it's maybe 10:00 am.

The day will continue similarly, dragging on in a long, slow, painful series of mindless games and lots of worrying, interrupted only by a blessed hour or two of nap time, in which I usually read, sleep, clean with both arms, or talk to my sweetheart. Every day Soren and I read the same stories, sing the same songs, play the same games, eat the same foods (mostly cereal, pancakes, eggs, and fruit cocktail, truth be told), clean up the same messes, and move the same toys around from room to room.

I worry that Soren is bored and understimulated. I wonder if he would be happier in a daycare center where he could interact with other people, be given planned/nutritious snacks and meals, play with new toys, hear new stories, learn new games. I wonder if he would be happier with a mommy who didn't resent being at home all day long, bored out of her freaking mind and wishing that he would just take a goshdang nap. On the other hand, I fret that he would suffer undoable psychological damage if he were to spend even a single day of his life in a daycare center. I think about the horror stories I've read in newspapers about babies molested in daycare centers. I think about the words I've heard resonating from the church pulpit, warning that young children need to be with their mothers during the day, not in a daycare or a preschool.

I wonder if I'm miserable because I'm just an unhappy person or if I'm miserable because I, like Soren, am bored and understimulated. I wonder if a change in circumstances would help, or if I would be just as unhappy working full time as I am staying at home full time.

And these are the uplifting thoughts about motherhood that I have found to share with you today.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Book Review: Cloud Atlas

Believe it or not, I do have interests outside of Soren. One of those interests is reading. I've been thinking lately that I would like to keep some sort of record of the books I read, and I figured: why not on my blog? So you'll be seeing occasional book reviews appearing here, in which I will briefly rate the book in several reading categories that matter to me. And this is all starting today with a book review on......

Cloud Atlas
by David Mitchell

Cloud Atlas is a fascinating and experimental novel format that essentially weaves six novels into a united whole. It's difficult to explain, but the author himself does it effectively through metaphors, using the voice of one of his characters: "Spent the fortnight gone in the music room, reworking my year's fragments into a "sextet for overlapping soloists": piano, clarinet, 'cello, flute, oboe, and violin, each in its own language of key, scale, and color. In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan't know until it's finished, and by then it'll be too late..."

Writing Style: Mitchell is a divinely gifted writer who deftly occupies six vastly different styles, voices, and genres that are all tied together-- and not only through obvious content connections. Shared themes unite the stories, bringing harmony to what otherwise might be perceived as literary dissonance.
Plot: You laugh, you cry. You carry the book with you to the bathroom. You hold it in one hand while stirring batter with the other. You bring it with you to work in case you get stopped at a red light on the way there. You release a guttural moan when the author takes you out of one plot and deposits you in another. And then you get addicted to the next plot. And you laugh. And cry. And carry the book with you to the bathroom.
Setting: Oh. My. Gosh. The settings. The settings! They are all so different and yet-- so real. I don't doubt them for a minute. While reading, you start to wonder: has this man lived in the South Pacific? United States? Korea? France? England? During the 19th Century? The 20th? The 25th? How old is he anyway? And can I get in touch with his time-travel agent?
Characterization: It's difficult to create characters that seem so unstilted that your readers start talking about them like they're friends. (Maria Doria Russell accomplished this feat in The Sparrow-- I read it years ago but still occasionally bring up Ann and Emilio in casual conversations with Abraham, who is always confused at first: has he met these people?) And I'll be honest, Mitchell didn't create characters whom I felt that I knew. But that doesn't mean they weren't good characters: they were. They were well-formed and interesting. But I walked away knowing that they lived in book land and I lived on earth. Which is fine.
Ethics/Morals: This is one of those books I would love to write at least a half a dozen papers on because it was so theme-rich. I will not write these papers because I am lazy and unmotivated. But Mitchell addresses many important issues. The one that struck me the most was the novel's multi-angular exploration of the concept of power.
Other: I originally picked this book up to read for a book club. It flopped. No one (including myself) could get into it. No one (including me) read it. But last week I was desperate for something to read, so I picked it up again and committed myself to 100 pages before setting it aside again. And after about 50 pages, I couldn't put it down. So keep in mind that while it's a slow starter, you may very well find it worthwhile to persist through the beginning.

Monday, May 12, 2008

The Case of the Shy Bladder

(If you're offended easily by talk of the pottying processes, you should maybe not read this one.)

So Abe's brother Quentin has been living with us since February. The idea when we had him move in was that he would get a job and start saving money for college, but months have gone by and he has extended very minimal effort in the direction of obtaining some gainful employment. His days have been passed sitting blithely in front of the computer, sleeping and eating when it seemed convenient, and participating in family activities when moved upon by the power of the woman of the household.

Our initial condition for him had been that if he didn't have a job within two weeks of his arrival, we were shipping him back to New Hampshire. Sadly enough, those two weeks came and went, Quentin didn't get a job, and we couldn't find it in our hearts to send him back. Fortunately, another condition we'd set for him was that he needed to pay $150.00 in rent each month to help offset the increase in expenditures on utilities, groceries, and gasoline that his presence here would inevitably create. And this one we've been tough about. So tough, in fact, that when May 5th arrived and Quentin couldn't find the cash for this month's rent, I took his computer as collateral.

And lo and behold, on May 6th, he'd found himself a job.

Which is really where our story begins.

Quentin had been offered a job at Wal-Mart as a member of the nighttime floor cleaning crew, contingent on his passing a drug test within 24 hours of his interview. So on May 7th, I drove a full-bladdered Quentin to the drug testing office. I decided that Soren and I would wait in the car, imagining that it would only take Soren about 45 seconds to reduce the waiting room to rubble while simultaneously ingesting an entire People magazine, and also imagining that signing in, filling out paperwork, producing a urine sample, and surrendering the pee couldn't take more than 15 minutes from start to finish.

Oh, how wrong I was.

After an entire hour of singing Sesame Street songs and watching Soren push every button on the dashboard multiple times, I decided to call Quentin and see if there was a long line, if the paperwork was extensive, or if he'd failed the test.

"Hello?" he answered.
"Hey Quentin," I said. "You about done in there?"
"I don't know."
"What's going on?"
"I'm just drinking and waiting."
"Drinking and waiting? Didn't you tell me you had to pee several hours ago?"
"But it's just not coming now?"
"Well, um, how much longer do you think it's going to take?"
"I don't know."
"Not even an estimate?"

So Soren and I drove over to my friend Loriann's office. We spent another hour gabbing with her and making hearing aid box towers until she had to leave. So I again called Quentin.

"So, um, you....produced....yet?'

By this time, Soren was past ready for his nap, so I putted the car around in the foothills of Idaho Falls while he snoozed in his carseat. We drove up hills, we drove down hills, we drove past a wind farm, we drove past an alfalfa farm, we drove past several potato farms. It was really a nice drive, tainted only by the fact that I knew that I was devoting an entire afternoon to the production of a small urine sample.

Finally, two and a half hours after I'd dropped him off at the testing center with a completely full bladder, Quentin succeeded. He lost all his inhibitions. He cut himself loose. He went completely crazy. And he peed in a cup.

As we drove home, I tried to get him to explain to me why it was so hard for him to empty an already-full bladder on demand.

"I mean, gosh," I told him, "I had to do it every single time I saw my obstetrician while I was pregnant. And I was extremely fat, which meant that there was a lot of arm reaching awkwardness and a complete visual obstruction. And yet, I produced. Every month for nine months. And also, I produced while in labor at the hospital. So please, please explain to me what it so difficult about going into a quiet restroom with a full bladder, by yourself, while not in labor, with a very clear view of what you are doing, and producing a little urine. Please explain it to me!"

But he could not. "It's just so demoralizing," was all he said.

And the next day he got offered a job working as a gardener for the Idaho Falls temple, which means he didn't even really need to take that drug test at all.

And so are the days of my life.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Newsletter #2

Dear Soren,

Today you are 16 months and 3 days old. All month long I've been saving up things to tell you about yourself, but now that I'm actually sitting at the keyboard, my mind's gone blank. Let's see....
Yesterday your father and I spent some time cuddling on the couch, leaving you to your own devices for a minute or two. While we gaggaged and googooed at each other, you sat leaning against the half-wall in our front room, quietly playing with your stacking cups. Too quietly, we commented to each other, but you didn't appear to be doing anything naughty, so we carried on.

A UOS (unidentifiable odoriferous scent) drifting across the room soon motivated a change in plans, however, and I arose to check your diaper. I didn't even have to peek into the thing, as I could see from some yards that a thick brown paste was oozing out of the back of your pants. I called for backup, and your dad, holding you at arm's length, whisked you off to the bathtub. At the same moment that I noticed that there was fecal matter smeared all over the wall, your dad removed your shirt and discovered that thick tendrils of poop, like so much ivy, had climbed all the way up your back and into your hair. We hosed you off in the shower despite your many and loud verbal protestations. When we reported this event over Sunday dinner this afternoon, your Uncle Marty commented that all new parents should be issued a pressure washer.
This month you've developed a few new communication skills, namely saying "brrroombrooom" whenever you see anything with wheels; shaking your head vigorously whenever you perform a no-no; and waving "bye-bye" whenever it appears someone is about to take their leave. Your head shake and your wave are painstakingly and endearingly deliberate: you very consciously turn your head from side to side and twist your wrist back and forth like a beauty queen.

This month your Uncle Scott graduated from BYU's business school with a Master's degree in Information Systems. We drove down to celebrate with him. After the actual ceremony, we attended a dinner at Auntie Mandy's parents' house. Calysta was loitering because she wasn't hungry, so I asked her to keep an eye on you while I ate and visited with the other grownups. When I later peeked into the front room to see how you were doing, I found that you had made friends with the local Episcopalian pastor's husband, a small quiet man with a mustache, and that he was blithely sharing his baked beans with you. You'd take a bite, run around the room for a minute, and then run back to him to beg for more, puppy-style. He seemed to think you were cute and not at all germy, so I immediately decided he was the most charming man alive.
You're usually just that free and easy-going when it comes to meeting new people. There are some exceptions, however. That same day I took you to the BYU Bookstore to meet some of my old friends there. Valerie, a darling woman who works in the HR department, came out to hug the two of us. You, however, did not approve of her warm greeting, and slowly removed her right hand from my shoulder, then her left hand from yours, handing them back as if to say, "Did you lose these? Because I'm pretty sure they don't belong to us."

After the graduation party, we drove (with your Grandma and Grandpa Hanson) further into Utah, to a little town called Huntington, to visit my Grandma and Grandpa Hanson, who had never before met you. It was night when we started up Spanish Fork Canyon, and you were exhausted after a very long, very busy, nearly napless day. You finally fell asleep in your carseat as we wound our way through the canyon, but lights falling from lamp posts and little towns would occasionally flash hard through the windows; you would awaken and begin wriggling around and crying in discomfort. I held your little hand and sang you songs until you fell back to sleep, watching your sleeping baby face in the sliding shadows and wondering how to describe in words the sensation of having one's heart squeezed in the grasp of a 15-month-old baby boy.
We slept in the attic room at great Grandma and Grandpa Hanson's house for two nights and they found you delightful. Grandpa observed your antics with a twinkle in his eye, and Grandma, who can't see much anymore, commented several times on what a "choice spirit" you are, though her fondness (and blindness) did not prevent her from yelling at you for driving a toy tractor on her piano keyboard. On Saturday the two of them-- amid their usual barrage of bickering--made us some authentic Mexican Tamales, wrapped in corn husks and everything. This tamale making is a skill they picked up a few months ago, at the ages of 89 and 90, at a workshop they attended in Price. I hope that they will live long enough for you to have some memories of them. They are good people.



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