Saturday, June 25, 2011

North Seattle vs. North Seattle

Last December, Dani Shapiro reviewed "Poser," Claire Dederer's memoir of regaining her life through yoga, for the New York Times's Sunday Book Review. I have not read the book but plan to if only to tease out for myself what is tongue-in-cheek and what is earnest. For instance, this paragraph (from Shapiro's review; italics mine):

“We were a generation of hollow-eyed women, chasing virtue,” she tells us. “We, the mothers of North Seattle, were consumed with trying to do everything right.” North Seattle — a first cousin of Park Slope, the Upper West Side, Berkeley and dozens of other such enclaves around the country — was a place where attachment parenting was all the rage. Kids weren’t weaned until they spoke in full sentences. Families all slept in the same bed; ate the same organic, locally produced food; and lived in an enriching environment safe from the dangers of plastic toys and disposable diapers.
Is Dederer making fun of the idea that all mothers in one section of a city could be monolithic? Or is she subscribing to that very idea? Furthermore, is Shapiro echoing Dederer when she lumps North Seattle in with other stereotyped areas - or is this her own take on the situation? The word "affluence" never appears in this paragraph. But it doesn't have to.

Homonyms are words that look and sound the same but have different meanings. The phenomenon I want a name for today is the sense of dislocation one feels when one encounters an unexpected homonym; North Seattle, in the quotation from the book and in the review, is that for me. The North Seattle I know does encompass the wide-stroller-wielding, latte-sipping women of Dederer's Green Lake. But it also includes the mom headed to the new DSHS offices at North Seattle Community College for food or work assistance and the women, some mothers themselves, caring for a gaggle of preschoolers, many of whom have mothers who must go to work, at Lake City library's story time.

Satirical or earnest, my hope for "Poser" is that it doesn't commit the sin of omission, of erasing those other mothers of North Seattle. I'll report back after I've read the book.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Once an Obit Writer...

At a restaurant during a recent family visit, my mother looked up from her salmon and said to me, "Maybe you should write my obituary."

"Mom," I said quickly, with a sternness that surprised me, "I don't want to talk about this now."

What brought this on? Not a known illness or the impending hereditary likelihood of one, but a conversation she'd had a week before with friends of a similar age (early to late-60s). My brother saved the moment by chiming in, "The headline could be 'Moderate Drinker Says Farewell.'"

We all laughed. "How do you remember that?" my mom asked him. It was the title of her last column for The Minot Daily News before we moved across the country when I was 7.

My mother wasn't that off base in asking me to write her obit; it was my first job, after all. When I was 17 and a senior in high school, I wrote obituaries on Sundays for a Connecticut newspaper. When I told her about my job, my best friend Sam said, not unkindly, "It sounds depressing." In contrast, she had a gig cleaning up our school's hardly-mobbed plaster cast museum. "It's the definition of 'sinecure,'" she joked. (Some of our friends were unabashed history or physics nerds; we were English nerds).

Obit writing could be depressing, but most of the time it was just fascinating to peer into - and arrange on a page - one version of the story of a person's life. And most of the time the departed were old enough that, from the perspective of a teenager, their deaths seemed timely; I remember a lot of WWII veterans.

Maybe it's the residual effect of losing two close friends, one of them Sam, by the time I was 23, but sometimes phrases for an obit or eulogy pop into my head. I'll be getting ready for work, and all of a sudden I'll think of something I want to say or write for a still-living friend or family member. The surprise - and depressing element - of the moment, like when my mother turned to me at dinner, makes me want to shake it off. But then I try to fight that reflex: as long as I don't dwell too long in farewell mode, it's good to pay attention. It's never too early for appreciation.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Iowa Imposter

Today I wore my IOWA t-shirt, a gift from a friend who grew up there and knows without being told that the black and gold of my shirt are Hawkeyes' colors. As I neared the hub that is my local post office, an elderly gentleman walking past me said, "Go Iowa!"

"What?" I called back, not sure if I'd heard him correctly.

"I grew up in Nebraska," he explained, "right next to Iowa."

"Nice!" I said, because I like pleasant interactions with fellow pedestrians even when they turn into unsolicited educational moments, and turned back toward the post office.

This conversation was another example of quietly letting someone - usually a stranger, usually during what promises to be only a brief exchange - assume something about you that you know to be incorrect. I was born in North Dakota, grew up in Connecticut, went to college in Illinois, and have lived in Washington for almost 10 years; I've barely even visited Iowa. But I didn't yell this to the man in front of the post office; I let him believe that we were former state-neighbors.

Nannies and babysitters have a lot of these moments, and the challenge is in deciding when to tell that complimentary or chummy mom on the playground that this kid? Not mine. Sometimes it's clear-cut, as when a woman trailing behind me and a toddler-age charge announced, as we all entered the bathroom of a fancy restaurant, "These years go by so fast! Mine are teenagers now."

I smiled and said, "I'm the babysitter," and that was that. But other times it's not so clear what anyone is thinking, and it can feel awkward to halt the flow of a conversation to vocalize a distinction that might change everything - or, conversely, nothing - for the other person.

The best-worst example of this for me was on a playground two years ago. I was hovering near the little girl I nannied for, and a woman said, "I love her haircut."

"Yeah," I agreed. "Her mother did a great job."

"Her mother?" the woman asked, clearly confused. "You're not her mother?"

"No, I'm her nanny," I said, in a tone I hoped sounded cheerful.

"But you're so good with her!" the woman exclaimed.

Well. You can be good to a kid without being his or her parent. And strangers - and even family and friends - don't need to know everything about you. Go Hawkeyes!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Tornadoes and Census Figures

My friend Sasha and her husband live in Springfield, MA, the site of recent freak tornadoes. They are both fine; while their building was heavily damaged in places, they got lucky: other than broken windows and lots of dust and dirt, their apartment is OK.

Like many people, I have friends in pockets around the country, and the world feels especially small when headline news happens to one of their regions.

But are other forces making our world larger? The percentage of people moving to other counties is at its lowest since 1947, a fact that is largely attributed to the recession. So if the economy doesn't improve significantly over the next few years, I wonder if our lowered mobility will lead to a collective personal lessening of these small-world feelings? Or will the pace of social networking overshadow any physical-world limitations?