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Dads and daughters

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Loving this HuffPost piece on the evolving cultural dynamic of the father-daughter bond.

“By changing up some long-held assumptions about parental roles and responsibilities, fathers and daughters are moving quickly to a whole new kind of connection. It’s a connection that is increasingly, and very healthily, gender-neutral.”

Great stuff. My own relationship with my father deteriorated pretty dramatically after I hit puberty, and I’ve struggled over the years to find a new way to relate to my father as we moved beyond the “time of shoulder rides and tickle attacks” mentioned in the article. I watch my husband and daughter interact now and can’t help but smile. It is fantastic to be able to literally step back and watch the world change, and for the better for once.

Written by GRSeim

June 15, 2012 at 2:47 am

Posted in Creative Reading

Timeless

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I’ve never seen my son this excited about story time. I think he’d be completely happy if we just looked at the maps together all evening…but to actually read the story? Oh, rapturous day. He is crazy with joy, interrupting every few minutes to repeat incredulously, “The dwarves are going to win real gold? They’re going to win it from a real dragon?!”

This is a special experience for me. My father read books aloud to me every night all through my childhood, beginning with The Hobbit when I was about D’s age. I am positive that my ability to read and write grew out of those thrilling nightly adventures.

I hope that I do the story justice. I hope that my kids can get lost in the fantasy the way I did as a child. And…I hope those dwarves do win the gold from the real dragon!

I’m finding that all the best books are at least as appealing to me now as an adult as they were the first time I encountered them, twenty years ago.

Written by GRSeim

April 8, 2012 at 4:37 am

Remember who you are

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As I understand it, there was a black woman who lived a very long time ago. Her name was Susannah, and she was in a relationship of some sort (I’d like to think it was consensual and oddly romantic, but the odds are good that it was actually rapey and horrific) with a slave ship captain named John Hemings.

Susannah had a little daughter by Hemings, who she called Elizabeth. Hemings attempted to buy Elizabeth from Susannah’s master, John Wales.

I wish I knew why; I have so many questions about this story. Was Hemings a decent guy who would have settled down with Susannah given the opportunity? Was he abusive? Did he intend to harm Elizabeth? Was John Wales the abuser in the situation?

I don’t have the answers to those questions. What I do know is that John Wales refused to part with Elizabeth. He sold her and her mother to his future father-in-law, Francis Eppes, and then later inherited them back into his estate as part of his wife’s dowry. Francis somehow created a legal stipulation that required Susannah and Betty (as Elizabeth was called) to remain with his daughter and her heirs forever.

Again, I wish I could know so much more. Was it because Betty was part white that she was granted preferential treatment above the other slaves in Martha Eppes’s estate? Was there something else that was unique about her than made people uncomfortable with seeing her live out her life as a slave?

Whatever the reason behind it all, Betty and her children stayed with John Wales. She had four children by a fellow slave, and then John Wales took her as his concubines. Betty gave birth to six children by this man who had owned her as property from birth.

John Wales had children from previous relationships as well; one of them was a girl named Martha Eppes. She inherited Betty and her children, six of whom were actually her half-siblings, when she married Thomas Jefferson in 1772.

Martha Eppes was intelligent, a good writer and seamstress and well-read. People liked her. By all accounts she was interesting, pretty and bright, and had a good sense of humor (sadly and predictably, there appear to be no surviving descriptions of Betty).

Martha and Thomas had six children together. Martha is believed to have suffered from gestational diabetes in each of her pregnancies that wrecked havoc on her body and ultimately killed her. The first Jefferson child, Martha (called Patsy), was the only one who lived a full lifespan; she died at 64 years of age. Her younger sister, Jane, died when she was one; Martha endured a still birth a few years later before giving birth to a fourth child, Mary, who died at 24. After Marry, Martha and Thomas had another daughter, who they named Lucy Elizabeth. She died as an infant. Martha conceived one more time. I find it telling to note that she gave this last baby a recycled name, also calling her Lucy Elizabeth. I have spent so much of my life dreaming about my future children and carefully crafting their names. I can only imagine the kind of jaded depression that would lead a person to just stick a decent name on a kid without thought or apparent tenderness.

Martha Jefferson died a few months after the second Lucy Elizabeth was born. She was only 33 years old at the time. Thomas Jefferson suffered a nervous breakdown following her loss, and the little Lucy Elizabeth soon followed her mother to the grave. Thomas Jefferson never recovered from the loss of his wife. He moved to France a few years after her death, leaving his surviving children behind in the care of their aunts and uncles who were still serving the Jefferson family as slaves.

Two years into his stay in France, Jefferson decided to summon his younger daughter, Mary to join him. Mary was only nine years old at the time, so she was accompanied by the youngest of her slave aunts, Sally, who was fourteen (note that this whole time that Martha was birthing little daughters only to rapidly find herself attending their funerals, Betty and Martha’s father were successfully birthing babies left and right and then setting them up to live out their lives as slaves).

Historians argue about this next chapter of history quite a bit, but I do not personally find it difficult to believe, particularly when taken in context with the rest of this family’s sad story.

Thomas Jefferson and Sally (his dead wife’s half-sister) apparently began an affair while in Paris. It grew into a relationship that lasted for forty years. They conceived a child while in Paris, and Sally and her baby returned to the States with Jefferson’s promise of freedom.

The young baby died soon after their return to the free world, and Sally went on, living as Jefferson’s concubine and slave for many years. She had six children in all with Thomas Jefferson, with four of them surviving to adulthood.

Meanwhile, little Mary, who was attending a convent school in Paris while this relationship ignited, returned home and married her cousin. She gave birth three times in four years and then died of health complications caused by pregnancy and worsened by depression. Only one of her children, a little boy, survived.

Jefferson granted each of his mixed-race children their freedom when they came of age, but curiously, he never freed Sally. His surviving daughter, Martha, eventually set Sally free after Thomas Jefferson’s death in 1826 (he was 83 when he died). Sally went to live with her adult sons, who were living free, dignified lives in Charlottesville. She remained with them for nearly a decade, living independently in their own home, and she got to see one of her grandchildren born and take part in that child’s life before she passed away in her early 60’s.

This story applies to our lived today on so many different levels. I am so sick with anger and stress right now that I can’t stand to delve into all of it.

Read this and ask yourself, do you really think that race doesn’t matter, that life is what you make of it? What happened to the black babies born on the Jefferson’s property whose mothers were not raped by white men, who were clearly black? Those people and their families undoubtedly remained in slavery, and then in segregation, and then lived through Jim Crowe and the violence that marked the Civil Rights movement and descendants of those slaves are almost certainly following the news right now, hearing people attempt to excuse George Zimmerman of Trayvon Martin’s murder because of whatever problems Trayvon may or may not have had at school and if I were the one holding my babies tight in fear as I watched that story unfold, knowing what this society owes me and seeing how this society continues to treat me and mine like shit…well. I’m not living with that fear, I am not carrying that load. But speaking as myself, within the context of my own life, I have no excuse, I can think of no defense. I feel sick, weighted down, broken. This is ugly. This is as ugly as it gets.

Moving from racism to sexism…do you really think that Jefferson would have taken issue with women having free access to birth control? He lost his own cherished wife due to complications in pregnancy, and their entire eleven years of marriage were dominated by death as they lost child after child. If ever there was a man who understood contraception as the foundation of women’s healthcare, surely it was Jefferson, whose life of suffering and loss would have been entirely prevented had he and his wife had access to any of the fantastic birth control methods we have available to us now.

To the conservatives and religious folks that think they have the right to judge other people’s major life decisions…go back and read it again. Put yourself in Susannah’s shoes, Martha’s, Betty’s, Mary’s, Sally’s. Can you honestly find fault with these women? As I see it, the only person who acted wrongly in this story was the slave ship captain who fathered Betty, and even with him we do not have enough information to be able to guess whether he might have been violently, criminally evil or merely a product and victim of his times like all the rest. For the women, and particularly the women of color in these stories, life was a terrifying drudgery,something to be escaped. How long can you go on trying to survive in a world that does not value you as a human being, that doesn’t care about your life or your fate?

In 1839, 13 years after Jefferson died, a man named Charles Goodyear invented the first rubber condoms and IUD’s (I’ve read that people were attempting to use sheepskin condoms and diaphragms made of halves of lemons before this point, with very little success). Congress banned the propagation of information regarding these life saving devices thirty years later, arguing that the information was obscene, and went on to make the U.S. the only Western country to criminalize contraception (at the time, or across the board? I’m not sure, need to read more on this point).

I wonder as I type those words, if Congress bothered to get Martha Jefferson’s take on contraception before making that decision, or if they took Susannah or Betty’s stories into consideration.

Women need contraception. We need to be able to have abortions if our life circumstances make them necessary, and we need to be recognized as the only appropriate persons to decide what constitutes necessity. We need strong laws protecting us from rapists and abusers. We need these things because our lives aren’t livable without them. We are vulnerable, not because of our femininity but because nature doesn’t really care if we live or die beyond childbirth. Left unchecked, our reproductive systems will work us to death. We have the technology, we have the resources; to force us to return to the kinds of lives Sally and Mary endured would be heartless and brainless, and tragically it would not be long before that kind of pigheadedness could be construed as murderous as well. Women die due to the simple inability to access contraception all the time around the world.

All I can say is, my daughter and I will not be those women. We will not be sent back to live such heartbreaking, empty, tragic and fleeting lives.

We will remember where we’ve come from, and we will not be forced back.

Written by GRSeim

April 1, 2012 at 11:31 pm

Baby Fat

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You have probably heard that some studies have come out demonstrating that anorexia is a social disease, shocking no one.

The surprising element in all of this is just how early in life the fat-phobia is setting in. Peggy Orenstein noted in a recent blog post that many girls as young as three years old are showing serious warning signs of future body image disorders.

What’s a parent to do?!

It seems to me that, if anorexia is being transmitted through images, the first step is obvious: keep those images away form my kids.

Moving on from there, I am intentionally seeking out and surrounding my kids with positive media portrayals of a variety of body types, including some AWESOMELY BIG ONES (which, incidentally, are some of D’s favorites).

Here are 17 enormous and enormously awesome characters to start with if you are interested in doing something similar in your house.

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Clifford is huge, entertaining, imaginative and fun. I love the retro flashbacks in the original books, too. Watch out, though, because Clifford has been co-opted into some heavy duty preschool consumerism.

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You only see tummies like Barney’s on villains in kid entertainment these days. And I fully credit Barney for sparking my interest in “using your imagination” as a kid.

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Baby Beluga is round and adorable, and of course the accompanying Raffi song is preschool gold (aren’t they all). I love the pictures in this book in particular. Bonus points for some lovely images of an indigenous (Inupiat?) woman.

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Big Bird rules, but this is definitely a case where you just can’t beat the vintage stuff.

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The Snuffleupagus. Who doesn’t want to hug this guy? His little sister, Sally, was my dream pet as a kid.

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Everyone loves the BFG. My mom has quotes from this book taped up all over her kitchen. They always bring a smile to my face.

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I love all the Stillwater the Panda books. The images are compelling, the stories are fun. I think every kid wishes they had a giant panda tummy to bounce on. My son is a serious wiggler, but he has been sitting through Stillwater books since he was 18 months old. The pictures are breathtaking.

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FALKOR! Enough said.

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Aslan. Minus ten points for being the brainchild of C. S. Lewis, who is overwhelmingly popular among the most annoying kind of religious person, the know-it-all, argumentative 13 year old boy. Oh, the endless discussions I’ve listened to over the years. Is Narnia allegorical or not? I DON’T CARE. I like anything with talking animals in it, and I wanted to be a dryad more than anything from ages 5 through…basically…now. So plus twenty points for that.

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Alice in Wonderland. I love that we stay with Alice and see that her person is unaltered by her dramatic size fluctuations.

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You remember The Runaway Bunny, that creepy story about the stalker bunny mama with major issues with boundaries? I hated that book as a kid. This one follows a similar theme, but it’s brilliant because it shows the child testing her mother’s love through misbehavior rather than desperately (and unsuccessfully) trying to break free from an obsessive mother. More beautiful images of native Alaskans, and hands down the most tender, respectful portrayal of a large woman I’ve ever encountered.

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Kipper is cute, calm, and he and his friends love chocolate cake and lollypops and have sweet, round little child tummies. Unfortunately there are no female characters in this show until the addition of Mouse, who remains a very minor character. I still love it, but it’s very disappointing to see how much more the creators of this show could have done with it.

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Now, Peppa, on the other hand, Peppa is all that and a bag of chips. A funny, cozy, adventurous family of pigs snorts, plays in the mud, puts out fires, visits the space museum…they are round, noisy and totally lovable. I also love that the Pig family is able to demonstrate the value of being able to laugh things off. Every member of the Pig family manages to mess something up and embarrass themselves at some point or another, but they are quick to laugh it off, clean up after themselves and move on with life. AND, as with Kipper, you can get movies or books, which makes them way better than Barney in my mind.

These last books I discovered while brainstorming for this post. I have not actually read, but plan to soon and will update the post with my thoughts.

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Do you have any favorite body-positive books, movies, songs, toys, or anything else you’d like to share? I’d love to generate some more ideas on this topic!

Written by GRSeim

March 18, 2012 at 8:45 pm

Editor in chief

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I put a lot of time and energy into seeking out truly great books for my kids.

Obviously, though, nothing’s perfect. Sometimes, you have to compromise and accept a few flaws in a book for the sake of the good overall message.

Or you can go crazy with the white-out, like me. Because I’m kind of a Republican when it comes to compromising. Just ask my husband.

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White-out, a sharpie pen and ten minutes later and “The Little Engine That Could” is magically transformed into a tale that defies gender stereotypes and includes an awesome gay character. Not easy to find in the kids section…but almost depressingly easy to add on your own.

Written by GRSeim

March 18, 2012 at 1:19 am

L’Adaptation au Rhythme Moderne

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“A micromaniac,” Edouard de Pomiane explains in the opening paragraphs of his beloved classic French Cooking in Ten Minutes, “is someone obsessed with reducing things to their smallest possible form. This word, by the way, is not in the dictionary.”

Sometimes a line stands out to me as I read; it rattles around in my mind, demanding that I pause and let it sink in, let it hit me.

Sometimes, I’d really rather not. I’m busy. I’m broke. I’m overwhelmed. I want to get through a day without feeling angry and depressed about the state of the planet. Sometimes, I’d really just like to let things go.

But the rattling always wins, doesn’t it?

I can’t let this one go. I’ve spent weeks aimlessly browsing around the internet, trying to make sense of the vague feelings this humorous little line stirred up in the back of my mind.

I found some interesting images, and I wonder if anyone else sees the lunacy in them. Are we, in fact, a society of micromaniacs (whether or not the dictionary wants to admit it)?

This is how google images defines the word “cute.”

And here, you have the word “adorable.” Note that the formal definitions of these words do not state or even imply that these words should be used in relation to small things (although the word “cute” has taken on a meaning that implies smallness in recent history, but the etymology of that word will likely turn into a post of its own).

Remember the tiny cell phone craze? People used to laugh at me for griping about how the phone, held at the ear, rested against your cheekbone rather than extending to your mouth. Thank you, Steve Jobs, for restoring sanity…and for making it possible to hear and be heard on the phone again at the same time! (Lest you think this trend was a passing fad, however, see here.)

This may be the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen. Bite-size S’mores. Let that sink in for a moment. These desserts are called S’mores, because when you eat them…you want S’MORE. They are a dessert, a treat, permission to indulge, to forget about counting calories and hating your body and feeling bad about taking up space. They are your ticket to childhood, playfulness and fun. Making s’mores bite-size does not improve them; it robs them of their magic. When you eat a bite-size s’more, you are not remembering summer camping trips (or in my case, my big splurge after giving birth to my first child!). You are thinking about sticking to a diet. And you know what else? You are probably wishing that you were brave enough for seconds.

This is, in my opinion, where the micromania begins and ends, with the much-blogged about pelvis-less Bloomingdale’s model. Take a close look at this picture, and consider the implications. Although we are dealing only with imagery, the effects are disturbing and grotesque.

They removed this woman’s womb. They removed her sex. They obliterated her in the name of fashion.

Isn’t that where this has been heading all along? The body-hatred, the shame, the constant pressure to be small, speak less, ask for less out of life and the world and everything? Do you feel the pressure to disappear, to be invisible, to be those minuscule fairy tale creatures who willingly, happily, silently support and provide for the shoemaker, neither expecting nor asking for compensation? (That the elves are, in the end, repaid for the generosity in clothing fills my mind with little vignettes of my head exploding in an oven à la the Brothers Grimm and Sylvia Plath.)

It all feels like a mad obsession to me, if anything ever did.

Written by GRSeim

December 20, 2011 at 8:36 am

And can it be

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Dear God,

I made coffee this morning. It was lovely, and in the old days I would have thanked you for it. But then my son almost scalded himself with the hot coffee while playing wall ball with his big beach ball in the kitchen, when I’ve told him a million times to keep his toys out of there. His skin is only intact right now because I intervened. This got me thinking: I am all for allowing kids to experience natural consequences, but I do run a rapid cost-benefit analysis in my head before I decide to let Darren take a fall. And if the cost is too high, I step in, without fail, sometimes only in the nick of time. I will do anything for that kid, and you’d better believe that if he needs me I am there for him, because I love him. This goes without saying, for all parents.

But you…I was told that you loved me, all through my childhood and adolescence.  I accepted that and believed it wholeheartedly, and wanted nothing more than to be with you and to be like you. I don’t want those things right now. To be honest, there are a lot of things about you that really bother me. Like the idea that you would rather let me and my children burn in hell than intervene to give me concrete proof that you are who you say you are, that you exist and you’re trustworthy and that I am not just a pawn in the hand of a cosmic megalomaniac. Because you know what, God? I don’t care if you’re omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent. If I am a better parent than you are, I’m not going worship you, I’m going to feel sorry for you. Maybe give you the number of a fantastic therapist I know. But there is nothing awe-inspiring to me about the image of an authoritative, disciplinarian father, sitting alone in a fabulous nursing home in the sky while his kids throw themselves into the pits of hell to get away from his constant criticism, judgment and outbursts of anger.

I’ve been reading a book called “The Trouble With Islam” by Irshad Manji for the last few days. Irshad is writing about politics, not religion, but it’s caused me thinking about you more. She theorizes that you are working your way into human history in a cyclical sort of way. You reveal yourself to a people group, and they follow a predictable pattern of adoration which fades into complacency which leads to idolatry which rapidly devolves into violence, jealousy, self-righteousness and the like. As Irshad sees things, though, you don’t stop there: when your people hit that lowest of low points, they begin to open their eyes to new ideas, like the value of human lives and the wonder of nature, and they gradually become open, accepting, loving and genuine. Irshad is describing on a major scale what pastors call the process of sanctification on a personal level, and Irshad believes that the Jews, Christians and Muslims are all at different points in this process, which will ultimately lead to the same central, loving, wise God -you. And she loves you for it.

I have a problem with this idea, though, God, and it has to do with that lowest of low points. To be honest, when I think about the destruction of  the entire Philistine culture, the Crusades, the witch hunts, Taliban domination, homophobia, well…these things seem like a pretty crappy plan A to me. I’ve really tried to find a way to give you some room on this point. For example, I tried denying the existence of hell; that leaves me with a benevolent creator God who is tenderly guiding an unruly race to sanctification and harmony. I like that. However, I can’t just deny the existence of the Holy Wars, so what do I do with that? If I chalk it up to free will, I am left with a nice deity who wants us to live in harmony, but may or may not ever be able to make that happen. I’d like to be friends with this version of you, but I can’t worship a god who so closely resembles John Lennon. And if I acknowledge the possibility that you sanctioned or predestined the horrors wrought in your name, I get nostalgic for idea of hell and having an option outside of spending eternity with you.

Frankly, at this point it is much easier for me to ignore the possibility that you may exist, and I don’t think it’s hard to understand why. You can throw a “my ways are higher than your ways” at me if you want to, but we both know that’s not going to cut it. My religious friends fear for my soul, and I hate to worry them, but I think their fears are unfounded. A good and loving god wouldn’t punish me for following the biblical injunction to test everything and cling to what is good. And do you know what I’ve found out in that process? All the good things in life can be enjoyed in a single afternoon on the beach with your kids, and according to the Bible we won’t have kids or even an ocean in heaven. That really bothers me. But there’s something else that bothers me even more, that emboldens me to reclaim control over my life and remove myself from your circle of influence.

There are 823,156 words in the King James Version of the Bible, and they are all supposed to be perfectly inerrant. I know for a fact that they aren’t, though, because if the Bible were perfect it would contain 823,159 words instead. Do you know what the three missing words are?

“I love you.”

You never said it directly, not in so many words. You want me to accept that that goes without saying?

I could take anything else on faith, but not that.

Written by GRSeim

September 24, 2011 at 1:59 am