Category Archives: Family

Three Dot Blogging

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(Above – our living room!)

I find myself wanting to write, and having no time to do so. So, I’ll rely on that old Herb Caen classic.

Three dot writing.

…I think fiction might have peaked for me when I finished “War and Peace,” finally, in 2010. I haven’t truly been able to immerse myself in any novel in the same way since.

…I could re-read “Lord of the Rings,” “War and Peace,” “Sense and Sensibility” and “Pride and Prejudice” for the rest of my life and I think that would fulfill me.

…I know my brother will read the above and disapprove of me.

…My husband and my two kids are my favorite people to hang out with. I’d rather spend time with them than anyone.

…I wish I had read the climatic last scene of “War and Peace” for the first time while listening to the 1812 Overture on repeat.

…I never knew I’d ever love my job as much as I do right now.

…I truly hate the Oxford comma.

…Why did my two year stay in London affect me so much more than my four year residence in Santa Barbara?

…Why are remodels such a clusterf%$&?

…Is blogging inherently narcissistic? If I enjoy it, does that make me a narcissist?

What three dot thoughts are you wishing to share? What books could you read over and over for the rest of your life, if any?

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“I am Neville Longbottom”

Harry Potter Spoilers…

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I have written before about my admiration for the character of Neville Longbottom. This week someone linked to an older article on Stirrup Queens, detailing a theory I happen to agree with: Neville is the most important character in the Harry Potter universe.

I can’t relate to Harry, can you? He’s too, well, extreme. He’s been gifted with tremendous athletic talent for starters. He’s “the chosen one.” He’s an adrenaline junkie – he takes crazy risks often without thinking. Like sneaking into Hogsmeade when a homicidal maniac is looking for him or driving off with Ron in Mr. Weasley’s flying car, just for starters. He’s unnaturally resilient – how can someone lose pretty much every parental figure in their lives and still keep going? Don’t get me wrong – I admire him as a character, but his motivations don’t resonate with me. And I’m not sure Rowling wanted them to.

Neville is another story. Neville is a kind of Gryffindor everyman. He’s a klutz, he can’t fly, and he isn’t athletic. He’s bullied by Professor Snape, and has a terrible memory for schoolwork. He has little confidence in his abilities or his smarts. He has a chorus of naysayers like his grandmother, Draco Malfoy, Snape (and I’d argue Professor McGonigall isn’t that nice to him either) implying and often outright saying he’s less than. You’d think he’d be the first to fold to Voldemort/the Death Eaters and to be afraid to stand up to those who demand capitulation. On the contrary, his refusal to capitulate results in the action that leads to Voldemort’s downfall.

It’s a wonderful moment. The twins have taken an interest in World War II because of this book, and reflection on those “darkest hours” brought me back to Neville Longbottom. When it’s most important for humankind to act, we need to stand up and say: “I am Neville Longbottom. And I won’t back down.” Sadly, the echoes of the past are still deadly.

Do you relate to Neville? Or Harry? Or, say Hannah Abbott, who is my daughter’s favorite character?

(As an aside, I am ALWAYS sorted into Gryffindor in every online quiz, even the silly BuzzFeed ones. I’m a neurotic worrier who is afraid of a lot of things like flying and heights and not eating organic food. Shouldn’t I be a Hufflepuff?!?)

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Top 10 Things I Learned From Laura Ingalls Wilder

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We’re wrapping up the “Little House” series. The good news is my daughter is now fascinated with all things Prairie — she says she wants to go back in time and live as a pioneer. I much prefer Wilder’s narrative, where one strives for self-sufficiency, than the passive princess storyline she previously used in her imaginative tales. Which apparently she picked up via osmosis from friends, since we don’t allow “waiting for my prince” books in the house? It’s such a battle to try to combat the Cinderella complex…Peggy Orenstein was right. Sigh.

It’s been informative to go back and read the “Little House” stories as an adult. For example, I didn’t remember how important it was to Ma for her daughters to wear the latest fashions. They were on the Prairie! Who cares? Yet back then, families clung to clothes and books and furnishings as a way to feel “civilized” in an unsettled and wild place. Laura is a strangely modern and relatable girl/woman much of the time too: most notably, she pursues a career to help pay for her sister’s college.

(Aside: can we talk about “Blind Mary,” as I began referring to her in my head, because seriously? To Laura, there’s not much more to Mary other than her visual impairment. Example: “Her beautiful unseeing eyes looked at nothing.” If I were Mary and I read the books, I would be pissed.)

Laura teaches school by herself in strange towns, she wants to get in snowball fights even though it wasn’t “ladylike” and she achieves the best grades in her class. (One notable exception to her modernity: she claims she’s not like Almanzo’s sister, who wants the right to vote.) Overall, I found I liked her just as much as an adult as I did when I was a kid.

So here are my Top 10 Lessons I Learned from Laura Ingalls Wilder, because I like lists.

1. All the latest fashions come from Iowa.
2. Always, ALWAYS look in the Northwest for a cloud. You never know when a blizzard might spring up and freeze you to death before you can climb into a haystack. (Getting into a haystack may help you survive a blizzard, BTW.)
3. Don’t play a snowball game with your students if you expect them to respect you as a teacher.
4. Almanzo was HOT. He and Mr. Darcy remain at the top of my literary crushes list.
5. Laura may have liked Almanzo’s horses and sweet buggy more than she liked him. In the beginning, at least. I guess a beautiful team of horses and a pretty buggy were the equivalent of a cool car back then?
6. The best food in the world is oyster soup, especially if you enjoy said soup with some tasty oyster crackers.
7. Pa learned the same hard lesson we all do at some point: your crops (or home or bonus or promotion) is not the same thing as money in the bank until you actually SELL said crops, get the money and put it in the bank.
8. Grasshoppers are EVIL!
9. The most important essentials for surviving a long winter? Wheat, hay and a coffee grinder. And a positive attitude.
10. “All’s Well That Ends Well!” Ma was always saying this after they nearly drowned in their covered wagon crossing a river, or Pa almost got eaten by a panther or an ox fell through their roof. And, it’s good advice for us all, really.

My son wants me to read the Harry Potter series next. The twins are five: is this appropriate? Is the first one OK? If you read me regularly, you probably know I am a HUGE fan of those books, but I am still scarred by the Happy Potter and the Deathly Hallows. It gave me the sads. ADVICE WELCOME!!

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The Queen of Versailles

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I don’t know that much embodies better the Great Recession than the rise and fall of the Siegels, the Floridian couple profiled in The Queen of Versailles.

David and Jackie Siegel are living large when the documentary begins. They are in the process of building America’s largest house, a modern day Versailles. David is a billionaire from a very successful real estate empire he has built over many years, Jackie is a former Mrs. America and engineer. They are looking forward to living in splendor (“He deserves it. He works so hard,” says Jackie about David) and spending the rest of their days with their seven children. (They are incredibly fertile as well as tremendously wealthy: the overabundance in their lives is a major factor of what makes the story so compelling.)

“My husband, when I got married to him, I wanted nothing but love from him. He always said ‘trust me’ and I put my trust in him. So, we’ll see what happens.”

Jackie Siegel, 2007

***

Florida’s wealthy citizens are quite different than the wealthy of San Francisco. Even new money acts like old money here, and being rich is much less conspicuous and more tied to cultural events, like the Opera or Symphany or the De Young museum. Homes are rarely built, they already exist and are older. Think the famous Victorian mansions you see in the movies.

Judging by The Queen of Versailles, instead of Prada and the opening of the Rudolf Nureyev costume exhibit, in Florida, you become a patron of the Miss America pagent and wear Versace. You invest in Vegas. Disney (and its idea of beautiful princesses marrying rich princes) looms ever large. Women are valued for the way they look in a swimsuit.

In 2007, the Siegels were at the top of this scene. Trying to top themselves, they were in the process of building their dream home, Versailles, overlooking a swamp. They even specifically designed a window to be able to watch the Disney fireworks. Apparently, the design was influenced by the infamous palace in France and the Paris hotel in Las Vegas. Yes, for real.

But the home and David’s empire were leveraged by cheap credit. And that was not a good place to be in 2008.

***

The second part of the movie chronicles the fall in status and wealth of the Siegels and how various house staff members, business employees and family members cope. Most touchingly, a nanny from the Phillipines who has not seen her own son in 10 years talks about how she sends all of her money back to her family and her father so he too might be able to live in a concrete, comfortable home. Eventually, he dies never being able to live in one, although his tomb is concrete. (“And isn’t that almost the same thing?” the nanny asks heartbreakingly.) At one point, Jackie appears overwhelmed by all of her children (she says she had so many because she had all of the nannies to help her) and tons of pets in the still enormous home they live in. David tries to keep his company afloat and prevent his enormous Vegas property from defaulting. Instead of buying french antiques in vast quantities, Jackie goes on shopping binges at Wal-Mart.

Halfway built, Versailles languishes and fills with cobwebs and dirt. The echoes to Xanadu are inevitable.

***

As the grim economic crisis doesn’t change for the Siegels and time passes, a funny thing happens. Jackie seems to rise to the challenge. She begins to cook for her kids and throws casual parties for family and friends. She realizes that money comes and money goes; she’s been lucky to have what she has. Her love for her husband (even though I personally wonder if he deserved it: I didn’t like his overly attentive displays toward the Miss America contestants) and children remains strong. In the end I found her resilience kind of inspiring.

“If we had to buy just a normal house, like a $300,000 dollar, 3 bedroom house, I would do it. I would be fine with that, I’d make it work. (I’d) Just get a bunch of bunkbeds, you know.”

Jackie Siegal, 2011

I guess this is what the economic crisis has done: it has made us shrink our expectations of what we need and deserve. I like to think it made me focus much more on what’s most important: shelter, food, friends, family.

Have you seen Queen of Versailles? What were your impressions of it?

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Altruism: The Hard Truth About Helping

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I have some advanced version of a nasty cold: bronchitis at best (pneumonia at worst) so I have been in bed mostly. Thinking.

Have you all read this post from Justine? Newtown and the holidays have made me think a lot about work that can be done to help others. I’ve been attached to various causes my whole life (helping animals when I was young: I worked at the local Humane Society as a pre-teen) and I’ve helped with various charities over the years, sitting on the board of one for a while, and working full-time for a non-profit. I’ve worked on political campaigns and for politicians as an intern for a political consultant throughout college. He worked mostly for the underdog. (And frequently lost.)

A lot of my pursuits were fruitless. Maybe (MAYBE) a few more animals were adopted because of my efforts. (Mostly to my own family! We had a zoo growing up basically.)

When the kids were born, I didn’t have much time to devote to altruism anymore: we gave money as a family where we could on a pretty limited budget. The community we live in is heavy on volunteering for things that are in my mind, not essential. They are mostly raising money and volunteering to promote even more services for children that are already pretty privileged. That’s how I feel, but the truth is I don’t have the time to volunteer for these causes even if I wanted to. My husband works crazy hours, so I hold down this fort alone without help. Faces of ALI has done some educational work, it seems, so there’s that.

There are other ways to do good. You can live a life true to your beliefs as a vegan or vegetarian. (Something I’ve tried but it turns out I can’t be a vegetarian for various health reasons that would bore you but mostly have to do with extreme anemia and an intolerance for a lot of vegetables and iron medication.) You can live a life as a self-sustaining homesteader, like Soulemama. (If you go over there, I warn you: you might be there for hours. She’s a fantastic blogger/photographer.)

I live a life of trying to “do the best I can.” I compost, I recycle, I grow some of my own food. I really limit the amount of landfill we produce. I buy local and organic when I can. I try to smile and say hi to people. I tip heavily. I try to foster community here at this site. I try to comment on blogs of others when they are struggling and when they are rejoicing. I stand up to bullies when I need to. I try to raise my kids to be kind, responsible children who question things that are unfair.

Then something like Newtown happens and I feel like there’s NOTHING I can do that will matter.

I watched “It’s a Wonderful Life” this year, as I do every Christmas Eve. Each time I view it there’s a different issue that speaks to me and this year it was George’s spectacular burnout from doing too much for the good of Bedford Falls. I found an AV Club article called “It’s a Wonderful Life Shows the Unending Cost of Being Good” which discusses this topic in detail.

From the article about the famous ending where George Bailey’s friends and family raise the debt he owes:

“The money won’t last. It’ll cover the debt, and the Baileys will go right back to being broke. At best, George will just stay out of jail. The memory of his reverie will fade in time, as all memories must, eroded by the passage of life itself. There will always be Mr. Potter, there to take advantage of every moment of goodness and perceive it as a weakness, just as George Bailey will always stare out the window at the snow-capped roofs of Bedford Falls and wonder what’s out there beyond the world he can see. He’ll never fix the banister, and the house will always be drafty, and Mary will always love him. He will be good, because he must be good. And maybe that will be enough.”

This explanation speaks to me.

In the end, I keep coming back to Justine’s theory. I like the idea of altruism partnered with action.

What do you think? What altruistic acts to you perform? Do you think they make a difference?

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