Words Matter: A Lesson from Mark Twain

“Yes, I want to tour the Mark Twain House,” I reaffirmed, for the second time, to my husbands questioning stare, when he asked how I wanted to spend my birthday.

The Mark Twain House is about a 30 minute drive from me, yet I’ve never been there.  This past year, I picked up American Literature, a course I hadn’t taught in ten years, as a favor to my department chair. I have never been an American Lit fan, sure, I like/appreciate some of the classics, but I find most of it dull and flat as compared to my first love, British Literature. When I taught the course ten years ago, I didn’t enjoy it, partly because I was new to the school and new to the course, so I was more caught up in trying to acquaint myself with the level of teaching as opposed to the content.

Last summer, I decided to revamp my entire syllabus in order to make the course and the literature more interesting and accessable to my students and for me. I am a firm believer that if the teacher isn’t excited about what he/she is teaching, it’s impossible to excite/engage the students.

For The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn unit, as far as I’m concerned a necessity to teach in any American Lit course, I’d decided to take a stylistic and language approach. For one, Twain’s strength is his satirical approach, not to mention the number of dialects he employs:

”  IN this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the  extremest form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the ordinary “Pike     County” dialect; and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not  been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly, and with  the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several   forms of speech.

I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding.

THE AUTHOR.

HUCKLEBERRY FINN”

This novel has been on the banned book list since it’s release in the U.S. in 1885; currently, according to the American Library Association, Huck Finn is still considered one of the most challenged classics primarily due to the use of the “N” word which appears over 200 times. In fact, some editors have replaced the “N” word with “slave” which continues to stir debate/controversy.

I decided to take the opportunity to look at the style of the novel, in particular the use of the “N” word in order to debate it’s function and purpose in the novel with my students. So, I came up with the title of my unit: “Words Matter.” Something that lead me to this perspective was an idea I morphed from a UCONN E.C.E. professional development conference I’d attended earlier in the year. In an effort to “jump outside of the novel” (which was the thrust of the P.D.), one instructor had assigned a similar assignment where students were asked to deconstruct a racially charged slur in order to examine their own feelings about the word in addition to its’ history and purpose. I would use this as a model to deconstruct the “N” word which would become the model for their own word choice later on in the unit.

Ironically, when I visited the Mark Twain House, there was an exhibit which I literally stumbled upon entitled “Race, Rage, and Redemption” : one that spoke directly to the deconstruction unit I’d created this past year. Rick Koster, from The Day, writes:

“Half of the room is devoted to “Hateful Things,” a collection of about 40 objects from FerrisStateUniversity’s Jim Crow   Museum of Racist Memorabilia. The remainder is taken up by “A  Sound Heart & A Deformed Conscience,” a survey of artifacts    from the Twain House’s archives that testify to Twain’s own beliefs on race and race relations – and how they evolved from   his boyhood in the slave-owning south to his role as a champion   of black education and the social integration of African Americans as equals into the American community.”

Wishing I could take my students there to witness the hate, first hand, as I had, I took in the images and words so I could recall as much as I could to pass on to them realizing the exhibit ends in early September.

I did manage to take away some literature I could pass on, to add to other pieces which include both sides of the argument surrounding the use of the “N” word, which we discuss and debate in class. I try to provide them with sources including the etymology of the word from a myriad of sources, both scholarly and otherwise, including the Oxford English Dictionary, Wikipedia, Urban Dictionary, in addition to articles which argue for both sides of the debate. Should the “N” word have been edited out of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? What purpose does the use of the “N” word serve? Is there any occasion which the use of the “N” word is appropriate? We even analyze some modern day rap songs like Nas’s “To Be a Nigger” because there is a real side of the argument out there about African Americans using this as a term of endearment towards other African Americans.

Before even reading Huck Finn or addressing his style or the use of the “N” word (which, incidentally, I read the word “nigger” as it is used in the novel, but refer to it as the “N” word when using my own words– I think when I SAY it to them, it SHOULD sting), I show them this WORDS Matter video which is part of an anti-bullying campaign. Next, I ask them to brainstorm a list of hurtful words, those they have said, or have been called or have heard. I splash up a list of words/terms I’ve come up with. Not saying a word, I leave my list on the screen for a two minutes. I see students squinting, jaws dropping, some snickering, whispering to a nearby student, but they don’t say a word aloud, nor do I. I move onto the next screen in my Powerpoint which is Maya Angelou’s The Power of Words Finally, I ask them to journal about a personal experience in which a slur was used, to explain the situation and their feelings attached to it.

After reading roughly the first half of the novel and comparing it to the much Disney-ized version of the film The Adventures of Huck Finn (Disney, 1993), a productive discussion ensued about Disney replacing the use of the “N” word with slave in addition to editing it out altogether from the dialogue. My students GOT IT, citing how the treatment of African Americans was softened in the film, thus taking away from the reality of the situation. One student noted that reading Nigger in the text was like seeing the list of racial and ethnic slurs I composed up the board. He said, “it just isn’t right to see those words coming from a teacher. I didn’t even realize you knew some of those terms.” I acknowledged that I was hoping they’d be shocked by some of the words before them, for it was meant to make them feel a level of discomfort.

During the deconstruction portion of our unit when students were given the opportunity to learn the history of the word and read various uses and opinions regarding the use of the word, a variety of reactions occurred. There were those who refused to say the word, feeling it’s never right, and those who feel African Americans have a right to say it, and a few who feel the word has changed over time and doesn’t hold the same prejudice as the word once had. The overriding consensus, however, was that one needs to consider their audience– this coming after they were given the task of deconstructing the word of their choosing (a racial, ethnic or sexual slur).

A very practical lesson on the use of inappropriate words came when I’d reserved the laptops to use during class for the students to research their chosen words to deconstruct. Among them were… gay, faggot, coon, jew, retard, cunt, nazi… What I had not taken into consideration is that our computer system has Websense, a security software program which sensors what the students are able to search and not search. Ten minutes into the class, students are inputting search terms on the sites I’d assigned them, they began being booted out of the system altogether. “Mrs. C, I got kicked out,” I hear from across the room, so I move over to that student and her computer to see about rectifying the issue, only before I reach her, a few other students call out the same– eventually, almost all of the students called out they’d been kicked off the computer. They were wondering if they’d be penalized for trying to search a “TABOO” term. I put their concerns at ease by stating that if any of them were spoken to, to have the administrator see me. I joked that if this lesson turned out to be my swan song, that I’d hoped they found the meaning in the lesson I was trying to convey.

It didn’t turn out to be my swan song; in fact, it turned out to be the success that I’d hoped it would be. Many students stated, throughout the remainder of the course, what an eye-opener this unit had been for them. One even presented me with this picture

she’d found on the internet, suggesting I add it to the Powerpoint I’d shown at the beginning of the unit, stating “this picture encompasses the whole lesson we learned.”

I believe it isn’t enough to tell students something; they need to experience it in order to embody it.

Thank you, Mark Twain, for teaching us that Words DO Matter.

UM: If Walls Could Talk

Born to two teenagers, the first place of my life was in a small, duplex rent on Victory Drive (which is now the fringe of the ghetto in New Haven); I have no recollections of this home, as we fled before I turned two, but my associations of it are fear and a sense of bewilderment.

From there, we moved to a house on Augur Street at the lower end of Hamden (the Putnam Avenue district), also a rent, occupying the bottom floor for about four years. Consequently, my first memories are of this house. Light-hearted, fun-loving, innocent years when it didn’t matter that our furniture was a mish-mosh of unmatched, hand-me-downs, or that my two siblings and I shared the same bedroom, practically sleeping atop of one another, or that we’d walk to and from school in even the harshest conditions (because we only owned one car) and supervised by an adult the year that the pedophile loomed. Mary was my first friend. I peered across the street watching her and her siblings running wild in their yard from behind the chain link fence that enclosed mine. A big Irish family, warm and welcoming, I recall my own mother regarding theirs as a mother-figure to her too, for mine was young and still finding her way. When I look back on Augur Street, I regard us as a family of five children playing house, growing and learning together.

New Road quite literally marked a turning point for our family. It was the first home we’d own and the place where the realities of life and growing up caught up to us. While upon the first introduction, which seemed like a castle or a haunted house– big and dark and mysterious, we ran through the uncut grass that was above our knees and made a club house of the abandoned, chicken coop in the back yard. Hardly noticing, our parents, tearing down walls and making repairs to a house that had been neglected, in order to make it a home for us, we took in stride all of the changes in our lives: a big enough home, perhaps over-big, rooms of our own, even a playroom in the basement (instead of the corner of the living room, which we’d been used to). Unaware that the space would be a metaphor for the events that would come to separate us in the following years.

But, at first, it was a home– the first real home we’d had. Together, my parents planted lovely gardens to pretty our yard with dahlias, irises, lilies, and daisies; inside, they installed a Franklin, wood-burning stove to keep us warm. The smells of cheesecake tarts, French toast, sloppy joes and grilled cheese wafted through the open layout of the first floor where a sheen of newness could be found within the four corners of every room. Upstairs, my sister and I shared a room, under a dormered roof adorned in rainbows. Although our beds were on opposite sides of the room, we began our time here, crawling into each other’s as we’d been accustomed to. Sometimes, our brother, from across the hall, would be found sleeping at the bottom of one of our beds when we awakened in the morning. This is how we’d begun, but it wasn’t how our time, here, ended.

I would consider Hamden High School one of my homes because it is the place I sought solace when home became stressful. Unaware of the moment, if there is a moment, that we began to unravel, I felt each of us on an island. Suddenly, my sister was different, my brother was difficult, and my parents ceased to be friends. Latching onto my friends and eventually my boyfriend became a necessary coping strategy leading up to my parents’ divorce when I was seventeen, an event that would turn my life topsy turvy.

Guilt made me succumb to leaving w/ my mother and sister to move into an apartment on Highland Avenue in Cheshire at the beginning of my senior year of high school. The agreement was that I’d continue attending HamdenHigh School, driving my mother to work and my sister to HamdenMiddle School on a daily basis because we could only afford one car. When that became too much, I’d return home to live with my father and brother on New Road. Only this time, instead of living under the roof of rules and curfews and do’s and don’ts, to which I’d become accustomed, my father’s state of mind prevented him from instituting any guidelines at all. My brother and I were free to do as we’d pleased, and, for any teenager, that’s like opening Pandora’s box. It’s exhilaratingly exciting at first until you come to realize exactly what it means.

After narrowly escaping my father’s home w/ the new wicked Stepmonster, Maryann, and her demon children, Debbie and Mark (who only managed to bring me strife, but it wasn’t their fault; they’d had a tumultuous upbringing) I moved into Fitch/Warner, a college apartment complex on Fitch Street where other S.C.S.U. students resided. My roommate, Patty, was a girl from Cheshire, just a town away from me– someone who was randomly assigned to me because I hadn’t come in w/ a roommate. While we were from neighboring towns, we could not have been more different. Patty and I flip flopped from being bosom buddies to strangers for the entire year we’d live together. We’d had some interesting experiences, primarily in the midst drinking and pot smoking– more me drinking & Patty pot smoking. I tried to calm down her wild side, while she tried to release mine.

After a rollercoaster of a year, or three, I chose to find solace living at my grandparents’ home on Gilbert Avenue, only a 5 minute drive from college. This would mark another turning point for me– one in which I’d decided to become grounded. I needed peace, quiet, security and stability, and that’s exactly what I found. After living there for a year and a half, it came as a shock to me when I returned ‘home’ to find my grandfather had put their home on the market because it had become too much for him to take care of. While I was angry and somewhat confused (the sign and the pending sale of their home had come as much of a shock to me as to my grandmother), it enabled me to make amends with my mother, who had, in the past three years, moved on, married a wonderful man with whom she’d bought a house; they lived on Sharon Drive w/ my sister and brother, so the three of us were together again– and in a much better place (physically and mentally). I took the spare room in the basement which allowed me some independence and privacy, something I’d grown accustomed to since I’d last lived with my family.

I purchased my first official home, along with my then-fiancé, at age 23, months prior to our wedding. It was a new construction, town house condominium in Waterbury, just on the Cheshire/Waterbury line; ironically, while I had begun my life living in the city, I began my married life doing the same. Hitchcock Road would be the beginning of a whole new life for me, one I’d anticipated for seven years. It was there I would have my first two children and establish the foundation of our married life. Since it was new construction, we had choices in the model and its contents; we had the opportunity to see it’s flourishing from breaking ground to move-in day. It immediately felt like home, which it would be for the next five years. While I was sad to move, it had become small for our family of four. We longed to have a yard for our dog and our boys to play and space enough for our family to grow.

While, at first, we looked in Hamden, initially hoping to return to our roots, it was in Cheshire — a lily white suburban community with child-friendly neighborhoods of sidewalks and cul-de-sacs and a good school system– we would find our family home. And so we found this place, a block away from the elementary school my children would attend, nestled in a cluster of streets that housed young families. While the house had all of the amenities we hoped for– a farmhouse colonial, four bedrooms, 2 & 1/2 baths, a finished basement, a two-car garage, good-sized yard with an in-ground pool– it was certainly NOT in move-in condition. It had been a foreclosure our realtor wanted to check out before it ‘officially’ went on the market. We arrived and could hardly see the front of the house, with all of the overgrowth hiding it, and, when we walked inside, the musty smell gave way to a kitchen of unhinged cabinet doors and mouse droppings, a 70’s rust, shag carpet in the too-small family room, and bathrooms with floors that had rotted from water damage. My husband and I tip-toed, room by room, taking it all in. My father is a carpenter and his a handy-man, so as we took in the imperfections, we verbally noted the possibilities aloud, almost in unison. While our realtor waited in the kitchen, on the phone to his next client, we looked at one another, sharing each other’s thoughts. We’d concluded that if the bank would stop the re-furbish they were planning and would come down on the price, we were eager to place a bid. The realtor replied, “Wow, you two have vision.” And we did. After closing on the house, it would be nearly two months of gutting and renovating, mostly on our own, with the help of our fathers– in order to make it in move-in condition. It felt foreign the first night we’d slept here, as if we were in someone else’s home and I’ve often wondered what they’d think of the transformation. As the unfamiliarity of our surroundings waned, almost immediately, we felt a belonging, as we befriended our neighbors whose children befriended one another and we became a chosen family.

This is where the memories of my family have been made, one additional child later, and so many life experiences in between. With in these walls mark the growth of my own family and the lessons we have learned.

Often, I wonder, if walls could talk, what stories would come from them.

UM: Sunshine

I touched my cheek to hers to feel the softness of her skin just the way I had so many dozens of times since her birth, nearly two weeks ago. Heat radiated from her young flesh. It was too warm for her little body. I knew.

                We drove through the dark of night. “Don’t we ever do anything in daylight?” my husband questioned – referring to the births of our three children. Alexa and both of her brothers came through the darkness into the light and into our arms.  He was trying to distract me, make light of the situation, but I ignored him and caressed the softness of her skin and the heat. My eyes gazed out of the window onto the highway. We were alone on the road, just my husband, Alexa and me. He was driving at an unusually high speed which seemed in sync with how my thoughts were going.  I saw a tiny, white coffin, opened and empty.  I thought perhaps I would bury her in the outfit she wore home from the hospital. No, I recanted, I want to keep that a happy memory. In fact, it was one of the happiest of my whole life. A daughter. Mine. I thought about God and now I realized why some people christen their children right away. I thought about the boys and what could I ever say? When I was pregnant with my first, I told my mother I couldn’t wait until the baby was born so I could just know that he or she was okay. Then, I would stop worrying. My mother gave the look she’d given me when passing on some wisdom that she had acquired from her mother and those before her. “Once a mother, you never stop worrying. You always envision the worst and pray for the best.”  Just then, a car sped past. I can remember myself thinking about her words and using them  as an affirmation, “ I’ve envisioned the worst, now it’s time to hope for the best.” I began humming , “You are my sunshine … when skies are grey …” a song I had hummed to her brothers. I looked up to God the whole rest of the way as I whispered the words through a broken melody. I believed they were written for just the two of us.

                The first nurse was all business. “Sit down. What’s the problem? Who’s the doctor? Do you have insurance?”  God, I remember wanting to scream, “This may be your job, lady, but it’s my life! Get the doctor, now!” Instead, my husband answered the business questions. Bless him. He was being strong for me – letting me drift with my thoughts and just hold her as close as possible. But I could see his fear. I could see it behind the glassy curtain in his eyes.

                Placed in a green, grey and cold room, we waited. A male C.N.A entered about, I don’t know, eons later. He began prepping the table. “The doctor will want the works,” he stated, referring to the amount of sterile supplies he was placing on the table. He offered his statement as an explanation, in an attempt to make me feel informed or  better, I don’t know which. “Because she’s so young,” an afterthought, as if it would help. I wondered if he had children, because surely, if he did, he would know that nothing could help short of me waking from a deep sleep in my own bed and realizing it was all a nightmare.

                Alexa slept soundly on the hospital bed, flat and hard, metal frame and white sheets. She looked most peaceful in the midst of all the medical supplies that would soon disrupt her peace, make her cry,  and quite possibly and ultimately save her life. I wanted to continue to hold her, but the C.N.A. had hooked up several monitors to her tiny body. I couldn’t believe I had forgotten to ask him if I could hold her. Instead,  I caressed her soft thin hair. I watched her lips quiver with each breathe she took.

                The doctor, a resident, entered. He introduced himself and firmly shook both of our hands. He pulled no punches with us; he was a very matter-of-fact, bottom line kind of guy. “With a fever like this, in a child so young,” he paused between each phrase.  “We worry about,” pause, “a bacterial infection,” pause. “They spread rapidly,” pause, “because infants do not develop an immune system until about three months.” I remember thinking how generous he was to talk parent speak versus medical jargon. “The very worst,” pause, “spinal meningitis. It could be fatal.”  And there I stuck. My mind trying to get beyond those words to the hope. “Hope for the best,” I screamed at myself. Only then, I returned to what he was saying . “If she were my daughter…” There was a softness about him; I’m sure it was not anything he learned in medical school. His eyes looked straight into mine, “I would have it done, all of it.”

                The second nurse came in. She was dark skinned, Indian, I supposed. Her necklace was made of  plastic, colored beads, and I surmised that a child had made them. I wondered if it had been one of her patients. And she wore friendship bracelets, several of them, on her wrists. She had a warmth in her eyes as she looked at my little girl. She took hold of her hand. “She’s beautiful. Is she your first?”

 I  shook my head, “Two boys,” I replied.

                “Oh, she’s your first girl.” She smiled. “We’ll take care of her for you.” I knew that before she even said those words. I knew that she would do all she could.

                First there were the x-rays, then the catheter, then the bloods, then the I.V. drip… and, following, the curdling screams from my baby. When the nurse inserted the needle into her hand, she moved it around under her flesh. “I’m sorry,” she apologized, “her tiny vein moved.” I wanted, from the core of my being, to haul off and punch her. Feel the sting of my fist against her face; I  had never before felt that depth of rage in my life. But I could only hold onto Alexa’s hand and look away.  After a long deep breath, I prayed non-stop through the cries and my husband stood stoic beside me, rubbing my back.

                During the quiet time, after the pain, after the nurses had left the room and finally it was only the three of us again., Alexa fell asleep in my arms, exhausted from the fight. “Alexa,” I whispered, my mouth breathing closely to her ear,  “my sweet angel, you’ll forget all of this. It’s this incredible thing when we’re little; we don’t remember these times. But God will remember. He knows how strong you are. And I hope this is the worst pain you’ll have to endure for your whole life.”

                The doctor returned with the male C.N.A. He looked at me, straight on, as the C.N.A. prepared his supplies. “It’s time for the spinal tap,” he announced. His words seemed to echo off the coldness of the walls. “Do you want to stay for this?” he asked. I nodded. “Are you sure?” He was giving me permission to leave. My husband reiterated, “I’ll be here.” And for an instant, I thought … No, she may not remember, but I will never forget. I, an adult – I  reminded myself, can and need to be strong for her. I will hold her hand and be, at least,  a presence for her. And all the while, I will pray. The doctor talked us through the procedure. “ He,” referring to the C.N.A., “ will hold her back, curved like a “u”. This needle will go into her back and will drain the fluid.”  I nodded and looked away. Holding her hand and sitting beside her bed, I could not look. I did not want to see what they were doing to my baby. I had to rely on trust; I had to rely on my husband, who stood beside the doctor and watched his every move. I bit my bottom lip and closed my eyes each time I felt the tears welling in them. I took a deep breathe as he inserted the needle, in fear that he would miss and cause paralysis. I relaxed once he said the needle was in. The fluid came slowly, three viles of it, in between the bareness of her cries. She stopped crying, my eyes widened and looked frantically at the doctor. He shook his head to reassure me. “She fell asleep,” my husband clarified. It seemed forever, but when they finally finished, I pleaded to hold her. That motherly thing kicked in, as if I could make it better. Well, at least, I could try. I cuddled her. She felt slightly cooler now as I touched her forehead to my cheek and caressed her cheeks with my finger. I began singing “… please don’t take my sunshine away” in my of key and crackling voice, right there in front of the doctor and the C.N.A.. I didn’t care who was there. I just wanted her to know I was there with her. My husband walked over to us and wrapped us up in his arms. His eyes were glassy red and his skin pale, and I’m sure he was very much a mirror of me.

                We remained quiet for a time. The three of us were alone again. Alexa was sleeping and my husband was reclined back in his chair with his eyes closed. My thoughts drifted to our sons who would just be waking up now. I wondered how my mother would explain our whereabouts. I worried what they would think. I remained consumed by my thoughts. They zig zagged back and forth between half full/half empty. And I had just told my  eldest son the other day to try always to see the glass half full. The clock on the wall ticked loudly , and it seemed, as the hours had passed, I had become colder. Alexa, half dressed in the outfit she wore when we brought her in, was loosely wrapped in soft, fluffy, pink receiving blanket. I tightened it around her. Periodically, almost methodically, I kissed her forehead – felt the softness of her against my lips, breathed in the sweetness of her skin. “Please God?” I offered up time and time again. Once, I said it out loud and my husband brushed his hand over mine and squeezed. I wondered if he had been sleeping or thinking with his eyes closed. And I thought how generous he had been in letting me hold her all this time. He knew the depth of my fears. In just the last two years a friend and a cousin lost their babies, both under two years. Any mother hears stories like that and thinks she wears the pain, at least she feels the sympathy. I mean really feels. One doesn’t feel that pain unless she is a mother. But even a mother doesn’t know, absent of the experience: the pain, the anger, the permanent loss, the hole that fixates itself in her heart. Every mother’s nightmare. I witnessed it; I didn’t want to live it too.

                A high-pitched, beep came from one of the monitors on the wall. The nurse rushed in. “What is that noise?” I asked impatiently.

                “Her oxygen saturation level has dropped.” I didn’t really know what that meant until she waved a tube blowing oxygen in front of her nose and her level raised. “ It’s probably all of the congestion,” she reassured me. “Your tests should all be down soon. They’re looking good,” she smiled and scurried off to another patient’s room.

                My husband wanted a girl first. I remember how surprised I was when he said that, now, almost seven years ago. When we were pregnant with our first child, we had chosen Alexa for a girl’s name. Then came baby number two: “A BOY!” my doctor exclaimed in the delivery  room. I think my husband had given up, but I never lost hope. I believed with conviction that Alexa would be our daughter oneday. And in just two short weeks, she had engraved herself into our lives.

                Although worn and evidently in need of sleep, we welcomed the sunshine as my husband opened the doors. The three of us left the hospital together. I sat in the back seat with her again, only this time I smiled as she clutched her tiny fingers tightly around one of mine. She appeared unscathed. I wondered how long it would take her memory of this night to go away; perhaps, it already had. But, from my memory, it will never disappear. I will always appreciate just how close we had come to knowing the fear. She is such a blessing in our lives– our sunshine.

                My husband drove at an anxious speed. We couldn’t wait to get Alexa home to her brothers.

UM: Playgroup

I picked up Tom Perotta’s book Little Children, and, while I loved the book (strictly from a fantasy perspective), I was disappointed by the turn it took. I identified with that playgroup. I lived it, especially the part where the main character forgets her child’s snack, and she becomes the worst mother in playgroup, the one without 2 extra snacks, diapers/clothes enough for the possibility of blow outs, and duplicates of the same toy so the toddlers could “share”(that’s an oxymoron). I too belonged to a playgroup that met every Friday at 9:00 for five years. We had the Barbie doll member who was always dressed to the nines and refused to give up her high heals, we had the perfect Laura-Ashley-mom who all of us strove to emulate, we had the obsessive mom who wiped her son’s hands after each “contact,” and the out-there mom who secretly revealed that the best orgasm she ever experienced was during childbirth. I thought we’d hear about Perotta’s version of what went on during these mommy & me fests, these ritual get togethers that, through the excuse of socializing our young, we were really just holding on to that hour of adult time that seemed to slip like sand through a bottomless hourglass.

Mothers came and went, but our core of three plus one stayed the same. I say plus one because, while Mary Jo was one of us for three years, we have since lost contact, save a Christmas card from time to time. Those Christmas cards are a mother’s showcase. I remember the saying being the focus before I had children. I’d come up with something crafty, perhaps a Charles Dicken’s quote from A Christmas Carole, that I’d fill out all of those square boxes with a friendly closing, post the order of fifty cards, and send it off to be printed with my own personal touch. Details such as this were a priority to me. It said something whether a person designed her own greeting card or picked one up at the local Hallmark. I was one of those women who took the time to put her personal stamp on everything. I called it crafty or even thoughtful; now, I consider it anal and showy. During the playgroup years, however, it was Mary Jo who first turned me onto Christmas cards featuring the faces of our little ones. At first, there was only John, her eldest, two months the senior of my Ryan. Her photograph was taken in her home by a professional photographer. Poinsettias adorned the floor in front of her fireplace where she and her husband, John Sr., knelt down on either side of Johnny, as he was affectionately nicknamed. I bought into the idea, but I took Ryan to J.C. Penney. Relatives loved the idea of the postcard photograph, especially my mother, who still has each and every one, to this day; although, only her favorites are still displayed. It became a competition between me and my friends, both my friends from high school and my new playgroup friends. Who had the best photograph or who received whose first? My first trophy Christmas photograph postcard came when I decided to dress all three of my children in their hockey gear. Alexa couldn’t have been more than 3 years old, at the time, but I schlepped her to the ice rink with her brothers and dressed her up in one of their in-house uniforms for the day the professional sports photographer was there to snap the photographs of all of the youth players. What a racket those photographers had. Photographs of every child for every sport they played, but they took it to a new level when they made photograph sporting cards, or Sports Illustrated covers, magnets, sculptures featuring your child for a mere $56.00 package. That year, Alexa stood in front of Ryan, with his Wallingford Hawk jersey on; only all that could be seen of the hawk was the tips of his wings that looked like devil ears atop Alexa’s head. I received phone calls from those who I sent the picture to asking if we had posed her that way on purpose; of course, we replied, giving way to the future hidden-Carbone’s, as we’d come to affectionately refer to my faux pas, that would ensue on each of our upcoming cards. Renee pulled into the lead the following year, when she had her children, Jamie and Eric, dressed in a velvet and taffeta dress and suit in front of a white backdrop: the first black and white version of a Christmas card postcard. I took the trophy back again when my children were featured in a London phone booth; the hidden-Carbone that year was the revealing college girl photo and phone number on the wall behind them, a detail I hadn’t picked up on before I sent it off to be replicated. The trophy was passed back and forth for most original, most vintage, most creative, earliest in the mail box (I received Karen’s the day before Thanksgiving one year).

Christmas card one-upmanship was among the things I learned to put on the resume of good parenting. Another was the dreaded word: daycare. I was among two of the playgroup moms who worked, who needed to work. It was a status symbol if one didn’t need to work like the Mary Jos and the Kathys and even that woman who ended up moving to New Jersey, her name escapes me now. It was a tradeoff, though; their husbands went away on business trips every other week, it seemed. In fact, the New   Jersey mom’s husband, we learned after the move, found out that instead of traveling for business, her husband was trysting—with another man.

One month after Ryan’s birth, I called my former place of employment, Hamden Adult Education, to ask if I could return to teaching in the fall. My mother had taken time off from work to spend the first two weeks with me as I acclimated to becoming a mom. One of the things I wasn’t prepared for was post partum depression. The second was a colicky baby. This seven pound, scrawny-legged, cone-headed, brown-haired, beautiful boy was an angel with a monster set of lungs. The first night home from the hospital, I called the nursery I had just left eight hours before, sobbing because I couldn’t get my little prince to stop crying. I sat up that first night watching the swing soothe him as it swayed back and forth, something my arms just couldn’t manage. In the morning, my mother would arrive to help Anthony and I. He’d begin to fuss, and I’d reassure them both, “No, I’ve got him. We have to get used to each other.” I’d rock him and sway him. I’d sing to him and try to feed him. I’d make sure he wasn’t wet. I’d pace. Nothing. The moment I handed him over to my mother, he’d stop crying. I’d find solace in my room, upstairs, sitting in the rocking chair, without my baby boy and with tears in my own eyes.

The mother role wasn’t working out the way I had planned.

In the hole of my depression, I’d practically shove him in the arms of my mother or my husband, only to plead to have him back, ten or so minutes later, in my arms to hold. One day, I took my purse, my car keys and my breasts and left the house for several hours to lose myself in shopping. It felt good to be free, again, just me, myself and I. In the car, I practically screamed the words to the song on the radio I was singing so loud, trying to drown out my own thoughts that kept repeating, what did I do? Thoroughly enjoying my shopping spree, two full bags in my arms already, I passed a beautiful linen blouse hanging on the rack that I had to try on. Once in the dressing room, I peeled the maternity top off to see little wet spots forming on my bra. My boobs were tingling beneath them. At that moment, I decided, motherhood was something I wanted, something I had yearned for, in fact, but I needed balance, I determined. I’d return to work. Yes, I’d return to work to teach one class.

The experience of my daycares went through phases with each child I had. My mother was my daycare for Ryan. The pluses: she came to my house and she loved him almost as much as me. The minuses: she spoiled him, rotten, and she felt she could mother me mothering him. With Tyler, I searched for a new daycare, a home daycare with just a few children, but with a woman warm enough to love and nurture him. My husband and I took several days to visit daycares. Not one of them was good enough for my son. In fact, he was even turned down by one because of his tendency to projectile vomit (across the room, projectile) after his feedings. How dare she turn my son down for that was his singular flaw and one he’d grow out of once he began eating solids. Thankfully, Karen, from play group, offered to watch Tyler, while Ryan would come to pre-school in the building where I worked. Playgroup was now taking on a new dimension.

She was wonderful with Tyler and she had a son, Christopher, who was just a few weeks older than Tyler. Each time I’d return to pick him up, she’d have a daycare report card that listed what he ate and played with, when he had diaper changes and what was in them, and when he napped. The funniest report card listed a diaper change with a side-note: he has the biggest baby penis I have ever seen. These were the things we discussed as parents. The report cards became something I looked forward to, so I could monitor his schedule while I was away. Handing over control of a child to even one of her best friends is difficult for a mother.

Playgroup became a drop off for some mothers. Would you mind if I dropped her off while I run an errand? We resented these mothers and they were quickly voted out of the group. One mother joined because she wanted to push her multi-level marketing business, her side-job. We got sick of these mothers who wanted an in as networking device, but we weren’t slackers, we caught on quick. Having babies might have sucked all of the time out of our lives, but it didn’t suck the brains out of our heads.

Max’s mom (her name escapes me, too) was one of those nearly middle-aged moms who waited to have a baby only to realize getting pregnant wasn’t as easy as she thought it would be. She would also be the orgasm mom; that story, I will not forget until the day I die. Max was approximately twenty pounds and 3 inches taller than the rest of his playgroup friends his age. He walked like a bulldozer with focus and great strength. Each time he bulldozed one of our kids, his mom would take him sternly by the hand, look in his eye and give him a stern rationalization that he should be careful or he’d end up having no friends at all. The rest of us laughed it off; really the boy just had no concept as to where his body began and ended, a concept he’d surely revisit in puberty.

Karen, Kathy and I (the mainstays) whispered a lot about Mary Jo. She tried to project this perfect persona of being a mom and of her children. Mary Jo denied, with every breath she took, that she was stuck living in a condo in the armpit of CT and that she had just given away her dog to make room for her son. If Mary Jo could have put a picket fence up around the outside of her townhouse she would have for both appearance and to mark her territory. Passat was a word she tossed around as if it were a Mercedes, when I simply referred to my vehicle (now equipped with the latest standard car seat)– a car. Mary Jo banked on her Passat as the lotto ticket that would drive her right out of Waterbury. And that, it did, eventually moving them to her husband’s hometown in Bedford, Massachusetts. Because John traveled so often, his parents could help with the children. Soon, they moved down to Virginia. And then back up to Bedford. We exchanged cards for a few years, simply for bragging rights. At first, all of us received cards. First, Karen was removed from the list, then Kathy, and, finally, me. The truth was that we wondered if John really was traveling around or sleeping around. Probably a combination of both. These are the things mothers come to talk about to occupy their time. The closer our lives got to STAR magazine, the more alive we felt, and a bit closer to the adult world, too. We learned, as mothers, to live vicariously through others. Characters in books, or soap operas, movies or even in our own living rooms.

We met at 9 a.m., at first, for timing purposes, so we could end just before naptime. As they grew older, we’d linger, sometimes stay for lunch or make an excursion out of it by going to the zoo or the firehouse. As the older children’s siblings came, we weren’t as anal about keeping their schedules, so the young ones learned to nap in car seats, on the floor or on the sofa. I’m not sure who became better friends; the three of us or our children. They grew up together virtually as cousins. Their mothers took friendship to a new level; we shared every thing we could not or did not share with our husbands and even some of the things we had. From the consistency of poop to Martha Stewart to new sexual positions; we discussed it all. While playgroup had started as a guise to socialize our children, it became so much more.

Tom Perotta narrates through the main character who was also “sinking into the rhythm of the kids’ day. The little tasks, the small pleasures. The repetition that goes beyond boredom and becomes a kind of peace. You do it long enough and the adult world starts to drift away. You can’t catch up with it, not even if you try.” But we did. We learned that our lives had become subordinate to our children’s, our days would be dictated by their needs and our friends would be the parents of their friends.

Unfriendly Mirror (UM)

I’ve toyed with the idea of writing a memoir for some time. When I talk about my past, people (many, many, many people) tell me I should write a book. I’ve written two (what I would consider) publishable fiction novels. I have tried on three separate, legitimate, occasions to have them published. The first two times, I received blatant rejections. The third, I actually was asked to see the whole novel, then turned down because the publishing house experienced budget cuts. The letter read, “If you had submitted this a year ago, I would have been able to work with it, but now they are wanting submissions that need virtually no editing to work within our budget and timeframe.” I considered that a soft rejection. The letter encouraged me to keep on trying because it had a good story and a strong voice.

I am a writer. I know, as a writer, one needs a thick degree of skin to make it. After each attempt, I’ve taken a period of sinking-in, a hiatus of sorts, to rebuild my confidence. And, now, I’m back on the horse that threw me… my novels are out there, inviting, again, to be published.

Writing a memoir requires a different degree of thick skin. While the line between writing fiction and non-fiction, for me, is a thin one (floss-like), with fiction, I can write based on my experiences, but they can be hidden behind the mask of imagination. A memoir requires bravery. Putting my experiences out there, raw and blemished, is a leap of faith that I have decided to take and hope to rise like a phoenix, enriched and triumphantly satisfied.

I am tentatively calling this memoir Unfriendly Mirror. I will publish excerpts of it here.

Judge me kindly but honestly. I value your response.

Unsatisfying Ending

There is nothing more frustrating than reading a book you are so completely mesmerized by– appreciating the writing, captured by the story, intrigued by the characters– only for that heart sinking, pit-in-your-stomach, ready-to-lash-out feeling you get only when you feel cheated by the ending.

Reading a book is a personal investment one makes. It’s a promise, particularly by an author whom you’ve admired and whose work has lived up to all of those expectations in the past.

As a reader, one forms relationships with authors. Among my go-to authors are Tom Perrotta, Anna Quindlen, Alice Hoffman, Anita Diamant, Sue Miller, Richard Russo, Margaret Atwood, Philippa Gregory and Judy Blume. They have never once disappointed me in the past. Sure, some work is stronger than others for this reason or that.

I won’t name this author, here, or the work, and yes, I will give the author another chance because everyone deserves a second chance.

Just like anything else in life, you come to set your expectations based upon your past experiences, and sometimes, when those expectations are too high– you set yourself up for disappointment.

So the lessons in all of this…??? Forgiveness. Second chances. The ability to move forward.

TOP 100*****

The following are lists of my TOP 100 movies and novels (not in any particular order). The greatest difficulty in composing these lists was in choosing which films to eliminate in order to keep each list at 100. I love everything about watching films and reading books. I teach both film and literature, so, for me, the best of both worlds is watching adapatations. You will see a host of adaptations on each list, some have even made both lists. I view a film as a completely separate discourse from the novel. It’s always interesting to see how my interpretation matches up with a director’s.

MOVIES
Titanic 
Gone with the Wind 
Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind 
500 Days of Summer 
Neverland 
Gladiator 
Forrest Gump 
When Harry Met Sally 
Beaches 
Shawshank Redemption 
Slumdog Millionaire 
P.S. I Love You 
Fight Club 
Across the Universe 
The Patriot 
Hamlet (Zefferelli) 
Romeo & Juliet (Lurhman) 
Great Expectations 
Rocky 
All the President's Men 
Bobby 
Natural Born Killers 
Pulp Fiction                             
The Color Purple 
On Golden Pond                                
The Hours 
Thelma & Louise 
The Shining 
Steel Magnolias 
Good Will Hunting 
Dead Poet's Society 
The Breakfast Club 
Animal House 
The Secret Garden 
Pollyanna 
Up 
Toy Story III 
East of Eden 
Benjamin Button 
Monster 
Inception 
Revolutionary Road 
Little Children 
Marie Antoinette 
The Illusionist 
The Other Boleyn Girl                 
The Help 
He's Just Not That Into You
Jerry Maguire 
Eyes Wide Shut                        
Scent of a Woman 
The Departed 
Casino 
Rain Man 
All the Right Moves 
Ghost
Analyze This 
The Fockers 
Terms of Endearment 
Top Gun 
Kramer vs, Kramer 
A Few Good Men 
St. Elmo's Fire
Flashdance
An Officer and a Gentleman 
Pretty Women 
The Fighter 
The Lovely Bones 
Angel Heart                           
Nine and 1/2 Weeks 
The Dark Night 
Brokeback Mountain 
Into the Wild 
Burn After Reading                    
Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? 
Ocean's Eleven 
Serendipity 
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil 
American History X 
Se7en 
Psycho 
Love Actually 
Gangs of New York 
Sophie's Choice 
Apocalypse Now                        
The Godfather 
Goodfellas 
Doctor Zhivago
The Silence of the Lambs
The Usual Suspects
American Beauty                       
The Green Mile
Platoon
The Sixth Sense
The Wizard of Oz
Black Swan
The Truman Show
A Beautiful Mind
Mystic River                   
Shutter Island

NOVELS/PLAYS
Handmaids Tale, Cat's Eye, Margaret Atwood
The Reader, Bernhard Schlink
The Red Tent, Anita Diamont
The Poisonwood Bible, Prodigal Summer, Barbara Kingsolver
Memoirs of a Geisha, Arthur Golden
Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns, Khaled Hosseini
Davinci Code, Dan Brown
Ghostwalk, Rebecca Scott
Summer Sisters, Are You There God, It's Me Margaret, Judy Blume
First Born & Rightfully Mine, Doris Mortman
Little Altars Everywhere, Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya  Sisterhood, Rebecca Wells
One True Thing, Blessings, Black & Blue, Imagined London, Anna Quinlan
Cape Cod, Richard Russo
Lace, Lace II, Shirley Conran
Love Story & Oliver’s Story, Eric Segal                      
The Gift, Remembrance, Mixed Blessing, Family Album …Danielle Steele
The Rainmaker, The Pelican Brief, A Time to Kill, The Firm… John Grisham
Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte
David Copperfield, A Christmas Carol,  Charles Dickens
Pride & Prejudice, Sense & Sensibility, Jane Austin
Mrs. Dalloway & A Room of Her Own, Virginia Woolf
Gone with The Wind, Margaret Mitchell
The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
East of Eden, John Steinbeck
The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer
The Awakening, Kate Chopin
Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert
Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath                                   
Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway
The Adventures of Huck Finn, Mark Twain
King Lear, Romeo & Juliet, Hamlet, Tempest, A Winter’s Tale, William Shakespeare
Night, Elie Weisel
Tuesdays with Morrie, Five People You Meet in Heaven, Mitch Albom
Running With Scissors, Augusten Burroughs
Rainbow, Christopher Flinch
Goddess, Anthony Summers
Dianna, Andrew Morton
A Woman Named Jackie, C. David Heymann
Teacher Man, Frank McCourt
Charlotte & Emily, Jude Morgan
The Other Boleyn Girl, The Virgin's Lover, Philippa Gregory
The Bronte Project, Jennifer Vandever
A Separate Peace, John Knowles
Go Ask Alice, Unknown
Pigman, Paul Zindal
The Outsiders, S.E. Hinton
Lord of the Flies, William Golding                           
Brian’s Song, William Blinn
Pollyanna, Eleanor Porter
A Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett
The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum
Speak,  Laurie Halse Anderson
Memoirs of a Geisha, Arthur Golden
Little Children, Abstinence Teacher, The Leftovers, Tom Perotta
One Day, David Nicholls
Fifty Shades Trilogy, E.L. James
While I was Gone, Lost in the Forest, Sue Miller
Before Women Had Wings, Connie May Fowler
The Book of Ruth, Jane Hamilton
Endless Love, Scott Spencer
Scarlett, Alexandra Ripley
A Woman of Substance, Barbara Taylor Bradford
Beloved, Toni Morrison
The Color Purple,  Alice Walker
All He Ever Wanted, A Wedding in December, Anita Shreve
Skylight Confessions, Blackbird House, Alice Hoffman
London, Edward Rutherford
Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer
The Morgesons, Elizabeth Stoddard

Pedagogical Epiphany: A Collegial Conversation

“There have been many measures taken to try to turn the educational system towards more control, more indoctrination, more vocational training, imposing a debt, which traps students and young people into a life of conformity… That’s the exact opposite of [what] traditionally comes out of The Enlightenment. And there’s a constant struggle between those. In the colleges, in the schools, do you train for passing tests, or do you train for creative inquiry?” –Noam Chomsky
Background Info:
When I heard the term COMMON ASSESSMENT a few years ago, my initial thought was: Oh that’s cool… a way to see if teachers are teaching the same skills. The context of it was for a history class, whose students were given excerpts of source documents that they needed to incorporate as support when answering an opinion- based question on a given topic. Teachers corrected other classes’ work using the same rubric. My understanding was that the purpose was to see if students were able to form a plausible opinion on a topic while incorporating outside sources. Sounded like a good idea.

As time passed, my department (English) was given the task of creating common assessments for certain courses. Our first attempt was to focus on common units, such as C.A.P.T. ( the Connecticut Mastery Test for sophomores). The attempt was a good one with predictable outcomes, such as the level of mastery had a lot to do with the level the course was being taught on (for instance: level 1=high achieving students, level 2=moderate achieving students, level 3=low achieving students). That worked until the thrust of the collapsing of levels became a movement to which we responded. Then, we saw more or less the same results but within a given class.

The focus of common assessment quickly took a turn from the actual assessment to data driven instruction which meant we needed to move to assessments with measurable outcomes. This is where the grey area needed to turn to black and white, but this didn’t occur in a collegial fashion because while commonality exists in our classes in the sense that we are all working from the same curriculum, approach, emphasis and methods vary by the very nature of 12 individual teachers coming from different backgrounds of experiences and styles– not to mention pedagogical philosophies.

The problem:
Data driven instruction was problematic for me, by in large, due to the fact I just stated, but more so in the goal of insuring all students learn the same skills AND content in order for an accurate predictor upon which to modify teaching. It’s one thing to ask us, as teachers, to teach the same skill and content, it’s quite another for the student outcomes to be a determining factor in our ability to teach our students. It even took a turn in various educational systems to be the basis upon which teacher’s success in the classroom is measured. Suddenly, data driven instruction had painted, in my head, one hundred and twenty five robots where one could not be distinguished from the other. Sameness is the word that ruminates when I hear D.D.I. mentioned.

We are not the same. Teachers are not the same as each other, even in a given department. Students are not the same as each other. They will not learn the same. They will not retain the same. They will not test the same. They will not, by their very nature, become the same. I am reminded of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale every time I think about common assessment and data driven instruction. And if that wasn’t enough, we were then asked to create common FORMATIVE assessments. We were set up in teams, to tackle this next venture in teaching, under the guise of “collaborating.” Only, collaborating, in my mind, is working together on a shared interest. Interest being the key word.

Pretty soon, teachers will become obsolete and we’ll be replaced by computers so education is delivered the SAME everywhere to everyone all the time. I will resist that kind of teaching with ever core of my being.

The conversation:
Completely fed up with the idea of creating C.A.’s, C.F.A’s to address D.D.I, another colleague and I asked if we could branch off to form our own “team” to work on the curriculum that only the two of us teach. We have met periodically for a solid year now, sometimes even on our own time, beyond our “team” allotment or curriculum hours. While I have taught this course for 9 years, now, my colleague was in his first year last year. What began as a mentor-like relationship has morphed into more of a collaborative effort. We discovered that the basis of all of this is a shared interest. While our philosophies are unique to each of us, there is a compromise that takes place in the way we create opportunities for learning for our students– thus, enriching, as I see it, our own pedagogies, not to mention the outcomes for students. We feed off one another’s ideas, something that first took place on Google.docs last summer as we created a common assessment based on the summer reading we’d assigned. Openness is essential to the success of such an endeavor. Since, we have mirrored the same experience in developing other common assignments– oftentimes, sharing the outcomes or answering questions, posing what if scenarios.

In our second year, after looking at the work we’ve done and the results of what the students have produced, we are currently looking at ways to refine our initial work in order to make it more effective. So, at our “summer” meeting today, we sat across from one another (after discussing, debating, creating, revising, concluding)– and I asked “How is this type of collaboration so effective in the sense that we are creating common assessments and utilizing data to drive the revision of our instruction and not so much for the teams we’d been assigned earlier in the year?” This is work that I look forward to because it makes what I’m teaching better, it makes me a better teacher, and it makes my students better educated.

The solution:
What I’m saying is that if the alphabet soup of all this new philosophy were modeled after what my colleague and I believe we have accomplished, the essence of our students’ (and essentially, teachers’) individuality will not be lost, only enriched. The nuts and bolts would include two teachers with a shared interest or pedagogy beginning with a collegial conversation about what they teach and why, what they want their students to achieve and why, and how they will accomplish it all. The rest will work itself out. Ultimately, invite more teachers in on the conversation. My colleague described it as achieving the same goals through a more “organic” process.

”Passing tests doesn’t begin to compare with searching and inquiring and pursuing topics that engage us and excite us. That’s far more significant than passing tests and, in fact, if that’s the kind of educational career you’re given the opportunity to pursue, you will remember what you discovered.” — Noam Chomsky

Why 50 Shades??

So what is all of the hulabaloo surrounding the 50 Shades of Grey series? It’s being touted as Mommy Porn. Women are flocking to buy not only the first book but the whole trilogy at once, while keeping a close eye on the rumor mill leaking the possible portrayers of Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele.
I read the series in one week, yes, all three books, in just one week. I was pealed for hours at a time having difficulty putting it down at all. Flying through a book is not unlike me when I’m hooked, but it doesn’t happen often. This one, albeit a bit disturbing in the early chapters, made me curious to know what made Christian Grey tick and what made Anastasia wanting more. Most women would have bolted at the first sight of the contract, or at least when he began controlling her every contact, her career, even. But he was wounded; she wanted to save him, and she did!
So what’s the attraction, especially for the middle-aged mommy set? Is it that women want to be submissive deep down? Have we innately not changed over all these years?
While I think this message is certainly debatable, and the books even criticized for suggesting such… it certainly does raise some interesting questions: ones that I asked myself while reading. First, speaking as a woman in this very demographic, whose focus has been raising 3 three children, maintaining a home and working simultaneously for the past 21 years, I feel I have some authority on the topic. For myself, women in my position/ stage in life come to feel stuck, on autopilot, putting aside her relationship with a spouse (simply because she hasn’t the time to devote to it) and she forgets what it was that attracted her to him in the first place. Passion becomes lost in the appointments, and carpools, and laundry of life. 50 Shades is an escape– it’s a fantasy we can immerse ourselves in if only for a little while.
The submissive nature is not about a woman wanting to kneel down naked, face turned away (or blindfolded, even), before her lover, it’s about wanting not to think or plan or manage for a time being– a vacation of sorts. It’s about wanting to feel like the center of one person’s universe so wholly and completely that there is not room for doubt– the insatiable notion that one person wants and, more so, needs her so completely that he’d cease to exist in her absence. And since the honeymoon stage of the marriage has long since passed, a mere recollection of what used to be and can never be again, 50 Shades transports these women (myself included) to that place of transference, where one can reignite (if only internally or in the mind’s eye) those feelings again.
It wasn’t well written by literary standards, but it was well enough written for this series to make its mark as a phenomenon. Books are flying off the shelves. It isn’t uncommon for all three to not be available at once. Women are reading the books voraciously and often disguised. I’d lent the first in the series to a friend who put it in a paper bag to return it to me because she didn’t want anyone to know she had read it. Another friend had suggested I purchase it on my Ipad to allow me to read it in public “because you’re going to want to,” she urged.
So is it porn? Good question. I wouldn’t characterize it as such. Instead, I’d say it’s more erotic; it’s denoted as romance, suspense, erotica. Does it cross lines? Most, certainly; hence, the reason for its popularity. E.L. James, a British author, originally wrote this as a fan fiction story, and due to it’s overwhelming popularity, she eventually published it. I’d say that’s capitalism at its best. Porn, as defined by the dictionary, is any work (visual or written) meant to cause sexual arousal; whereas, erotica, is a literary work with an erotic theme. While, by definition, the two, are close. I’d argue 50 Shades as erotica because it’s a component of the story, not the whole of it. James oversteps THE line between the allusion of sex and sensuality and the detailed description of it, wherein lies its appeal. She dares to write what we, as readers, enjoy imagining by filling in the gaps in other romances. James is bold, not unlike Flaubert in Madame Bovary or Fowles’ French Lietenant’s Woman or Nabokov’s Lolita, or McNeil’s Nine and a Half Weeks: A Memoir of a Love Affair, or Thompson’s Angel Heart: the list goes on. Tom Perotta, in Little Children, teeters on the line, but never crosses it so completely. While James does not have the cornerstone on erotic literature, she will be long remembered as this decade’s author of the revival of erotica.