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David Rakoff, 1967-2012

“We are wired for unburdening. It’s what we do as a species. When I am being told, I listen, mindful of the honor, remembering all the while that the shore would be mistaken to believe that the waves lap up against him because he is so beautiful.”

David Rakoff, Half Empty

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The Bébé and the Bathwater

In case you haven’t come across any of the reviews or comments or coverage in the press about Bringing Up Bébé over the last month since it was released, here’s the basic outline:

American journalist Pamela Druckerman moved to Paris to live with her British husband. They had kids. She noticed that French children behaved differently than American children, was curious about the apparent differences in parenting that led to that, and she wrote a book – Bringing Up Bébé  – about her semi-formal investigation into the question. American parenting being what it is – always on the lookout for the next thing and let’s charitably call it, “not very laid back” – there has been a defensive uproar to the charge (not made by Druckerman) that French parents are better.

I happen to like the French – and their country, their cheese, their fully-funded daycare system, and, er, their cheese – and have never really understood the American love (Paris!)/hate (The French!) relationship with them. Maybe that’s why I remained engaged and un-offended while reading the book.

Or perhaps it’s not the French thing. Perhaps, as so often happens, the loudest yelling got the most press and the subject at hand, namely what was actually in the book, was lost in the fray.

Here’s the thing: I liked the book. I think you could too. So let’s clear up some of the basic arguments that have been leveled against it so you can get on with enjoying it.

First and foremost, nowhere does Druckerman state that French parents are better nor does she stage an attack on American parents. The defensiveness and anger of journalists, reviewers and commenters about what a great nation America is, how much better than France, and what amazing parents we all are feels irrelevant to me: no one said we weren’t. (It probably hasn’t helped that the book was introduced by The Wall Street Journal in an excerpt inaccurately titled – by them, not the author – “Why French Parents Are Superior.”)

Druckerman is no more “tell[ing] American parents that we’re doing it all wrong” than any other pregnancy or parenting book on the market, most of which highlight what you might do instead of what you are doing. If anything, Druckerman is less hard on American parents and more ambivalent about which path is best than many American books. Have you flipped through the page after page of rigid, judgmental suggestions in What To Expect When You’re Expecting or Super Baby Food lately?

The frustrations Druckerman expresses – out of control children in public spaces, the incompatibility of toddlers with restaurants – are ones we stateside parents express all the time. So why are so many mothers taking issue with her looking for a way to address some of those issues? Perhaps because we are instinctively defensive when we feel an outsider is taking issue with us. That is, it’s OK is we dish about our own relatives (or gender or race) but we bristle when others do. If that’s the case, let’s keep in mind that, although her thoughts are about the French, Druckerman is an American too. She is not taking sides against us.

Or perhaps it’s critics’ basic dislike of the French model she observes. To them, I would say, “It’s OK that it’s not your cup of café au lait. Move on. But mischaracterizing the book or the author as having done something reprehensible in even suggesting that we might consider a foreign alternative is like picking a fight with your boyfriend to justify moving out. Just go. It’s all right that you don’t want to take any of this advice. God knows there’s plenty more out there.”

Second, Ms. Druckerman having written a piece several years ago for Marie Claire on sorting out a menage a trois for her husband’s 40th birthday seems irrelevant to me.* On the contrary, that piece too displayed a clarity and candor (and a refreshingly domestic tone, unlike most American journalism on the subject of sex) that I found appealing. Having a sex life and being willing to write about it doesn’t, to my mind, disqualify a writer from also writing about parenting.

The furor over Druckerman having asked Marie Claire to remove the most prominent links to that piece only validates her apparent concern that readers would be so distracted by her having a racy (but not very) sexual past that we would be unable to judge her book on parenting on its merits alone. It’s just not that big a deal.

Third, the charge that Ms. Druckerman is focusing on the upper middle class of Parisians and that the book is therefore not a comprehensive representation of all parents in France is silly. I would encourage critics to produce any book on parenting that surveys and speaks to an entire nation’s population.

You can get back to me. I’ll wait.

Nothing? Yeah. I figured.

Let’s keep in mind that the audience for Bringing Up Bébé is of the same class in America: parenting philosophies self-select to the upper classes on both sides of the Atlantic. If you have the time and resources to develop a philosophy of anything (let alone write extensive comments or a book on them), you are in the middle and upper classes. Working two jobs and barely getting by do not allow for a lot of time with Dr. Sears or Ms. Druckerman.

Fourth, Forbes, among others, published a “rebuttal” calling into question the wisdom of French parenting based on America’s higher incidence of entrepreneurialism and billionaires. (I use quotes because a rebuttal implies that there was an initial attack, which I don’t believe that there was.) Again, this seems like a red herring to me. Within this kind of casually anecdotal logic, you might suggest that, given the US’s infant mortality rate – a stunning and embarassing 34th, behind Cuba and Japan – we should reconsider communism or acquiring an emporer to correct our childbirth problem. (France placed 9th, by the way.)

Yes, French schools are notoriously rigid. Yes, it is possible that that rigidity does not lend itself to the inventive, realize-your-dream thinking that is foundational to America’s national character. Yes, French parents’ early childhood focus on a “cadre” (or “frame”) may feel too impersonal or strict for many American parents. On the other hand, that same school system provides well-regulated, affordable childcare and preschool, something shamefully absent in the United States, and that cadre appears to produce better-behaved small children

The ongoing argument between Europe’s educational model (best typified in the semi-socialist Scandinavian countries where taxes are exorbitant but everyone is educated and no one carries student debt) and the American model (where education is uneven at best, providing amazing opportunities for self-realization for some and no meaningful opportunities or funding for many) will continue. It’s a difficult problem and a complex comparison. But it is not the subject of this book. Druckerman’s observations are limited to pregnancy and early childhood: the playground, home life with small children, day care and preschool.

(The mischaracterizations in these pieces of what Druckerman actually says does not aid their case.**)

Finally, and importantly, Bringing Up Bébé does not pretend to be a comprehensive socio-psychological survey of French and American parenting. Much of the criticism suggests that many readers believe it is – or ought to be – before they’re willing to consider any of the author’s input.

Bringing Up Bébé is part autobiography, part anecdote and part ad hoc research. Druckerman interviews doctors, caregivers, researchers and parenting experts (such as they are), in addition to parents themselves, but the book does not pretend to be more than an informal survey. She falls somewhere on the spectrum between Malcolm Gladwell (aggregating, filtering and commenting on other people’s research, see: Outliers, The Tipping Point, and Blink) and Adam Gopnik (Paris to the Moon’s essays on life with children in Paris).

As a mother and journalist, Druckerman does, I think, an admirable job of teasing out the unspoken but accepted cultural principles of child-rearing in France. That her book is not the footnoted final word on all matters of difference between the two countries’ systems of child-rearing – and which is definitively better – does not make it a bad book, an offensive one or disqualify it from my bookshelf.

Likewise, I did not reject Tina Fey’s autobiography for not providing me with a concrete, research-based roadmap to success in television comedy, nor am I offended that Gladwell draws his own conclusions about the research he relates. Yes, these are lighter weight approaches than primary research might present (which would have its own slant on things and, I venture, also draw critical bile from disagreeing parents). Yes, sometimes I disagree with their conclusions, but I didn’t go into reading these books with an expectation that their observations would be comprehensive, fully backed up and agreed to by experts or line up exactly with what I have observed or would have done myself. On the contrary, it’s the differences and subjectivity in their observations – their humanity – that makes them readable, interesting and potentially useful.

Bottom line, all this publicity is great for the book, so it probably needs no defense: people are talking about it, and buying it, and, as writer myself, I’m glad of that, and I’m sure Druckerman will brook the mischaracterizations just fine and laugh all the way to the bank (such as it is these days in publishing).

For those of you who have not read the book but are considering it, please do. Despite the many vocal and offended critics, there is nothing irresponsible in it, nor does it  prescribe a whole-hearted embrace of all things French, from formula feeding to fromage. I don’t believe, nor does Ms. Druckerman, as evident from her own choices, that raising children entirely in the French model is the correct choice. Primarily, Bringing Up Bébé is a bright, interesting read and and there’s quite a lot of insight in it that I’ve been glad to have. Especially the part about a cheese course every day at lunch. We’re definitely starting that tomorrow. There are some things that, as a responsible parent, you just have to do for the good of your child.

____________________________________________________________________________

Footnotes and References

*Slate’s Rachael Larimore on Marie Claire and her follow-up.

**A piece in The New York Times: “The French leave their babies crying on their own if they’re not sleeping through the night by the time they’re 4 months old.” On the contrary, Druckerman notes that this wait is brief – very brief: a “pause” she calls it – and nothing like the “cry it out” solutions that many American parents publicly eschew but privately take on in desperation after a year or more of interrupted sleep. 

Erika Brown Ekiel’s article at Forbes.com deliberately – and provocatively – mischaracterizes an entire segment of the book with, “Most of the parents Druckerman profiles discourage their children from standing out, speaking up or getting in the way of their parents’ good time. The advice they dole out is focused on keeping one’s child in his place, rather than enabling him to imagine and construct one of his own.” Again, on the contrary, Druckerman’s subject parents provide a structure within which children are free to stand out and imagine, albeit without the constant, hovering assistance of their parents. And the “good time” she references escapes me: Druckerman writes about French mothers’ efforts to transcend guilt about being a bad mother for, say, having a job, or time to eat an adult meal. 

An actual interview with Druckerman at the Huffington Post – unlike much of the coverage. 

A more balanced write-up at NPR.com.

Antici. Pation.

It’s Advent, as of last week, and, as usually directed in Advent sermons, I took a moment to pause and reflect. We are not regular church attendees but old habits die hard, especially when you’re not trying to rid yourself of them: I happen to like Advent.

Our holidays got off to a smooth start with Thanksgiving. We beat my basic criteria of, “No one died,” by quite a bit even though it involved me doing most of the cooking for eleven people. By all accounts it went very well. But, as most holidays are, it was a sprint to the finish, which left me not only tired but wondering, as Oprah and all the editors of women’s magazines do: how do you enjoy the holidays when they are such a project?

The obvious answer is that you make them less of a project. Reduce gift-giving, don’t decorate, attend fewer parties, skip family gatherings and book a hotel in Cabo instead. The thing is though, I like finding and giving gifts, decorating, throwing parties and making merry. I love Christmas.

So what else can be done so I don’t arrive at Christmas gasping for air and a glass of spiked egg nog?

Planning helps, and God and everyone who’s ever worked with me knows, I’m a planner. I’ve bought nearly all of our gifts already, and I’m wrapping them as they arrive so we can avoid the Christmas week blowout of express shipping charges and the Christmas Eve wrapping frenzy. Our tree is up and decorated as of last weekend. The outdoor lights are twinkling.

It’s good, the planning. The last-minute sprint has been removed (if I can define what “done” is and not just stretch out “almost done” till the 24th!), and we will definitely save some money on FedEx and panicked last-minute purchases. Plus, who doesn’t love checking things off a list? I am getting a sense of satisfaction from a job efficiently done. But I’m still feeling pretty frantic. It occurs to me that I may have accidentally just moved the stress forward on the calendar.

I know that clearing some space before the holiday to slow our momentum is a must. As with going on a beach holiday and screeching from 100 mph to 0 just at the edge of the sand, Christmas itself – one evening, one morning – will go by disappointingly quickly if you’ve been on line at UPS, worrying about your sister-in-law’s gift, and stuffing stockings until seconds before Christmas Eve dinner. We are not wired to shift gears from “frantic preparation” to “savoring the holiday” in the space of half an hour. Advent provides that space on the church calendar, and I think we’d do well to find it on our own schedules.

As I so often do, I have a theory. My theory is that the, “how,” not the, “what,” is the issue underlying holiday stress and the “what’s-the-point-itude” that occasionally creeps in as we rush through the weeks before Christmas, piling up packages and not cheer. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the journey, not the destination, matters most (especially when the destination is filled with fantastic Swedish carbohydrates and complicated ribbons), but yes, the journey deserves more of our focus and can be an enjoyable gradual climb to the peak where we enjoy the wonderful view rather than a gravely slide of increasing velocity that leaves us scraped up and exhausted at the bottom of the hill, back at our car, wondering why we went that way again.

Advent is about the “how,” it provides a stretch of time before Christmas to downshift gradually towards Christmas’ celebration so that we arrive intact and joyful. As the weather turns chilly and the air gets crisp, we’re supposed to slow down, have some cocoa and cinnamon toast, pause and consider. (OK, the toast isn’t in the gospels, but if they’d ever had my toast, they’d have put it in. Trust me: I make really good toast.) Advent is the season of reflection, anticipation and contemplation, a reminder to pause and think about the coming holiday.

Whatever your religious beliefs, the winter holidays mean something to you or you wouldn’t get all worked up about them. Whether it’s an opportunity to see friends, shower your sugar-addled child with gifts, celebrate the birth of your Savior, re-engage with family, or just show off your amazing ability not to electrocute yourself while installing a well-lit, over-fed elderly gentleman and his pet caribou on your roof, something is there at the core of your drive, and that’s worth thinking about so it rises to the top of your list.

Even if you consider the holidays a pain in the ass, Advent can be a time of constructive reflection, acceptance and planning. Own your desire to retreat from Aunt Ethel and her terrible fruitcake and plan a lovely, calm day at home with friends instead of booking through O’Hare with 4000 other people on Christmas Eve. Make the holidays your own. Once you accept that they aren’t your bag, you free up space to see what you do want rather than Grinch-ing it up and gnashing your teeth through another December.

Maybe the holidays are your thing but you’re just feeling low and lonely. It’s OK to be a little sad. Advent gives you some time to to acknowledge that and reach out in time to have some light in your window by Christmas. Ask for visits. Plan small outings. Take a short walk on a bright, chilly day. Find a Seattle’s Best Coffee and order the gingerbread latte: they’ll give you lots of whipped cream AND a tiny gingerbread man on top of it.

A couple of years ago, while planning a long-ish trip to New Zealand, we got some great “how” advice in amongst all the “whats”: find a quiet moment, think briefly about all the things you could do, and notice which three rise to the top. Not the Must Do things that everyone says are great: the three things you want to do the most, the ones you think you’ll enjoy, the ones you’ll regret not doing if you miss them. I chose swimming with dolphins, R. picked sailing through the fjords, and I can’t remember what the third thing was because the two we picked were so awesome. Literally awesome. They were the best things. THE BEST. Two of the most fun, most memorable, fantastic things we’ve ever done.

(Even if they hadn’t been the greatest things ever, it doesn’t matter: we knew wanted to do them and we did them. That in itself is a success. If they hadn’t turned out so well, it would have been good information for the next time we planned a trip as well as probably hilarious: fjord trips are pretty much limited to “majestic” or “Bob Saget in a dinghy” experiences, don’t you think?)

This is what I think Advent is for: finding a quiet moment to reflect on what matters to you in your holidays. Think small. Think specific. Think bright! Don’t judge them. It doesn’t matter: they’re yours. It’s your holiday too, not just your kids’ or Aunt Ethel’s. What matters to you? Be open to what some part of you already knows but which is hidden under a pile of candy cane boxes for Timmy’s class party. Prioritize those things. Put them on the list above finding the perfect #$(*&$#! Santa-shaped cake because last year’s fell to pieces and tasted like wet styrofoam.

Focus not just Christmas but the whole season on those. If you love being in touch, make Christmas phone calls throughout December when friends have more time to talk, not just on Christmas where it’s a three-minute chat before rushing off to the matinee showing of Sherlock Holmes (which is a super-great Christmas afternoon idea, by the way, thank you very much). If you love baking – actually love it, not must do it – book a Saturday with yourself and take your time doing it. If you like pleasing people with gifts, yeah sure, go shopping – but plan in it for a time when you can enjoy it and keep the volume to a level and cost that doesn’t stress you out, now or when your bills arrive in January. Or if that’s not working, think more broadly: make someone’s holiday by giving some of your amazing gifts to people in need like homeless kids, the gift-less, toy-less children, or lonely elderly people.

I know this is easier said than done. And checking boxes is a great, great thing. Trust me: I know. It’s just an Advent thought, a reminder that slowing down isn’t just an unrealistic principle that only people who can sit for hours with their legs crossed can manage. Step out of the tide for five minutes in the quiet before everyone else is up in the morning. This is your Advent, your Christmas, your time. What matters to you?

True Enough

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Not a good week for cinema

Bergman and now Antonioni.