Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Best Character I Know

As a writer and lifelong reader, I spend a lot of time thinking about characters -- what makes them tick, what they would do in my life, if I would even want someone like them in my life. But, by far, the best character I know and spend the most time thinking about is my mom.

My mother has all the workings of a great literary figure -- she's complex and flawed, but consistently well-intentioned. She's also humorous and adventurous, but oddly sensitive, which she covers up skillfully with her opinionated demeanor. And she was part of the best love story on Earth.

Elizabeth Bennet would sit down and shut up in her presence. And probably start taking notes.

Don't believe me? Well here's just some of the pearls from the necklace of wisdom she's been fashioning for me for the last 35 years:
Don't ever marry a boring man. Men get more boring as they get older.

You should wear heels and dance on a table at least once in your life.
Always have one kitchen for every woman living in a house. (This advice was given when we knew two brothers sharing a house with their respective wives. Shortly thereafter they had a huge falling out and one moved out.)

When you host a big party, pay the maitre'd $50 up front, before the event starts.

Even Princess Diana wasn't good enough for her mother-in-law. (Given when a friend of mine was having problems with her mother-in-law)

Don't compare yourself to anyone. When I think back, all the times I behaved badly it was because I was comparing myself to someone. (This is my favorite, because it not only shows her honesty, but also her unflinching courage.)
One of my favorite stories about my mother is how she made us "smurf" chicken. My brother and I both liked tandoori chicken (which she would make without the spices for us as kids). One day we asked her why it had to be red--can it be blue? She said sure, and the next day threw some blue food coloring in with a yogurt marinade and made us blue chicken. Though it tasted good, smurf chicken never took off as a household favorite. But it did make me realize as a child that my mother really was willing to do anything in her power to make me and my brother happy.

Since moving to Boston six months ago, I've gotten to spend more time with my mother. I also turned 35, which means I actually have memories of my mother when she was my age. Which is weird. And astounding.

She used to make three dinners every night -- a pasta dish for me, meat for my brother, and Indian food for her and my father. And this was after working a full day as a doctor. I usually don't have the energy to cook for myself.

She also ran a private practice, took care of the finances and kept a roof over our head. My father, and my brother and I by extension, had a compulsion for giving the shirts off our backs. My mother always found a way to buy another one... or sew one from scratch, if times were tough.

And she's done all this without much recognition. Her saying about Princess Diana is especially poignant because my father's charm and charisma made him the prince of his family, and I highly doubt that any woman with a personality would have been good enough for him in his family's eyes.

But my mother's love was unconditional, by all accounts.

A few years ago I traveled to India and stayed with my parents' med school classmate. One afternoon, as we sat on the veranda after a monsoon shower, she confided in me:

"I was so envious of your mom. I'd never seen anyone love another person so purely as she loved your dad. I remember being so envious of her, even as a teenager. Not many people saw her virtues back then, but your father did. And your mom has many virtues."

My thoughts exactly.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Musings on 'Cause Celeb' and Men

I'm in San Francisco, where it's bright and sunny and 80 degrees. I should be exploring organic local markets and the liberally-minded kitsch stores and art galleries.

Instead, I've holed myself up in a dark room with one narrow window, with only the glow of my computer screen throwing light on my face (and not very flattering light, mind you).

The reason I've opted for this self-induced hermit-ude (solitude without the natural surroundings of Walden Pond), is because before boarding my flight to SF yesterday, I picked up a copy of Cause Celeb by Helen Fielding at the Boston Public Library (I can write a whole other post on the virtue of paper books and the library, but I'll save that for another time). It turns out Helen Fielding's first novel is more enjoyable and revelatory than Bridget Jones--at least for me, and perhaps anyone else who dallied with the idea of "saving the world."

For those of you who haven't read it, Cause Celeb follows twenty-something Rosie Richardson as she dates a B-list TV host, gets caught up in the media and publicity world, and then chucks it all to go save dying people in Africa after she realized the man she loves -- desperately, chemically, addictively -- is a real prat. Sound familiar?

In my twenties, I had a special talent for dating men who fell somewhere on the spectrum between self-absorbed do-gooders and narcissistic "victims." These men had the uncanny knack of getting me to sympathize with them through their minefield of self-discovery, to which I ultimately fell victim to, often losing a vital limb of my own self-identity.

But the charm wears off. Around 25 I decided I would never ask any of them to love me--either they did or they didn't, but I was not going to hitch my needs to their emotional rollercoaster. Around 28, I started trending more towards the self-absorbed do-gooders, who were easier to not hate after the break-up (thereby ensuring that more of the person I wanted to be was preserved). Around 32, I just stopped. Stopped dating, stopped trying to figure them out.

As Rosie says in Cause Celeb, "I've had four years of romantic aridity, but also emotional peace."

I couldn't say it better. I became smarter and happier when I stopped trying to figure out men. As Rosie figures out, you can do all the things the books and magazines say, but you can't earn love the way you earn money. Romantic love is spontaneous and unconditional--meaning you can't earn it at all. The relationship is conditional on all sorts of things -- lifestyle choices, emotional stability, philosophical alignment, sometimes even in-laws -- but the chemistry is not. It's completely out of your control. You can have a date with the most good-looking, kind, smart, eligible guy and not feel a thing. Trust me. That's what I've been doing (repeatedly) for the past year and a half.

But the question that keeps coming up in my mind, the one that makes me think that I'll never want to be in a relationship ever again, is "Do men really want to love a woman?" Sure, they want companionship, sex, and all the other goodies related to being in a relationship (if they want a relationship at all). But do they want to give of themselves?

Most women do, and the whole dating scene seems to predicated on this imbalance--women want to give emotionally, and most men want a muse or mother--someone to inspire them and take care of them in their moments of self-doubt. But what if you don't need a provider, nor do you want to be anyone's muse? Can a man want a relationship that doesn't bolster his manhood through the "provider" trope or force the woman to be a self-negating muse? (After all, did a muse ever receive royalties or her own book deal?)

Now, I don't think all men are life-sucking narcissists (though some remain out there--I think that explains the proliferation of vampire movies). But I've never heard a man of talking about wanting a relationship because they had so much to give. Have you?

Of course, the full irony of Cause Celeb is that those of us who dally with the idea of saving the world are narcissists ourselves. Not selfish narcissists, but generous narcissists, who think that it's somehow our responsibility to right all the wrongs of the world. It's a great way to feel validated while invalidating yourself--everyone thinks you're noble while you ignore your own needs. That's why we so easily fall into the role of muse/mother for self-absorbed narcissists--we're so eager to heal anyone but ourselves.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Calming Allure of Old-fashioned Book Binding

This was recently posted on Facebook by a friend and reminded me of why my first job out of college was in the production department of a publishing company. We used to get regular tours of printing plants, and the site of bound pages, gold-leaf impressions and ink on paper makes me nostalgic...

Birth of a Book from Glen Milner on Vimeo.