Sunday, August 30, 2009

How to make potty training your toddler really fun

In an early diaper-free phase take your toddler to a playground far away from home. Sit on a bench, kick off your favorite ballerinas and think "How cute!" when she slips them on and stumbles off. When she stops to take them off and pour out the pee, don´t follow your reflex to hide and deny any relationship with your offspring. Just swallow your pride and disgust, put your shoes back on and squeak home.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Story River: Why We Write in the Dark

Last spring I attended an author's luncheon for my local library. I even helped organize it, which shows how much I love libraries, as fidgety as meetings and committees make me. One of the authors who spoke had won a Pulitzer and taught at a nearby college. She was eloquent and honest, and discussed why it was that, say, Philip Roth has published many books and she has only published two. She talked about teaching and children and life. "Novels grow in the dark," she said, a quote I wrote down and spend some spare moments musing over. When she said, though, that "I have not a regular relationship to the work, but a faithful relationship to the work," the distinction brought immense relief to my own writing life.

I get frustrated, often, with how long my work takes. It can take months for an essay to reach what I feel is completion, years sometimes for a story, perhaps because I am simply more practiced at nonfiction. When the final narrative finally emerges, and still feels whole and smooth even several months later, I know I'm done with it. And wish, repeatedly, that I could have just written it right the first time around. At which point the whole process starts over again with something new.

I carry drafts of essays and stories around with me all the time, as if they were children, or cats waiting to be taken to the vet. Sometimes I read over the first few pages and sigh, wondering how on earth I'm going to fix whatever is wrong with a piece that I know is essentially good. And then I put it back in my bag because I also know, instinctively, that I cannot push a piece, or force it to be done, or inflict endings and scenes it was never meant to have. It has to wait. Maybe it is gestating, or maybe the door to that particular piece is closed for the moment, and I have pay attention to see when it opens again.

I know by now that I am not really in charge of "my" work. The best work does not come from "I," but from some "other," some easy, flowing place where the story runs through like a stream or river or brook, depending on its nature. Maybe that's why it's so hard for a writer to capture it all at once. The story is moving, drifting, changing all the time, not sitting there like a written book ready to be picked up, or even a baby ready to be born.

Or maybe it is like a baby, a complete self at every moment of its life, as is any course of running water, but, also like a river or stream or creek or spring, is never the same being it was a moment before, changing at every instant. And yet, the watercourse or human being, while seeming to change, has a core of being-ness or completeness that all can sense, some unchanging purpose or existence that sits at the center of the joyful and wild ripples of change and life.

This is also true of a story. The attempts to catch it in its flow -- which for me can take years of repeated efforts -- are simply attempts to describe the story-river so completely as to come as close as possible to describing the core of it.

The goal, however, of a writer or human or artist or storyteller is not, in fact, to simply tell the central, unchanging truth, although that is what we feel we are reaching for. The core is not a story. It is simply a word, or a sense: truth, wrong, love, hurt, joy. These words describe the central essence of our works, and we wrap stories around them to help us make sense of them. To help us understand what we already instinctually know. Because every person, writer or reader, has their own river of truth, knowledge, and experience. Behind each of these are truths we all share, but the only way we can reach understanding of how close we are is to describe our rivers -- our stories -- to one another so fully that maybe another will recognize one of ours and say, "Yes, that is a lot like mine, my story."

There is a delicate balance between letting the story come through you (that which is true), and letting the "I," or the ego, manufacture it. With time and practice every writer learns to sense where he or she is writing from. And with time and practice, we learn that satisfaction in our work, "our" creations, come not from us, but from that other place that, like nature itself, gives its gifts freely -- if we're paying attention.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Theoretical Justice: Waiting in the Jury Pool

The small village courtroom, with "Village of Washingtonville, est. 1731" painted proudly behind the judge's counter, and the sound of traffic from just outside the door, is crowded with plumbers, students, an anxious defendant, and housewives like me. The counter holds a box of Kleenex and a plaque with the judge's name, and is the same counter at which other mothers and I elbowed each other last winter to sign our children up for the over-subscribed Toddling Toddlers program.

I feel sorry for the defendant already, and wonder what he's here for. A village court will hear cases only of minor driving misdemeanors and the like, but still he looks nervous. He's been sitting at his table for over an hour, shifting in a suit he's possibly unaccustomed to, and skating quick glances at the prospective jury pool as we enter from the front of the room with coffee, books, and Sudoku in hand.

The woman next to me has exhausted her entertainment, having filled out a popular culture crossword in the local paper. As time wears on she begins swearing quietly under her breath and snapping her chewing gum. I peer at what everyone else is reading, a very nosy and unshakable habit: Frank McCourt's Teacher Man, Black Justice in a White World, Anita Shreve's Lovely Bones, and my own Brother Cadfael mystery novel. I find the 12-century Benedictine monk's fictional life as good an investigation of true humanitarian justice as philosopher John Rawls's Theory of Justice, with Cadfael playing Rawls's own "impartial observer."

It's hard to tell what people are thinking in these situations, brought together for the purposes of dispensing justice. So many of them look bored, or annoyed, or resigned. A few, perhaps, grateful like me to have a few quiet minutes to read a book. It's such a rare thing, undisturbed time. And even I am distracted into annoyance by the juror form, on which it would not be acceptable to mark 'yes' to 'employed?' because 'mother' is not considered a profession -- it doesn't qualify me for Social Security, so it must not count, a perennial grievance of my own.

The choosing finally begins, the first round of possible jurors chosen from slips of paper in a plastic bucket. The judge points laughingly to the seven chairs against the wall as our "jury box, such as it is," but it's better than the proper jury stand in Boston, where I served several years ago. At least here we can see everyone. There, a huge pillar blocked the witness box and half the judge from sight.

Jet-lagged, exhausted, thinking of my son with his molars coming in and the vacation we returned from only at midnight, I half hope to go home soon, so of course my name is the third one called. Someone somewhere either likes me or hates me: the timing of this duty is unfortunate -- I could use about six more hours of sleep -- but the truth is I love jury duty. If I could choose it as a profession, I would be a juror for the rest of my life. The pull and play of evidence and justice, lawyers' desires to win and the jury's frustration with their incompetence and lack of information -- it can be addictive, not to mention the microcosm of human prejudices, frustrations, potentials, grievances, and faith in the system that erupt when you throw several strangers in a room together and tell them they can't go home until they come to mutual agreement on some aspect of a complete stranger's life.

I try not to glance at this stranger, the defendant, don't want to form pre-judgments, but I can't help it. He looks tired and harrassed, bleary-eyed and skittish, easily pegged as "alcoholic," but maybe he's had a sleepless night of panic. I want to study his face to see: Will I believe what he says? Will I trust him? But I resist.

This is a DWI case, they tell us, and the potentially lethal image of cars combined with drunkeness hangs before my eyes, with the quick indrawn breath as my mother's heart squeezes in panic. It's an instinctive reaction to imagining our children in danger.

One woman is excused to care for a very ill child, another makes it clear she views drinking and driving a sin that manifests itself mostly in the irritation caused by people speeding by her Main Street house late at night. She's taken out of the pool, too.

The judge covers challenges and moves on to "reasonable doubt" until we're sick of it. But he seems intelligent, and patient, and reminds me of a good doctor I used to have. The defense lawyer is red-faced, looking sweaty and less competent next to the Assistant District Attorney in her heels and friendly smile. He, the defense counsel, looks a lot like the prosecution in my last jury trial -- an unfortunate initial impression of used car salesman, except his eyes are wide and brown and honest and innocent, as if he should have been a toy maker.

They all think their questions to us will ensure justice, or as close to it as you can get and still be human. They nix the NYPD police sergeant and the woman who admits to having a previous DWI conviction, but keep the man who was once hit by a drunk driver, and another whose friend died while driving drunk.

"Will you let that affect your judgment?" the Assistant DA asks him. "Can you hear this case fairly?"

"Sure, yes," he says. All sorts of questions like this, with the same reassurances from us. But I wonder if these lawyers have ever been in a jury room. Once that door closes, the personal stories come out. That man's pain and conflicted feelings over his deceased friend will spill over into this present case, and we will hear repeated details about the destroyed soccer career of the one who was hit by a drunk driver.

Neither of them can help it. We all draw on our personal experiences as if they're ingredients in baking a cake, all those big events and trivialities combining to help us form judgments.

The defendant looks a bit like Jude Law from the side, but straight on more closely resembles a former neighbor of mine, a pharmaceutical salesman with three boys and, coincidentally, an alcoholic wife. Already I am battling the conflicting prejudices within me: if he's a nice guy who made a mistake, I want to let him off, rebuked but relieved; if he's a jerk, I want to judge against him because maybe he's the kind who will never stop drinking and driving without fear drilled into him.

All these impulses rise without any conscious thought, as does the instant dislike when his lawyer mentions while questioning us that his client drives a black Ford Explorer. There were several questions regarding our attitudes toward alcohol and drinking, but nobody thinks to ask whether I'll feel unkindly to someone for driving a gas-guzzling SUV. For that, I'll happily take his license and tell myself I'm saving the planet.

Defendants wonder, I've heard, why the prospective jurors don't look at them, won't meet their eyes. It's because we feel guilty. A smile, even quick and tight, might deliver too much hope. A blank stare might discourage them. If jurors feel at all -- and most of us do, those who are not simply bored or annoyed at being there -- we have already judged ourselves as guilty for presuming to pass judgment on others.

Finally, there are six of us and an alternate, gazing obediently toward the bench and not meeting the eyes of the lawyers or the defendant. A graphic designer, a saleswoman for a hotel chain, the owner of a pizza parlor, a male nurse, a nineteen-year-old student, a stay-at-home mom, and me, the mother/writer/traveler/humanist. Six of us have to agree at the end of today, or perhaps tomorrow, on what we've heard and seen and how we understand it, an effort made possible only by the flawed laws that guide us.

In this little village, one man will see his mistakes cast up against him, and we will hear his own efforts at vengeance or regret. It will never make even the most minor news headline, but for this man -- overworked father, partying ex-frat boy, emotionally scarred fireman, he could be any or none of these, I have no idea -- our decision, shaped by our opinions and prejudices, no matter how we try to ignore them, will headline the next arc of his life.

We are here. We will never be ready. Let the trial begin.