I Hide My Chocolate

Midlife observations

Tag: A Room of One’s Own

Ten Books and One Musical


A List

Recently, one of my oldest childhood friends invited me and others from his Facebook community to share the ten books that have touched them over the course of their lives.  Ah, this is perfect for me!  I was an English major, I read a lot, and I love reflecting on what has affected me (and why) as well as what has affected others (and why).  There was just one problem.  I panicked at the instructions:  Don’t think!  (Really?  Don’t think? Impossible!) List 10 books that have impacted you.  Share your list and tag 10 friends to share theirs.

My reaction went something like this:

I can’t remember anything I’ve read except for Little Women and Nancy Drew.  Why can’t I remember anything I’ve read?  How do they remember what we read in high school?  I have no memory of those books.  My list is not nearly as interesting as their list.  There are only women authors on my list.  Aren’t there any books by men that I remember reading that had an impact on me?  Maybe I should Google lists of “important” books and pick some from there.  Share with others?  So revealing and embarrassing.  To hell with this, I am not participating.  Cue:  stomp off and hide.

It’s kind of like when a new friend or colleague asks you what your favorite movie is and the only thing you can come up with is a completely childish and uncool answer, like The Sound of Music (the original version with Julie Andrews).  I have actually burned answers to some of these generic ice-breaker questions into my brain so that I am no longer caught off guard.  I now answer the movie question with more recent movies that reflect more of who I am now and are more socially sophisticated (Wall-E, The King’s Speech and Gravity…oh and dare I admit it, Star Trek:  Into Darkness).

Why is it that all the books that come to mind are from my childhood?  It makes sense that we choose books, movies, and heroines from our childhood.  This is when a book we read really could and did affect the direction we pursued. 

The more troubling question that I kept pondering was why can’t I remember more?  Every explanation comes back to trauma and anxiety and the role it has played as an undercurrent in my life. 

I read voraciously as a child.  Especially in Summer when I was considered too shy and sensitive to go to camp.  Instead, I stayed home and read.  Not just The Secret of the Old Clock, but every single Nancy Drew mystery.  Not just Little Women, but every single book by Louisa May Alcott.  It was my escape and a way of learning about others.  Girls who took risks and survived adventures were my favorite (and still are).

I remember that at my loneliest, most anxious time in my teens and early 20’s, at the height of my disordered eating, I would eat alone and read while I ate.  One bite per paragraph.  That way the meal would last a long time and I wouldn’t have to face my lonely anxiety nor my gluttonous desire to fill the emptiness with food.  It is impossible to remember what you read if you are focused on what you are eating. 

Another important part of remembering is to document your thoughts, your stories, either by writing them down or saying them aloud, perhaps multiple times.   When anxiety felled me, I hid away.  Not participating in the world, choosing instead to live in my head.  I would say what I thought I should say, but not always what I really thought.  What’s the right answer that will get me the A?  It is impossible to remember what you read if you are focused on pleasing the teacher…or some other dominant authority figure.

I was always embarrassed about revealing what I was reading.  It was not cool.  It was not sophisticated.  Or maybe it was too sophisticated.  (Who reads all of Jane Austen at 16?  That’s just weird.)  It is impossible to remember what you read if you are focused on hiding it and not sharing what you are reading and what you think about it with anyone. 

I see this with my mother.  After multiple operations over the last 25 years to remove a benign but persistent growth on her vocal chords, she has nearly lost her voice.  Indeed, metaphorically, she has lost her voice.  Unable to speak, she no longer remembers her stories, the stories of her life.  The stories in the books she reads to pass the time.  I am convinced that she does not have dementia.  She simply does not use her memory muscles because she does not speak.  She cannot speak her truth.  Andperhaps we don’t listen for it.

Memory is funny, often elusive, and changeable depending on who is remembering, who is telling the story.  The anxious, less confident self may not reveal her memory, her story, her truth.  She may defer to the more confident – or at least the more dominant or authoritative person who does speak.  For me, it has taken my writing and the increasingly less tentative telling of my stories and the expression of my thoughts to reduce my anxiety and make concrete my memories. 

Of course, perhaps the most helpful tool for finding my voice has been to be less focused on me, less judgmental of me, and more open to others.  Who cares if my list is not “right?”  So, even though I had to dig deep, here is a list (not necessarily THE list – that is too intimidating a requirement) but a list of 10 books that have had an impact on my life.

    1. Winnie-the-Pooh, by A. A. Milne.  My mother read the Pooh books aloud to me many times, inspiring a life-long love of reading and writing and sharing.  I felt very close to her.
    2. Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott.  This book seems so quaint and dated to me now, but I lost myself in it every time I read it.  Jo March showed me that girls could overcome their constraints.
    3. Nancy Drew mysteries (all of them), by “Carolyn Keene.”  Feisty, brave, smart Nancy was my heroine.
    4. The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank.  This introduction to the Holocaust and evil remains unbelievable and compelling.
    5. Mastering the Art of French Cooking, by Julia Child.  Julia Child inspired me that dinner could be more than eating chicken and potatoes in 10 minutes at the counter.
    6. A Chorus Line, book by James Kirkwood, Jr and Nicholas Dante.  Music by Marvin Hamlisch and Lyrics by Edward Kleban.  A musical, not a book, that moved me profoundly and set my course in the dance direction for better or worse for decades.
    7. The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood.  Transfixing terror.  I couldn’t put it down.  Perhaps the heroine’s name, Of-fred, was part of the fascination.
    8. A Room of One’s Own, by Virginia Woolf.  Still an amazing feminist manifesto.
    9. The House of the Spirits, by Isabel Allende.  Passionate and magical.
    10. Meditations from the Mat, by Rolf Gates.  This book changed my life, expanding my appreciation of yoga and setting me firmly on my yoga journey.
    11. Where’d You Go Bernadette?, by Maria Semple.  The first book of grown-up fiction I’ve read in years with a wonderful plot, heroine, and funny literary devices for telling the story.  It made me wonder where I went.   And to be happy that I’ve found myself.  And interested in fiction again after decades of reading nonfiction and business-oriented books.

What am I reading now?  I just finished Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins, the third and final installment of The Hunger Games Trilogy.  My daughter turned me on to the series and I found it to be a page-turning suspenseful dystopian story with a strong heroine.  My analytical engineer of a husband gave me a book on Reiki for Christmas.  Hmmm, is this a sign?  This energy stuff has always seemed like a bit of crazy hokum to me, but I am open to exploring it right now.  And impressed with his thoughtful gift-giving.  The other book that is on my nightstand is Wave, by Sonali Deraniyagala – the searing memoir by a woman who lost everyone she loved in the 2004 Tsunami.  Why I would want to read such a painful book?  I am drawn to stories of survival, women’s survival.  These stories remind me of what we are capable of, what matters most.  And, after all, I am a survivor.  We all are.

I Know Where The Girls Are

big bang theory

Proud To Be A Nerd?  Shhh, Don’t Tell Anyone.

I am a nerd.  I am the daughter of nerds.  I am married to a nerd.  A nerd is one who probes an esoteric subject deeply and values quiet alone time to pursue intellectual endeavors over social, athletic, or more popular mainstream pursuits.  The derogatory interpretation of a nerd is someone who is on the fringe, socially, and who is athletically inept.  With the rise of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and The Big Bang Theory, nerds everywhere have come out of the woodwork proclaiming their virtues with pride.

Along with the upward trending of nerdiness, there has been a significant increase in girls excelling at math and science.  Natalie Angier reports that girls now make up an equal percentage of applicants to a math/science magnet school and nearly an equal percentage of girls get accepted into the program.  This is fantastic progress!  BUT, a much lower percentage of the accepted girls actually attend than of the accepted boys – thus perpetuating the disparity between girls and boys who pursue an academic program and later a professional career in math and science.

Angier and many others wonder why, despite their clear aptitude for and interest in math, more girls don’t continue along the math and science path.  Really, this is a mystery?  I know where the girls are.  They are socializing.  (As they should be!)  When the social pressures kick in to high gear in the teen years, the girls are busy sorting through how to be young women.  They want to fit in.  While they remain smart and ambitious, their interests expand.  Girls tend to be equally good at “verbal” subjects as they are at math and science and frequently gravitate toward paths that overtly help people, like healthcare and education.

To fit in, there is much more encouragement for girls and pressure on girls to be attractive and social.  It takes a lot of time and money to learn how to do this well.  You have to be connected into popular culture, watching television, videos, the internet.  You have to shop and experiment with your look.  You have to hang with your friends, either in person or virtually.  Being social significantly cuts into the 10,000 hours it takes to become great at a subject or activity.

There is much more prestige accrued to a girl for being attractive and likeable than for being a math nerd.  Indeed, a female math nerd still is likely to be looked on as an anomaly.  She may be liked and respected more than in my generation, but she is still a bit weird.  Just look at Amy on The Big Bang Theory.  Who would you rather be:  nerdy awkward Amy or sexy funny Penny?  Exactly.  Even Amy wants Penny.

My father was a physicist and I did everything I could to feign disinterest and lack of aptitude.  The math and science teachers in my day were beyond boring and dry and there was absolutely nothing cool about continuing with math and science.  So I didn’t.  Even though I was good at math and science, it was easy to follow a different path.  I was a reader and a writer and became an English major.  It wasn’t until I took Calculus for non-math majors in college with an electrifying professor who made math fun and relevant that I wondered if maybe I hadn’t been snookered down the wrong rabbit hole.  I would have been a wonderful scientist.  Quiet, patient, creative, and insightful.  (Ah, the path not taken.)  Even my mother, a scientist, discouraged me from a scientific career, arguing that it was hard to balance family while running experiments.  Well, it’s hard to balance family with any demanding career.  Sadly.

My daughter is a nerd.  She excels at math and science.  Her father is an engineer.  We have championed her interest in math and science.  She had a terrific female math teacher in 8th grade who was a wonderful role model and her Physics teachers are young and hip.  She likes Physics!  Can you believe it?  Physics!  Her math teacher wants her to take a computer programming course.  Yes!  Go for it girl!

She has dutifully started the groundwork for the college application process, declaring her interest in a math major.  Recently, however, she whispered to me, “But Mom, what I really want to be when I grow up is Guiliana Rancic.  How does being a math major prepare me for that career?”  How indeed?  I swallowed my gut reaction, “Stop watching stupid fucking television!”  and tried to put myself in her shoes.  Guiliana is adorable, if too thin (geesh there I go with the weight judgement again), and she has a great job.  Hey, I want to be Guiliana.  Why wouldn’t my 17-year-old want her job?

How do I convey to her that there is only one Guiliana and that there are many intriguing and challenging opportunities in math and science?  How do I tell her that as a journalism and communications major, she’ll be one of a bazillion girls who wants a job in fashion, entertainment, and media?  How do I convince her that she’ll make more money and have more professional prestige in math and science?  How do I reassure her that she will be more likely to meet an intelligent and respectful partner who values her intellectual capabilities and her personality, as well as her beauty?  How do I encourage her to see the potential to help many people in a meaningful scientific career?  How do I help her identify her dreams and realize them in a rewarding way?

In spite of the tremendous strides women have made and society has made in embracing and celebrating women, their interests and their achievements, I believe that women still need money and a room of their own to be freer from chores and to have the space and quiet, the support and security, to pursue their intellectual ambitions.  To be proud nerds.  As long as popular culture glamorizes fashionistas and housewives instead of mathletes and scientistas, we will all be shortchanged.

Photo is from a fansite for The Big Bang Theory.

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