Saturday, January 17, 2015

(Soon-to-be) Missing Person?

Our family made royal with Christmas cracker crowns
Our older son is twelve right now.  Those who know him would describe him as sweet and smart and funny and knowledgeable and really, really engaged with whatever he's doing.  From following sports teams to playing sports and games to school and church groups, he places himself right in the middle of everything.  With peers, he's game for adventure and doing what interests others.  With younger kids, he's like a junior counselor.  In adult conversation, he's like that precocious youngster calling in to a talk radio show.  He, of course, has called in to sports talk radio, voicing opinions about the Pirates and Steelers. 

Two of his cousins are roughly a year older.  We benefit greatly as parents by having them preview coming stages; we're grateful to our siblings for that.  Our niece and nephew are fun and interesting kids, but still, when I get to observe them right now, I get scared.  They're not rebellious or disrespectful. (Perhaps their parents will disagree in the comments).  On recent visits, though, they've made themselves so absent from the family.  That's what scares me.  

At a family reunion last fall, I would wonder where Riley was when the adults and younger cousins clustered together.  Nearly always, she was in a corner of the basement with headphones in.  My parents report that she was napping through much of their Christmas visit, awakening only to play Ticket to Ride.  She so dominates every game of Ticket to Ride, actually, that one time they let her sleep through a game so someone else could win.  

On our beach vacation last summer, Trevor slept in very impressively.  He committed to a long morning in a way that required poking him with a stick around 11:30 just, you know, to make sure....   I saw the same thing happen for several years with our only child neighbor boy across the street.  We have summer happy hours, and when they first started, he would come with his parents.  Bit by bit, he would come with them and leave early, or he would "be coming over in a minute" when they arrived.  Eventually, he just didn't come.

I don't fault these young people, and I'll try not to fault Charlie when and if he follows in their footsteps.  I remember it.  In growing up, we can feel awfully different from how we felt just a short time before.  We can feel awfully different from those around us; no longer quite so keen to hang out with smaller kids but also nowhere near at home among adults either.  We need space to figure ourselves out on our own.  While I'll try not to fault Charlie, that can't change the fact that I'll grieve his absence.  In addition to loving the boy, I really like him, and I like his contributions to groups and events.  I'm going to miss him.

In the end, the adolescent's eventual launch likely explains the hermit hours.  In order to flee the nest, he must create a little space within it that he gets to occupy by himself.  Although I might wish for myself that Charlie will go on relating to us the exact same way, I have no right to wish that for his sake

I always tell parents of younger children that each phase of parenting has become my favorite phase.  The teenage years likely break that pattern, and they're bearing down on us like a freight train.  I'm actively savoring Charlie's continued sweetness, relative innocence, affection and involvement.  It feels tenuous and precarious, poised to vanish at any moment.  I take some solace in believing that it won't vanish all at once but rather ebb away in fits and starts.  But still, I expect and fear that we'll look up one day and register that these qualities have vanished altogether.

When envisioning that dark moment, I think again of the neighbor boy.  Now absent for real, off at his freshman year of college on the west coast.  It's true that he's gone, but I saw something wonderful happen before he left.  He came back.  In his final summer at home after high school, he brought his polite and interesting high school girlfriend to happy hour on the street.  They engaged in conversation with people years and decades older than themselves on a different footing than before he'd disappeared from our community life as a young teen.  Young adults in the true sense of the phrase.  I wish Charlie the child didn't have to start disappearing - literally - from the scene, but that may be the only honest path.  That will allow him to come back and then, both sadly and happily, to truly leave.

Meta Post: Getting On Topic

If I made a New Year's resolution, it was to bring Competent Parent closer to its prior ratio of parenting posts to random posts.  I used to be very careful to not go off the topic of parenting, but then it was just so much fun that I couldn't help myself.  I don't promise not to post off-topic, but I am going to try to focus more on pumping out some parenting posts more regularly.  So the next two posts - that's all I can commit to right now - will focus on parenting like in the good old days.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Books of '14: Recommendations

 Having told you what not to read, I now share the highlights of a year in which I liked way more books than I disliked.

Best of the Year: History

Servants; A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times, Lucy Lethbridge, 2013

This book was likely published now by a mainstream publisher because of the popularity of Downton Abbey.  Absent that, it might be purely an academic book.  It's very carefully researched and well-written.  The careful research is impressive because of the paucity of source material about servant life.  Lethbridge knits together excerpts of journals and letters from servants and the people who employed them, journalistic coverage of changes in "service" and fictional accounts of servants and their employers.  She writes about service in both large country estates and in the growing middle class.  When my Competent Wife saw this book, she said "Oh boy.  I'm going to be hearing a lot about servants for the next few weeks."  She, as is so often the case, was completely correct.  I tried only to share the choicest morsels or to give an overview to how world events affected service.  In reading Servants, I learned about the stigma on the profession compared to the independence of, say, factory or office work.  The book confirmed something I might have vaguely guessed, which was that the servant class was dominated enormously by women, our images of the butler and valet notwithstanding.  The World Wars created both temporary and permanent changes to the arrangements of this kind of employment.  Although we think of servants in big Downton-like houses, the vast majority of service took the form of a single maid-of-all-work serving a middle class family in their home, either living in or working just for the day.  It's worth reading and quite interesting.  One note about the form: because Lethbridge is knitting together a larger story from scraps of primary material, the pattern of the writing can get a bit monotonous - setup of point, scrap or two of quoted text to support the point, on to the next point.  She quotes from the same sources in different places, but there are enough sources that there's no through line on any of the numerous narratives from which she plucks.  No doubt, this is a very accurate portrayal, but it made me long for the novelistic comprehensiveness of Downton or even a P.G. Wodehouse novel.

Best of the Year: Essays

How to Be Black, Baratunde Thurston, 2013

Although I had heard Baratunde Thurston on Fresh Air, it didn't register that he'd written a memoir in the form of a parody self-help book called How to Be Black.  I happened upon the book at the library on a "staff picks" shelf.  I'm really glad I picked it up.  Thurston, the online editor of The Onion, is very funny and brings social commentary in the most delightful way here.  In chapters like "How to be the Black Friend" and "How to be the Black Employee," he delves into the current and recent state of race relations in our country with acute observation, warmth and heaps of humor.  In addition to his own thoughts and experiences, he assembles a panel of black comedians, performers and writers (as well as Christian Lander of Stuff White People Like fame) to weigh in with their own insights.  An enjoyable read that made me think a lot and taught me some things about the black experience that I didn't know.  Reading this at the beginning of 2014 turned out to be significant timing.  The events of 2014 proved to be tragic for black men especially.  In 2014, I also took in Dear White People, which frankly was not as cogent or straightforward as How to Be Black.

Best of the Year: Fiction

A tie.

Transatlantic, Colum McCann, 2013

Despite my aversion to hype, I sometimes have to give it its props.  There was a lot of hype around Colum McCann's novel TransAtlantic.  I felt like I heard about it from every quarter for a while.  I believe the first time I requested it from the library, the wait was outlandish.  But since my library buys up tons of copies of bestsellers, no matter how hard it is to get this year's best seller, it's always quite easy to get last year's bestseller.  Having managed to get a copy in time for our beach week, I didn't read it at the beach.  I was finishing a book and a little more interested in another novel I'd brought along - my anti-hype stance kicking in, perhaps.  Thanks to a little summer insomnia and the amazing quality of McCann's writing, I read this book in a week at home.  I can't remember the last time I read a book start to finish in a week at home.  Having read Steph Cha's noir mystery Follow Her Home on vacation - a book in which Cha - as a math teacher would say - "shows her work" in every sentence, I appreciated McCann's reliance on simple language to provide thorough description.  I just opened the book at random and found the first paragraph my eyes settled upon.  Here it is:  "Lily did not know what to say.  She reached out and touched the framed edge of the painting.  Looking into it was like looking out another window.  Clouds.  Fast water.  Geese gunneling through the sky."  It feels like one of those writing exercises in which one is challenged to write with only single-syllable words.  Except the result is perfect.  They're not all one syllable words, obviously; having maintained the reader's attention with straightforward language through the whole paragraph, McCann opens up space to use the specific and rare verb "gunneling".  And the whole book feels that perfectly weighted.

What's it about?  Oh, yeah, three historical trips across the Atlantic form the backbone of the novel.  In the mid-nineteenth century, Frederick Douglass, being an ambiguously free escaped slave in the US traveled to Ireland for a speaking tour among those sympathetic to abolitionism and to buy his freedom.  Just after World War I, flight had advanced to the point that venture capitalists challenged pilots to fly across the Atlantic.  The novel embroiders what history tells us about one such attempt and what McCann thinks happened outside of the known history.  Finally, and most improbably, McCann includes a trip by George Mitchell (or rather three years of trips) to broker peace between Ireland and Northern Ireland in the 1990s.  It doesn't even sound like that good a setup for a novel, frankly.  In lesser hands, it would be hackneyed and tiresome.  In McCann's hands, it's page-turning bliss.

The Interestings, Meg Wollitzer, 2013

The Interestings is the most amazing novel I've read in a long time.  I raved to people all through the end of 2014 about it.  Although I'd heard Meg Wollitzer interviewed before and was aware of her Ten Year Nap, I'd never read anything by her before.  The Interestings tells the story of six teenagers who gather at an arts camp in the 70s.  They somewhat ironically dub themselves "The Interestings".  The novel then goes on to tell their stories and the paths they take after that summer all the way into middle age.  With all of them being artistic, creative types, the path to the future is not clear.  Who will follow their art and live it out?  Who will make different decisions?  Wollitzer writes in an understated fashion that lets the characters come through.  She deftly drops little foreshadowing bread crumbs that pull the reader along in a plot that does not disappoint.  Time, especially, early on in the novel follows an anything-but-linear path.  I read an interview after reading the book that cited the -Up movies (7-Up, 14-Up...) as a point of inspiration.  The comparison I made before reading that was to John Updike's Rabbit novels.  It's fascinating to follow these characters over such a long arc of time and life.  As the novel came to a close, I didn't want to finish it because I would mourn the chance to spend time with the characters and see what they were up to.  At over 450 pages, it's substantial.  Still, I read the last 12 pages in three sittings, delaying the inevitable.  I may be at the perfect age to read this book.  Two late thirties/forty-something friends and I had a conference call book club to discuss it.  In fact, I owe Catherine Christopher a great debt of gratitude for pointing me to this book in a facebook discussion in which she asked *me* for book recommendations.  She and Angelique Bamberg and I had a terrific conversation about it that only enhanced the reading experience. 

Also Recommended
These books were also good-to-wonderful but shouldn't share the spotlight with those above:

Where Nobody Knows your Name; Life in the Minor Leagues of Baseball, John Feinstein, 2014
Sutton, J.R. Moehringer, 2012
Ninety Percent of Everything; Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry that puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in your Car and Food on Your Plate, Rose George, 2013
Fire and Firget; Short Stories from a Long War, Roy Scranton and Matt Gallagher, Eds., 2013
Heart of a Samurai, Margi Preus, 2010
The Orphan Master's Son, Adam Johnson, 2012
I Never Met a Story I Didn't Like; Mostly True Tall Tales, Todd Snider, 2014

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Books of '14: Anti-Recomendations

Because I have always preferred saving the best for last, I will start my annual book review summary with the books I hated.  While the pending recommendations post directs you dear readers to good books, this post serves a higher public purpose.  We are all too busy to read bad books.  I wish someone had warded me away from these.  Unfortunately, I learned a lesson the hard way this year: never trust my alumni magazine's book snippets.  Just because the author had the same impeccable taste in institutions as yours truly doesn't mean she or he can write.

Last year, I abandoned a book by a fellow Yalie, so I really should have learned my lesson.  This year, I found a book by a non-Yalie so demanding that I threw in the towel.  I only heard of Doris Lessing when she died at the end of 2013.  Early in 2014, I attempted to read her 600-plus page masterwork The Golden Notebook.  Alas, after I had it from the library so long that I had to return it, I couldn't muster the guts to go back.  The plot at times compelled me, but the story was dense and paced for another time.  An early look at feminism in literature, it was clearly an important milestone.  From the lack of popular success Doris Lessing had, though, this book clearly didn't succeed in the '60s either.   RIP, Ms. Lessing.  I will never know completely what the hype was about. 

In short, I'm a book snob, so I can't bear to waste my time on trash literature.  On the other hand, as intellectuals go, I'm pretty lightweight, so I fold in the face of serious demands.

Worst of the Year: Fiction

A tie.

Follow Her Home, Steph Cha, 2013

Steph Cha graduated from Yale Law School and, as such, got her first novel reviewed in the Yale Alumni Magazine.  She loves Raymond Chandler's novels, and she refers incessantly to him and to his detective hero Philip Marlowe.  I probably shouldn't even review her book without knowing more about Chandler's novels.  I know that LA Noir is a thing, and this is a self-consciously noir novel.  An interesting twist is that Cha, a Korean-American woman, incorporates Korean-American women into her plot as more than femmes fatales or victims.  They play integral roles, including the amateur sleuth protagonist, and relate to others as sisters, daughters, mothers, friends and lovers.  But back to whether I should review a noir debut with little knowledge of the genre.  To my eye untrained by the genre, this book is ridiculously overwritten.  Sentences are jammed with texture.  No simple verb is used when a more descriptive one can be substituted.  This is clearly part of a style tradition into which Cha is determined to fit, but it can make the reader feel starved for air.  An example pulled relatively at random:  "Her long, dark eyes squinted as her wide red mouth gaped with silver laughter.  Loose curls dyed a toasted honey brown fell past her shoulders, ends trembling on a modest bosom.  She crinkled a nose that could hide behind a penny.  One crooked incisor poked just a couple millimeters ahead of her front teeth - this would be her moneymaker, the Cheshire detail, the bite mark in your memory."  Oh and the (apparently Chandleresque but reachingly so) similes:  "My tongue felt like a dead oyster in my mouth and my voice passed through the thick sieve of air around my ears like piano music smothered by a stuck pedal."  It's a mystery, and it's gripping.  I read it at the beach and despite its overwritten nature, I had no hope of putting it down.  Cha structures two loosely interwoven plots that keep a reader in suspense effectively.  But it's a guilty pleasure; I'm not proud to record that I read it.  One interesting note about the library copy I read: it had a child's crayon scribbles in the front and back endpapers and at random throughout the pages.  Child's scribbles felt very incongruous with the dark and violent noir world Cha creates and hopes to join in this novel. 

Orphan Train, Christina Baker Kline, 2013

I read about this novel in the Yale Alumni Magazine Orphan Train was better than Follow her Home by a scoonch but was awfully predictable.  The orphan train was a real thing, in which 200,000 city kids (mostly New York City, or kids who ended up there) were shipped to the midwest between 1854 and 1929 to farm and shop families that needed an extra hand.  Baker Kline writes the story of one of those orphans, unfolding it through a budding relationship to a modern day foster kid.  Their paths inevitably cross.  Zzzzzz.  Baker Kline's sentences are fine, and that's not a given in a novel as evidenced by Steph Cha's.  Baker Kline's chapters, however, fail to surprise.

Worst of the Year: Non-Fiction

The Breaks of the Game, David Halberstam, 1981

Bill Simmons calls this one of the best sports books of all time, so I felt I had to read it. 
Because I like Simmons, Halberstam and the NBA, it pains me to say I didn't like it.  Although Halberstam did an incredibly exhaustive research job, authors have learned in the last 33 years what stays in the notebook and what makes it to the book.  The print and margins are very small, and the narrative is super-dense.  Halberstam may have established the modern sports book with Breaks of the Game.  

Oh yeah, it's about the Portland Trailblazers 1979-80 season, two years removed from their meteoric championship year.  Although he traveled with the team that year and covers that season in particular, a reporter only showed interested in that season because of the two that had gone before, in which Portland stormed to a championship and then stormed to 50-10 the next year before Bill Walton's feet betrayed him and the team.  So Halberstam covers those seasons as well as the transformation occurring in professional basketball throughout the 70s - the ABA, college basketball getting better TV coverage, the beginning of eye-popping salaries.  Of course, the salaries would not pop any eyes today; some of the "what's happened to this humble game?" stuff comes off as rather quaint from this distance.  He also reaches up and down the ranks of the organization from the owner to the execs to the scouts and coaches to the nascent union and the players' wives.  Halberstam worked his butt off for this book, and I learned things I didn't know and was sometimes gripped.  By the end, however, it felt like work to finish it.  I'm glad I did, but I can't in good conscience recommend it to anyone who's not a hoops junkie goner. 

Also Not Recommended

I don't want to bore you, but I do want to save you disappointment.  Ask in the comments if you want to know more about why I disliked these titles.
Straight Man, Richard Russo, 1997  
The Gods of Guilt, Michael Connelly, 2013
The Spies of Warsaw, Alan Furst, 2008

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Dear Readers

Oh, hey there readers.  Thanks for stopping by over 40,000 times.  Thank you especially to those who have left comments.


Sunday, December 14, 2014

Overheard Outtakes 2014

Those who get our Christmas letter will know that we include funny quotes from the boys
also rejected for the family Christmas card
during the year.  We capture more than we can use.  We used to have a lot we couldn't use; this year, three quotes made the draft stage but failed to make the final cut.  I present them here for your amusement:

C: The [Star Wars animated] Rebels episodes are only 3 minutes long because they haven’t aired yet, according to the red-headed kid at Toys ‘R Us.

After a Little League game:
J: Who won?
T: We did.  We’re undefeatable.

To Teddy during a dispute while playing:
C: When you grow up, if you throw something at someone, you could go to jail.  If you throw scissors at someone, you’ll get a three-day suspension.”

Friday, December 12, 2014

Kitchen Item Review: Pizza Steel

On the final day of Kitchen Item Review Week, I bring you the Pizza Steel.  Like many good things in life, we have King Arthur Flour to thank for this one.  They didn't invent the pizza steel, but they got behind it and have sold it in their catalog.  My Competent Wife gave me a pizza steel as my big birthday present this year.  To hit the basics: yes, it's like a pizza stone, but it's made of heavy gauge 1/4" steel instead.  Also, the people who make it call it a baking steel, but it's highest calling in life is pizza, so that's what I call it.  The guy who created my version works for a garden variety modern company but also really loves pizza and had pursued the perfect crust.  Eccentric and overly-fussy Nathan Myhrvold posited that hot steel would be the best thing to bake pizza on, and our regular Joe went out to the plant to test the theory.

first effort with the steel
We briefly owned a pizza stone, and it impressed me by feeling heavy and cumbersome and fragile all at the same time.  The steel is heavy but feels easier to wield and far less fragile.  I can't think of many things that are less fragile.  Slide this baby in the oven and preheat, and you essentially create the bottom of a pizza oven right there on your rack.  The crust turns out fantastic, but I'm really pleased about the cheese.  I've never been able to get my pizza cheese browned like the pros do, and it turns out what I have been lacking is massive heat from below.  Who knew?  An interesting point for home pizza bakers: traditionally, I've baked pizza as low in my oven as possible.  The Steel instructs you to put it on a high rack, creating a small hot box in which your pizza bakes.  I really do think of it as sectioning off a portion of my oven as a pizza oven.

Competent Wife would like me to inform you that once I got the steel, I also needed a

pizza peel for the first time.  You bake right on this puppy, and it gets mucho hot in a 500-degree oven.  [Parenthetical to Pittsburgh foodies: I bought a peel at In the Kitchen in the Strip before walking down to Pennsylvania Macaroni Company and finding a 90% identical peel for half the price.  I marched right back and returned the more expensive one.  Save yourself the trouble; start at Penn Mac.]  

She would also like me to mention the pizza-specific cutting board I have purchased but not yet used.  [That came off the half-price rack at In the Kitchen.]  These accessory purchases are not as ridiculous as they sound.  I'm fond of the flesh on my fingers and therefore needed the peel.  We've traditionally made pizza on a pan (aluminum, I assume) on which we could cut it.  When you bake right on the steel, the pizza a) is not necessarily completely round - I assemble it on the peel now and b) needs to be cut somewhere.  We don't actually own a cutting board completely big enough, so I bought a cutting board with slicing guide grooves and a nifty rack to keep it off the table.  Completely necessary and sane.  I have not yet used it.

If I have one complaint about the steel, it's that owning one makes me want to own two, so I can bake two pies at a time for my growing family.  But that's insane.  Until my next birthday, anyway.