Friday, July 18, 2014

The Art of Disagreement and Art

While the Matron lives in fear of Harsh Word rendered upon her own writing, she is nonetheless deeply appreciative of  artful and intelligent critique.   The deft, heel-gouging that Astonish Me received in last week's New York Times Book Review so impressed her that she thought to share.   The essay is sharp at the sentence level, but notable for linking the novel's flaws to the larger difficulties of writing about a particular subject.   Astonish Me is about ballet.   The reviewer, Jennifer McDonald, faults the book for characters that too closely resemble fictional or real dance icons, resulting in precisely the soap opera sensibiltiy that too often trips up narratives about dance.   So not only does the reader learn about the successes (or in this case, failures) of a particular book, we learn about the challenges of a wider sort, the pitfalls and challenge that s dog an entire genre.

This reminded the Matron of the time she turned her own delicate hand to the task of an entire genre:  fiction and nonfiction books about anorexia.  Indeed!  She wrote an entire chapter of her dissertation on these narratives.  Largely, she felt (and still feels) that these fairly uninteresting and tediously similar books simply reproduce the ravages of disease -- the emaciated body and its bizaare behaviors -- and that's about it.  The reader's experience is  voyueristic; we watch  as pathology unfolds.   This empahsis on pathology--its specatcular presentation --  magnifies the line between the anorexic and everyone else.    Nothing like reading (over and over again) about behaviors like sucking on coffee grounds and chocolate chips from the garbage to make you feel pretty darn sane in comparison.   Then after all that detail on disease, these books inevitably end with a triumphant . .. . And Then I Got Better sentence or two.  The End.

This pattern has two troubling consequences.  First, there's that whole question of how one actually recovers.  This difficult, painful and highly personal part of the story may provide a roadmap or model for others, but that's not something we ever get.   For example, the crown jewel of this genre may be Marya Hornacher's Wasted, which spends nearly 300 pages on disease and ends on this note: "I want to write about how to Get Well, but I can’t. "      Here's the real waste -- the wisdom of one woman's journey and hard work, lost for the rest.   The dearth of anorexic recovery narratives (fiction or memoir) stands out among other depictions of disease.  No such shortage of 'recovery' narratives exist for those corking the bottle.  The newly sober will find legions sharing precisely that -- their recovery, tips and tools,  hard-learned lessons and experience.  Not so much for the anorexic.   She's left on her own -- right where she was in the first place.

The second part of the pattern that troubles is the line drawn between the 'disordered' eater and everybody else.  "Disease" is so spectacularly drawn  that the continuum between dangerous and normal  is rendered invisible.  In a culture where slenderness is deified, yet 35% of the adult population is obese, there is a sharp disconnect between ideal and  reality.  If -- as the Matron believes - the ideal of slenderness also holds within it discipline, health, and beauty - there are a whole lot of people perpetually, consistently disappointed, unable to hoist themselves up to the minimum bar of health, beauty, and discipline -- let alone their ideals.   Far easier to condemn the thinness of the anorexic as pathology than to ask larger questions about thinness and its pursuit.  

Of course when asking why America is fat (but doesn't want to be) also demands an interrogation of the economy, class, and food production but . . . well, that's another blog post.  But the Matron had to nod to Michael Pollan.  Because he's right.   If there is a serious critique of the 'anorexic literature' in the near future, the politics of food production and distribution must be considered.

The Matron, however, won't be writing that serious critique!!   No --she just temporarily hopped up on her own high horse for a few minutes, returned here thanks to a thoughtful and well-done book review.   Because artful and intelligent critique can do more than alert us to the pitfalls and foibles of a particular text, but hold up a mirror to some broader aspect of our lives, the larger culture.  She just loves it when that happens!  

'Astonish Me,' by Maggie Shipstead

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Matron and the Market

This is where yours truly is most at home -- her office.   Friends, this warm jewel of a room sits high above the city along the bluffs of the Mississippi River.  She and her dearest found the most fabulous of all fabulous homes in a neighborhood with a generally undesirable zip code.    But there are pockets of peace and prosperity in said zip code, and that's where they reside.   While the nature of online teaching and writing, generally, allow her to work in coffee shops and on-any-road, she is pretty darn happy in the homestead, working, writing or staring into the family calendar wishing she had a higher IQ or spreadsheet to figure out driving schedule.

Here is another comfortable domain:  the kitchen.   Some complexities and caveats exist here; while the Matron may be comfortable in the kitchen she is not necessarily consistently successful there.    Here is an attempt at a classic yellow cake with chocolate frosting -- and nobody bought it in a box, folks.   The Matron is a whiz with many things (spicy chicken wings, meats in general, veggies of all sorts) but she chugs along as a learner when it comes to baking.   Plus she makes a great big mess.   But the kitchen!  If the Matron isn't in her office, she's here.  Sometimes she brings her laptop to that very table and sort of runs the world from the kitchen.

Where the Matron is not yet very comfortable is in the land of commerce.   Now that she has a book to peddle, it would appear she is awash with uncertainty.

"You read the book?   OMIGOD I can't believe you READ THE BOOK!?   Should I pay you?"

"Oh no -- don't buy one!  Let me give you one!"

"Did it suck?"

"What are my hopes for the book?  Hmmm . . I guess that I don't embarrass myself??

The Matron's Emotional Intensity surrounding this project has surprised her.  She was unprepared.   Well, she was unprepared for the whole endeavor, but that was last week's blog post.   Still, when she learns that someone she considers a friend has not yet bought her book or appears to have no plans to do so, she doesn't shrug it off or think "he's not a reader" but instead, feels betrayed.

For the record, the Matron reads the books her friends write.  Or pretends to (a strategy that will work for friends who might be reading this without considering the book).

However, in the midst of this uncertainty and turmoil, she has made one key, important discovery.  The book itself, actually?  She just reread the whole darn thing -- first time in  years -- and had a few goose bump moments.   A few sentences sparkle and stand out, keepers.  The story has dimension, side-roads, strong characters.   It's a little simple, a little light.   It's not going to win any literary awards.

But those hopes for the book?  Realized.  She is decidedly not embarrassed by it.

So she's going to raise that bar higher and hope for more.  The Matron is going to work hard for that little book, even if it takes her out of the kitchen and the comfort zone.   Starting with:  if you have a blog and your'e reading this one, consider a Matronly guest post?  She's happy to come into your zone and pimp her book tell the sparkly, uplifting story of one son who published his mother's book.    If you're willing to host a guest or blog about the book yourself, let her know at mpetrie33 at gmail.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Matron Has News

Gentle Readers --

The Matron was just about to hoist up her support hose and roll that wheelchair into The Home.   Then something happened.


For quite some time, those dots connecting one Mary Petrie  with one Minnesota Matron have been flashing a neon, 1970s green:  she is here!  She is here!  She is here!    The Matron understands that it is indeed possible to keep one's identity more or less under wraps, but she was just never quite that careful.

Now she's just tossing the cat out of the bag.  Go.

But while they may be one and the same, Mary does not have permission to write on this blog:  the Matron lays claim to this creative space.   And one dutiful reader has put in a request. .. that yours truly reflect on -- no wait, make sense of, recent Supreme Court maneuvers.

It would appear that the Matron has a book to promote and a feminist health-care, human rights puzzle to unpack.    The latter would also involve understanding playground politics that we might call the Supreme Court.   Who's ball is it, anyway?    More on that later.

In the meantime, gentle reader, please know that the Matron has been wrung out.  Spent.  She has wept with joy and gratitude over her oldest.     And continues to do so.  That young man inquires about book sales daily.  He comes up with new marketing strategies.  Wonders how his mother is feeling.  Says things like "you deserve all the good things that come to you, Mom."

The Matron, who has not been slipping benzos into his soup, remains a limp loving Mama-noodle.  She is happy to wait on that young man child until he heads off to college.

Of course, the young children claim their gift-giving lives -- among other things - have been utterly ruined.   "Not to be outdone" is a phrase that now gives each pause.   Really?  How to outdo making a dream come true?   Merrick is working on it but it involves a dog, gun and stick.  The Matron is dubious.

All will unfold and she will dutifully report here.  In the meantime. . . . tell her you don't hate it after you read it.  Buy the book!   That was Kindle.  Here is old-fashioned print.

Friday, April 4, 2014

When All Else Fails, Laundry Metaphor

Yes -- the blog was lost in life's rinse cycle.   The Matron actually forgot that she had an online life, so out of breath was she, keeping up with the calendar.

But now, she reminds herself that when she returned to the blog, she relieved herself from narrative perfection.  In other words, sometimes it might be okay to just ramble or vent - instead of perfected prose.

The reasons last week was a bust?

First:  three children in three different schools.  That would be enough to fell any parent, all that driving and scheduling.  But in this household, it meant two children on Spring Break.   Ah!  Spring Break in Minnesota!!   This basically was all about 20 degrees and an equal amount of snow.   Today?   10 inches.      So the Matron is navigating the psychological terrain of the high school senior on a 'vacation,' which meant for him boatloads of homework and as many job hours as possible; she is trying to entertain an 11 year old whose best friends are all on holiday somewhere warmer; she continues to rise at 5:30 am with the 15 year old whose break doesn't align; and she still has that pesky full-time job (er, 'career').

Financial aid packages arrived this week for the eldest.  Look for more upcoming in College Chronicles, but in sum, it means hard, hard and painful choices.  The Matron has baked a lot of cookies.

Wednesday, a cement truck tied itself to the Matron's limbs.  Somewhere, the Universe said:  let's give up, honey. Rest.    There is nothing like the bona fide, horrific flu to make a person appreciate waking up in the morning.  Yours truly might be on the tail end.  This is day three.  There is no fever but that pesky cement truck remains anchored.    At the moment, she is mindlessly watching Captain Phillips with Merrick and dear husband, a hint of the future to come (older two out, out, out, and living their own lives).

So a note as Horton and his Who.  Not very active, but "we're here, we're here, we're here."

Friday, March 21, 2014


The Matron  totally love the slightly older, 30-years sober, apparently unemployed, single man who not only goes to yoga as obsessively as she does, but is equally obsessive about his "spot." 

So is she.

Sot there they are, side by side, in the front row -- nervous about securing positions and discussing the heat with passion and critique (will it be hot enough? too hot for you? ). They are picky, needy people together commiserating with desire not to be so and weaknesses. Older Yoga Guy knows that it can't be hot ENOUGH for yours truly and makes recommendations regarding teachers, studios, wardrobe.   The Matron  knows Older Yoga Guy is looking for a cute girlfriend (preferably with money because he has none) in her late 40s or 50s, has a bum knee and is not on Facebook but also know him well enough now to know he would not only be okay with reading this but would say "sounds about right."     Matron and Older Yoga Guy are both ALWAYS at yoga early due to that neurotic need for the same spot (now side by side). Today she  realized that she is  100% herself with him.

Older Yoga Guy: "Mary - -remember that essay I'm writing? The long piece? I'm going to send it to you. I'd love to hear what you think about it."

Matron: "OMIGOD! Don't send me your writing! That's like telling a lawyer friend you're going to email that tiny contract for fun. Do you know how many people find out I'm a writer and say "I will send you . . "

Older Yoga Guy: "I'm still going to send it to you. It's okay that you feel that way."

Matron: "But I have to read student papers all day long. It's my job and the most agonizing part of it. Don't send me your essay -- especially if it's long. LONG!"

Older Yoga Guy: "I'm still going to send it."

Matron: "I won't read it. I will hit 'delete' the minute I see an email with an attachment. Unread."

Older Yoga Guy:" "I'm still going to send it to you. Are we done now?"

Matron: "I'm not going to read it you know."

Older Yoga Guy: "Yup I pretty much got that message. But I'm still going to send it anyway. You know. How about that new guy in the corner? Bets on how he'll do in toe stand?"

And she  realized -- with alarm and certainty - -that she did indeed find Her People in that little yoga studio.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Actual Conversation

The Matron's youngest child does not excel in school.   He does not enjoy Book nor is he deft with Number. Indeed, Merrick resents both Book and Number if they are presented to him in that horror box called School.  School is acceptable for its social elements, and great good friends continue to abound there.   Much fun.  But getting down to business?  For this boy, learning comes from and means the body.

When Merrick was three, he was outside tooling about with a basketball.   The across-the-street neighbor just so happened to be the city of golf pro -- yes, a PGA bona fide member.   This neighbor marched across the street and grabbed the ball from the three-year-old.

Bona Fide PGA:   "Mary.  Pick one sport.  I don't care which one but I pray it's golf.   Let him play only that one and get him a coach.  Do it now.   I've watched this kid all summer and he's a million dollar bet."

Matron:  "He's three."

PGA:  "That's right."

You see, Merrick has un-matchable hand-eye coordination.  Think yours is good?  His is better.   This means he is good at tennis, golf, baseball, yo-yo, basketball, shooting guns, archery, and drumming.    He is now extremely good at tennis and drums, as these are the two places he's settled.

Note:  you can live on tennis and drums (with a dog and a gun) without really requiring Book or Number.

The Matron wishes this were the beginning of one type of story, the one in wise (proud!) parents nurture their child's clear gifts, even at the expense of developing others -- the story in which the lucky child (so recognized, so adored) embraces said gifts with determination and joy.

This is not that story.

Matron:  "Merrick did you practice your drums today?"

Merrick:  "Do I have to to?"

Matron:  "Merrick, it is time for tennis."

Merrick:  "Can I skip?"

So the child that the drum teacher declared a genius at lesson two and who is sending 17 year old tennis players scuttling away in shame . . . doesn't care.   There is not one driven, competitive bone in that beautiful body.

And so it was perhaps no surprise that during the car ride home from school, this actual conversation transpired:
Merrick: "Number three on my bucket list is to be in an Amazon bidding war for an item on sale."

Me: "OMIGOD. That's horrible!"

Merrick: "Why?"

Me: "Because first 11 is way too young to have a bucket list and second because it's mortifying that a bidding war-- fighting while shopping -- would be on it.. . .. and what are numbers 1 and 2?"

Merrick: "I don't know yet. But if it will make you happy, I can guarantee they will be equally meaningless."

But he's happy!   The Matron just wishes that truly was all that matters. . . . 

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

College Chronicles: Part IV

Readers may (correctly) remember that College Chronicles Part I recently appeared and that Parts II and III do not yet exist.

All true!

But today the Matron is jumping ahead.    It turns out that this is a non-linear narrative.  Buckle up!

A few weeks ago, yours truly was doing one of her fool-hardy brave winter runs, because when she's not complaining about the weather, she is frequently IN It.   In this case, running.  Not sure what that looks like in a Minnesota winter?    This actual list remains true although she has added plastic bags over her socks to the list.   Yes, it is all right to note this as one more type of crazy.

So she's bundled into her winter wardrobe and plugging away, music blasting through the ear-buds, but her mind - elsewhere.   During this particular jaunt, all she could think about was HWCBN and his college problems:  deadlines, applications, FAFSA, procrastination, letters of recommendation to organize.   There was just so much stuff to do!  Why, the Matron could barely wrap her brain around it or keep up with the paperwork or prod that procrastinating teenager along a wee bit faster . . . the whole darn thing was exhausting.

Such were the thoughts on the Matronly mind when this song, You Are Your Mother's Child, came trickling in through the ear-buds.   If you skipped that link, don't.   If you are a mother of a senior in high school (and maybe even mother of any age child) it is illegal to listen to that song without weeping.   Criminally illegal and probably not possible.

So the Matron had heard that song before but never really listened. . . this time she did.     And as that tremulous voice  whispered in her ear:  "you are your mother's child.   And she'll keep you for a while.  But someday you'll be grown.  And then you'll be on your own."  

She'll keep you for a while but then you'll be on your own.

Friends, until that moment, yours truly had not fully actualized, realized, appreciated that all the drama, hoopla and heart ache over the college application process meant that her BABY WAS LEAVING HER.   As in, HWCBN, that physical, intimate presence -- 17 years a constant in her life -- was packing his bags and exiting her stage.

This realization didn't just dawn on the Matron like "oh wow stryker is leaving" but instead nailed her to the ground and pounded her into the pavement.  Every word of that song sent new physical pain of loss pouring through her.  She burst into heaving, wet, gooping sobs that so destroyed her she could barely run.

Remember -- it is one million degrees below zero and she is outside, now wet with tears.   Stopping to catch one's breath or otherwise recover is not really an option.  So the Matron heaved and wept and howled herself home.   She did such a bad job of pulling herself together that an elderly woman driving by stopped to see if she needed help (true).

Her baby is leaving her.  Sniffle, sob, weep.   Exiting her stage to build his own.  And she will miss him.

March madness here means college decision month.  The letters or emails (yes and the no) should start in a few days. She's holding her breath and biting fingernails.  Yes-- happy for all the bright newness- life!- on his horizon.   But also just a little bit stunned by the impending departure.