Going Gray: What I Learned About…

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Going Gray: What I Learned About Beauty,Sex, Work, Motherhood, Authenticity and Everything Else That Really Matters, by Anne Kreamer. Originally published in 2007. 224 pages.

This is another one of those books which caught my eye as I was perusing the library shelves. I almost left it there because it would probably be best to finish the stack of books in the queue before adding another one to it. However, since the topic is one that interests me for a number of reasons, I picked it up. I’m glad I checked it out. Despite the fact that it started to go off point at about the half way mark, the first half was worth the time I spent reading it.

Kreamer started out with an excellent premise after being taken aback a bit by a photo of her 49-year-old self with her dyed brown hair. She wondered about the authenticity of the choice she’d made many years earlier to start dyeing her hair, since she began to gray a little earlier than usual. This epiphany of sorts led her not only to begin the process of letting her gray hair grow in uncolored, but also on an exploration of the how’s, why’s, and wherefore’s of a culture where 2/3 of women over aged 40 dye our hair.

I color my hair as well, but just as my greater journey towards health led me to stop chemically straightening my hair, I have recently begun to wonder if I should stop coloring it also. I haven’t gotten off the bottle yet, but the urge to do so is getting stronger and stronger the healthier and stronger my body becomes.

The best parts of this book are to be found in the first 100 pages. Kreamer starts with the day she embarked on her journey, and then transitions into the history of events which have gotten us to where we are today. She explores the beginnings of the cosmetic and chemical “advances” that put hair coloring within the reach of average women:

Three or four decades after the baby boomers’ countercultural transformation of the culture, we have held on to the hedonistic forever young part of our Woodstock dreams much more tenaciously than the -open-and-honest-and-authentic part. p. 38

She continues:

Our present era of mainstreamed artificial hair color began in the 1950s and 60s. But the tipping point came, I believe, during the 1980s–when the oldest baby boomers entered middle age and the grand illusion of permanent physical youthfulness really became widespread and almost obligatory. I don’t think it’s coincidence that Ronald Reagan, a man with *impossibly black hair in his seventies (as well as glowing, ruddy skin) blithely and belovedly presided over the country during that decade. p.39

She touches on the technological advances in mass media that give average women hope that they can look youthful until the day they breather their last. She uses her Hollywood insider contacts to get the take of those whose livelihoods depend on appearances. She interviews many friends, acquaintances, and relatives of all ages to get a read on the thoughts, fears, and motivations which compel them to color (or in a few cases NOT color) their hair. The passionate engagement she documents-on both sides of the issue- serve to reveal the emotion bubbling beneath the surface on the topic of our hair, aging, and what our hair represents as we age.

Most of the women I talked to for this book admitted that their number one anxiety about letting their hair go gray was not a fear about how quickly they were closing in on their actuarial death dates–rather, it was that they’d instantly be seen as sexless, grandmotherly old ladies.

There’s an entire litany of responses I could offer up to that quote, but this is a book review. It was this part of the book where Kreamer goes off on a weird tangent which I found unnecessary for a woman happily married for more than two decades, whose children are all grown up. I appreciate that there are many women who approach their 40s in relationship situations far less idyllic than myself or Mrs. Kreamer, but her foray into the bar scene and onto Match.com left me cold. I didn’t see the point and because of it I found those parts of the book less satisfying as it moved forward.

Near the end of the book, Kreamer delves more into the practical realities for those women ready to take the plunge and dump the dye. She talks about appropriate clothing, colors, and the wardrobe overhaul necessary so that she didn’t in fact, look like a grandmother. The end of the book, like the beginning, was far better than the middle. She also delves a it into  how gray hair is viewed in the professional realm.

Overall, because of the subject matter and historical context, I enjoyed the book. It isn’t a grand slam, but it was enjoyable enough, and written in a conversational tone which enabled me to read it in two days. I am not a fast reader, so that’s saying something.

On a personal note, it was a good and revelatory experience for me to embrace the truth that the coloring of my hair is an exercise in sleight of hand. Because I have the ethnic advantage of wrinkling late while spending the majority of my time during the week with people of different ethnicities, there is a certain boost that comes with hearing, “You don’t look that old!” Letting the gray come in might certainly interfere with that vain enjoyment. I’ve gotten into the habit of enjoying photographs which remind me that we are simply not the 40-something women of our grandmother’s generation, for better or for worse:

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That’s my personal take on my journey to embracing the skin I am in. As for the book, I give it a grade of C.

Content advisory: Frank talk about sexuality, including two or three bits of profanity from interviews Kreamer conducted.

*My 92-year-old grandmother is only about 50% gray so it’s not necessarily true that everyone of a certain age has a completely white head. Graying is genetic.

 

My Grandfather’s Son: A Memoir

thomas-memoirMy Grandfather’s Son: A Memoir, by Justice Clarence Thomas. Originally published in 2007. 304 pages.

The memoir of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, My Grandfather’s Son is an engaging book. While most Americans associate Justice Thomas with Anita Hill and the scandalous nature of his Senate confirmation hearings, there is much more to his story than that unfortunate saga. In fact, the story of his growing up years was so compelling that I almost forgot that it was the Anita Hill fiasco that made him a household name to begin with.

The book’s title references Thomas’ maternal grandfather, who took him and his brother in when their divorced single mother couldn’t give them the life she thought they needed to be successful. Justice Thomas makes it clear that in all the ways that matter, he is indeed his grandfather’s son. His grandfather taught the boys about life, work, manhood, and how to rise above their circumstances growing up in the Jim Crow south.

I always found it a bit odd that Clarence Thomas was painted by the media and the left as a man disconnected and unconcerned with the plight of the people he “left behind” in the black community. I found this odd despite the fact that I was a faithful, idealistic, 20-year-old card-carrying Democrat at the time of his contentious and tawdry confirmation fight. I was interested in politics even then because my parents were interested in politics. I was aware of what was happening and I wondered: How could a  man born and raised in 1950’s Georgia be indifferent to the plight of the people who shaped him into the man he was?

Of course, I learned later and his memoir confirmed that he was far from indifferent. The problem was that as a thinking person rather than a blind  follower he concluded that the politically correct, liberal, state-centered solutions being offered were not in the best interest of anyone, least of all black people. That isn’t a popular position to take, and it’s even less tolerable coming from a black person as Thomas found out the hard way.

He was still quite a young man when he began to notice the propensity of the liberals in academia and government to use the policy of appease and acquiesce in response to every demand made by black “leaders” even if the demands were illogical and damaging to black people over the long-term. What’s more, he realized that the soft, paternalistic racism of the left was just as bad if not worse, than the overt, virulent racism he’d witnessed growing up. At one point he reiterates this by noting that the first time he was ever called “nigger” he was not in Georgia, but Massachusetts.

The parts of Thomas’ book where he describes his gradual awakening to the reality that liberal policies that purport to help the black community actually choke the life out of the community, destroyed the family, and discourage self-sufficiency resonated with me.

If there was one part of Thomas’ story that left me a bit saddened, it was his account of the ending of his failed first marriage. His leaving because he was simply disillusioned and unhappy signaled that he hadn’t been fully immune to the liberal line of thought that gained its foothold during his coming of age years. The fact that he and his ex-wife to her credit, understood that the task of raising their son and ushering him to manhood would be best handled by Thomas himself rather than his ex-wife was the one redeeming element of that period of his life as retold in the book.

He and his current wife took on the mantle of his grandfather, who raised Thomas and his brother, by taking in his young nephew from a troubled home and raising him as their own. Thomas clearly understands the challenge facing young black men and has put his time and money where his mouth is, unlike may of his liberal detractors.

By the time the book gets to the Anita Hill scandal, it is an afterthought. The most interesting parts of Thomas’ life story occurred long before his nomination to the Supreme Court. Of course, his version of those events are what many readers are looking for, so he told his side of the story. His retelling is fairly dispassionate, except when he describes his return to the Christian faith, guided by Senator and ordained minister John Danforth, as the entire ordeal began to wear on him and his wife.

As Thomas once again declared his innocence, I recalled the media coverage of the confirmation hearings. As I watched them I was staunchly opposed to Thomas political views.  Or so I thought, as this was before I started thinking through these issues. Even then I remember having a difficult time believing Ms. Hill’s accounting of events. I told myself that truth is often stranger than fiction so it was probably true, but I never really believed it. Though his confirmation was successful,  Thomas claims he didn’t  care if he was confirmed. That he stuck it out to clear his name and nothing else.

One of the standout passages in the book was Thomas’ recounting of a private interview he had with a senator particularly hostile to him. The only thing that mattered to anyone on the left and most people on the right was, “How’s he likely to vote on abortion cases?” There was no judicial paper trail so the senators tried to gauge his position through the way they posed their questions. Thomas’ retelling of one of these interviews was priceless:

Howard Metzenbaum was the other kind of senator, and I already knew how he felt about me. It would have been charitable to call him unlikable, though he went through the motions of civility during my visit. At one point he actually tried to lure me into a discussion of natural law, but I knew he was no philosopher, just another cynical politician looking for a chink in my armor, so all I did was ask him if he would consider having a human-being sandwich for lunch instead of say, a turkey sandwich. That’s Natural Law 101: all law is based on some sense of moral principles inherent in the nature of human beings, which explains why cannibalism, even without a written law to proscribe it, strikes every civilized person as naturally wrong. Any well-read college student would have gotten my point, but Senator Metzenbaum just stared at me awkwardly and changed the subject as fast as he could.

That was a superb response and one of the things I enjoyed most about this book. It was written by a person who has taken the time to observe and think about the world around him rather than allowing someone else to do it for him.

It’s a quick and engaging read, and offers a lot of insight into the life and mind of one of the most controversial Supreme Court Justices in recent memory.

Grade: B

*This review is a re-post, which sprang to remembrance as election coverage heats up.

The Glass Castle: A Memoir

the-glass-castle The Glass Castle: a Memoir, by Jeanette Wells. Originally published in 2005. 289 pages.

One of our daughters asked me about 6 months ago if I had ever read The Glass Castle. I answered in the negative, but assured her that I would get around to it. I hadn’t gotten around to it as of a month ago, either. So when our local library dropped it on my doorstep I knew immediately who had ordered it and that I needed to get reading. Obviously the book had impacted her enough that she wanted someone to share her thoughts on it with.

If you don’t want to sink, you’d better learn how to swim.

This well worn axiom, uttered by Jeanette Walls’ father while he “taught” her to swim jumped out at me for several reasons. The first was that it is the way my husband described his father’s parenting philosophy. Second, was that the Walls’ kids had better learn to swim because if they found themselves sinking, their parents were in no way equipped to throw them a life raft, even if they wanted to.

As I began reading this memoir I was hooked from the first page, finding myself pulled in to a dysfunctional and chaotic life that was just another day at the office for Jeanette Walls, her parents, and her three siblings. Her recounting was equal parts astonishing and heart rending, but I was horrified enough that neither of those emotions were able to take root as I continued to read the book.

Rex and Mary Walls were highly intelligent and gifted people who were also far too eccentric and self-centered to be good parents. On the one hand they educated their children much more effectively than any school they attended or could have attended. But what good was that when the children were dirty, the family often went without food, and the children were reduced to scavenging dumpsters for a bite to eat?

They taught their children to be strong and make their way in the world by refusing to be overprotective. However, their utter refusal to protect their children when it mattered most revealed that any self-sufficiency they acquired was a result of that sink or swim dynamic I opened this post with. It certainly wasn’t a calculated parenting strategy.

My thoughts on the overall presentation of the book are mixed. Quite frankly, I have a pretty big wall of skepticism when it comes to recounting early childhood memories in vivid detail the way Walls does in this book. Whether it was that skepticism or the utter disbelief I felt that such gifted people could be such terrible parents, I often found myself incredulous and looking at the book as if I were reading a novel rather than a memoir.

The chapters were short, snippets of moments which one can assume must be those things that left the greatest impression on the author. That the children were able to escape, with three of the four experiencing unexpected levels of success, is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit.

Walls’ descriptions of her parents, despite their failings, are wrapped in the residual affection of a woman who as a young girl was awed by her father and fascinated with her mother. Her understanding of her parents’ clearly unbalanced nature softens the veracity with which she reveals the shortcomings which caused she and her siblings so much pain and instability throughout their childhoods.

Worth a read.

Grade:B-

Content advisory: Mental illness, domestic violence, alcoholism, instances of child sexual abuse (not at the hands of the parents)

 

 

 

 

 

El’s Rabbit Trails: Misinformation Overload 

A conversation had with my husband: 

Relative: “You all set to vote Trump?”

“I’ll have to sit this one out.”

Relative: “I thought you liked him. But you can vote for Hillary.”

“If I had to pick one of the two it would NOT be her. ”

Relative: “We can’t let him in there. He’s all mixed up with the KKK.”

“Yeah, because a rich New Yorker is way more likely to be mixed up with KKK than a woman whose husband grew up in an Arkansas trailer park.”

The Lion’s Paw

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The Lion’s Paw, by Rob White. Published in 1946. 243 pages.

12-year-old Penny and her 9-year-old brother Nick live in an orphanage on the east coast of Florida. Nick doesn’t much remember living anywhere else and Penny just barely remembers a life before they came there. They hate it, and Nick dreams of running away, but his sister is terrified at the prospect. The orphanage doesn’t like it when kids run away and those who try are almost always caught and made an example of. She tries to talk Nick out of it, but he is determined.

Penny can’t let her little brother run off on his own of course so they escape together, running towards the ocean, hoping to find a boat in which sail away. They determined to start a new life away from the orphanage, which they referred to as the “eganahpro”, because they only ever saw the word written backwards through the wrought iron gates which held them captive.

After Penny and Nick make a run for it  and set off on their adventure, they have the good fortune of running into 15-year-old Ben on the wharf. Ben not only has the boat that he inherited from his father (an WWII Navy lieutenant  presumed dead after a year MIA), but life has thrown him a curve ball inspiring him to run away from his uncle’s as well. The three children set sail together on an adventure far too big for children of their age and station, yet rise to the occasion.

This is an obscure book which once enjoyed a passionate following among Florida readers and educators in the 1960’s and 70’s, and then was out of print for a very long time. I only encountered it because I was looking for books specifically about Florida and Old Florida life. Re-entering the market in 2004, The Lion’s Paw is again enjoying a resurgence among those who know enough to seek it out.

Make no mistake however, this touching, fast paced novel is good reading no matter where you live,where you’re from, or how old you are. C.S. Lewis’ admonition about the timelessness -and age defying quality- of a well told story certainly fits here. Rob White hits all the right notes as the children wrestle with trying to out run the adults searching the seas for their masterfully disguised boat, battle against nature, and grapple with their out fears and uncertainties about the future they face on a journey bigger than themselves.

If you have kids who might like a great story of children on an adventure at sea, you should try and get your hands on a copy of Robb White’s The Lion’s Paw. It might also be a great idea to print a map of Florida’s Okeechobee Waterway to track the kids’ trip from one side of the Florida peninsula to the other.

Grade: A

Content advisory: Mayhem and adventure on the high seas, but nothing the average 9-year old can’t handle. Lots of nautical terminology which provides a good opportunity for the kids to do some research on what it all means.

 

 

Yarn Over: It’s International Crochet Day!

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I have to tell you…normally I find these obscure specialty holidays just so much silliness. They serve no purpose at all. Really, who cares? Very few, not even those who are fond of the craft, food, animal, season, sport, people, or disease being thrust into the spotlight of “awareness” even care about these holidays.

I must confess that in our house, we have been known to cook one or two (or ten) of the foods listed on The Kitchn’s National Food Holidays list. That however, is just because we love any excuse to get together in the kitchen. If the aim is to prepare something new exotic or different, all the better. Still, given that the origin of the word holiday is built around the idea of celebrating Holy days, the “every day is a holiday” thing rubs me the wrong way.

When my daughter sent me the link to International Crochet DayInternational Crochet Day, the only reason it resonated at all is because our two youngest are currently planning and crocheting Christmas presents for numerous family members- in earnest. Yarn is center stage right now:

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So…even though I still think the “every thing deserves a holiday” thing is kind of stupid, my kids found the fact that today is International Crochet Day  kind of neat. Because they’re kids.

Edited to add: I just remembered a quotable literary quote that well explains my acknowledging a silly holiday while simultaneously decrying silly holidays.

How quick come the reasons for approving what we like.-Jane Austen’s Persuasion

Tell me again why more people don’t spend copious amounts of time reading if they can?

Quotable Literary Quotes #3

Wickedness is always wickedness, but folly is not always folly. – Emma, by Jane Austen

This has always been one of my favorite quotes, although I am not sure I could tell you why that is. It is partly because of my own life and history, although I dare not try to unravel here the tangled mess which are my thoughts on that subject.

Mostly however it stays with me as a reminder: That it would do us all well to keep our eyes on our own paper, endeavor to do good and not wickedness, and leave most others (not all as there are people in our charge), but most all others to decipher for themselves what is folly outside of general truisms.

What a disaster it would be to offer counsel from our vantage point which is a stark contrast to what is folly from theirs.