Sunday, November 20, 2011

My open letter to Roger Rawlings

While searching around to see what the good people of the internet are saying about my book today, I came across this reference to it on Waldorf Watch, a site maintained by one Roger Rawlings. He quoted my post about Anthroposophy and Mormonism-- which he called "a little informative, a little defensive, and a little (or maybe more than a little) questionable"-- and summed it up with the following:

Setting a novel in a Waldorf school community while "largely avoiding" Anthroposophy is a bit like setting a novel in Yankee Stadium while largely avoiding baseball. The point of Yankee Stadium, after all, is that it is a place for playing baseball. Likewise, the point of Waldorf schools is that they are places for applying Anthroposophy. Most Waldorf schools acknowledge this, if only indirectly, when they profess their debt to Rudolf Steiner — whose teachings are found in the tenets of Anthroposophy.

THE KINGDOM OF CHILDHOOD may be a good novel, but — because it largely sidesteps Anthroposophy — it cannot present a reliable picture of Waldorf education. Read the novel for its literary and entertainment value, by all means. But if you want to learn about Waldorf education, look elsewhere." 

I have to love it when people dismiss my book without ever actually cracking the spine. This was an especially interesting series of criticisms for him to make, given that his very own site is one I used a great deal in my research for the book-- in tandem with Waldorf Critics-- and that in the same month he discourages his own readers from reading my work, he posts about the low vaccination rate in Waldorf schools, an issue of which I'm openly critical from the first page of Chapter One of my novel. 

I admit it does take one doing a little homework on me to find out I'm quite critical of Waldorf education. For example, you'd have to hunt down my guest post on Bea's Book Nook, in which I detail my son's poor experiences in a Waldorf preschool and how that shaped my skepticism about whether the ideals of this system match up to the reality. Or you'd have to find the comment thread on The Ethereal Kiosk in which I share all kinds of opinions about Steiner and his philosophies, and with a candidness that usually takes several glasses of wine to procure, but can be achieved with none if you speak negatively of my work. But yes, it's true that I haven't come out swinging where Waldorf is concerned, and that's for two reasons. One, that it's a novel, not a platform, and I'm not about to promote my creative writing based on some kind of noisy agenda; the fiction should speak for itself, and that's that. And Two, because I'm not interested in alienating anybody-- Waldorf critic or Waldorf devotee-- who might want to pick up the book. If I start making tedious chess moves into the "pro-Waldorf" or "anti-Waldorf" camps, then either one group or the other will decide they're not the audience, when in fact it holds valuable things for both.

The other thing that's amusing-- or perhaps irritating, I can't decide which-- about posts like Rawlings' is that my novel is the first widely-distributed pop-culture account of Waldorf schooling, EVER. And it isn't either pro or anti, and so it puts this subject which is of such great importance to them before a national audience and makes their positions that much more engaging and relevant to a much larger group. I've seen one review after another in which readers have said they had never heard of the philosophy before, but after they finished the book, went hunting for more information. So here's your chance, guys, to influence their opinions. By dismissing my book as irrelevant to the discussion, you're handing over a golden opportunity to argue your own pros and cons. 

Of course, right away I went looking for a way to tell Roger Rawlings that. But he has no contact information-- not surprising, given that incendiary content leads to incendiary emails. But there's something particularly annoying about issuing a public dismissal of my work without ever reading it, and not providing any way for the author in question to respond. It's like those groups that declare that Harry Potter is anti-Christian because there's magic in it, without ever actually reading the book to discover it's all about the battle between good and evil. 

Now, let me talk about this anthroposophy thing for a minute, as long as my lack of inclusion of it in the novel-- as a term, at least-- is "more than a little questionable." And defensive, but I'll own that one.
This is a novel, not a philosophical text. If this were a book about a Catholic priest, I would not be required to explain Christianity beginning with the birth of Jesus in order for the priest character to be believable, so long as his actions, his words, and his motivations are all informed by his belief system. And so it is with Judy, and the rest of the characters who work at and populate the book's fictional Waldorf school. Did I factor in the teachers' beliefs, or training, in anthroposophy into my writing of the story? Of course I did. That's perfectly apparent to anyone with a knowledge of the subject who reads the book. Having said that, it's also clear from the story that the two main characters are not practicing anthroposophists; Judy professes not to believe in anything anymore, and Zach's family cannot possibly be, given that his mother practices the kind of attachment parenting (including extended breastfeeding) that is discouraged by that philosophy. 

So I would ask Roger Rawlings-- and other critics of Waldorf-- to consider reading The Kingdom of Childhood, fictional version, if for no other reason than to take advantage of the opportunity to either support or refute what I actually wrote. How many times is it going to happen that a book featuring Waldorf schooling is available in airport bookstores? If you take issue with anthroposophy, by all means write about it. I certainly did.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The annual chocolate pilgrimage

This morning I made my annual Christmas-season pilgrimage to my local Aldi supermarket. Nominally I am not much of a fan of Aldi. The unknown brands and generic packaging give me the heebie-jeebies; I know it's economical and practical to shop there, but I can't overcome the teachings of my childhood. Example: when I was about thirteen years old I took a summer job babysitting the little girl across the street, all day every day. We lived in a well-to-do community (University Park, MD) and her father owned a printing business. To all appearances, they were well off. One day I opened their pantry to make the child lunch, and saw that-- dramatic pause-- ALL THE PRODUCTS ON THEIR SHELVES WERE STORE BRANDS. I remember my dismay at realizing they had been HIDING their POVERTY from the whole community all this time. I wish I was joking about this. It's not that I was a snob, because I really was not. I insisted on writing "Hyattsville" as my return address because "University Park"-- printed on all my parents' address labels-- seemed to snooty and was not the official mailing address. But I had grocery shopped every week with my father since I was very young, and he only ever bought national brands. So this was the impression I had about how things were done.

Of course, that changed when I married a construction worker at age 20 and got pregnant the following Thursday. Such situations force you to examine your values, and it didn't take long for me to determine that Lender's bagels spread with Philadelphia cream cheese wouldn't taste as good if I was eating them in a refrigerator box in a vacant lot. So I started buying store brands then, and still do-- all the time. Nevertheless, a store brand tied into the place where you're buying it still has a different feel from a box with a mystery name on it that looks like it might have dropped in from the sky. So I tend not to buy a whole lot at Aldi.

But all that changes around the holidays, when the bargain grocery suddenly receives an influx of German Christmas goodies. I have even found the strange little fried-egg-shaped star candies that are one of the greatest oddities among that country's holiday traditions. In my above photo, you can see what I found in early November: glazed gingerbread (it is fantaaaaastic), pfeffernusse cookies, mushroom spaetzle (not Christmas-related, but it looked tasty), and chocolate coins for our Chanukah celebration. There is also a bag of chocolate Santas, because, like the McFarlands in The Kingdom of Childhood, we celebrate St. Nicholas Day with our kids every year, stuffing toys and candy into their boots on the night of December 5th. And in the front there you can see two boxes of lebkuchen. These are the soft cookies that are described in the opening scene of the novel, and boy oh boy, Aldi's are delicious. I tore into the box within seconds of taking this photo. As is traditional, they are baked onto oblaten:

This is the "starchy white disk" described in the book-- identical to the ones used for the Eucharist during Mass. And they are, indeed, quite tasty. It wouldn't be a proper lebkuche without one.

All together, these items-- together with a box of (name-brand) freezer pops-- totaled about $25. So I highly recommend a trip to Aldi this holiday season. And if you buy other items too, hey, I won't judge. I'll just eat my generic spaetzle and mind my own business.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The one month mark

So "The Kingdom of Childhood" has been out for a month now. I just logged in to Amazon's Author Central to see my sales figures, and they're looking ________________. I don't know what word goes there. I don't have any frame of reference for how many books one ought to sell in a month, especially when the book in question had a banner at BEA and the cover of Publishers Weekly and is in every airport bookstore in the United States. So I'm just going to go with "good," and save "spectacular" for when it hits a bestseller list.

Here is a short list of things I have learned in the past month. Up-and-coming writers, pay attention:

1. To do radio interviews, you must not have call-waiting. It's not enough to turn it off on a case-by-case basis, because that only works if YOU are calling THEM, and frequently they call you. So what you have to do is engage in a frantic online chat with Verizon customer service at 10 pm on a Sunday and have a very nice person in India turn it off for you while telling you what a very wonderful customer you are and how he wishes they were all as lovely and kind as you. It goes without saying that radio interviews have to be done over a landline. You didn't know that? Rookie.

2. There are things called "media monitoring companies" that send you email when your book has appeared on TV in some form and offer to sell you the clip for a hundred bucks. Usually you have no idea it appeared on TV at all, so this will be the first you've heard of it. The included writeup will be suitably vague, written in all-caps, and will include words like "GLORIFYING" and "PEDOPHILE," which will cause you to quick-draw your credit card until you remember to take a deep, cleansing breath. When your editor told you your book would be the most talked-about novel of the Fall, you never really gave great depth of thought to what that talk would entail, did you?

3. Once you start receiving fan mail, you suddenly start freaking out at being included in group text messages with people you don't know. To a lesser extent, this also goes for rattling off your home telephone number to the cashier at the grocery store. Is it really worth saving twenty cents on yogurt to risk getting phone calls at your home from people who don't much care for your protagonist? So far, yes. That's just paranoid, after all. But ask me again next week, after I've maybe received a few more of these emails from a media monitoring company.

4. Goodreads: it's not your buddy. Imagine if, when you were in high school, there had been a website on which people could post star ratings of their opinion of you, followed by their candid assessments of your looks, wit, intelligence, and general value as a human being. Somewhere on this profile there would also be a little ticker showing how many people want to hang out with you, versus, say, the prom queen (THE NIGHT CIRCUS) or the valedictorian (THE LANGUAGE OF FLOWERS). Well, welcome to Goodreads. The conclusion that I've come to is worthy of a John Hughes movie: it's not about who doesn't like me or how popular I am, it's about how great my true friends are. That and whether I earn out my advance, but now the analogy is sort of falling apart on me.

So! Tune in next month for more helpful hints and tips about managing your ego your career. And if you happen to be behind me in line at the pharmacy, please cover your ears while I'm reciting my phone number. Or at least don't read what's on the bag.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Alice While, November 19, 1936-Present

As I write this, Aunt Alice is still living. She won't be for much longer. Last week she went under hospice care, and I know quite well what that means. She has cancer, a disease she has fought for a long time. She has lived a life any one of us would aspire to: one full of love and purpose, kindness and meaning and, always, humor. She has been happily married longer than I have been alive. And I don't like eulogies, so I would rather grab these moments to talk about her while she is still with us, while her story is still unfolding. After that, I don't know if I can.

Aunt Alice is my husband's aunt. But she is more than family-- she is family with no blood relation to us at all, who could have chosen to dismiss us from her life at any time, without consequence. You see, she and her husband, John, were my husband's parents' best friends. I say "were" because Mike's parents passed away several years ago. All Mike's life he has known the Whiles as Uncle John and Aunt Alice, and all his life she has treated him like her own nephew. If there should be a barrier, a seam, an invisible line between a nephew-by-blood and a nephew-by-friendship, you wouldn't know it with Alice and John. And then there's me-- the woman who married the son of her best friend. I want to talk about that.

Nearly every summer, she and John would invite us out to their little vacation cottage on the Chesapeake. She welcomed our kids, brought out the toys for them, grilled up a feast: hamburgers, corn on the cob, potato salad and chips and salsa and whatever else they had around the place. She had a little chicken-leg-shaped mold, which could press a bit of hamburger into the shape of a chicken leg-- whimsical, my husband would say. She'd often pull that out to amuse the kids. At some point before dinner she would walk with us down to the Bay and help my daughter find sea glass along the beach. We'd walk out onto the dock and watch seabirds and boats through Uncle John's binoculars, and Alice and I would often hang back on the beach together and watch the kids play in the surf. In her cottage she kept a little dish for the sea glass she found, there on the windowsill among the lighthouse and Noah's Ark-themed decorations. There she is in the photo, smiling at me as I snapped a picture of her, standing in front of the dock looking over the foggy Chesapeake.

Not long after Mike's father died-- two years after his mother passed on-- we were over at the cottage and Uncle John told us a story about going out to dinner with them years before. The men had gone out for shrimp, he said, and the women went out shopping; my father-in-law's leg was broken and in a cast, so it stuck out as they ate the all-you-can-eat shrimp. At last the women came back, and the waitress told them of their husbands, "They put us to the test!"

A little while after John told us this story, he was out back grilling, and Alice began, out of nowhere, to tell us the same story. It was identical in every detail, and she ended it by speaking of the women's return to the restaurant and the waitress saying-- cue the same intonation-- "They put us to the test!"

This is why John and Alice are such a delight to me and Mike. The two shall become one flesh: when you talk to Uncle John and Aunt Alice, this seems less like a figure of speech than a literal, albeit mystical, reality. They work together as if they are two halves of a whole, each entirely their own person, but twinned with the other on a deep and inseparable level. We admire them tremendously; we seek to be like them one day. And they loved Mike's parents, just as we did. They shared our grief when they died, they share their happy memories of those two and carry them into our children's present. They have helped us carry the torch for people we loved, and love still.

I can say all these things about her: she has been kind to me when I least deserved it. She consoled me when I was grieving-- even though she was, too-- and opened her home to us, bestowing her hospitality upon us generously, sending us home with containers full of leftovers, folded recipes from her cookbook, toys for our kids. She has cheered me on as I've worked toward publication, and made me laugh, and loved my children. She has treated me like her own, even though I am several degrees removed from her own.

And so the gratitude I feel toward her is profound. Because in my own life I have been forced to confront the fact that if I am to experience the joy of being an aunt, a cousin, and now even a daughter, I am going to have to cobble together those relationships with people who might only loosely be considered "my relatives"-- and often aren't at all. This is the biggest hole in my soul, and some days I suspect it has its own gravity. And while I hold great affection for my little second cousins once removed, and my first cousin by marriage, and the friends who let me adore their children and the children themselves, I often feel a little apologetic about it. Is it okay if I love you? Is it okay if I treat you like I have a right to?

Aunt Alice is the yes to all of that. She is the one who has shown me that it is okay to hold tight to people, and treat them well, for no reason other than that you love them. A blood relationship is not what matters; all that matters is that you are willing to take out the chicken-drumstick hamburger mold every summer, just for those kids, and adore them without reservation. She picked us up like sea glass-- rough-tumbled and questionable treasures, little damaged things in which she found some worthwhile beauty. It makes a person vulnerable to offer that kind of love and kindness and generosity to people who are not bound to her, but Aunt Alice has never hesitated nor withheld.

We know. We put her to the test.