Sunday, November 16, 2014

An unremarkable Friday night

About an hour ago, I picked my fourteen-year-old son up from the high school, where he was waiting after his first swim meet. I sat across the driveway as he climbed the stairs, calling to his friends, "Good job," and "See you in the morning." He was smiling, tired, happy. In the car on the way home, he talked about how he'd scored 106 on an English test, and laughed with his sister about something someone had said on Twitter. Just a nice, normal Friday night, right? So why was I fighting back tears?

A little more than ten years ago, I sat in the dining room when the woman from Early Intervention gave me the news. I wanted to put my hands over my ears and run from the room, telling her she had it all wrong. How could this boy-- my beautiful oldest son, playing at my feet in his Buzz Lightyear costume, the boy who loved trains and reciting the poems from his Baby Einstein videos, how could he have autism?

"What does that mean? What kind of life will he have?" I asked.

"I don't really know-- it's a spectrum," was all she managed to say. Or at least all I managed to hear. My mind was whirring, protesting, reeling too much to listen to details.

I needed a hug, reassurance, hope. I know it would have been hard for this lady, whose name, face and title I can't remember but whose words still make me shudder, to tell me that my child would have a typical life. She couldn't read the future, she barely knew my son, and so she played it safe, told me that I'd get a call from someone to set up home visits, and left.

After days of reading online, I was even more terrified for his future. Certainly, there would be specialists, special education, therapies, and medication. Even then, the future looked bleak.

The last ten years haven't always been easy. We've had good years and bad years. First and second grades were fantastic-- so great that our pediatrician was convinced that the initial diagnosis was wrong. Fourth and fifth grades were horrendous. We've tried medications and behavior therapy and summer camp for kids on the spectrum. We've had fantastic church leaders who acted like his behaviors were no big deal, and some Primary teachers who seemed wholly overwhelmed when they saw his name on the roll. Now that he's a teenager, he's taking an active role in his treatment, and has been motivated by self-consciousness into modifying some of the behaviors that plagued him when he was younger.

Our son's ASD hasn't been "cured." But he's on the mild end of the spectrum, to be sure, and the reality of his life today could have been different. I spent many years in fear for his future, many years feeling like I had to downplay his accomplishments ("yeah, he's brilliant at facts, but you know he's on the autism spectrum, and that's kind of his thing"), many years tamping down my expectations because I didn't want either of us to be disappointed if he couldn't meet them.

I know we can't see the future-- jumping into the abyss is what we do as parents.

But if I just could have had a glimpse at what my son's future would hold ten years down the line, if I just could have seen five seconds of a normal night like tonight, I would have felt so reassured as that scared mom of a beautiful three-year-old boy.

We're not at the end of this road yet. While we're in a good place now, I know that the challenges of later teen years, a mission, college, and independent life still lay ahead of our son.

But let's celebrate tonight. Tonight, this ordinary Friday night, with my tired son drinking a milkshake and laughing beside me, when I stop to think about it, tonight feels like a miracle.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Book Review: The Possibilities by Kaui Hart Hemmings

Title: The Possibilities
Author: Kaui Hart Hemmings
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Kindle
Content Alert: sex, swearing, drug use

It's almost spring, and Sarah St. John is starting to emerge from the initial fog of grief that surrounded the death of her only son, Cully, who died in an avalanche on New Year's Eve while snowboarding with friends in their hometown of Breckenridge, Colorado. She's back at work (doing a broadcast to the upscale hotels about the city's amenities, a job she now finds silly), and she's fighting with her best friend, Suzanne, and her father. One day, a girl named Kit knocks on the door and asks if she can shovel their deck, and her arrival breaks open the conceptions Sarah had about her son, and forces her to analyze the life she wants to live in the future.

The Possibilities is the first time I've read one of Kaui Hart Hemmings's novels. Her first novel, The Descendants, was made into a lovely movie with George Clooney and Shailene Woodley, and while I was grabbing this photo from goodreads, I scanned the reviews. Many reviewers felt that the novels were too similar (the mother is dying in The Descendants, and the secrets of her past come to life while she is lying in a coma). But grief is a complex thing, and I think the grief of losing a child is probably quite different from losing a spouse or a sibling. There's a pretty significant turn in the plot I don't want to reveal in the review, so I feel like I'm talking around things, but I do love the way that Hemmings helps us see someone who has been grieving for months and is starting to see things worth living for again. She also makes the city come alive in the story, and explores the culture of the permanent, longtime residents of vacation towns in a way that was fascinating to read.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Book Review: Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham

Title: Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells What She's "Learned"
Author: Lena Dunham
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Kindle
Content Alert: This whole book is basically about sex, and there's a fair share of swearing. Oh yeah, and drug use too.

I've never seen an episode of Girls (not that I'm opposed to watching it, I've just never gotten around to it), but even I know that Lena Dunham is famous for 1) taking her clothes off, 2) talking a lot about sex, and 3) creating a show that taps into the spirit of twentysomethings living in New York. Not That Kind of Girl, Dunham's memoir is brave and brazen, hilarious and painful. There were times that I laughed out loud like a crazy person while listening to it in public, and other times when I started blushing because I was so embarrassed for her. Dunham writes about her sexual experiences (even the uncomfortable ones where she felt like she needed to keep her shoes on so she could run), her weight, her family, and her neuroses.

But this isn't just a book where the payoffs come from being daring (although they sometimes do). Dunham seems to have real literary chops-- she knows how to tell a story, how to change details, how to blur the lines between fiction and nonfiction. She's self-deprecating at times and kind of arrogant at others, and it's fun to read about someone who has such a good handle on seeing the contradictions inherent within her.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Book Review: Diary of Two Mad Black Mormons by Tamu Smith and Zandra Vranes

Title: Diary of Two Mad Black Mormons: Finding the Lord's Lessons in Everyday Life
Authors: Tamu Smith and Zandra Vranes
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Hardback Copy

Back in 2011, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sista Beehive and Sista Laurel (aka Zandra Vranes and Tamu Smith) for the Mormon Women Project. They were fantastic to talk to-- funny and very real and willing to open up about why, as black Mormons and converts to the LDS Church, they felt they had a unique perspective to offer readers to their blog. In the years since that conversation, they have found even more success, launching their own radio show, speaking at various engagements, and now publishing their first book together, Diary of Two Mad Black Mormons.

In the book, the Sistas start out speaking generally on various topics ("Breaking and Entering" is about finding God, "Stand" is about having standards and standing things that are important to you). They expound on these topics in their trademark style-- talking forthrightly, with lots of emotion, in language peppered with Ebonics. Their book is at its strongest when it delves into their personal stories, which is something that they do to highlight most of the points they want to make. They talk about the time Sista Beehive got caught shoplifting, when Sista Laurel pretended that her mom was dead and her hilarious experience at EFY as a teenager. They're willing to talk about hard things and to help us see that even if we have hard circumstances in our lives, that shouldn't separate us from the love Christ has for us or from his plans for our lives. The book is a quick, useful read. I think it's important because of its perspective and because of its wonderful storytelling.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Book Review: The Husband Maker by Karey White

Title: The Husband Maker
Author: Karey White
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Audible
Content Alert: A squeaky clean romance

Charlotte seems to have so much going for her-- she has a great job, a great family, and a great life in San Francisco. She has just one problem-- she's cursed when it comes to dating. Whenever she dates a guy, the inevitably break up, and, to make matters worse, he goes on to marry the next girl he dates. Every single time. She's been to more wedding receptions for ex-boyfriends than most women in their mid-twenties have any right to claim. Thankfully, Angus, her best friend since childhood, is always willing to go out for ribs and pie and help her eat her way through her sorrows.

Then, Charlotte falls hard for Kyle Aldsworth, the son of a senator (Republican, apparently, and living in San Francisco, for which I will suspend disbelief). She's transported into a world she hasn't had access to in her previous life, and it's up to her to decide if she wants this to be her future.

The Husband Maker is the first book in a trilogy, and I'm happy to say that I really enjoyed Charlotte, as well as the supporting characters who will be sticking around until the next installment of the series. It's a squeaky clean romance-- although the characters are not Mormon, the author is, which gives the book an interesting vibe for a Mormon reader, because these people feel Mormon, for sure. In other words, no swearing, no sex (even for characters who are close to marrying), and a preoccupation with marriage on the part of Charlotte and her family that seems a little out of place for a twenty-something living in a big city. I'm not sure if I understand the conventions of the romance novel well enough, but I'm already predicting the ultimate finale of book three, and I'd bet someone twenty bucks I know how the cliffhanger at the end of the book resolves itself in book two. All in all, a fun read, and I would enjoy following this story through to its conclusion in the third book.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Book Review: A Place of My Own by Michael Pollan

Title: A Place of My Own: The Education of an Amateur Builder
Author: Michael Pollan
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
Content Alert: minimal swearing

Did you ever have a friend who kind of bugged you, who you thought was pretentious and a little annoying, but you felt compelled to spend as much time as possible with regardless? That's kind of how I feel about Michael Pollan. He drives me a little bit crazy, in his complicated schemes and seemingly endless free time, but I'm drawn to him like a moth to flame.

A Place of My Own is one of his early works, before his focus turned to food and politics. As a writer and editor, he wasn't especially versed in wielding tools, and therefore decided to document his experience building a "writing house" on his property in northwestern Connecticut (he started the house because he needed a place where he could think and write after his son was born). He chronicles the process, from site selection, to working with an architect, to building the foundation, framing, and finishing the building. Each chapter, built around part of the building process, expounds not just on his experience, but also on the larger experience with, let's say, windows (talking about how windows have been used throughout the history of architecture).

I was completely captivated by the early, dreaming chapters of the book, in which Pollan is obsessive about choosing a space and conceiving of the building. As I was listening, I even conceived of my own "writing house" (the situating of which would be much simpler because there's only one space in which it would fit-- the former chicken coop area), and listened while I daydreamed of my own daybed and desk and pitched roof. Although Pollan does an excellent job creating characters in his architect and the guy he hires to help him build the structure, the later chapters, when he's actually constructing the building, don't have the same power. Still, it's a fascinating book, especially for someone like me, who could easily have become an architect if my life had taken a different path.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Book Review: Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler

Title: Shotgun Lovesongs: A Novel
Author: Nickolas Butler
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Kindle
Content Alert: swearing, sex

Lucy and I were best friends from the time we were five until we went our separate ways in high school, since she went to the other high school in town. Throughout junior high and high school, I spent most of my time with a group of five girls. We were all smart and ambitious in our own ways, and when we graduated in 1993 and went off to college, our relationships basically came to an end (rekindled through Facebook in the last few years). So I don't have a good sense of what it means to come from a place and a a group of friends and to return to that place and those friends as an adult. Nickolas Butler's sweet, nostalgic book, Shotgun Lovesongs, follows the perspective of a group of friends. Henry and Beth have stayed in Little Wing, Wisconsin, where they run the family farm. Ronny was a famous rodeo cowboy until a drunken binge led to an undiagnosed skull fracture and subsequent brain damage. Kip made big money in Chicago and has returned to Little Wing as the BMOC, renovating the mill. And Lee's one of the most famous indie singers of his generation.

The story, told through the perspective of each of these characters, shows how each of them struggles to fit into Little Wing and into their group of friends. When we lived in Minnesota and my parents were in Chicago, I frequently drove through exactly the kinds of tiny towns where Butler sets his story, and it was a lovely experience to read about someone writing about the complications of being from such a place. The book is smart and sweet and lovely, and makes me wish that I had a greater tie to the place and the people I came from.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Book Review: Essentialism by Greg McKeown

Title: Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less
Author: Greg McKeown
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Kindle
Content Alert: nothing I remember

Every once in a great while, I will read a book that really shakes up the way I see the world. I have lived most of my adult life trying to cram as much as I can into every single day, to never saying "no" to anything, to keeping a tenuous grasp on every ball in the air. I've thought that was a virtuous position-- that it was good to be busy, to have my fingers in every pie, to be accommodating inasmuch as I was able, even if that meant lots of frenzy and swearing behind the scenes.

Essentialism made me rethink all that. McKeown introduces the revolutionary (to me) idea that we might be better, more productive, more effective when we cut out the fat and pare our lives down to the essentials. He has lists of characteristics of "nonessentialists" (basically me) who are bad, and essentialists, who say no and are good. The book blew my mind and I have pared down a little bit. But one of the things I've realized is that as the mom of a big family, some of the things McKeown would probably consider nonessential to me are essential to others in my family, and therefore I get roped in. Or, in other words, I don't have the liberty to be completely ruthless in cutting out the nonessential. Reading this book happened to coincide with two things-- a PTO carnival at school in which I got asked to make some phone calls. I wasn't invested in it, and eventually I put forth a minimal amount of effort for a minimal result. A few days later, I was talking with a friend, a former PTA president, and I said something to her about how I couldn't believe she had consented to take on that job when her personal life was so busy. "Nobody wants to do it, Shelah," she said, "but it's a job that has to get done." And then there was that Mormon Messages video about the poor overwhelmed mom, and I doubt any SAHM got through that without shedding a tear for that poor woman. Mine was a hot, angry tear that she didn't just order pizza and stand up for herself, yet I see myself repeating her actions or dozens like them every day. So the book was important, eye-opening, and a very complicated read for me.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Book Review: Decorate by Holly Becker and Joanna Copestick

Title: Decorate: 1,000 Design Ideas for Every Room in Your Home
Author: Holly Becker and Joanna Copestick
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Hardback Copy

Maybe it's just the fact that I had finished reading two home design books that were memoirs in disguise, but I was a little underwhelmed by Holly Becker's Decorate. I used to follow her blog pretty regularly, and I always liked what I saw there, but this book lacks the focus that Elements of Style and The Nesting Place had. Becker also devotes a chapter of her book to each room of the house, and her book is a riot of photos, each more gorgeous than the next, but what I took away was a lot of pictures of pretty houses and very little about how to apply that to my own life and my own home. If you want a book to page through on your coffee table, you can't go wrong with this one, but the book doesn't seem to lend itself easily to practical application because it's just too big and too sprawling.