Thursday, May 26, 2011

On true love at two

My son might be only two-and-a-half, but he seems to be in love. While he’s always been a lady’s man, the most enduring object of Henry’s affections is his best friend, Dede, whom he’s known since he was a baby. Henry and Dede have a regular play date every Friday, but still, she’s often on his mind.

I open up my laptop? “See pictures Dede!” (He has been known to kiss and even lick printed pictures of his lady love.)

I tell him when we’re in the car that someday he’ll drive a car, too? “See Dede!”

We watch two horses gallop through Elysian fields in the ‘94 film “Black Beauty”? “Henry and Dede!”

I ask him to name his favorite color? "Dede!"

Henry and Dede hold hands, take baby dolls for walks in toy strollers together, feed each other tofu and noodles, and insist that if one has something (like a sip of a particularly yummy drink), the other one gets one too. They gambol like lambs across the grass and have been known to nearly spoon while napping.

Hen’s affection for Dede warms the cockles of my heart for a bunch of reasons. First of all, when I was his age, I didn’t really have friends, at least not ones who I saw regularly or who could be trusted to not make me, say, climb in the bath tub with a pair of ducks. There are three possible explanations for my early friendlessness:
  1. Even at that age, I was a bit peculiar.
  2. We did live in an isolated place, in rural Delaware, no less.
  3. My parents’ generation didn’t quite get it that no matter how young a child is, friends are really crucial to a kid’s development and mental health, not to mention appreciation of joy.
    Not that I’ve read anything on this, but I like to think that thanks to early love for someone other than a family member, his little neurons are making connections that will serve him for the rest of his life. Love is a cat’s cradle in neurobiological terms; better that his brain learn how to play it – and take joy in it -- sooner rather than later.

    That Hen’s best little friend is a girl, and that they dote on each other so much, makes me hopeful for his future relationships with women. When I was pregnant and first found out I was expecting a boy, I was horrified. Not just by the fact that I had a penis inside me for nine months straight, but more by the challenge of raising a boy to be kind, thoughtful, and respectful to women. Sure, my father and my husband are both wonderful men, but I worried that somehow their example and my influence could be overridden by other factors: some unaccountable Tucker Max-esque personality trait (not that you should click on that), society’s misogyny in general, or Sarah Palin as president.

    But even though he’s only a few years old and, I’m pretty sure we’re on the right track. Thanks, Dede! (And thanks to your mom, too, who agreed to let me blog about how fabulous you are.)
    Henry and Dede.

    Wednesday, May 25, 2011

    A few notes on Kindle, color, and collecting

    A few years ago, I discovered the joy of arranging my books by color. While many bookish sorts are horrified by this notion, I love the garish chaos: Joyce Carol Oates’ hot pink Blonde cuddles with a magenta Joy of Pregnancy, and tangerine Guns, Germs and Steel is flanked by day-glow Midnight’s Children and Chinese red The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. Sort your books by color and patterns emerge that you never noticed before: books about travel are often blue; histories often some combination of red, orange, and yellow; green books are rare. 

    I love what the disorderly palimpsest of dated favorites and recent acquisitions says about how my tastes have changed over the years:  Nicholson Baker’s now quaint black dust-covered Vox (1993) bunks with navy Betsy Ross and the Making of America (2010). In my twenties, I consumed contemporary American fiction almost exclusively, but the older I get, the more I prefer to read about eras and places I can never experience firsthand. Why read it when I live it? Still, each spine is a breadcrumb indicating where my brain has been.
    See? Arranging your books by color is cool!

    Our bookshelves chart our intellectual histories, and I’m vain about mine. When my husband and I first moved in together several years ago, it was a hard pill to swallow – I didn’t particularly like pollutant titles like The Firm and zombie anthologies mingling with my literary fiction, and truth be told I thought about asking if our books could keep separate quarters. But I had to concede that his dictionary collection was worthy. I will be the first to admit that our bookshelves – yes, his and mine -- are tantamount to cerebral exhibitionism: Look how smart we are, they call, uttering the unspeakable. We might not have found fame and fortune, but damn, we have read a lot.

    But this past Christmas, I got a Kindle, joining the estimated 5 million others who trumpet taps for the codex. It’s was a matter of practicality at that point, I told myself: often when I was in the thick of research and a certain book was just what I needed, I didn’t have the patience or the time to go to the library or the bookstore. My brain is trained by Wikipedia; I want knowledge in an instant.  Then there was the space problem. Our bookshelves overflow, and stacks of books lurk under tables and in corners. Sometime last fall I cleared 30 books out from under my bed, where they had migrated, seemingly of their own accord, from my bedside table. 

    Kindle vs. iPad

    When it came to the Kindle versus iPad debate, I rewarded Amazon for what Kindle has done for my father. When he was in his forties, my father, a voracious reader of smart thrillers and history, was diagnosed with macular degeneration, an eye disease that causes blurred vision and can lead to blindness. Books suddenly vanished from his bedside table and television colonized evenings. My father, the man who had read each volume of Churchill’s history of World War II, was reduced to filling 7:30 to 11 with fuzzy impressions of Miami Vice. Hazy versions of Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery! were weekly godsends. 

    After surgery that restored at least some of his eyesight, my father could struggle through large-print editions from the local library, a few pages at a time, but the library only carried lowbrow in large print. My father read The DaVinci Code and its ilk out of desperation -- for more than 30 years. And because the reflective glare of most computer screens is too hard on his eyes, the Internet Age passed him by. Still, even though reading it himself was a struggle, every Sunday morning he went into town to buy the Sunday Times.

    But then a year and a half ago my husband suggested that we spurge and buy my father a Kindle DX – the big kind, large as a hardback. We held our breath as my father opened the package – a device that could restore reading to my father was too much to hope for. 

    The Kindle waved a magic wand over my father: because he could adjust the print size and the screen didn’t reflect, he instantly became the reader he was supposed to be. He ploughed through more books in a year than he had in the past 30, among them Dexter Filkins’ The Forever War, the Stieg Larsson Millenium trilogy, the Soviet-era serial killer thriller Child 44, David Halberstam’s The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War. The Kindle restored my father to his rightful place among readers, and it improved his quality of life by a thousand fold. 

    Perhaps I also wanted to reward Kindle for the incendiary brilliance of the product name. Were the marketing gurus who christened it fully aware of Kindle’s many complex subtexts? Sure, books light fires in all of us and warm our souls, but think of the countless unknowns who were burned at the stake for reading, for allowing what they read to transform their beliefs, or of the thousands of books that have gone up in flames, either in deliberate book burnings, torching of monasteries in Tudor England, or the firestorm that destroyed the Alexandrian library in 48 BC. How fitting that a device called the Kindle is laying siege to the tradition of the codex. 

    But still I fussed. What would happen to swapping books, the intimate joy of turning the very same pages that a friend has savored? And down the line, what would happen at parties, if there weren’t any bookshelves where shy people like me, who don’t like washing dishes, can discreetly take refuge?

    I’ve some time on the elegiac site Bookshelf Porn, a photoblog of bookshelf photos. It feels faintly like looking at pictures of graveyards – graveyards of the soon-to-be-dead. Before I got my Kindle, I thought about taking photographs of my bookshelves, just for myself, to mark when the parade of colors would grind to a halt: December 2010.

    Six months later…

    Last winter, my Kindle felt like one of most significant purchases I’ve ever made – imbued with far more meaning than any car or pair of fabulous boots, up there with, say, buying my son’s crib.

    But it turns out it’s not really that big of a deal – I only read SOME books on my Kindle. Print books still find their way into my life in all sorts of ways, like the “rescue” my husband and I did a few months ago of about 50 books that my in-laws planned on taking to a used book store, or books people give me, or books I simply decide I would rather have in print. Even for research, it’s often better I find to have print the better to scribble notes in and dog ear. If I think I need to go back and reread something or reference it, better not to have my Kindle. 

    To me, e-books are not the other way to read – they are just another way to read. The bloom of my bookshelves might be minorly stunted by my Kindle, but I’m not worried.