Monday, August 15, 2011

Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History

It took me quite a while to finish this book.  Not because it wasn't interesting per se, but mostly because I felt it lacked the kind of complexity that I expected from the title and her introduction.  I had certain expectations, given the fact that I had read synopses like this one:

"'They didn’t ask to be remembered,' Pulitzer Prize-winning author Laurel Ulrich wrote in 1976 about the pious women of colonial New England. And then she added a phrase that has since gained widespread currency: 'Well-behaved women seldom make history.' Today those words appear almost everywhere—on T-shirts, mugs, bumper stickers, plaques, greeting cards, and more. But what do they really mean? In this engrossing volume, Laurel Ulrich goes far beyond the slogan she inadvertently created and explores what it means to make history."

 On some level, I expected (following the introduction) that Ulrich was working to re-appropriate the phrase she had coined "Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History" with a complex discussion of how women have entered the historical record, and I was hoping that she would provide multiple lenses through which to view this idea of "Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History" and what it has come to mean to so many different women.  Rather, she (mostly through anecdote) provides a kind of conglomeration of various women who have, indeed, made history and the stories and events surrounding them.  In that regard, I think many women could learn a tremendous amount from this book about the different ways in which women have engaged with history and with women's rights.  I think this book could not only be educational, but could build readers' appreciation for the sacrifices, challenges, and battles that women have fought to be able to stand as equals with men.

At the same time, I was a bit disappointed.  I feel that the statement of the title is itself already lending to certain kinds of bias that Ulrich comes back to again and again in her book - the focus usually is on women not being 'well-behaved' in the moment that they are captured in a historical frame for later researchers.  That doesn't necessarily always hold true, and it is somewhat problematic that the whole idea of what is or is not 'well-behaved' never gets illuminated past the introduction (other than to suggest that not following the rules is what puts people in the light of the historical record). After reading such accounts, and especially following her summation of 1970s feminism, which concludes the book, her statement about making history with diaries and scrapbooks feels almost frivolous.  Yet, women keeping their own history and valuing their own history is, in fact, a significant part of making history at all.  When we don't value our own history enough to record it, later generations won't have much to go on.  Under those circumstances (and usually in spite of them), the writing of our own history will thus likely end up as selective as the writing of history in general.

The other issue I had with the title is that fact that there seems to be an assumption that the story is vastly different for men.  The statement "well-behaved women seldom make history" itself ignores the fact that it is not just women who aren't represented in the history, but that there is a whole world of women and men whom history has chosen to ignore, and the men we tend to remember and revere are not exactly what we might think of as 'well-behaved.'  That is, they broke the rules.  And the ones who didn't, but happen to be in the record due to perhaps a political position or otherwise where they intersect historical documentation are never remembered nor studied as much as those who were not 'well-behaved.'  The truth is that in history in general the vast majority of people (both women and men) have no history at all (of course, this doesn't negate the point that women really had/have been cut off from their own history).  This has been changing more and more, but in terms of singling out individual people on the outskirts of empires, governments, class, and power (i.e. most people), the task is nearly impossible.  In her defense, however, she was not concerned with the history of people in general and there are definitely reasons why what she says fits.  Still, a lack of discussion about what it even means to be 'well-behaved' lent the book more toward its climax of ending with a celebratory discussion of women's feminism in the 1970s and less toward what I may have expected from the title and introduction.

I have to admit, the way the ending was presented bothered me a bit.  For most of the book I really felt like she did a pretty good job of presenting small histories that really do flesh out a small part of women's history, and there were valuable insights into what it means/meant to be a woman in some vastly different places and periods.  By the end of the book, however, I felt that she fell into a discussion of 1970s feminism that has some drawbacks to it.  I noticed in our book group how many women in the group expressed feeling like the issues feminism was trying to deal with have been resolved and taken care of.  In part, this is due to Ulrich's presentation of feminism in the 1970s and what the feminist movement was really focused on at that point.  It would have been great if she had added as much complexity to the feminist movement of the 1970s as she did to some other parts of the book.  For instance, she doesn't talk about how much feminism was (for the most part) aimed at a very particular group of women (though she mentions these kinds of distinctions earlier in the book with other movements) - that is, at middle class white women.  In fact, she adds in (very briefly) other accounts that seem to suggest that there was more universality to feminist movement in the 70s than there actually was.  I do think she tried to check her bias by mentioning that there really is no unified feminist front, but her enthusiasm for some of what I consider to be the most selective (and yet taught as universal) aspects of feminism radiated through the filters she attempted to put in place.  That is all understandable, but for a book that was aimed at being pretty well rounded, it somewhat missed the point that 1970s feminism, though it accomplished several things, left many women even more isolated and alienated, and led to several common misconceptions of feminism that women (and men) still retain today.

It took me a while to get to a point in my life where I could admit to myself and to others that I am a feminist.  The negative connotations that accompany the term are so strong that people react in some very negative ways to such admissions.  Man-hating and other misconceptions crop up just from the term itself.  This is a problem.  I think that Ulrich did a good job through most of the book moving the reader away from the idea that feminism is inherently negative and alienating, but she still presents it in a way at the end that leaves out significant contributions to feminist theory that really get at the heart of some of the problems associated with 1970s feminist movement (such as Bell Hooks - what a fabulous read! - more on that later).  The result was that many women in our book group left the book with a feeling of having somehow 'arrived,' which I don't think is necessarily the case.

There were also some places where I felt that she neglected to distinguish where certain stories about women reside in the overall cultural milieu in a way that aided in the complexity of the discussion.  For instance, she mentions how "Amazons are free for the taking," meaning that stories about women warriors exist outside of their contexts in a way that completely disconnects them from history, yet she fails to talk about what this disconnection might signify, or what the ramifications might be.  For a book that is about women making history, it seems interesting that she would not further elaborate this point.  In these instances, it isn't so much about women making history, but about how they are employed in other contexts as symbols of a certain cultural milieu - something, which, in effect, ignores their actual history (which she hints at, but never actually states).  She also says that "Amazon stories exist outside time and space inside the hope of female power.  They yearn toward justice, yet acknowledge a terrible violence at the heart of that justice."  What does she mean here by justice?  From some statements she gives earlier, she seems to be suggesting that they are yearning toward the justice of equality between the sexes, yet some of the stories that she has just given seem to actually yearn toward a flip of power (i.e. of females exercising power over men).  Many of these tales don't seem to be yearning toward any kind of justice of equality, but toward retribution and punishment, a world in which women rule over men, which is exactly what certain brands of 1970s feminist theory did, and those failed pretty miserably (understandably so).  The lack of complexity surrounding this type of theme really bothered me.  There can be no forward movement for feminism without men who are also celebrated in their full capabilities and potential, where women and men are set up as equals in the vast array of human experience.  To flip the cards is not only unjust, but it is counterproductive, which is one reason why some of the Amazon stories are, in fact, so full of fury.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Bryce Canyon

Um, so I'll just say better late than never.  We'll ignore the fact that this has been sitting in my edit posts list for almost three years.

For Labor Day 2008, Hunter and I went camping for two nights with my brother Scott, his wife Kristi and their two beautiful little ones Tyler and Reese in Bryce Canyon. The second night we were joined by Kristi's sister, her husband and their three children. We were quite the group of campers. Especially with 4 children under 2 1/2 years old. I, being somewhat scatterbrained that particular day when I packed for the trip, forgot to bring my camera. Of course, this means that I have no absolutely amazing photos of the truly awe-inspiring scenery that we enjoyed while camping and hiking around the area. Our campsite was right on the edge of the canyon, which means we had breathtaking vistas just over the rise that provided a nice little nook for our tents. I truly wish that I could capture the moment in words, but let's face it, I'm really not that talented with description, and frankly I just don't know if anyone could really do it justice. Pictures don't really do it justice either, so even the most talented writer should not feel taken aback by my dismissal of their talents in this regard. Okay, some pictures and descriptions are definitely better than others. Still, nothing is quite like being there and experiencing the beauties and majesty of creation in person. Well, since I forgot my camera, as well as forgetting that I have a camera phone (give me a break - I was camping, we had no service, my phone was off practically the entire time, and camera phone pictures from this particular phone were generally not that great anyway), I have hijacked other people's pictures to use in lieu of the pictures I might have taken had I been a little more with it the morning we left to go camping. In all honesty, these pictures are probably better than the ones I would have taken anyway.  Hurrah for people who willingly share their lives on the internet. Oh wait...

Okay, so we departed on Friday, August 29th for our Labor Day weekend camping extravaganza. The car was incredibly full. More than incredibly full. I can't even begin to describe how full it was. Tyler had a nice little area around his booster seat in the far back seat that was pretty much just the right size for his little body and a pillow. At first I worried about him being smashed by the camping gear that surrounded him on all sides should we have had the unfortunate experience of being in a crash, but then I realized that pretty much everything around him was wedged into place so tightly that even I really couldn't move it. Then, of course, I realized that the rest of us would probably not fair very well either since we were all wedged into some sort of uncomfortable position with heavy and dangerous items over, next to, or behind our heads. As my brother put it, "If we crash, we all die." Glad to know I'd have company in Heaven. You may think I'm exaggerating, but really, imagine this picture to the right without the spaces and some people wedged in there.

This would have been a great time to take a picture. Alas, it was not to be.

We got there late and had some trouble getting the little ones to sleep as a result.  The second night, when I could just put Hunter in the tent and let him doze off without anyone else around worked out much better.  As it was, he spent time that night going between his pack-n-play (we had two of them in the tent - it was a nice, bit tent) and my sleeping bag.  The next day, however, was worth the packed car and the somewhat sleep deprived night.  Really, Hunter did amazingly well for his first camping trip and the fact that he was only one and a half years old.  He's a champ.

We went on a beautiful hike while we were there (it was quite long for an 18 month old, but luckily I was able to borrow a baby backpack carrier for a good chunk of the time, which made life a lot easier).  We did the Navajo Loop trail, which is 1.3 miles round trip, and takes you through the stunning Wall Street rock formation with walls and narrows that are characteristic of the formations in Bryce Canyon.  I really loved it.  For one, you get to hike through narrow passages like this:

There was one part where you climb down into the narrows that was particularly neat, though I don't think the pictures do it justice, though you do get a sense of the height of the rock fins that isn't quite as apparent in some other photos.  Of course, you eventually also had to climb out again. :-)

The narrows and the Wall Street corridor were easily my favorite parts of the hike.  In between the narrow walls of rock, there are several douglas firs that have been growing there for hundreds of year.  They are majestic.

I also wanted to add in these picture to give you a better idea of their actual size:

And, while being down there, you could look up and have views like this:

I really loved it.  Around the campfire that night my brother told ghost/alien stories about the hoodoos which were thoroughly entertaining.  Hoodoos are the spires of rock that are characteristic of Bryce Canyon and the Colorado Plateau and some other areas in the states.  Supposedly, hoodoos are more abundant in Bryce Canyon than anywhere else on Earth.  I didn't get my fact checker out for that one.

These are formed mostly by a process called frost wedging, where water seeps into the rocks and freezes overnight, which expands in the rock, creating little gaps and crevices, and then thaws again leave new holes in the rock.  Bryce Canyon experiences 200 freeze/thaw cycles each year (if you would like this and other information on hoodoos, Bryce Canyon, and other national parks, visit the National Park Service website).  Of course, according to my brother's stories, they are really aliens trapped in rock form.  Who knows when they might wake up?  ;-)

I would love to go back to Bryce Canyon, cramped car and all.  It was beautiful, the company was fantastic, the hiking was thoroughly enjoyable (it always has to be enough work to make it worth it in my mind), and since I'm always a fan of camping, well, there you have it.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Starved Rock

I finally, after quite a while, went hiking this weekend, and I took some pictures.  One picture, in particular, made my day (mostly because in general I am not all that great at taking pictures and I felt extraordinarily lucky).  Here is a sample:

 And the money shot:

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Pinching Pennies

Hunter is learning all about money.  Supposedly.  Well, we're working on it.  This is how it all started.  He got a responsibility chart that has all kinds of responsibilities for all ages.  This is us hanging it up in the bedroom:
 Yes, Hunter has his own drill that he is helping out with.  :-)  The chart currently has responsibilities on it like going potty, sharing, saying please and thank you, getting ready for bed, etc.  All very age appropriate for a preschooler.  And, we get to change them as he gets older.  I love it.  I'm more excited about it at this point than he is.  Although he does love the smiley faces he gets to put up for doing everything.  Here is the final product:
Those little circles underneath on the white board are his little smiley face magnets.  He loves them.  So, in celebration of this new reward system, I decided to provide actual rewards for the things that Hunter the form of quarters.  Of course, then I realized my great opportunity to actually teach him about money from his very first dollar.  Which led to a new project.  Piggy banks.  Yep.  Plural.  Four of them, to be exact.  They came plain, but I couldn't just leave them that way.  Besides, Hunter insisted that at least one of them wear shoes.  So, with some porcelain paint, a sharpie from an obliging neighbor, and a little boy with a bunch of ideas, we came up with these:
 Meet (from left clockwise) Bacon Beckham, Piggy Blackbeard, Penny Porkchop, and Pippin.

Why four pigs, you ask?  Well, I figured that he would need a little piggy bank for every type of little fund about which I was inclined to teach him.
Blackbeard is for savings (he be settin' aside some booty), Penny is for mission savings (indeed), Pippin is for tithing, and Beckham is Hunter's fun money piggy.  Am I overdoing it?  Perhaps.  Regardless, I had fun making these little guys anyway and Hunter LOVES them.  And he talks about them quite regularly as if they are his little friends.  I am glad that he is fond of them.  Maybe that means they will stick around for awhile.  Now on to being consistent with keeping track of Hunter's 'responsibilities' so the little tyke can have something to put inside of them.

Monday, June 06, 2011

The Evolution of a Self-Portrait Artist

Hunter has been very involved lately with perfecting his self-portrait skills.  This is about where he began:

Though, he quickly progressed:

It didn't take very long before he was constantly taking self-portraits like these (which, if I do say so, are quite good.  I love his crazy little faces.  FYI, the hat is not his, nor mine, but it is amazing.):

And my personal favorite thus far:

He also really likes to take close-up shots of me in which I also make funny faces.  He is getting quite good at it:

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Average Perfection

A Gayle Force: Average Perfection

Read this. That is all. All I care to say is "Amen sister."

Okay, I want to say a bit more than that. I love the way my sister expresses things. I love what she has to say here.

As I read this, I thought about the ways in which competition not only undercuts our ability to be charitable (with ourselves and others), to share our own and lift others' burdens, and to accept and work with and on and through the weaknesses that matter (as opposed to cultivating some pretty undesirable traits - I mean, competition rarely brings out the best in anyone), but the ways in which it also disconnects us from other people. Whether those closest to us, or those in our larger communities, the competitive drive separates us emotionally and spiritually from other people, and it limits our ability to really appreciate and connect to the divinity in ourselves and in others. How can we really connect to others when we are constantly evaluating our relationship with them through a glass of where we fall in relation to each other on the competition scale?  Many may read this and think they never do that, but they probably do.  I know I do, and others I know do, even when we don't mean to.

This great race can cause people to balk at ideals that could, if seen in the right light, give us understanding, compassion, guidance, and hope. Competition not only breeds disunity, but it brings out defensiveness when people contemplate (and miss the point of) certain ideals ("Be ye therefore perfect").  Defensiveness that comes from a feeling of falling short, which can manifest itself both as direct defensiveness ("But I'm doing the best I can!") and what feels like arrogance or judgment ("Well, I am doing better than him/her!").  This is usually a symptom of misunderstanding the ideal and how we can live in relation to such things within the context of our varied and "average" mortal experiences.  It also comes from missing the point about which ideals matter in the grand scheme of things.  If we lose the ability to see the purposeful distinction between the ideal and reality, then we lose the opportunity to see ideals in a way that enhances our understanding of God, the Atonement, ourselves, and others, and to live in relation to ideals in a way that works for our better good and the better good of others. 

The best, most hopeful part of it all is that the great race is an illusion - something we've created and that we ourselves perpetuate. And, if an illusion, then something that we can walk away from toward something better.  Something real.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

A Severe Mercy

Once again, I am being lazy and kind of repeating my Goodreads review here.  But, in my defense, I did write a long review of this book in Goodreads, so there.

A beautiful story about love, faith, and loss.  Vanauken has a unique style of writing that really creates his experiences for the reader in ways that I rarely see in books.  If the book were fiction, I think that may have made it kind of irritating.  As a true story, however, his style (at once rich, beautiful, vivid, albeit a bit laborious at times) really allows the reader to see right into his experience in a way that few memoirs accomplish.  (*As a side note, I have to say that I did not really feel that his writing was overly laborious.  I actually quite enjoyed reading his writing.)  There are times where you can really feel what he felt as you read, which can be somewhat exhausting, and it is something you have to put effort into.  To me, this aspect of his writing made this book incredibly human.  He did not shy away from honesty about his own weaknesses, and he sets up his experiences in such a way that you feel present with him in that moment.  This means that this does not feel nearly as much like a memoir looking back as it does a story.  Vanauken kept journals and other records of his life with Davy (his wife), and the way he writes about his experiences captures the feel of the moment rather than being overly circumspect about his life experiences. 

Because of this style of writing, I think it is really important when reading this not to assume that Vanauken is lauding any particular view over another at any one time throughout.  If you fall into a trap of thinking he is preaching a particular way of life too early on in the book, then you'll miss out on experiencing his experiences with him as you read and watching him grow as he grows through his experiences, and you'll give up before you realize that his views as a young lover and his self-congratulatory manner of expressing himself isn't the whole story. 

Vanauken has written this book in such a way that every experience feels present at the time that you read it, which really does allow you to feel it in a different way than if you knew which ideas about love and life will mature or change over time.  Once in a while he mentions a distinction of his early life with his wife as being when they were "pagans," but there is never more than a small hint at how certain events will affect their choices and beliefs in any particular moment until you get to the moment of the change.  Rather than feeling purely as if Vanauken is writing from a state of remembrance (even though he starts out that way - which was one of the slower, yet really fantastically described, parts of the book), it feels as if he is giving you an insight into his experience and his mind at the very moment he lived it.  This can be annoying for some people if you never get to the moments that mature and change him later on.  I found the last couple of chapters to be the most poignant in terms of understanding the events of the earlier chapters differently by virtue of the author's gained experience and life lived in the interim.  And, it is quite amazing how much insight into his own character he draws from his yearning to understand and give meaning to a tragic loss.

If there is one thing that I would say to anyone who is thinking about reading this book it is to make sure you make it to the end.  Even if you have to skip some of the beginning to do it.  The beginning feels pretty dense and slow-going for some, mostly because his descriptions are so rich and he spends so much time on them, but the book never comes together until the end.  If you stop too soon, not only will you not have the whole story, but you won't have the complete feelings, thoughts, and insights of Vanauken on the experiences you are reading.

I loved several things about this book and I simply can't write them all.  One was Vanauken's constantly evolving friendship with C. S. Lewis.  I find it worth noting that Vanauken states that his friend through his grief was C. S. Lewis, in spite of (or perhaps because of) Lewis' frankness, honesty, and severity with him.  Though Lewis is kind, interested, and understanding of Vanauken's emotional state during his grief, he does not indulge him in it.  Lewis tells Vanauken honestly and yet with care and concern what he sees Vanauken relating to him.  This aspect of their relationship is what Vanauken finally says caused him to truly love Lewis all the more.

Finally, the value placed on actively protecting relationships is, I think, important, regardless of whether or not you agree with Vanauken's and his wife's particular methods and/or philosophies at the time that they initially create and describe them.  Oh, I wish I could say more, but I don't want to ruin it.  For this part to really come together and work for me, I simply had to read to the end of the book.

Saturday, February 19, 2011


"This book is exploratory surgery on medicine itself, laying bare a science not in its idealized form but as it actually is - complicated, perplexing, and profoundly human." ~Editorial Review (

Atul Gawande is a talented writer. Reading this book was not only enthralling, but effortless.  I missed my train stop I was so involved in the book, and I nearly missed my bus stop later that same day for the same reason.  

The most remarkable and enjoyable aspect of the book for me was the way in which he approaches the subject matter.  He writes using several anecdotes to demonstrate how complex and unknown medical science is, and especially to show how utterly human an endeavor it is to be a doctor or a patient.  Medical science is something that is relatively idealized in our society, and the ways in which we litigate and talk about medicine in many respects expects and demands a certain level of perfection that is simply inconsistent with who we are as beings - fallible, imperfect, working with knowledge of processes that are still rather mysterious, in situations that often require quick decisions based on a combination of knowledge and intuition.  

Reading such a honest account of how things work, what struggles and worries present themselves in various situations was so refreshing.  Not only that, but he was honest in a way that showed his acceptance of his accountability for his choices and actions.  Rather than coming away with a wariness or fear of medical practice because of the honesty involved in the narrative, I came away with a deeper respect and admiration for doctors and their willingness to take on the responsibility of their choices that have such a tangible, physical, and often emotional impact on their patients.  The chapter that talked about who should be making medical decisions was especially touching in that regard - that we push for patient autonomy (which is a good thing) and yet at some point we recognize that we may want doctors to make the decisions for us so that we don't have to live with the accountability for the outcome.  What a human way to look at the kinds of choices doctors and patients make.  I also really liked the chapter that talked about 'bad doctors' and rehabilitation - how to work with the acknowledgment that doctors suffer from the same kinds of issues we all do, and these issues can affect their performance just as they would affect any of us in our work performance.  Obviously, the consequences may be more dire than for some other professions, and so how these doctors are dealt with matters, but how we treat them as human beings matters too.  And sometimes choices are made that have lasting consequences that just have to be accepted.  This is just a part of life in general, and it made the experiences of doctors and patients accessible.  The point wasn't just the honesty of it all, but the responsibility and accountability of it all.  I felt a more profound connection to and compassion for those who work in the medical profession after reading this book.  Which, I think, happens more often than not when we are honest with others about our experiences, weaknesses, and mistakes.

I feel that so often people get caught up in not making mistakes in general, and so often try to crucify those who do make mistakes (of course, this tends to be amplified depending on what level of perfection we expect from someone, say, in a particular profession), that narratives of our honest experiences that come from an accountable perspective are sorely needed.  We need to acknowledge and understand that none of us are alone in our imperfection.  I only wish that there were more narratives like this - that relate our actual experiences as human beings in an honest light.  A wonderful read.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Till We Have Faces

A beautiful, engaging, and compelling retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, Till We Have Faces became a favorite book for me after the first read.  I could read it again and again and find new nuggets of meaning to pull from its pages.   The characters are dynamic and vivid, and the story is complex, filled with symbolism, and is ultimately so human that I couldn't help but be drawn into the story on a deep emotional level right from the start.  It caused me to ask questions about how we know what/who we are, what we want, how to be grateful for the ways in which we've been blessed (in all areas - not just those that seem 'easy' to recognize), and most importantly about the ways in which we fail to understand 'love' from a perspective that is wholly unselfish, a perspective of what is truly best for those we love, which can sometimes be so difficult to recognize, acknowledge, and act upon.  It also caused me to ponder over the masterful self-deceivers that we humans are, how we justify our actions in so many complex ways without ever fully acknowledging it to ourselves, and how we must learn to grasp the power of thoughts and words - of our conversations with ourselves and with others about the choices we make.  That honesty has so much to do with learning to understand our own motives, thoughts, actions, and desires in the relationships that we treasure.  I could go on and on, especially with regards to how the above affects our relationships with deity, but I'll stop here.  There are multiple insights and treasures to be found among the pages of this unique and inspiring novel.

A favorite quote, and the quote from which the book draws its name:

"Lightly men talk of saying what they mean.  Often when he was teaching me to write in Greek the Fox would say, 'Child, to say the very thing you really mean, the whole of it, nothing more or less or other than what you really mean; that's the whole art and joy of words.' A glib saying.  When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you'll not talk about joy of words.  I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer.  Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean?  How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?"