Ferrante Fever versus the Forces of Franzen

FerranteFeverI felt so pleased with myself today. For months, I’ve waited for Elena Ferrante’s next book, “The Story of the Lost Child.”  Finally, the crescendo of the Neapolitan novels was soon to be in my hands. I walked on a rubble path, through Golden Gate Park with a friend and I told her of Elena’s hidden identity and how some say the books are written by a man. I tell her I found it implausible and if someday proven true my belief in anything would be crushed forever. She had heard about “Ferrante Fever” from Jezebel and just started reading book one. I immediately rebuked her for liking Jezebel, I called it click bait and a snarky form of feminism I found insulting. She liked the blog because they posted issues she cared about and I told her that she didn’t need Jezebel. She kind of shrugged and I realized I could have tempered my proclivity for being overbearing.

I thought of how lucky we were to work near Green Apple Books on the Park, one of the last remaining bookstores in San Francisco. I knew exactly where “The Story of a New Name” would be placed. It was as if I took a standing leap, like an out of shape ballerina, straight to the wooden shelf. In a few short seconds, I grabbed one of remaining two copies and placed it on the counter. An irrepressible squeal, a few claps of my hand came next as I fished around for money, eagerly awaiting to complete my purchase.

“I bet you didn’t expect people to come in squealing over a book,” I say in a pleased tone.

“You aren’t the first one today!”

“Oh that’s good, I can’t wait to start reading. I’ve been waiting for months!!!”

“Ferrante is getting more excitement than Franzen today,” says the youngish bookseller boy.

“Well, of course, I’m not choosing Franzen over Ferrante!!”

My friend obviously hadn’t been too offended by my dislike of Jezebel.  She stuck around the bookstore to watch as if I was picking up a huge cash prize from the lottery. She happened to bump into a friend who just happened to be there to pick up her Ferrante pre-order.

“I overheard you’re reading book four!”

“Yes, I’m so excited. You know what I’ll be doing tonight!”

“Yeah, I tried to come in yesterday to pick up my book early and they wouldn’t release it until today!”

“What?! I’m sure the book was here!”

Just then the bookseller showed up with a box that said Ferrante Fever Party Box. He handed us pins that said “Ferrante Fever” in a strangely inappropriate but eye-catching hot pink neon style. Then he reached in the party box and handed us Europa tote bags. It really couldn’t get any better I thought to myself. I may have squealed again.

“I heard you mention Franzen,” says the woman who was picking up her order.

“Yeah, there is no way I’d read his version of feminism over Ferrante,” I say without holding back again.

“Right?! I don’t like his style.”

The bookseller pipes in, “Yeah he’s not really that great.”

I walked back through Golden Gate park and thought of how willing I was to make so many opinionated proclamations. Earlier in the day I had posted an article about the death of the San Francisco Hipster and for some reason I had called out my closest friend. I didn’t feel like holding back the truth. I did cringe every time she offhandedly called me a hipster or referred to my hipster family. But what kind of friend had I been to tag her name on such a post, laughing about the death of the hipster? Because, yes the hipster is dead and really all counterculture identity is pretty much dead, but did I have to be such a snot? I must have found it necessary to share this opinion with so many people. My friend may have meant little harm calling me a hipster, or maybe it a compliment, or a simple observation. Here I wasn’t so sure. Perhaps it was out of some weird combination narcissism and smugness that prompted me to let everyone know that I dislike labels. Yeah don’t call me anything, I want to say. I’m undefinable.

And what of this comparison between Ferrante and Franzen? I had found it so validating to have a conversation about disliking Franzen. Obviously, in the literary world it’s de reiguer to put one’s nose up at highly promoted fiction writers. Yet I always end up reading his books, while all the while complaining of his misanthropy. I remember that I had ordered a signed version of “Freedom” before the release date and read it with rapt attention commanded by such a literary force. I had blabbed to all my friends about “Freedom” not unlike the incessant stream of platitudes I lay upon Ferrante’s work. But what had struck me after reading “Freedom” was that I was left feeling hollow. At first his characters had pulled me in and I wanted to follow their transgressions, hoping for redemption or insight. But “Freedom” doesn’t take you there, one is still trapped within the confines of unlikable characters and murky ethics.

When I finished “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay” book three of Ferrante’s series I gasped out loud and raised my fist to an empty space. I couldn’t believe the end, even if I had seen it coming, perhaps a thematic device. For months after, I kept thinking of Lenu and Lila and they brought up insights into what it means to live as a woman in the shadow of men, those in our family and those we love. I thought of all the times that I had been a selfish friend, especially to those who I consider close, even to this day. Lenu and Lila’s lives together created a portrait of friendship and feminism that unfolded with so much energy, connection to others (including the reader), to the past and to the present, it became hard not to layer in our own memories. The many flaws of the characters left small wounds, not unlike the how I feel when I see a child left out on the playground. Oh, I how I wanted to go and offer my hand, to take away the isolation and abandonment. Ferrante creates dynamic characters who inhabit a small world, but within a span of decades of complicated friendship we are taken through so many depths of emotions we feel as if we had lived along with them.

As I write this I almost feel a strange nervous trepidation to start the last and final novel because I know it will be the end of the story of Lenu and Lila. But this is the pleasure that I long for, the joy of reading with transfixed attention to the end, and even after I finish I will still make connections and think of their story.

Fighting the Battle Against Terrorized Parenting

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Yesterday at dusk, my daughter wanted to ride her bike up and down our driveway. She is well trained and stays within the boundaries of her cement confine. As I was cleaning the house, with the front door wide open and all the blinds up for maximum exposure, I kept poking my head out almost every minute calling for her response. I am sure she smelled my fear. Sometimes she would ring her bell and other times she would cheerfully reply, “I am right here”! She didn’t question why I kept calling. I reminded her not to talk to strangers. She said okay. After about 10 minutes, I think she gave up. It made me think of the freedom I used to have, riding around with my friends, without ever being called home, without a single parent on guard. I wondered if she felt annoyed, or thought she did something wrong. But I felt better after she was inside and promised a bike ride the next day, together of course. With my eyes peeled for any danger, for creeps in cars and backyard prisons.

I never aspired to become a helicopter parent, on the contrary I wanted to be autonomous and supportive, without being over-bearing. I try to give her space, I try to keep my nose in a book at the playground, letting her figure out the social scene and the scary slide on her own. But I can never concentrate as I am worried about every moment she plays. This is not enjoyable, but I am a terrorized mother, thinking about predators, bombs, rapists, gunshots, basement dungeons, girls chained up, pedophiles with cameras, stabbings, snatchings and killings.

This week I have hit the close button of a news story more than once, reading about the horrors of the poor women held captive in Cleveland for 10 years boggles my mind, makes angry and wounds my heart. I find no pleasure in horrific details. This afternoon, a friend posted something about a man making a soundproof dungeon like some torture chamber from a Stieg Larrson novel. Apparently, this would be child torturer was caught before he committed a crime. I skimmed but caught too many scary details, they made my heart race. I know there is an argument that being aware of such things, reading details and understanding the mind of predators is valuable information for parents. More than once, I have been called a wimp by family members who say it’s essential to know how sick people work so we can stay on guard and keep our children informed. But I feel it’s my job to keep my child a bit protected from horror, to filter out as much negativity as possible. My husband and I believe she should enjoy the world and know that a very large portion of society is kind and just (even though her mother is still afraid). We are not shielding her from reality, we will always tell the truth. So I try to suck in fear for her, keeping a vigilant eye. The details don’t help me stay calm and collected. Children have a perceptible sense something is wrong. Memories of my parent’s hushed whispers talking about The Night Stalker or The Hillside Strangler still freak me out.

Recently, my preschooler asked me if a shooter killed little kids in a school. I took a deep breath and said yes. Obviously she heard something about the Newtown tragedy from someone at school, since I tried to keep a tight lid on any whispering at home. Lying was not the answer, she would know the difference. I held her in my lap and promised she was safe at school. Then we talked about all the nice teachers and John the principal. I said they were always here to protect all of you. She smiled and agreed that her teachers loved all the kids. They would not let a shooter come into the school. We hugged for a long time. I wasn’t sure of the total truth of our heart-to heart. It’s mostly true, but not really a “promise-promise”. This is a tough conversation to have with an astute 5 year old, as she will press on with more questions, despite her own fear. But this is where I stand, trying be as honest without totally freaking her out. I am here to let her know that there are some bad people, but all the good people in her life work hard to protect her from harm. This I know is true.

bikeshadow2But what I truly wish is she could ride her bike outside with a pack of kids, laughing and screaming. It was at this age, around 5 that I wandered about all day long, with my 3 year old sister in tow. Now maybe this was not the best idea, but nothing ever happened to any of us. On the contrary, we had adventures, used our imaginations, got exercise, scraped our knees, lost bikes, got in scuffles and ran across busy streets to buy candy with change we swiped from our parents. It was the time of our lives, the stuff of golden memories. And there were evil things happening in 1978-1985. I recall a story about a missing Asian girl, her body found stuffed in a garbage can. I lived through the McMartin Preschool trial, the longest running child-molestation case in US History. My mom told me that the evil people at the pre-school used puppets to trick the kids into doing bad things. I didn’t understand but was very bothered by this image. As an adult, I learned about the coerced testimony of the pre-school accusers and I mourned the wasted moments lost to fear. We were told never to go into anyone’s house, a rule we rarely ever broke. Inside a house was a boring place, made only for rainy days and sleepovers. We wanted to play outside, squeezing every last ray of sun, ignoring the flicker of the streetlights, delaying dinner for as long as possible. We rode for blocks around the neighborhood, hours of freedom before dreaded homework and bedtime.

I hear a lot about our loss freedom. Blame taxes and big government and Bloomberg’s nanny state. There are terrorist plots from foreign invaders. Religious zealots and their hatred for our ways. We worry about marathons, malls, schools and crowded places. True these are targets for maximum impact. Yet terror has already reached its stealthy tentacles into our homes. We choose to shuttle kids around in cars that are more prone to accidents than riding a bike in a park alone. We need websites, like www.walkbiketoschool.org to give us resources and tools for something we used to do without much thought. It’s a great idea, but we only stopped walking to school in one generation. Have we actually forgotten how to do this? We live in a free country, a democratic society and our kids don’t walk to school any longer. Instead I worry about the quiet houses on the block, who are they? Even the friendly neighbor, the one that could do no harm, may be the one. We have lost the battle in our own neighborhoods—chalk one up for fear.

As a parent, I live in constant fear and I don’t see a way out of it because it’s a validated emotion time and again. Am I going to be the first parent to let my child walk across the street to the park on her own? Go on a play-date with less than a one-to-one parent child ratio, absolutely not! I have experimented at the park, and every time I’ve pulled back another parent will start intervening, a cue I better get my nose out of my book or be deemed negligent. So there is no way my daughter will find that pack of kids running around our neighborhood. They don’t exist anyhow. She has been raised to find me standing right next to her so she can show me every new flip on the jungle gym. There is special triage for every tiny scratch, the type we would have ignored until they scabbed off our bodies. Tattling for every indiscretion is de rigueur. I’m the one who taught her not to use the words like-dumb, stupid, or hate–so I get to hear about every instance. She points out my own dalliance with harsh language. She is on guard too.

Then I think about the good stuff. I know my child better at this age than perhaps my parents ever have, they still struggle to understand me as an adult. I see how she interacts, trying to negotiate with other kids with her bossy ways and take charge attitude. Her trepidation is wrapped around the highest slides and the whizzing speeds of the merry-ground. But she has no fear walking up to little kids introducing herself with the confidence of a mini-senator. When she is older, I will “get it” when she has a leadership role, or says she is frustrated because she hasn’t been promoted to manager. Listening to her worries, I can remind of her innate personality to lead, the one I saw forming on the playground. Watching her climb higher on each rung of the twisty ladder, a huge improvement over last year, is moment we celebrate. Yay! You are a big girl now, look how high you can climb. The smile I see on her face are snatched nanoseconds of pleasure I will savor forever. The trust she has in my judgment is all I need. I am here for her, yes for every tiny little bump, using Band-Aids needlessly, I am always around.

But it does enrage me to think that I am a bit terrorized, mainly by insidious homegrown evil. Its like we have lost freedom at a very micro level, in our own streets and parks and homes. We seem to be wary, there is little trust and connection with the community at large. This is damaging to our society, not having support further exacerbates isolation, extending the cycles of violence. And then I worry, I should to do more than just being there for my child, focusing on her trusting smile. I try to foster connections wherever I can, but it takes a concerted effort, it’s not there for the taking. I am very grateful to my community of friends and family, but I am not sure if it’s enough. To think of solutions, feel so out of reach. Getting the neighborhood together, patrolling the streets, allowing our kids to cry over a boo-boo. I know I can start with little things, like getting over the past. It’s simply a bygone era, where a jumble of worn out kids dragged their bikes home under a dusky California sky, soothing their own scrapes and dreaming up silly games to play in neighborhood streets. Without a parent on watch. Such times are lost forever.bike shadow

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