Thursday, September 30, 2010

Parents: Meet Peer Pressure

I'm in the process of developing a pitch about Peer Pressure, and how it kicks in when children turn 7 and 8 years old. This idea came from the following experience: Shortly before Jamie turned 7, he started saying he loves the color black, and doesn't like any other color. This came on the heels of me asking what color we might paint his room if we were to give it a fresh paint job. At first I didn't think too much of it; it seemed like he was teasing. But over the next weeks, he continued to say how much he liked gray and black and brown; not red or green or yellow, like he used to (funny how much the subject of color actually comes up in daily life, but I digress). Over the weeks I became worried and wondered, Was he depressed? Is this color thing emanating from a slurry of dark and gloomy feelings? He seemed to be acting normal, otherwise. This is a kid who used to dive into jars of paint and cover a whole swath of paper, leaving no white space behind from streaks of reds and oranges and greens. On the eve of his school birthday party, we were painting his goodie bags, which we always paint ourselves (this brown bag birthday tradition is either overly-frugal or a nice personal touch, take your pick). Jamie insisted on painting them black.

Looking back, I can see that I had a narcissistic reaction to this. Birthday goodie bags black? What will the teachers and parents think? Isn't that a bit macabre for a birthday bash that's happening in June, not say, October? I wish at this point in the story I could say that I was the cool parent who let him do what he wanted to, hey, they're his birthday goodie bags. I did not. I insisted on brighter colors, and waxed on about how bright colors represent celebrations while dark colors are used for sad occasions, like funerals.

Eventually, Jamie became interested in the red and pink and orange poster paints I put in front of him. And eventually he told me his best friend at school told him that he didn't like any colors besides black, brown and gray. In fact, he got so emotional talking about it that through tears he spat out that his "mind had been washed." Where he picked up that phrase, I don't know. When I asked him what colors he would want to paint his bags if he didn't care what his friend thought, he started bawling and said "red and pink!" For some reason the colors red and pink resonated an innocence that broke my heart.

When I was researching a piece I wrote for Parents about parental negativity and how it affects children, I talked a lot with child psychologists about the mental development of the school-aged set. Among the refrain that came out of the experts' mouths was that kids at this age really, really begin care what their friends think. I'd never considered this too much until this event cropped up, and it got me to thinking, Is it important now that I'm mom to a seven year old to look at others' influences, and learn how to delineate between the positive and negative ones? Maybe this is extremely obvious to every other parent out there, but I have to say, there's a certain moment where outside influences click hard, and your kids come home with a strong idea about something they didn't leave the house thinking about that morning. I have to keep reminding myself that this is not about bullying; it's about maintaining your individuality and being proud of your daily decisions, and filtering them through your own burgeoning belief system. I'm aiming to now talk to experts about how to teach children to use these influences in a positive way, and how to teach them to be connected to their peers, but stay true to their own beliefs and desires. What do you think?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Catholic School Begins, with a Hail Mary in the Bathtub

This morning I woke up early and decided it was such a beautiful day that I’d play hooky from the story I’m supposed to write and head down to Chinatown. I always like to go to the Mayahana Buddhist Temple when I’m that far south. I’m not a Buddhist, but I find the temple comforting and beautiful, and when I go inside during the weekdays I’m usually one of three or so people. The temple sits at the mouth of the Manhattan Bridge right off of Canal Street. Walk into the front atrium, and there are two small shrines of different deities. Each is surrounded by baskets of fruit, oranges being the most common offering. There are two red cushions in front of each alter where the devout bow and pray. They make hand gestures, waving the incense that burns, or the spirit, through their hair. In the middle of the room and throughout the whole of the temple there are podiums whose purpose is to collect donations. Give a dollar, take a fortune.

When you step into the main room, you are transported into China. Monks in saffron robes play drums with sticks; elderly ladies line the walls, chit chatting despite the “Please Keep Noble Silence” sign. There are antique prints, framed in plastic, that wrap around the entirety of the room, telling the story of Buddha, from his beginning as Siddhartha, to the end of his life when he achieved enlightenment. But the thing that steals the show is Buddha himself. He stands golden at 16 feet tall, surrounded by oranges, and by ornate pedestals of brass lotus flowers that shine like the sun.

The first time I entered the main room with my, at the time, 5 year old son Jamie, he observed a young woman at prayer below the mammoth Buddha. She kneeled on a red cushion, and then lay prostrate on the ground. When she stood up to leave, Jamie stepped into her place with confidence. The old Chinese ladies chit chatting along the side of the temple paused to watch as my blonde haired, blue eyed kid waved his hands into the air, dispersing the incense around him. They watched as he lied down on the floor, his forehead touching the tile. Mortified by his devout offerings, I felt the first stirrings of independence twist away from our connection. He was doing his own thing, and in that moment, we were gone to him.

“I want to give the Buddha big respect,” Jamie later told my mother, a few months after that first visit, as we strolled down Mott Street. I’d taken him and my mother and stepdad down to Chinatown for the afternoon to introduce them to our usual weekend round of soup dumplings, bubble tea, and the Chinatown playground. Jamie loves the fortunes. I always give him a dollar to drop into the podium, and he always fishes around the huge pile of scrolls in ecstasy. I know it feels good to him, like sticking your hand into a burlap sack of dry beans. It always makes a rushing noise of paper scratching paper, but the Temple, while solemn overall, is still a busy place, and I let him indulge in this tactile pleasure. A couple of times when it’s been less crowded, the paper rustling echoes, and in my hyper-parenting state, it seems to disrupt the occasional local who’s stopped in to pray. At these times I stage whisper “Jamie, go ahead and pick. You can only have one.”

This seems to be the closest thing to regular religious outings I’ve embarked on with Jamie. I was raised in the Episcopal Church, and was quite active in the church when I was younger. I started singing in the church choir, marching myself and my little brother to practice on Thursday afternoons at Holy Faith in Santa Fe. Later, I served as an acolyte and attended a church camp every summer. I loved the music, and maybe I loved the ritual of the mass, or maybe I just found it boring. Whichever it was, it left an imprint that I’ve walked around with forever. I don’t call on it often, but it’s there if I want to access it. I liked watching Father Campbell turn his back from the congregation, lifting up the chalice to the cross, and then knocking the leftover communion wine back until the bottom of the chalice was pointed toward the vaulted ceiling.

My husband Jim was raised in the Catholic Church, and attended Catholic school for much of his primary education. He remembers the knuckle raps and getting pulled around by the scruff of his collar by nuns. Although Jim has volunteered at the Catholic Worker on and off on East 1st Street, he’s never become a part of a congregation in the 20-plus years that he’s lived in the city.

So when I passed by our bathroom tonight to check on my now seven year old, who was taking a bath, I was more than a little startled to hear “[murmur murmur] and keep us from sin at the hour of our death…[murmur murmur]… pray for us sinners… pray for us sinners…” was he saying the Hail Mary in the bathtub?

Jamie has been a part of a unique special education program that uses the only inclusion model in the city; they house themselves in the Catholic schools, where they’ve been welcome. Full inclusion for Jamie is a great thing. He gets to be in a room full of “typical” kids, for the first time in his little life. I see him gaining confidence on the playground, in reading, and now, in his faith, which is not cynical and fractured like my own. In short, he’s happy. To pull him out of religion because of my ambivalence feels selfish; after all, he was learning about every holiday under the sun in his last class’s diversity curriculum. Why should this be different? He comes home and tells me he held hands and sang songs in church, and it was beautiful.

“Hey Jamie, whatcha doin?”

“Do you want to hear my favorite prayer?” he asks, pouring his bathwater through his red funnel and into a Curious George bucket. He went on to recite it, beautiful as a child’s prayer would sound. I felt guilty for the cocked eyebrows I must have worn, and the sneer on my face. Why should a kid be referring to himself as a sinner? So what if he didn't eat the second half of his ham sandwich at lunch? And why did he come home with a drawing of a crucifixion, replete with a guy holding a sword, leaping out of red flames like a superhero, and an angel hovering above in a cloud, during his very first week of religion class?

I haven’t given Jamie religion in his young life. He’s gotten tastes of it, sadly, at funerals. We’ve had talks about god and spirituality, and I don’t dismiss the idea to him. I have painted a picture of, probably, agnosticism with Jesus as an avatar who did a lot of people a lot of good. I skipped the parts about him rising from the dead, and at this point he has no idea what a Virgin is anyway. When I went to church, I always felt like there was a line drawn in the sand between the language of the Episcopal and the Catholic masses. Catholics, it seemed to me growing up, were far more interested in reciting the things we couldn’t explain. They talked about the Virgin thing. They prayed to relics, boxed up and treasured, whether a tooth of poor, tortured Appolonia, or a fiber from a shroud held by Veronica. There were no confessional boxes at Holy Faith Parish. Sin was a word used in prayers, but not something referred to about ourselves in our daily lives.

This isn’t something I feel like I can summarize with a kicker. It’s going to be an ongoing process, I think, of his attending classes, becoming a part of the one community who would take him, and who understand his daily struggles and challenges in the classroom. I’m grateful to them for giving him this safety, but it’s still strange to hear my only begotten son saying the Hail Mary in the bathtub.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Galignani Bookstore, Paris

This marks the end of my English bookstore blog entries in Europe (for this year, anyway!). I'm grateful to my editor, Ed Nawotka at Publishing Perspectives, who gave me the chance to wander and write whatever I wanted to about pretty much any bookstore I felt like writing about. There were dozens more had I had the time, and my hope is that I can pick up the thread in years to come. In the meantime, I saved the oldest for last....

Old World, High Style: A Visit to Paris’ Librairie Galignani, Est. 1801, Publishers Since 1520

• Paris' venerable Librairie Galignani lays claim to being the oldest English language bookstore on the European continent.

• Despite its age — the store was founded in 1801, but the publishers of the same name date back to 1520 — it has weathered the years well and continues be an important part of Paris’ vibrant literary community.

PARIS: A publicist friend of mine who was staying at Hotel Costes in Paris had waxed on about the famous hot chocolate around the corner from her at Angelina’s on rue de Rivoli. Although the end of summer is stultifying — even in Paris and doesn’t usually mean the Best Hot Chocolate Weather — I decided to take my little chocoholic boy to try it out. We’d been on a bickering roll lately and I felt like offering him the ultimate olive branch instead of dragging him through yet another museum. I hadn’t even put together that Angelina’s would be across the street from Fete des Tuileries, an amazing little fair in the Tuileries Gardens with a Ferris Wheel and tons of rides and games, right across the street.

On the walk between the “chocolate l’Africain” which — at the princely price of seven euros — was actually to die for if not slightly nauseating in its richness, and the carnival, was a handsome bookstore called Galignani.

The sign outside claimed it to be “The First English Bookshop Established on the Continent.” On their website, they say it’s been in business since 1520 (as publishers), though the store was originally opened in 1801.

Galignani does boast an impressive history: “The Galignanis were among the first to use the recently invented printing press in order to distribute their books to a larger audience. Beginning in 1520, Simone Galignani published in Venice a Latin grammar (the oldest “Galignani” known)…. However, their greatest success was the Geografia by PTOLEMAUS published in 1597, an incredible bestseller in both the 16th and 17th centuries.”

Not surprising, the shop has moved locations several times in four centuries, and only as recently as 1856 has been parked in the posh arcade of the rue de Rivoli. It is still run by direct descendants of the original family.

I used the carnival as a carrot to keep my kid in check while I took a few spins around the bustling store, which is lined with enviable hardwood shelves dating back to the 1930s. This is an international bookstore, so there are of course massive amounts of titles in French, as well as other languages.

English-language book seekers should walk straight through to the back of the store (passing an incredible International Fine Arts section chock full of esoteric coffee table art books) where they’ll find a comprehensive selection of titles in English, with a strong emphasis on modern fiction and classics alike.

I was happy because my mom, who was doing an apartment swap in Anzio, had run out of books to read in English, and had requested one or two to be thrown in my suitcase for when we visited. She’s obsessed with dark Swedish mysteries, a la Detective Kurt Wallender, and it’s nearly impossible to find something that she hasn’t discovered on her own. The multiple display tables heaved with fun choices — not with any new Swedish murder mysteries — and I was able to snag a couple of lightweight (literally) choices that wouldn’t overburden my strict RyanAir luggage limit.

Small disclaimer: Those who seek out Galignani’s to soak up the atmosphere of an ancient bookshop might be disappointed, not in the selection of titles, but by the newness of the place. It’s pristine, which isn’t of course a bad thing, but I was surprised to learn how old it really was, including the wooden bookshelves. They’re gorgeous, but don’t scream “Old! Made in the 1930s!” I guess I’m always up for a mustier, dustier experience, but I certainly can’t blame Galignani’s for being as high-style as the block that it calls home. Take a look for yourself: their website offers a charming video tour that takes you right into the store (click here).

Librairie Galigani is located at 224, rue de Rivoli, 75001 Paris.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Rachel Aydt vs. Girl's Life- judgment in favor of plaintiff

First, let me say that I am telling this story because for a decade I've been teaching magazine journalism at the New School, and I think this story emulates a very real side of the freelance journalism life. Why would I drive nearly six hours each way to stand in a freezing courtroom just so I can get paid $1,500 by a crappy teen girl's magazine? Am I crazy? Two years ago, when (the far superior) CosmoGirl shuttered its doors forever, I made a hard decision. I would make a go of freelance writing, a sort of horrifying prospect for a couple with a kid to feed. My husband is an independent general contractor, and my job always gave us the stability of health insurance. As an aside, my decision was helped in huge part by the fact that the New School provides decent insurance coverage since I'm in their adjunct union.

So it was in good faith that I agreed to take on two extremely research-heavy pieces for the teen magazine Girl's Life shortly after CosmoGirl folded. The first was a piece on dating violence, which followed the Rihanna/ Chris Brown incident; the second was a piece about the dangers of distracted driving, a story which involved speaking to friends and family of teens who had been killed in tragic accidents. Draining work, and time consuming. I was paid for the dating violence story.

So not getting paid for my driving story, which took two weeks' time to research and write, using data from a study put out by State Farm, and locating sheriffs from car crash scenes, and family and friends of the dead, seemed unacceptable, particularly since there was a signed contract in play that said Pay Upon Publication (last August). The work itself was praised by my editor and later in an email, by State Farm. In fact, my first draft was published practically untouched, more untouched than the newsy features I saw come through CG for 9 years. Maybe a couple of "yous" were changed to "ya" --which I think smart teenagers find insulting and contrived, but I digress-- and a paragraph or two switched around, if that. Months later, after not getting paid, promises came in emails from the Editor in Chief, Karen Bokram ("the check will be cut in the February run"; "I'll keep you posted"; "Of course you'll get paid, and I appreciate your professionalism").... the check never came.

Girl's Life is registered in Maryland, roughly 20 miles from Washington D.C., and for that reason I found myself having to travel from New York to Rockville, MD for my court date-- either that, or take a "settlement" offered by her lawyers. I was confused-- what exactly was there to be settled? I wrote something, there was a contract, and she published it. Also, how can she afford lawyers if she can't afford to pay her writers? Maybe that's what lit the fire for me. Putting a check in the mail with a 44 cent stamp would settle the issue. Was she waiting to see if I'd travel round trip to Maryland to get paid? Her lawyer called me to ask if I was planning on making the trip, and I told him I was. I did show up, they didn't, and I won. Mysteriously, on the official record of the case which can be found online by anyone, you can see that they filed an intent to defend. Something about "must provide proof that $ is owed"... okay, so a contract and a published article seems like adequate proof; both, of which I'd submitted to the court as official evidence with my claim. I'm sure this is why they didn't show up. Whether this court judgment against Girl's Life will amount to a check in the mail remains unseen, but I feel proud that I stood up for myself. Making the trip wasn't a monetarily wise act on my part (twice, because I first sued the wrong entity, the owner of the mag rather than the corporation, because I'd misunderstood a clause in the "how to sue in small claims" brochure from MD that said it's best to sue the owner rather than the name of the company; I should have looked more deeply into that. I don't regret the quality time I spent that first time around with my lovely mother in law who first drove me from Philly to Rockville, giving me an initial lay of the land). Jim had to leave work early twice this week to pick up Jamie; gas, tolls, hotel came to roughly $250, and expenses can't be paid on small claims.

What was worth it though, was knowing that if I'm going to be my own business entity now, I have to learn how to navigate this last-resort terrain. Finally, I can now use this case as a teaching tool in my classes now that this judgment is on the public record.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Coney Island Museum

Last week I found myself at Coney Island on a rainy Sunday. My Uncle Steve was visiting from Dallas, and a bunch of us were able to snag a few overcast hours of boardwalk, Cyclone, and Nathan's time. When the rain started we spontaneously made our way to the Coney Island Sideshow; five minutes to go before Heather Holiday (or somesuch) would swallow swords and fire, and Vick the Vomiter (or somesuch) would slam nails through his sinus (Sideshow sidenote: There's an X-ray of a nail through a nasal cavity at the bar, perched into a corner of the illuminated Pepsi case, to prove it).

The show came and went; the rain came and didn't let up for a good while. The Sideshow warehouses itself in a large corner space at 1208 Surf Avenue near West 12th Street, and I was glad to find the cafe and bar to wait out the worst of the rain. I should have gone in for the Coney Island Pilsner like my brother did because the coffee was old and bitter, but I digress. A Coney Island-themed pinball machine kept Jamie occupied for a long while. I told Steve that I was pretty sure there was a Coney Island Museum nearby that would be neat to check out; he said, 'It's here. It's at the end of the gift shop.' We'd just passed through the gift shop on our way out of the show, and I'd not seen that for 99 cents you could climb the creaky wooden stairs to the second floor and be thrown back in time a hundred years or more. I found this unsettling.

To me, when I think of the vast history of Coney Island, I think about its loyal protectors like Richard Snow, my dear old boss who pops up all over my site lately, and who wrote a book of poetry, a history, and a beautiful and authoritative documentary about Coney, or Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who wrote not one, but two beautiful books about his ghosts from the beaches of Brooklyn. One of his poems I love so much that we read it at our wedding (from A Far Rockaway of the Heart). I hadn't considered that the latest wave of history protectors are the tattooed Rockabilly Sailor Jerry types who are employed by, and frequent, the Sideshow and its bar.

The museum itself is smallish and has an old fashioned attic feel. Entering the space I had a sharp memory of being ten years old and holding Cat Club meetings in a similar feeling space. A makeshift theater with metal folding chairs and a large screen TV shows on a loop a campy "Come to Coney Island!" video from the 50s (they'd be far better off showing Richard's documentary, in my humble opinion). There are a few old ride cars hailing back from when they looked like covered wagons, and old bubble-lettered, candy colored signage fills the walls. There is also a room dedicated to an exhibit called "Postcards from Paradise: Writings and Images from Dreamland, Luna Park, and Steeplechase Parks", showing through February of next year. Glass display cases frame artfully placed cards with fading ink, their sentiments to relatives and friends hollering out poignantly after all these years. A girl with a pompadour hairstyle sits behind a sturdy wooden desk. She wears an old fashioned navy postal uniform, and explains to me that if I want to buy a reprinted postcard from her, and pay for the postage, she'll be happy to stamp it with This Coney Island Stamper and drop it in the mail for me. I decline, because the relative I'd probably send it to is in the other room looking at the old freakshow photographs.

I'm grateful to those who are working their mightiest to pull together their offbeat lives with the dwindling traces of the old Coney Island. The whole flavor of each distinct element of the franchise, if you will, - the sideshow, the museum, the Mermaid Parade, and other events, share the cohesive thread of being run by a non-profit group called Coney Island USA, which has been around for 30 years. Visiting this diminutive, but lovingly curated, museum was certainly the second best dollar I've spent in a long while (you can read about the first best here, if you like).

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Three Lives and Company

It was an honor for me to be able to write a feature about one of my longtime favorite bookstores in New York City. When I left my first job in publishing at American Heritage magazine, going back over a decade ago, my kind boss Richard Snow picked up a sizable gift certificate from them as a Thank You. I'll never forget how much it meant to me, in those lean days, to be able to wander through the West Village and pick up a book-- for months!--from this little shop...

On Not Changing With the Times: How Manhattan's Three Lives & Co. Bookstore Endures

• Three Lives & Co. Booksellers in New York City has managed to survive increasing economic pressure that has forced the closing of numerous other bookstores. Three Lives' longevity is the result of staing very much the same as it did when it first opened in 1968.

• Owner Toby Cox — formerly of the marketing department of Broadway Books — likes to keep signage and salesmanship to a minimum. “The store exists for the reader, not for the publisher or the marketer.”

NEW YORK: Three Lives & Company Booksellers, located in the West Village of Manhattan, sits perched on its corner of West 10th Street like a dependable dear friend who’s always on time, smiling, and happy to meet you. In many ways, the friend remains the same after all these years. The ubiquitous red brick in the Village frames the corner windows, which are stuffed with handsome titles that face the street. For many regulars, it’s hard not to put a full-cover price dent in their wallet every time they pass by. How is it that when other bookshops in the neighborhood are shutting their doors or moving to spots with more favorable leases, Three Lives keeps standing firm? While many businesses are rushing to change with the times, Three Lives’ success rests in staying very much the same as it did when it first opened its doors in 1968.

“See this little sign here? You’ll never see anything bigger than that here.” Toby Cox, the owner of the shop for the last nine years, points to a small standing poster about 2½ by 2 feet tall, celebrating the 75th anniversary of Penguin Books, sitting atop a table full of Penguin Classics. Ironically, Cox worked for three years in the marketing department of Broadway Books before walking away to take over the store. “You know, I’d never considered book selling as a career. In marketing you’re so focused on getting books to booksellers, not to readers, and I was certain I didn’t want to go any further with that.”

Cox bought the store nine years ago from the original founders when they decided to retire. He was a long-time FOS (friend of the store) and when they came ready to pack it in, they thought of him. He had had a stint selling books in Providence, Rhode Island at the Brown University Bookstore before moving to New York, and after his droll and unsatisfying turn in marketing, he took the leap.

“When I first took over the store… I had a table out with my favorites so people could see that I did — now it’s full of staff favorites.”

When you ask Cox if there is anything new going on to speak of — say, new initiatives, business plans, collaborations with publishers — he sort of wrinkles up his nose and offers up a decided: “No. I guess the new thing that I’m trying to do is to do nothing new at all. When I first moved here 12 years ago, I used to come into this store about once a month. I loved it, and made friends with the owners. They used to tease me because I’d always come in and start straightening out the books on the tables… ‘Once a bookseller, always a bookseller,’ they’d tease.”

Cox excuses himself to pick up the phone. In the store today are just himself and his staffer Amanda, a 6-year veteran and relative newbie among his four person staff, the longest clocking in at over 13 years. She’d been helping a lingering and indecisive customer about what to pick up for her summer reading. “Is this like The Secret History?” she asked, holding up Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. “Well, it’s really quite different,” said Amanda, diplomatically, “but maybe you might like this.” She ducks behind the counter and emerges with a couple of other choices. They talk back and forth.

Visually, the shop’s exposed brick interior is heaven for any book jacket junkie. The walls are packed with floor-to-ceiling shelves, and floor space is dominated by browser-friendly display tables. In the front of the store, books are generally arranged face-out, offering up a cacophony of color and subject matter. “Generally, when books face out, it’s just a pleasurable way to browse,” offers Amanda. Toward the rear of the store is a wall of travel guides and a massive wall of fiction. Small sections hone in on books about New York; another houses literature by Americans in Paris.

Another gentleman comes in looking for a journal; they have it, he’s happy and on his way. “More and more booksellers are moving away from the notion of community,” Cox considers. “It’s more and more fractured. I want to be a place of retreat… The store exists for the reader, not for the publisher or the marketer."