How to Have Sex to Make Better Children

“Sorry to say, but it’s mostly her gene pool,” the pediatrician said, as she glanced over the information about our foster kid. “No amount of ADHD medication is going to make her a rocket scientist.”

Theories abound about the essential things one must do to produce productive children. One theory that’s probably true is having parents who don’t tie you to a chair before going out for the night, but in the case of our foster kid even that behavior is hereditary.

Victorians loved the ideas of science and progress. They were so darn optimistic about the future and mankind’s place in that future. There were the doubters and the haters, but many people bought into utopian notions even if they didn’t up and join a communistic free-love society like my hapless Buck Crenshaw does in THE DEW THAT GOES EARLY AWAY. I give Buck a pass because he only goes to please a gorgeous girl (and gets himself in a heap of trouble).

I suppose most Victorians had sex that we’d consider pretty normal. Some had affairs and others–a small minority–practiced continence.

In his book The Science of a New Life, John Cowan (a 19th century “scientist”) urged sex to be saved for bi-yearly sex marathons:

“The core of Cowan’s program was his ‘law of continence,’ which, with certain variations, was echoed by many reformers: ‘The noble army of the continent of mankind’ is made up of those who don’t drink, smoke, wear corsets, dress ostentatiously, overeat, or live sedentary lives. They practice ‘voluntary and entire abstinence except when used for procreation,’ and they do not misuse the marriage bed for ‘the perverted amativeness’ of physical pleasure or sexual relief. Since Amativeness, the phrenological organ of the sex drive, is located at the rear of the lower skull along with other animal faculties, it may become an organ of animal lust.  But coitus that occurs when Amativeness has been subordinated to Spirituality, the organ of reverence located at the top of the head, permits the highest sexual magnetic impulses to be telegraphed from the brain of the parents to the brain of their child. The ‘law of continence’ mandates one heroic procreative session every two years during a sunny August or September morn, so that the child may be born in springtime. Following a four-week period in which the prospective parents, in a spiritual mood, have been focusing their will powers on those qualities with which they want to endow their child, their copulation generates and electrical transference of these very qualities to the child.” Excerpted from Pseudo-science & Society in 19th century America, edited by Arthur Wrobel

We smile a little at this but I wonder if a little more reverence, a little more thought taken for the future of offspring wouldn’t be a good thing.

 

 

How to Handle Criticism

“Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain and most fools do.”
Benjamin Franklin

The other day my husband and I were discussing who we were going to hire to put in an asphalt driveway after two different companies sent their men with estimates.

One of the men who came by wasn’t a very good speller but had been laying asphalt for 20 years. The other came with his wife and laptop, fancy postcards and a brand new truck. My husband was undecided since the estimates came in almost the same. He took to his own laptop and started reading local reviews. The bad speller’s company had a perfect 5 star rating. The fancier guy’s company had one bad review.

The wife of fancy guy responded to the bad review. Not good. She passive aggressively pushed the blame for the customer complaints onto the customer. She then described the death of a family member and various other personal issues that may have prevented her in 2014 from returning the disappointed customer’s phone calls. She pointed out that her company was a family run business and one bad review could really hurt its reputation.

At church the other day an artsy acquaintance and I were talking about swapping my book for her music CD. “What if we hate each other’s work?” she asked, jokingly.

Critics have been around since Satan grumbled about his place in heaven, yet pondering the asphalt situation (my husband chose the bad speller) left me thinking that maybe being a critic wasn’t the best way to pursue a happy life. There is a savage thrill in expressing a heavy-handed opinion with a superior toss of the head during a movie about super heroes. But is it really fun for those people around you?

On the rare occasion when I actually leave the house to go to a movie I ask my husband what the reviews are for the film. He usually responds, “Who cares? I want to make up my own mind.”

My husband takes a bad movie in stride. He’ll admit to a movie being less than he hoped but does not get worked up about it. He also never sits down to write bad reviews. I never do either. I may rant about something for a few days, or complain to my husband about a dumb book that’s really popular, but I have no desire to put pen to paper if in my mind the book or film or asphalt company deserves less than 4 stars.

Some people seem to think they’re doing the world a great service warning a buyer against a book, movie or driveway but sometimes silence is just as appropriate as words. A book with no reviews leaves just enough doubt in a reader’s mind without having the author’s reputation tarnished forever (or until an EMP STRIKE takes down all electronics). Only once did I check out a reviewer’s other reviews when she left a bizarrely personal and vicious attack/review. It was very eye-opening. Let’s just say I wouldn’t want to live in her world of miserable negativity. I’m not sure I believe in karma exactly but wonder if in this age of YELP and Amazon we are not turning into the crows I see on my property who peck baby birds to death for fun.

the-noon-recess-winslow-homerWhen I used to teach 5th graders, the rule was that the kids had to think of three nice things to say about a fledgling writer’s efforts before the pecking began. My eleven-year-old students very easily learned this skill and the young writers flourished. Adults sometimes seem to think it would take too much time for such civility.

Critical thinking and perceptive critiques certainly have their place and it is almost never worth it to respond to criticism with whining or defensiveness, but I wonder if my mother’s advice, “if you have nothing good to say . . .” isn’t something we all should consider now and again. Maybe we should even consider what our true motives are at times. I can usually tell when I’m just in the mood to be a bitch (so can everyone else).

Once someone close to me said, “Well, it’s not like you’re the best writer who ever lived.”

REALLY? Who knew?  The person is someone I know loves me and her words came out wrong (or did they?) but they still annoy me . . . a little.

In the old myths the gods pecked at and destroyed each other in battles of ego, jealousy or stupidity. What kid didn’t love reading about such battles? But none of us are gods. We play them in critique groups or in dark movie theaters and basically just annoy and rob joy from others (again, I do realize that sometimes criticism is good and appropriate).

There may be some people who produce junk on purpose, but most artists and asphalt layers are just trying to do their best in life. Silence is golden in many (most cases).

My singer acquaintance at church and I decided that if we didn’t like each other’s work we’d say nothing. That way we could each pretend that maybe the other person hadn’t yet found time to read or listen to the works that bared our souls.

What about you? What’s your favorite example of toxic criticism? What has been someone’s most helpful criticism in your life?

PS~How great are the looks on the critics’ faces in the above painting?

HOW TO SPOT TOXIC FEEDBACK

I REWROTE MY NOVEL THROUGH A CRITIQUE GROUP AND LOST MY WAY

HOW TO HANDLE CRITICISM: THE TOP  TIPS FROM THE LAST 2500 YEARS

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“The death of the attention span may have been declared too early.”

WOULD YOU READ A ONE MILLION WORD BOOK?

“The death of the ‘attention span’ might have been declared prematurely,” she adds. “But at the same time, novels are competing with other entertainment forms that provide a lot of instant thrills. To start a long novel these days, I think the reader needs to feel certain that the tale will be worth the journey.”

25 BIG NOVELS THAT ARE WORTH YOUR TIME

 

WHY BIG BOOKS ARE BACK

What’s your favorite long novel?

Who Else Hates Genre Labels?

The White Cockade by Edward Martin
The White Cockade by Edward Martin

LITERARY FICTION FOR PEOPLE WHO HATE LITERARY FICTION

“There is a stereotype of literary fiction shared by both science fiction readers and non-science fiction readers: that academically-sanctioned, “serious” contemporary fiction is all about dull middle-class people having affairs, and that the writers of this fiction do such things as use a couple hundred pages to describe events that could quite easily be described in a paragraph.”

WHY THE HATE FOR ROMANCE?

An interesting thread on romance in fantasy writing:

“But for people who want verisimilitude and detailed characterizations, romance is going to be there. Real people deal with romance in their actual lives. It’s a huge part of being human.

Romance doesn’t mean the book is plot-less or spends all its time dealing with vampire-werewolf three-ways. Badly written romance means the book is plot-less or spends all its time dealing with vampire-werewolf three-ways.” unconundrum

THE EMPTINESS OF LITERARY FICTION

“The stereotype is not just about elevating certain works of fiction, but overdetermining their value.”

13 STRUGGLES OF BEING A ROMANTIC WHO HATES ROMANCE (this one doesn’t have much to do with books. Just a fun read.

“(And yes, you cried deeply at The Notebook, and hated yourself for every minute of it.)”

 

WHAT FICTION DO YOU HATE? or LOVE?

Adoption

“The old time blacks,” wrote James Thomas, “never used to take much stock in the ‘Yaller’ Nigger. They called him ‘No Nation,’ ‘a Mule,’ ‘yaller hammer.’” *

Mulattoes under slavery were in a tight spot. Often times a master’s half-white children were brought in as house slaves. Some were educated and some were eventually given their freedom.  ANDREW WARD suggests in his book DARK MIDNIGHT WHEN I RISE that some women slaves submitted to their masters for the very reason that their children might be seen differently and treated better—but by whom? Their skin betrayed to all that tribal lines had been crossed.

Darker slaves saw themselves as superior blacks with pure blood.

They even admired their masters for keeping the races pure. We can only imagine what white mistresses thought about their husbands’ liaisons (or what fathers thought when their daughters eloped with black slaves).  Yet even light blacks expressed certain stereotypes. “Some folks say that when a ‘Nigger’ is so black he just naturally mean.”*

Ward tells of a Jubilee Singer’s lineage, one so full of halves and fulls, of slaves and whites, we are met with again the notion that race, color and stereotypes are never simple things.

We do judge books by their covers. We all do. I do.

This summer my (soon to be adopted) “low-functioning” daughter and I sat waiting at the station with my two “normal” teenagers who were taking a bus south (to New Jersey). A young man about twenty interrupted our good-natured bickering about money for snacks for the bus.

You know that feeling of slight annoyance when someone asks for change and they seem to be pouring on the gratitude a bit thick?

In truth we were looking for change for the vending machine and the young man in wrinkled clothes was looking for a dollar bill. We did an even exchange and after profusely thanking us he walked off.

The bus was late.

Saratoga Springs Station is a quiet place. I like eavesdropping and people watching. I’d made up my mind that the rough-around-the-edges young man now grubbing a cigarette from the obviously university educated man about the same age was the type to find trouble. I cringed at the way the university guy gave over a cigarette with faint disgust.

Yet something about the young smoker cursing up a storm now and pacing as he spoke on an old phone to a family member in Pittsburgh mesmerized me.

From what I could catch the young man was dead broke. He had a 24 hour layover somewhere west, and he looked rake thin. Maybe because I felt a tad guilty for judging him, after we saw my teenagers off, I slipped the smoker some money (I say this not to brag of my generosity for I’d just spent a good thirty minutes eavesdropping and judging). Now when this sort of thing happens my tendency is to never make eye contact. I’m shy and don’t like intimate encounters, but for some reason our eyes met and the young man cried.

I mumbled something about God loving him or something (I NEVER do this) but felt even though I was in a hurry to move on that he needed some basic inspiration and this is what popped into my head.

My girl and I walked to the car. We sat in the car mulling things over. The good thing about “low functioning” people is sometimes they just cut to the chase. My girl said, “You feel it too, don’t you? We should go back.”

I turned the key in the ignition. “No. What would we say? No, we did what we could.” We drove around the parking lot three times. I kept hoping the kid would be gone but there he sat, now with his head in his hands, shoulders shaking.

“God wants us to go back!” my kid kept saying with urgency.

I will admit that by now after having met the young man’s eyes my entire perception of him changed. As we lingered at the exit before a stop sign I was compelled to turn around, park and with pounding heart and red face walk up to the man who I now noted had a bruised face.

My girl looked up to me for words. I stumbled around a bit but finally said, “Okay, so you may think we’re freaks but something . . .” I looked at my girl. “Well, you see, we think God wants us to sit with you for a while.”

I waited for him to tell us to back off. He didn’t. He told us his life story. He told us his mother abandoned him to foster care where he spent days locked up in a room without food. My kid told him she’d experienced the very same thing.

Imagine a little girl and a full grown man crying over past hurts.

It was obvious from the man’s story that he’d made some mistakes in life with so little guidance and so little love. He’d moved from his grandfather’s house a while back for a good job in construction. After a falling out with his boss and a night spend drinking his unemployment news away, someone mugged him. Only moments ago he’d called his sister begging for her to meet him  somewhere only to be told his grandfather had just died but they’d had no way of contacting  him. The phone he had called her from had been borrowed.

Okay so some of you reading this may be thinking the guy was just a storyteller. But to me it was this incredible God moment. We prayed together (again, I’m pretty private about my prayer life but there was this compulsion—something beyond myself, beyond my girl, too). The man mentioned he read the Bible hardly ever (I mean, who really does?).

My girl, only a year from the mental ward where we were told she had no hope and that she’d spend her life a zombie, ran back to the car.

I had told her to bring a book to read in the car because sometimes she just talks and talks and talks. I get peevish when this happens. She ran up to us breathlessly and handed the man named William her raggedly little Children’s Bible someone had given her long before I knew her.

This man William  (I hope he’s doing well) was tanned from outdoor work. My girl was pale white from the hospital and group home and I was freckled. But for a brief moment we were all the same.

Quotes from DARK MIDNIGHT WHEN I RISE

Related: WHAT IT REALLY COSTS TO FOLLOW JESUS

  ADOPTING FROM FOSTER CARE

 

Taken Prisoner

A Confederate officer stood alone at a crossroad goading his horse to move on in the aftermath of the Union retreat at BULL RUN. Sensing danger he glanced over his shoulder. A Yankee raced over the field tramping the freshly cut hay. As the Yankee drew closer he struggled to pull something from behind his back. The Confederate, with heart thumping through his uniform, pulled out his revolver and took aim.

The Yankee waved a white flag,  stopping abruptly at some distance. He wavered there for a few minutes until the Confederate swore he would do him no harm. Looking to his left and then right, the Yankee weighed his options and moved forward.

The Confederate noted the man’s flushed cheeks and face not yet ready to be shaved. The boy could not be more than twenty yet he was a lieutenant from a New York regiment.

“I give my word to you, sir. If you let me go I’ll never pick up a gun again. I’ll leave at once for my father’s farm,” the boy begged.

The Confederate kept silent and the boy on his horse soon followed, resigned to his fate.

The Confederate and the Yankee may not have realized at this early stage of the war that to be a prisoner was as deadly as fighting on the battlefield, but something in the young man’s cowardice already worked on the Confederate’s conscience. We don’t know if this Confederate officer cursed the angel on his shoulder as the two men walked ten yards.

“Go back to your friends, boy,” the Confederate ordered. “One more prisoner will hardly make a difference.”

When the Confederate met his own scouts they asked what had happened. When they set off in search of the “escaped” prisoner, the Confederate officer refused to join them.*

I wonder about the young New York lieutenant. The other night I happened upon our cat devouring the skin and fat of a just killed chipmunk and was surprised to see the organs still in movement. What moving things did this young man see at Bull Run? Was he a shy boy having trouble fitting in? No. There was something of a leader in him to be made lieutenant. Did he run all the way home or just to his friends?

A Confederate officer stuck on a stubborn horse gave the New York lieutenant his life back. Like a fish released from a net there was no time for gratitude. The currents of war and blood and peace move men along with hardly a moment to consider a chance meeting at a crossroad.

Why did boys on both sides enlist? CIVIL WAR SOLDIERS Their Expectations and Experiences by REID MITCHELL presents  the uplifting and awful traits that make us human.  Mitchell shares  the forgotten stories of individual men. Each one of them (unlike fish unable to escape mere instinct) left  marks on others they  encountered only briefly and never met again.

How did that New York lieutenant live and die? His fear, his youth, his innocence touched a Confederate soldier once. The man was never the same.

*A re-telling of one of the many poignant stories written about in Civil War Soldiers.

**Image courtesy CIVIL WAR TALK