Poser. (A review.)

It was inevitable, wasn't it? The yoga memoir. Despite apprehension, I thought Claire Dederer's POSER was great. I reviewed it in the Boston Globe a few days back. You can read the review at their website or below.

Don't forget to breathe.

Claire Dederer, POSER: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses Review by Buzzy Jackson

This book is going to be big. Claire Dederer manages to pack everything into this mom-oir: childbirth, money, schools, social class, career anxiety, parenting, sex, friendship, marriage, and yes, yoga. And don’t forget Dansko clogs – “always, always, [the] clogs… ” [31] Thousands of American mothers share Dederer’s clog-shod experience as they glance up from their darling, maddening new babies to find themselves in a new sphere: hip, progressive, trying-really-hard-to-do-it-right mom-world. POSER is written for them. “We were a generation of hollow-eyed women, chasing virtue. We, the mothers of North Seattle, were consumed with trying to do everything right… cook organic food, buy expensive wooden toys… Also, don’t forget to recycle.” [19] Dederer and her husband are freelance writers trying to make their creative careers mesh with the demands of raising two young children. Despite their creativity they find themselves sinking into traditional roles, “he was Earner, I was Mother, like characters in some phenomenally boring Ionesco play.” [33] As a writer, however, Dederer is never boring. POSER achieves a yoga-like balance between pain and humor. While she may skewer the pretentions of her fellow moms and yoginis, she never lets herself off the hook, either. Her honest descriptions of her own fears and shortcomings as a parent, wife, and daughter are at the center of this book. Dederer first attempts yoga to relieve an aching back (thrown out while breastfeeding, natch) but is soon seduced, despite her skepticism and aversion to Tibetan prayer flags, by the calming effect it has on her mind. “I didn’t think of it as an escape; I just felt the relief of moving and not thinking. There was also this relief: It was a room I didn’t have to clean.” [82] Dederer occasionally lapses into Erma-Bombeck-visits-the-ashram mode but in fact her experience with yoga teaches her something profound: how to recognize and face her own pain. “Discomfort, anxiety, dread – they had been lurking there all along, and I had been avoiding them, rushing away from them.” [231] Her acknowledgment of this pain forces her to realize something surprising: “In response to my 1970s mom” – who ditched Dederer’s father for a younger, hipper man and joined the counterculture post-divorce – “I had become a 1950s housewife.” [231] Dederer’s examination of this paradox is one of the most rewarding sections of the book. Her attitude toward her mother is both compassionate - “To be a young mother at the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the ‘70s was to have missed it… They, like everyone else, wanted freedom and meaning.” [57] – and angry – “What happens… when a generation of children grows up with parents who want to be free, and who think that freedom is movement?” [58] For Dederer and her brother, what happened was a desire “to be good, all the time. We would stay married, no matter what, and drink organic milk.” [60] But her quest for total control over her family life, for “an uninterrupted story” in which “no one leaves… [and] everyone sticks together and follows the rules” [232] is nearly as destructive as her mother’s desire to have it all, 1970s-style. Yoga helps her recognize, if not solve, this central issue. From the bendier-than-thou instructors to the more-locavore-than-thou preschool parents, Claire Dederer captures everyone in her Dankso world with humanity and gentle wit. So many readers will relate to her story; not just the long minutes spent in downward dog or the hours lost wandering the aisles of Whole Foods, but the years of pondering the mysteries of family relationships, past and present. And the fleeting moments spent staying, as the yogis say, focused on the breath.

The Plastic Prophecy.

If it's December 27th where you are, you've probably seen enough plastic in the past week to last, well forever (I think it lasts forever, anyway). Credit cards, American Girl dolls, race cars, bubble wrap, clamshell packaging... it's all plastic, baby. So it seems an appropriate moment to assess our plastic culture.

My review of sociologist Laurie Essig's new book, AMERICAN PLASTIC: Boob Jobs, Credit Cards, and Our Search for Perfection (Beacon Books: 2010) appeared in yesterday's Boston Globe - you can read it at this link or below.

BOOK REVIEW: Laurie Essig, American Plastic: Boob Jobs, Credit Cards, and Our Quest for Perfection

“I just want to say one word to you. Just one word… plastics.” When Mr. McGuire offers this advice, if you can call it that, to young Benjamin Braddock in the 1967 film The Graduate, is it possible he had “boob jobs, credit cards, and our quest for perfection” in mind? “[O]ne cannot understand America,” Laurie Essig writes, “without understanding plastic.” [x] Like Mr. McGuire, Essig believes that understanding plastic is the key to understanding contemporary America. Sound absurd, doesn’t it? But in this fast-paced book, sociologist Laurie Essig makes a strong case for the idea that plastic – both in the form of money (e.g., credit cards and other forms of easy credit) and in the form of surgery (e.g., boob jobs, nose jobs, etc.), has become Americans’ favorite problem-solving tool, whether they can afford it or not. “We wish the world were different. We wish we were different. The solution, it seems, is plastic.”[xiii] Essig’s style is breezy but her message is as pointed as a syringe full of Botox: the American Dream is a myth and our addiction to plastic conspires in obscuring that fact. “Our desire for plastic is the result of massive shifts in our culture and our economy that affect us all. Plastic money covered up the fact that most of us were getting poorer while a few of us were getting richer.” [xiii] Hers is at heart an argument about political economy. Essig’s approach adds a new facet to a growing argument about the complicated web of consumerism, health, and the American ethos of individualism expressed in recent books such as Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America and Judith Warner’s Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety. As Essig argues, America’s cult of individualism “grew up alongside capitalism to free the state from responsibility to the individual and make the individual see failure as a personal, not a structural, problem.” [25] How all this relates to boob jobs is surprisingly straightforward: “This ideology says that we are responsible for ourselves, and that we all have a chance to make it if we just work hard enough. In this case, the hard work of beauty becomes something we all must do, and if we don’t, then we deserve our low pay, or lack of healthcare, or lonely, unmarried futures.” [25] If at first the reader finds this line of logic hard to take seriously, just spend some time with the many women Essig interviewed for the book (women make up 90 percent of the cosmetic surgery patients [xix]) who explain that they spent thousands of dollars on bigger boobs, smaller noses, and flatter stomachs because they hoped that by looking better they would be less likely to be fired from their jobs. Less likely to be dumped by their husbands. Less likely to hate themselves. It’s a sad story. And a common one. Essig’s strength is her humor, combined with real compassion for and identification with the average American woman who finds it hard to love her own body. She coins a term that’s stayed with me since I finished the book: “ordinary ugliness.” This is the state of being, well, normal: “stretch marks, cellulite, wrinkles, the downward pull of gravity, the realization that our bodies are not and can never be perfect.” [84] Ordinary ugliness has always been with us; it’s just plastic surgery that’s new. Essig notes that when her mother reached late middle age, she “believed it was acceptable to ‘let herself go.’” – to stop dyeing her hair, pulling on a girdle, and wearing uncomfortable shoes. “I don’t know at what age I can stop dying [sic] my hair or working out,” writes Essig, who is in her forties, “but it’s definitely not anytime soon, if ever.” [87] Of course, the next generation of American women – her daughters – started their “beauty work” earlier than their predecessors and will probably keep doing it into very old age. [87] Why? Because despite real advances in American women’s lives, women are still “trapped in a culture that insists happiness can only be obtained through the transformation of the body.” [159] That, plus the fact that we live in a world trying to sell us stuff, constantly. Essig can’t simply blame the media for the problem; as she observes, many of the women who cite the media as the root of their dissatisfaction with their own appearance go on to get unaffordable plastic surgery anyway. As one cosmetic surgery patient explained, ruefully, “The hard part is to distinguish between what I want and what society wants.” [166] In the past decade the popularity of plastic surgery (measured in the number of procedures) has increased by 465 percent. [xiii] Most of those procedures were paid for on credit. [xvii] You may read these statistics and scoff, having never gone in for “a little work” yourself, but as Essig notes, even if you’ve never considered plastic surgery, “chances are you’ve assumed debt” – whether in the pursuit of a house, nicer furniture, or more education – “in order to create a more perfect future.” [xiii] As the Reagan administration dissolved banking regulations in the 1980s and revised the tax code to benefit the richest among us, increasingly poorer working Americans turned to credit to finance their version of the American Dream. And we’re still doing it. Guess what, Benjamin Braddock? Mr. McGuire was right.

Don't you just adore Scotland?

I do. I visited Edinburgh with my father a long time ago, when I was in fifth grade. What I remember most: Edinburgh Castle; eating baked apples; the story of Greyfriar's Bobby (a cute and heroically loyal little Skye Terrier - hey! I was in fifth grade!)... you get the picture. I loved the trip and still have the kilt my dad bought for me way back then.

Today I was reminded of just how much I love Scotland when I read this review of my book on the ScotGen genealogy blog. Oh, Scotland, you had me at Greyfriar's Bobby... and now this?