Saturday, December 22, 2012

Dress Classy. Dance Cheesy.
Merry Christmas 2012, #GangnamStyle


The Baroness

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Announcing Americashire

My book, Americashire: A Field Guide to a Marriage is coming out on She Writes Press in March 2013.  It's the rural idyll memoir for any woman unsure about having kids, and the press release is here. Check out the Facebook page here. Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Secret Santa

Last night I received this gift from my Secret Santa, which begs the question: Can a childfree woman enjoy mommy porn? 

I'll let you know. Either way I'm sure I'll enjoy the Candy Cane Joe Joe's.

Monday, November 19, 2012

My Plan to End the War on Women

In my last post I complained about how Oprah has set the bar too high for childfree women, protesting that my greatest aspiration was to drink wine. I was being a little disingenuous. With all that spare time and money I have because I'm not raising kids I decided to take a stand-up comedy class. (Actually it was my husband's idea, so you can blame him for what you are about to see.)  This is how I came up with my solution to end the war on women.  How Oprah is that?

Warning: I doubt many people who have kids are reading this blog, but just in case, I say c*nt a lot in the video.


Friday, November 2, 2012

The Oprah Problem

By vargas2040,
Cropped by OsamaK
via Wikimedia Commons
Not too long ago a woman who chose to be childfree was suspect in our society. But now, thanks to celebrities, that's all changing. Just like Lindsay Lohan made drunk driving and shoplifting cool again, celebrities like Helen Mirren, Eva Mendes, Ellen and Portia, Cameron Diaz, and Rachel Ray are making it hip to be childfree. Even Jon Hamm is joining in. His longtime girlfriend recently told the press they're quite happy with their life as is and aren't interested in having kids.  Unfortunately this one just left me feeling depressed; if there's anyone who should be contributing to the gene pool it's Jon Hamm.

Of course there is one childfree celebrity that stands out among the rest.  She is our flagship, so to speak, and she is Oprah.

You would think I would love Oprah for this, but the truth is I'm totally annoyed with her for setting our bar ridiculously high.  Because here's the thing: when you are a childfree woman of a certain age there's an unspoken expectation that you're actually supposed to DO SOMETHING with your life. Oh you know, like start a television network or educate all the girls in South Africa or publish a magazine with your picture on the cover every month.  And I feel bad about this. First of all there's the gender inequality of it. George Clooney is our most famous childfree male celebrity and all we really want him to do is show up on the red carpet with a supermodel on his arm (to the extent that the public seems almost visibly annoyed when he reminds us there's a genocide going on in Darfur). But mostly I feel bad about this because with all that spare time and money I have on my hands because I don't have to buy diapers, all I really want to do is drink wine. I know I should be out there shattering glass ceilings on behalf of all my women friends with kids who are just too tired to do it themselves, but instead I'm quite content to scale mount mediocrity when it comes to my corporate career. Just as long as I make enough to buy the wine.

I am willing to concede Oprah, but to all you other childfree celebs out there, here's my plea. Could you please just be a little less spectacular in your achievements? It would make it a lot easier on the rest of us.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Meet Grýla, Iceland's Christmas Ogre

As I've gotten older Christmas has become more of an ordeal. It's primary function these days is to remind my parents that I've failed to bestow them with grandchildren, which means going home is not an attractive holiday option. But now, at last, I think I may have found a place where even I could get into the Christmas spirit. 

"Christmas in Iceland is not a season for sissies." So began the article I found flipping through the Iceland Air in-flight magazine on my way to Reykjavik for work last week. Entitled "Maneater," it was all about Grýla, Iceland's Yuletide ogre, and she's too good not to share.

While other countries have Santa Claus and reindeer, Iceland has Grýla and her sons, the Yule lads.  Each year Grýla descends from the mountains "to kidnap misbehaving children and drag them back to her lair in a burlap sack."  She ate her first husband and still dabbles in cannibalism, enjoying the occasional dish of stewed child.  Best of all the article notes "she example of a strong, decisive female in Iceland."  (Suddenly Björk makes more sense.)

Grýla's thirteen sons -- her children with her third husband -- play the role of Santa Claus,  leaving gifts for well behaved children.  No Dashers or Dancers here; instead the Yule Lads have names like Pot Licker, Sausage Swiper, Window Peeper and Keyhole Sniffer.  Lest you think Christmas in Iceland is starting to sound all warm and fuzzy, don't forget about Grýla's cat, who inexplicably devours children who don't get any new clothes for Christmas.  

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Motherhood via bed bugs

I am concerned we may have bed bugs in the guesthouse. It's at least one explanation for the constellation of angry red planets that materialized on Wednesday in the most inconvenient places -- the side of my big toe, the tips of my elbows, that spot under my left arm that perfectly aligns with the underwire of my bra for maximum irritation. I am still searching for evidence to ascertain my conclusion, but of the two potential culprits I have spotted, one got away and I killed the other before I could examine it against the picture on Wikipedia. I certainly hope it is not bed bugs because, well, they're a thing other people get.  I remember hearing a story not so long ago on This American Life about some renters in Brooklyn who had a terrible infestation, made worse by the fact that they were too poor to move. That's right, too poor. Which is what I really mean by other people: bed bugs are a lower socioeconomic class problem, right? (Of course I know I deserve to have bed bugs by writing that.)

On the upside, if we do have bed bugs it will be chance for me to experience motherhood without ever having a kid. Let me explain.

When I was in the second grade I got lice. It was going around and so my whole class had to line up outside the school clinic and, one-by-one, get examined by the school nurse wielding a disposable wide-tooth comb.   I remember having a vague feeling of humiliation when I was quarantined after my examination and told to wait for my mother to pick me up from school early. But that was nothing compared to the humiliation my mother felt at having to retrieve a child with lice. Her disdain was akin to if I had been sent home for having a venereal disease. She was absolutely sure I had caught it from my scruffy then-best friend who lived in Pine Manor, the local slum. I am a bit ashamed I don't remember my best friend of second grade's name, but I am pretty sure it was something like Amber or Tiffany, the kind of names that only the girls who lived in Pine Manor had. In any case, my mother made it clear that once she had deloused me, she would prefer if I would spend a little less time hanging with Amber/Tiffany.

And so if we do have bed bugs, I guess I will finally get to experience my mother's shameful brand of shame. I am hopeful we don't, not just because it would be embarrassing but also itchy and costly to remedy. My husband has yet to get any bites, so maybe my own spots will turn out to be mosquitoes or ants or something less serious. In the meantime I'm keeping my tube of anti-itch gel is in easy reach.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Notes from a Star Trek Virgin

George Takei and Walter Koenig, aka Sulu and Chekov,
take the stage in Vegas
Much to my husband's chagrin, science fiction and I have never gotten along.  I love to read, but somehow the trappings of outer space/robots/<insert sci-fi cliché here> render the genre inaccessible to me.  I am in fact a much less imaginative reader than the average sci-fi fan; I like my writing served straight-up, preferably in memoir form by a woman who has a lot in common with me.  It's the same when it comes to television.  I vaguely remember watching Battle Star Galactica - the 1978 version - with my dad, but that's about it.

My husband, on the other hand, considers the crew of the Starship Enterprise family, or, more precisely, supplemental parents.  The two parents he was originally allocated were a little absent for various and assorted -isms and -nias, leaving Star Trek to teach him the big life lessons about ethics, tolerance, and humanism.  It's no surprise William Shatner is his hero, which is why I felt so bad when, earlier this year, I came down with food poisoning and scuppered our plans to see his one man show.  My guilt over that incident is why I agreed to accompany my husband to Las Vegas earlier this month for Shatner's supposed last ever appearance at a Star Trek convention.  It turns out I had something to learn from Trek (and Trekkies) too.

Lessons from Las Vegas

1. Books matter.
Technically this falls into the category of things I already knew, but I loved the story I heard at the convention about where (series creator) Gene Roddenberry's ideas about tolerance and inclusiveness came from.  It turns out it wasn't from his parents -- his mother was a prim and proper and mildly racist southern belle, while his father was an overtly racist Irish cop -- but rather from all the time he spent reading when he was bedridden with childhood polio.

2. Don't be afraid to ask questions.
I found out Gene Roddenberry was influenced by reading because my husband stood up and asked the question during a session with Roddenberry's longtime assistant, Richard Arnold.  I've always been a little self-conscious about doing that kind of thing in front of lots of people.  Then I saw a woman with cerebral palsy ask a question at the mike.  It took a lot of effort and time, and yet my husband informed me she had asked an awesome question at every session.  (I admit it, I was getting a pedicure and lounging poolside for some of the sessions.)

3. Trekkies are geeks and they don't care what you think.
They are too busy having geeky, dress-up, karaoke fun (see 2. above re self-consciousness).  The best moment of the weekend was seeing aliens sipping martinis interspersed among the overweight, middle-America families during lunchtime at the casino grill.  Trekkies in full regalia were everywhere except, noticeably, at the casino tables, which I took as more evidence of what well-adjusted human beings they are.

4. Trekkies are a diverse lot.
I'll be honest, I was expecting this convention to be dominated by chubby pale men of a certain age.  Instead I found young, old, Asian, black, white, female, male, gay, straight, transvestite, prepster, hipster, obese enough to need a motorized trolley, and thin enough to look hot in a Nurse Chapel costume (see transvestite).  And now for my duh moment: they all love Star Trek because from the beginning it showed someone like them.  Or if it didn't, at least it seemed like the kind of place where someone like them (which de facto means you and me) would fit in.

5. Don't be stingy.
My husband hasn't earned his nickname, Dusty Wallet, by being generous.  True to form, on Sunday morning in the casino diner he asked our server if he could have extra toast in lieu of the preserves listed on the menu, which were foil packets of Smuckers already on the table. I was so mortified it was all I could to do to keep from shouting we"ll just pay that extra $1 for some more toast.  But by Sunday afternoon his wallet had opened into a chasm in which $100 photo ops with Shatner and $70 Starfleet insignia cuff links were tossed with abandon.

6. It's never to late to say you're sorry.
For years William Shatner ridiculed Trekkies (see 3. above re geeks) until another Star Trek captain, Patrick Stewart, helped him see what a privilege it is that he was part of such a legendary body of work.  Now Shatner shows up at conventions.  Admittedly his opening gambit was to alienate all the women in the room by suggesting a woman should have never been captain, but at least the guy has a sense of humor.

7. How to grow old gracefully.
William Shatner is now eighty-one years old.  In the last year he has written a book, performed a one man show, and starred in a documentary (and those are only the projects I happened to note).  For this lesson it's best to see Shatner yourself, and luckily, starting in January 2013, he's reviving his one-man show.  I already have my tickets.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Chapter One of Americashire, my childfree origin story

Today's post is a preview of my memoir, Americashire: A field guide to a marriage.  It's the story of how I decided not to have children dressed up in rural idyll memoir.  It will be available in full as soon as I convince an agent to represent a non-celebrity written memoir or swallow my pride and get motivated enough to self-publish.  I hope you enjoy.

Chapter One: Pink Foil Strips

Spring in the Cotswolds happens very slowly and all at once. In exchange for a few cheerful daffodils, the British collectively suspend their disbelief and start to talk of it in March. But spring doesn’t really happens until mid-April on a particular day when the landscape is dun brown in the morning but by evening you find that green has tipped the balance. Soon lush shag piles of minty-green grass and weeds and shoots and blooms line the country lanes, rising into pea-soup hedgerows, then the brown latticework of trees still bare except for pinch-faced buds. Over the next two weeks, these unwind into a canopy of chartreuse lace, set off by a sprinkling of bluebells on the woodland floor. These are not blue, lavender, lilac, or violet. They are plain purple, the one you get in the Crayola eight-pack.

Rapeseed happens next. Nothing changes the landscape of the Cotswolds more drastically or quickly than the en masse bloom of this flower. It is the color of Ronald McDonald’s jumpsuit or the cheap mustard you get in a plastic packet with your corndog at the beach, a color that should not occur in nature, yet it does. It appears in swathes that render the hills a crude patchwork of yellow and green and drives half the population crazy with its hay-fever-provoking scent. Despite all this, I love it. I love everything about this brash landscape of unrepentant lime greens and artificial-food-coloring yellows, which is why I start to feel anxious about its demise almost as soon as I notice it’s happening. Soon May blossom whites and peachy cones of horse-chestnut blooms will be sneaking onto the perimeter, silently upstaging their raucous counterparts with understated elegance. The Cotswolds of Matisse will slip into the diffused light of the Cotswolds of Monet.

Amidst the ephemeral pleasures of spring in the countryside, there was something else to be anxious about. It was wrapped up in a rectangular pink foil strip with twenty-eight pills sealed inside. There were six of those strips to be exact, one for each month of the renewed birth control prescription I had just picked up from the village pharmacy. For the past few months, my husband, D., and I had studiously avoided speaking any further about the “big talk” we had given to my parents over Christmas in which we had announced I was going to try to get pregnant. To be fair, there was plenty to be distracted by in our new country life. But the truth was my ambivalence toward motherhood had not shifted, despite large quantities of fresh air.

The pink-foil-wrapped revelation of my ambivalence shook my husband. A long-held tenet of our relationship was that I was the decisive one, the one who could be counted on to just get on with it. I presided over the world of black and white, the left-brained, the rational. D. held court in the domain of the emotional, the intuitive, the creative. He cries in movies; I bring the tissues. He rearranges the furniture; I pay the mortgage on time. In short, my prescription refill was an act of war: I was invading his territory, and he was pissed.

But before I go any further let me explain how I, a then-thirty-six-year-old American, ended up contemplating motherhood in a Cotswold village with a population dwarfed by that of any single London street. The stock explanation is that we needed to get a good night’s sleep. Since moving to England from Los Angeles, my British husband and I had failed to find accommodation conducive to this simple aim. Our first flat was on a Bayswater side street filled with tall white stucco-fronted terraces that had once been grand single-family homes. They had long since been divided and subdivided again into a rabbit warren of hundreds of studio and one-bedroom flats. D. had secured ours online ahead of our arrival in London, and I’ll never forget the feeling of shock upon climbing the four narrow flights of stairs, my arms laden with bursting suitcases, and flinging open the door for the first time to behold how small three hundred ninety-six square feet really is. Despite its size and thanks to its Kensington Gardens-adjacent address, it cost more in rent each month than the mortgage payment on the Los Angeles home we had just left behind. As if that wasn’t enough, the pipes knocked all night long and a chorus of lunatics routinely serenaded us, their howls ricocheting off the urban canyon formed by the back-to-back mansion blocks.

More recently, we had been living in a stretch of West London that had failed to live up to the promise of gentrification implicit in its Notting Hill-adjacent location. This flat was on the first floor of a three-story brick Victorian terrace, which meant we had upstairs neighbors. Their day seemed to start when ours was finishing, and, other than the possibility they were hosting a midnight furniture-rearrangement league, I never came up with a better explanation for the frequent guests stomping up and down the stairs at odd hours than our neighbor was a drug dealer.

There were other compromises associated with living in central London if, as ours was, your housing budget was limited to a scant quarter million. You might need to live on a street where you occasionally see a man relieving himself behind the dumpsters on the corner or be neighbors with a house full of squatters on the premises of a former Conservative Club, sign and irony still intact. You might wonder what that lady in a miniskirt and a cropped fur coat is doing talking to that gentleman when you leave the house for an early morning jog, or, just once, be greeted by a large yellow sign asking if you know anything about the body dumped in the canal as you decide it’s best to upgrade your jog to a sprint along the tow path. And if you’re young enough, you can probably dismiss these kinds of things as quirky and colorful, the very fiber of your bohemian urban life. But we were old enough to realize that D’s recent modest inheritance—enough to give us some additional square-footage in our current London neighborhood, but not to deliver us into the genteel reaches of, say, Kensington and Chelsea—was well spent on a cottage in the country, if only for weekends. And the truth was we were both partial to the idea of a weekend house.

Weekend house. It had a certain ring to it that was pleasing to the pretensions of our middle-class ears. Nobody had a weekend home where I grew up in Florida, presumably because we all already lived near the beach. The only people I had ever heard of with weekend homes were New Yorkers fleeing to the Hamptons, which seemed suitably glamorous. D. grew up in Liverpool in a middle-class home turned working class by his father’s penchant for drinking his salary. In that universe, a weekend home in the country was beyond imagination. And so we chose it, a recently flooded, two-hundred-year-old cottage without central heating, ninety miles away from London where we worked and lived. There was lots of time to change our minds while the place was drying out, but just before Christmas that year we spent our first night in our very own rural idyll.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

How to give a mother advice when you aren't one

Earlier this week I went to lunch with two old friends, who happen to be sisters as well as mothers.  We hadn't seen each other in a while and after talking about ourselves at length I felt obligated, if not particularly interested, in asking after their children.  This is how I learned that the tween son of one is excelling academically.  Literally excelling: he plots his grades in an Excel spreadsheet and graphs them to track his progress.  She also reported that he cries if he gets a grade less than 100%.

"That's OK, right?" she asked half-heartedly.

I looked at her sister for a cue on how to respond, but even she wasn't going there.  In any case my friend hadn't left much of a pause for an answer and instead was endeavoring to answer herself with an explanation of how much satisfaction her son gets out of academic achievement, offering the example of his excitement at being accepted at a tony local prep school.  I really wanted to tell her that no, this was not OK.  This was crazy pressure for a twelve-year old to put himself under and was bound to backfire at some point.  Hadn't she read those horror stories about Korean kids committing suicide over their grades???  But instead I just smiled and nodded my head.  Because if there is one thing I know from experience it is that there is precisely no way to give a mother advice when you aren't one.

Just as I sidestepped that minefield I encountered another one.  I wasn't even talking about kids.  I was talking with the other mother -- whose kids she reported were primarily interested in soccer and music in seemingly benign doses -- about a mutual acquaintance who happens to be our next door neighbor.  They are a family of four, lovely in every possible way except for the fact that their home looks like a one-trailer trailer park with the wheels removed from the trailer.  The house -- a typical Santa Monica WWII-era bungalow -- was always a bit rundown, but appears to have gone without any maintenance during the seven years we were away.  The shutters, previously a bit ramshackle, have been removed instead of repaired, leaving rectangles of mismatching paint around the front windows.  The front garden is a weed haven, except for an abundance of cacti that were planted on the left half of it some years ago when, ironically, the wife took a class in sustainable landscape design.  A handful of broken bricks and concrete blocks scattered about complete the overall look.  As I reached the end of my thorough dissing of our mutual acquaintance's failure to keep up property values on our street I was met with a simple shrug from my mother-friend.

"I can relate," she said.  "When you have kids, that kind of stuff just isn't a priority."

This was the point at which I remembered that her house was a little weedy out front.  And felt a little bit like an uptight childless house maintenance Nazi.  It seemed like a good time to ask the other mother more about her son's fabulous new prep school.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Where the Wild Things Are

After seven years away, my husband and I have returned to what had become -- at least in my husband's imagination -- our fabled Santa Monica home.  As I dragged him from England to Berlin to Boston in pursuit of my so-called career, Santa Monica became his Xanadu, a place where the sun always shined and all was well in the world.  Minus the morning marine layer, the former has been true.  The latter a little less so.  This is largely because we had both conveniently forgotten our humble Santa Monica abode is located right next door to an elementary school.  For a parent desperate to get their child into the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District -- as was the case with our reliable renters over the years we were absent -- this location is a real estate boon.  For a childfree couple in their forties, it is a bit of a cruel joke.  Life is like that.

The realities of living adjacent to a schoolyard have been amplified by the fact that I am working from home; when we lived here before I was away at an office for the school day.  Now all that separates me from the savages is a window and a ficus tree-lined chain link fence.  And that has been the most surprising part: six to eleven year-olds are, at least once they get on the playground, complete savages.  The self-consciousness and restraint of adolescence have yet to kick in.  These children shriek and trill and scream with all their might.  They stamp their feet and slam balls with violent force at every available surface, including that ficus-tree lined chain link fence.  On occasion a ball makes its way into our garden.  At first I dutifully returned them.  Then I noticed that my husband had started a collection in the driveway on the other side of the house.  The last time a ball came over, I, with only minimal shame, added it to the driveway collection instead of pitching it back over the fence.  We are well on our way to becoming that house on the street: the one where the mean scary adults live.

Speaking of mean scary adults, last night we attended a Maurice Sendak tribute at a local cinema, a showing of the Where the Wild Things Are.  Despite the fact that the film's protagonist, Max, was an elementary school-aged boy, I loved it.  There was something so poignant and true about seeing adult vulnerabilities and foibles dressed up in monster costumes.  (One of the monsters even shared my husband's name.)  Max ran and screamed and shouted throughout much of the film, but it was over after two hours.  And now I have a whole Sunday of peace and quiet before the savages return to my neighborhood.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Top Ten Breeder Truths

My last post covered the Top Ten Breeder Myths, so I thought it was only fair I gave equal space to the many things we non-parents love when it comes to other people's kids:

10. Buying Girl Scout cookies from your child.
9. Buying Girl Scout cookies from your child.
8. Buying Girl Scout cookies from your child.
7. Buying Girl Scout cookies from your child.
6. Buying Girl Scout cookies from your child.
5. BuyingGirl Scout cookies from your child.
4. Buying Girl Scout cookies from your child.
3. Buying Girl Scout cookies from your child.
2. Buying Girl Scout cookies from your child.
1. Buying Girl Scout cookies from your child.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Top Ten Breeder Myths

I am aware this will make me look like I really hate kids and parents.  I really don't.  And yet these things are all still true.

10. Displaying a Baby on Board sign will make people drive safer.
9. Your friends don't mind if you bring your kids to their wedding reception.
8. Your friends don't mind if you bring your kids to dinner at their house.
7. Other restaurant patrons don't mind if your child is badly behaved because they understand you really need to get out of the house for a grown-up night out.
6. Breastfeeding in public sans blanket is a beautiful act to witness.
5. Your friends are interested in hearing about "the cutest thing" your child did this week.
4. Your childless/free co-workers feels no resentment when you leave early to pick up your kids.
3. Using your kid's picture as your Facebook profile picture is ironic and cute.
2. Your friends can't wait until you post your next ultrasound picture. 
1. A stroller gives you right of way.  Everywhere.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Barren in Books: Eat, Pray, Love and the Auntie Brigade

And so, inevitably, Barren in Books arrives at Eat, Pray, Love.  Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestseller came out right around the time I was grappling with my own decision about whether or not to have children, and I guess this is one of the reasons I liked it so much. Millions of other women liked it too, which, by extension must mean that even if these women had kids, the decision about whether or not to have them is something a lot of us relate to. Of course Gilbert’s book was about other things too, but it was the first book I remember reading where childlessness was laid out as a reasonable choice rather than the unfortunate outcome of being a lesbian or a spinster or -- the worst and most pitiable -- infertile. What I find most amazing about that statement is that I was thirty-five when I read the book.  THIRTY-FIVE.  At the risk of sounding immodest, I will point out that I had read rather a lot of books up until then.

In her follow-up book, Committed, Gilbert asserts that she is a happy member of the "Auntie Brigade." She even outlines a sort of defense for the necessity of this childless community of women:

In leaving no descendants ... childless aunts do tend to vanish from memory after a mere generation, quickly forgotten, their lives as transitory as butterflies. But they are vital as they live, and they can even be heroic. Even in my own family's recent history, there are stories on both sides of truly magnificent aunties who stepped in and saved the day during emergencies. Often able to accrue education and resources precisely because they were childless, these women had enough spare income and compassion to pay for lifesaving operations, or to rescue the family farm, or to take in a child whose mother had fallen gravely ill. I have a friend who calls these sorts of child-rescuing aunties "sparents"— "spare parents" — and the world is filled with them.

She goes on to establish its lineage throughout history, including Jane Austen and the childless aunts who raised Leo Tolstoy, Truman Capote, and the Brontë sisters.

As much as I liked both of Gilbert's books, the Auntie Brigade is not a sisterhood of which I particularly feel a part. For one thing my sister, my only sibling, has no children, and at forty-four -- the lesbian part is less of an impediment these days -- that is unlikely to change. My three closest childhood friends all have children but only one has daughters, and I am really only interested in the girls. It’s not just that their clothes are way cuter and the present giving opportunities are therefore much more interesting, which they are. It’s as much about the fact that little boys are alien creatures to me. In fairness they are as disinterested in me as I am in them and our engagement is usually limited to that moment at the end of my visit when their mother traps them and prods them to give me a goodbye kiss before they run screaming back to whatever fort they were building prior to capture. In short, I do not feel obligated make up for my childlessness by assuming my appointed role as the lovable, generous, if sometimes eccentric – think Auntie Mame – aunt.

And this sense of duty is the thing that bothers me just the slightest bit about the Auntie Brigade. There is a whiff of an apology, a “look at my good work in the supporting role” about the whole thing. At least this is what I wanted to argue when I started writing this blog some weeks ago.  But the truth is I started investigating college savings plans for my friends' little girls not long after I re-read this part of Gilbert's book; I guess I always did like Auntie Mame.

Other Barren in Books posts:
On Jonathan Franzen's Freedom
On Caitlin Moran's How to be a Woman

Saturday, April 28, 2012

The ultimate childfree vacation - Days 7-8: Gallup, New Mexico to Kingman, Arizona to Los Angeles, California

The death march home to Los Angeles continued, this time with driving rain at high altitude, broken only by a stop for breakfast at Denny's in Flagstaff.  After two nights in kitsch motels, I have never been happier to check into a Marriott than I was in Kingman, Arizona.  We used the gym, dawdled on the wifi, and generally reveled in the generic newness of it all.  While lounging by the indoor swimming pool, my husband read an article about Oatman, Arizona, and became charmed with the idea of a small detour to visit the honeymoon suite of Clark Gable and Carole Lombard in this tiny western town.

The next morning we shared our complimentary hotel breakfast buffet with a group of bikers called the Messengers of Recovery.  They shared leather and facial hair with their brethren of the biker genre, but were telling  stories about a friend who had "been to the other side" and seen heaven.  After a winding thirty-mile drive on a tiny road, we were joined in Oatman, Arizona by approximately fifty bikers of the more traditional sort.  We took some pictures but decided it was best not to linger.  In no time we had crossed the border to the promised land.  Our portal: Needles, California.

It took us eight days to cross the country and, despite my aspirations, this was anything but the ultimate childfree vacation.  It was a chore -- needless to say, one I would not recommend that anyone attempt with children.  To make it more of a vacation we should have taken more detours, and there was plenty to see along the way.  My notes of missed opportunities include Johnnie Brock's Dungeon, the Halloween headquarters of Missouri; Darryl Starbird's Custom Car Museum in Fairgrove, Oklahoma; the Top of Texas Catholic Superstore, just outside of Amarillo; the Dinosaur Museum in Tucamcari, New Mexico; and Bearizona, a drive-thru (how American!) wildlife park.  We have one more car to get back to L.A., so who knows, maybe I will see the Jesse James Wax Museum before I die.
...and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time

Friday, April 27, 2012

The ultimate childfree vacation - Day 6: Amarillo, Texas to Gallup, New Mexico

Gallup, New Mexico

Day six started with promise.  As we drove into the Windows-startup screen of a landscape of open skies and flat greenery, my husband blasted the Sirrius Spa station.  It was the kind of music second-rate yoga teachers and masseuses play -- and I always ask them to turn off -- but he was having a moment, and I let him have it.  He was back in the West.

In Albuquerque we stopped in Old Town to stretch our legs and buy postcards.  We had a quiet moment in the adobe church and ate marginal Mexican food on the central square.  It got worse from there.  This is when my husband realized his vision of the American west bore little resemblance to reality, which consisted largely of pock-marked highway, aggressive truck drivers, and tatty Indian jewelry outlets along the otherwise desolate interstate.  We considered stopping in Grants for the night, but the cluster of chain motels and a Walmart (which admittedly I had previously found charming in Columbus, Ohio) masquerading as a town was too depressing to bear, and we continued for sixty miles to Gallup.

Maybe not.
There we checked into the El rancho motel, which had once hosted the cast of several westerns.  Our room was named after Kirk Douglas, and came complete with a wagon wheel headboard and heavy antiseptic smell.  We shared the bar with a long-haul trucker and a group of German cyclists, ate our second Mexican meal of the day in the hotel restaurant, and retired into the arms of Mr. Douglas to rest up for the final leg of our journey. 

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The ultimate childfree Vacation - Day 5: Tulsa, Oklahoma to Amarillo, Texas

U Drop Inn in Shamrock, TX

We broke up our drive from Tulsa to Amarillo with a stop in Shamrock, TX, home to the landmark U Drop Inn diner / Conoco station, which apparently featured in the Pixar movie, Cars.  A sweet old lady who had exactly the same accent as my grandmother, who also grew up in the Texas panhandle, sold us postcards at the visitor center and gave a glowing recommendation to Vern’s Steakhouse just across the street.  We opted for Taco Bell, saving ourselves for steak at the Big Texan later that night.

The Big Texan motel is right off the I-40, just before Amarillo.  I had been looking forward to the Texas-shaped swimming pool all day, only to be disappointed when the check-in girl told me it wasn’t open until May.  Why that was so when it was ninety-one degrees outside was unclear.  The good news was that we could check into our room early.  The bad news was that it was 2:00PM and we were by the side of an interstate with nothing to do all afternoon except entertain ourselves at a roadside motel.  The inside of our room was painted concrete block with swinging, saloon style doors to the bathroom, which featured a fringed, ultra-suede shower curtain.  It was another lesson in the fleeting value of irony, and, after a quick tour of the gift shop, we were left with no choice but to belly up to the bar at the adjacent Big Texan steakhouse. 

the Big Texan Steakhouse & Motel, Amarillo, TX
After an aborted attempt to drink a glass of rosé from Lubbock, Texas, and success with two home-brewed honey blonde beers, we sat down to an early dinner in the steakhouse.  We were just in time to see the last fifteen minutes of a man attempting to eat a seventy-two ounce steak in under an hour, the reward for which would be the steak was free.  He was seated at an elevated table in the center of the room, just under the watchful eye of the grill cook.  Our server subsequently told us this was so the cook, Cookie (I swear), could watch out for barfing.  This was a disqualifying offense if done at the table, but acceptable if done in the parking lot.  It also explained the two small garbage pails sitting on the stage.

With ten minutes to go, the contender was declared disqualified due to vomiting.  Thankfully, we were being serenaded by a roaming trio of elderly men doling out The Yellow Rose of Texas for tips when the penalty occurred and failed to notice.  Staged barfing aside, the Big Texan was delicious.  I went to bed with a lead belly, anticipating our arrival in the west the next day.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The ultimate childfree vacation - Day 4: St. Louis, Missouri to Tulsa, Oklahoma

Tulsa VFW
Here’s what you need to know if you are going to drive cross-country, east to west: you hit bottom on day four.  This is when everything becomes a blur of Jesus, fireworks, and adult superstore billboards.  The promise of the West turns into a death march in which you cling to the mid-century kitsch of Route 66 like a promise of salvation, only to find out that irony is a fleeting entertainment.

We ended day four in Tulsa.  We were staying on the outskirts of the city and decided to stretch our legs with a walk into the CBD.  It was dead, so we returned to the neighborhood surrounding our hotel in search of something, anything, more uplifting.  On Cherry Street we discovered a nascent boho scene.  You had to look hard, but it was there: a pub with retro stools, an indie coffee shop with a collective of Mac users surfing the free-wifi while burrowed into second-hand sofas.  We drank our coffee outside on aluminum porch sliders before stopping into the Corner Café on historic Route 66 for dinner. 

Frito Chili Pie
I REALLY wanted to like this place.  There was a server named Bobbi Jean and fried green tomatoes on the menu.  I ordered the tomatoes to start, then doubled down on Frito chili pie.  I am pretty sure I ate half a can of Dinty Moore beef stew over a bag of Fritos before I admitted how gross it tasted.  Still hopeful we could salvage the evening, we headed to the nearby VFW, the only bar we had seen, for a pre-bed beer.  We joined one other couple at the bar; that the woman was celebrating her birthday in this desolate hall just made us more depressed.  I nursed my domestic-imitating-a-foreign-beer and watched a bad sitcom on the giant TV. 

On the way back to the hotel we spotted the “art bar.”  Inside was a cement room hung with oil paintings, mostly of cowboys and Indians.  A square bar, also of cement, dominated the center of the room, and we took two stools with a view of a giant oil painting of Lake Havasu party boats tethered together.  Tulsa must have been getting to me, because I was taken with the artist’s rendition of the dusky sky over the lake.  There was only one other person at the bar, a standard issue hipster sporting a standard issue hipster beard, truckers’ cap and inner tube earrings in each earlobe.  He was busy impressing the barmaid, a sweet girl in a black racer-back tank top and lip ring, with his suitably inaccessible musical selections on the jukebox.  I nursed a beer and took the scene in, but I wasn’t persuaded to wait the hour until karaoke started.

We were ready to leave Tulsa at 6:30AM on day five, but Tulsa wasn’t ready to let us go.  Road works conspired to keep us off the interstate until, on our third attempt, we found an open on ramp.  Later in Oklahoma City we would meet a similar barrage of road works.  We set our sights on Texas, and didn’t look back.

Monday, April 23, 2012

The ultimate childfree vacation - Day 3 (on which we disciplined other people's children): Columbus, Ohio to St. Louis, Missouri

We drove from Columbus to St. Louis yesterday.  Other than farms, grazing cows, and faded red barns, I don't remember much about it.  I'm not sure if that's because it was non-descript, or because road trip fatigue is starting to set in, or because the destination, St. Louis was so unexpectedly great.  We actually stayed west of downtown, in an area called Dog Town, at a mock English hotel.  Those last two statements offer plenty of easy targets, but I won't take any pot shots because the hotel, the Cheshire, was great.  Sure the faux mottled walls were a little too uniformly mottled to look anything like a real English inn, but it was nicer and cleaner and friendlier than any English inn I ever frequented in the six years I lived there.

We had purposely set off from Columbus early -- foregoing the 10% discount for breakfast at Perkins that staying the night at the Red Roof Inn had entitled us to -- so that we would get to St. Louis by early afternoon to have time to look around.  We took advantage of the hotel's complimentary bikes to stretch our legs in nearby Forest Park.  After spending a few hours in the park I tried really hard to think of a nicer park in America or Europe and couldn't come up with one.  There is a zoo, a museum, lakes, and a restaurant (and those were just the parts we saw) laid out in a mix of woodland and more manicured surroundings.  I got into the spirit of St. Louis at the Boathouse restaurant by ordering BBQ brisket and locally brewed Schlafly ale.

Museum in Forest Park, St. Louis from a paddle boat
The restaurant tables were next to a lake, and feeding the ducks was popular with kids.  One four-year old boy who got a bit aggressive in throwing the bread at the ducks incurred the wrath of my husband.  Wrath is actually a strong word.  It's a technique he has honed that walks the fine line between getting a misbehaving child's attention yet not drawing so much attention to himself to incur backlash from a protective parent.  It harks back to the Victorian days when children were to be seen and not heard, and anybody in polite society could reprimand them, usually with the enthusiastic approval of the parent.

"Don't do that," he told the boy.  Then, "DON'T DO THAT," louder, more deliberate but not yelling.  The boy looked at him incredulously and stopped.  It was clear no stranger had ever disciplined him.

After lunch we rented a pedal boat and tooled around the waterways for an hour.  When we returned the boat, another little boy had gotten overzealous feeding the ducks and fallen into the lake.  He seemed more embarrassed than hurt, and the restaurant staff were impeccable in handling the situation.  One got towels, another returned with a free souvenir t-shirt for him to change into, and a third got hot chocolate.  They may have all just been scared to death of a lawsuit, but it really did seem like they were just being nice.  I never thought I would be recommending places to go if you have kids on this blog, but the Boathouse in Forest Park, St. Louis, seems like an awfully good choice.  Your kid may even learn some manners from a stranger with an English accent.

The ultimate childfree vacation - Day 2: Niagara Falls to Columbus, Ohio

Main Diner in Westfied, NY

I'll be honest.  Day 2 of the road trip was always the one I was looking forward to the least.  Our destination: Ohio, known to me only through WKRP in Cincinatti and Drew Carey -- both dependable, likable TV shows, but hardly romantic or exciting.  I assumed the same of Ohio.

The day started off to script.  It was so rainy the sat nav refused to come out of night time mode until mid-afternoon.  There was a classic Americaville Main Street diner in Westfield, NY, where we stopped for mid-morning coffee.  Then there was Pennsylvania, a state that should be better known for its shopping.  In the Lake Erie-adjacent stretch of I-90 we drove, you can buy porn from The Lion's Den, wine from Pennshore Vineyards, fireworks and karate Supplies from the creatively named Fireworks and Karate Supplies store, and, right next door, an Amish shed in which to store it all.  We didn't buy any of those, but it was tempting.

Then there was Ohio.  What were vineyards doing in Ohio?  And ski resorts?  Maybe I had underestimated this state.  We pulled off the interstate somewhere around Richfield in search of lunch.  We found beautiful rolling hills and a friendly proprietress of a closed restaurant.  She was extremely apologetic that the tavern was closed to prepare for a wedding, but offered us a soda and use of the bathroom and directed us to a Subway back by the interstate to help avert a looming low blood sugar mood-wobble.  Before long we were checking into the Red Roof Inn in Columbus, our only planned chain motel stay of the trip.  The room was clean and the staff were courteous.  Just like Ohio.

We killed the afternoon in a strip mall across the street, where we popped into Marshalls so my husband could refresh his underwear supply (in a rare lapse of planning by this OCD-ish man, most of his underwear stash was trapped in a suitcase under the big screen TV).  Next we wandered the aisles of Walmart looking for disposable razors.  This was the first time I had been in a Walmart for years, and I was slightly awed.   It even had a nail salon.  I have always been a Target girl myself, but I think I might start to change things up if I find a Walmart in West LA.

We ended the evening with dinner at Average Joe's Pub and Grill in another strip mall across the street from the Red Roof Inn.  It was cold and I didn't have much in the way of warm clothing, so I was wearing running shoes and a waterproof jacket with my otherwise non-sporty outfit.  I fit right in.  Everyone in the bar, male and female, was wearing some version of sportswear.  I saw no shoes other than flip flops or sneakers.  There were no collared shirts other than the one my husband was, somewhat conspicuously, wearing.  Visors were de rigeur for the group of gentleman playing pool behind us, despite the fact that it was cloudy outside and there was no other indicator in either the way they were dressed or shaped that they were fresh from a game of tennis or golf.  They were just a group of average guys hanging out in an average restaurant in an average town.

But here's the thing.  Average in America is quite nice.  It is pleasant and comfortable and friendly.  Average in America is better than average anywhere else, something I feel qualified to say after spending the last six and half years in Europe.  Ohio, you might be average, but that's not half bad.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The ultimate childfree (not counting my husband) vacation - Day 1: Boston to Niagara Falls

The road trip did not start well.  My husband was pissed off over the fact that I was in Reykjavik for work in the days immediately preceding our departure.  To complicate matters he had developed a bad cold, and thus I spent most of my business trip in Iceland fielding text messages accusing me of abandoning him with all the packing when he was "deathly ill."  He also expressed his displeasure by allocating me exactly half of a small black duffel bag to pack the belongings that would sustain me for the next two and a half weeks.  This was not completely unfair given that he was moving to Los Angeles permanently to start work while I would be back in Boston in a few weeks to pack off our furniture and the remainder of our belongings with movers.  But it was a little unfair when you consider that the items he had selected as essential to his life for the next six weeks, and therefore worthy of a spot in the car, included a big screen TV, three computers, a sound system, and a movie projector.

My half of the duffel bag was packed before I left for Reykjavik.  I had taken care to hide two dish towels and a rolled  up set of bath towels in amongst my clothes since I knew he would not deem such items worthy of precious car space.  But apparently I had not used enough care.  As he packed his half of the duffel bag the night before we set off, he discovered the contraband linens.  Only a dusty old window screen prevented them from being hurled down onto Beacon Street.  I chalked this all up to the anticipatory stress of starting a new job and chose my moment when he wasn't looking the next morning to repack the towels.

I wish I could say that once the linens were secured things got better, but things always get worse before they get better.  The leaky cups of Starbucks were a mere precursor to the satnav getting things wrong right off the bat.  We had battled our way through Brookline and were ten miles down the highway when we noticed the signs to Rhode Island and the satnav calculation that it would take eleven hours to arrive at a destination that was supposed to be six hours away.  Words were exchanged.  Satnav settings were tweaked.  And eight hours later we arrived in Niagara Falls.

Into the Welcoming Arms of Niagara Falls
We spent our first night of the road trip in a dilapidated neighborhood of formerly grand houses of the Disney Haunted House architectural style.  Thankfully the Hanover House B&B was not as run down as some of its neighbors.  While we were parking in the back we noticed the curtains twitch.  The rotund older lady of the house was there to greet us when we arrived at the front door, not with a warm welcome but with a barrage of questions.  Her opening gambit was, "What room are you staying in?" to which I replied that I didn't know as we were just checking in. 

This did not satisfy her.  "You had to pick a room when you made a reservation," she said.

Having made reservations in seven hotels in seven states for this trip, I didn't remember the fine points of this particular one and, much to her apparent disgust, told her so.  At this juncture she suggested that maybe we were in the wrong place.  I asked if I could take a look at the sheaf of papers she was clutching, and there it was: a list of check-ins for the day that included our name and address and noted our room as the "William and Mary." 

"We're in the William and Mary," I told her.  She did not object, but replied that her eye sight was not so good and that her husband, who usually looks after the check-ins, was still out.  I softened a bit realizing that this was all about her defensiveness about her eyesight and an inability to ask for help.  Then she noted that we were not supposed to arrive until between 4:00 and 5:00PM, and it was only 3:30PM.  My patience was thinning and my husband's had thinned, so that when she launched into a monologue about the sites of Niagara Falls, he interrupted asking for the key.  We left her at her perch in the entry hall, clutching the stack of paperwork and muttering about the Maid of the Mist while we proceeded up the stairs in search of the William and Mary amongst the fake floral arrangements, dolls, paintings, tea cups and throw pillows that crammed the house.

A walk to the Falls along the river was a welcome opportunity to stretch our legs.  We did the obligatory photos and postcard purchases before heading out for an early dinner where we encountered our next bout of Niagara Falls customer service.

At the Red Coach Inn, a faux British pub just across the street from the novelty garden set out in the shape of the Great Lakes, we butted heads with Lewis the maitre d'.

"Two for dinner, please," I said.

"Do you have a reservation?" countered Lewis.

Seriously?  The restaurant was at best a third full, a description that could just as well apply to Niagara Falls on the whole.  The New York side of the Falls is a shadow of its former glamorous honeymoon destination self.  Did we really need a reservation?

"We're completely full between 6:30 and 7:30PM," Lewis informed us.

Sensing a window of opportunity, I eyed some empty bar stools, giving Lewis all the cue I thought he needed to suggest we either eat or at least wait at the bar until a table was available.  I was even hoping for an "I'll try to get you in sooner," but no such luck.  My husband had to suggest to Lewis that perhaps we could get a drink and wait at the bar.  Lewis seemed amenable to the idea, but was at pains to let us not he could not guarantee a table would be available by 7:30pm. 

"Well we probably shouldn't wait then, should we?" husband asked, half sarcastically, half giving Lewis one last chance before we walked out the door.  Lewis didn't bother to reply, and we walked out the door, two blocks down to Niagara Falls very own Hard Rock Cafe.  Easy as it is to mock, the service was the best we had thus far.  The first night of our road trip ended with sangria accompanied by old videos of David Bowie, Marc Bolan, and Howard Jones, which was enough to even cheer up my husband.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Road Trip

Photo by Nicholas_T, via Flickr (Creative Commons)
April is inadvertently turning into child-free vacation month on this blog and in my life.  In one week we are setting off on the ultimate child-free vacation, a cross-country road trip.  It is something I have always wanted to do, and now circumstance has made it a necessity as we relocate my husband from Boston to Los Angeles.

Allow me to explain.  Last November we relocated from Berlin to Boston with my job, marking our return to the US after six and half years abroad.  We knew we eventually wanted to end up back where we started, in Santa Monica, California, but my company-funded move meant I had a one year commitment to Boston.  After a couple months of looking for the right job in Boston, my husband broadened his job search to include Los Angeles.  While he eventually was offered a job in both Boston and Los Angeles, the one in L.A. was a more appealing opportunity both in terms of the job itself and, from a long term perspective, the location.  Happily my boss agreed to let me work half-time in Los Angeles; the rest of the time I will commute cross-country.  Not ideal, but I am a good traveller and not particularly daunted by the prospect of two red-eyes a month.

When we first tell people about our big plan it elicits two distinct responses.  People with kids ask, wide-eyed, "Is your marriage in trouble?"  People without kids get excited about the road trip and conclude that "eight months [the remainder of my commitment to my current employer] is nothing."

The flexibility to make this kind of unorthodox living arrangement is one of the hallmarks of being child-free.  Although I usually bristle at the implication that the child-free have some sort of unspoken obligation to live adventurous lives (great blog on this from Life Without Baby earlier this week), nobody can accuse my husband and me of not having taken advantage of our status in recent years.  Since leaving Los Angeles, our respective company-sponsored world tour has allowed us to live in London, the Costwolds, Berlin, and now Boston.  The Cotswolds was the best of these destinations (I wrote all about it here), Berlin the worst.  In other words, they have not all been happy outcomes, but at least we can say we tried.

Stay tuned.  Next stop: Niagara Falls.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

A childfree vacation in P'town

Last weekend when I should have been posting my latest blog, I was busy hanging out at the beach.  Big things are afoot in my household -- namely a move home to Los Angeles from our current outpost in Boston -- and so, in an effort to enjoy New England while we are still here, we made a last minute trip to Cape Cod.

While there we stayed at our first ever child-free hotel.  I didn't choose it because of this.  In fact I only discovered it when I called to make the reservation and the receptionist asked me if everyone in our party was over eighteen.  Given the hotel is in Provincetown, MA -- whose summer calendar includes "Bear Week" and "Girl Splash" -- I assumed this was a euphemism for gay-friendly.  My incredibly acute powers of perception were validated when I noticed the rainbow image on the hotel website.  The hotel's policy on children was right above the rainbow, and, I thought, rather eloquently and firmly stated:  "The Inn is regarded as a quiet escape and romantic getaway for most of our guests, and we work hard to foster that environment. Since it is not an appropriate environment for children, no one under the age of 18 is permitted at the Inn at any time. Unfortunately, we cannot make any exceptions."  (Amusingly, the pet policy appears right underneath, with a rather different tone:  "Let the pet pal you love travel in luxury with you...Pets Are Welcome.  Whether checked in for work or play, what could be more wonderful than snuggling up with your favorite furry friend during your stay?")

The hotel residents were a mixed crowd.  We spent the wine and cheese hour on our first evening with a thirty-something couple who had left their infant with her grandparents back in Boston.  We headed to the nearby Shipwreck Lounge for our second, third, and fourth wine hours, where Gary the barman doled out tankards of Pinot Grigio to the dulcet sounds of MDNA.  We were joined by Marley the bar cat, who drank his water out of a highball glass, and a gentleman named Thurston Hartwell, III.  The latter claimed he could trace his ancestry all the way back to the Mayflower, which was appropriate since Provincetown was the first landing place of the Pilgrims.  Mr. Hartwell was as close as we got to the town's early American history since the Pilgrim Monument in the center of town was closed for repairs.  

Saturday was cold and moody, and we shook off the excesses of the previous evening with a long walk along the jetty and around the dunes of Herring Cove.  Our only regret was that we hadn't brought our bikes to explore the paths of the Cape Cod National Seashore.  In the evening, after another wine and cheese hour at the hotel, we headed to one of the few restaurants in town that was open (many weren't set to open until later in April or early May when season officially starts).  Mews a shingled, seaside house in the West End, was heaving but expertly run.  We were early for our reservation, but seated quickly thanks to a family of three -- a little girl with two moms -- who didn't linger after they finished their meal.  She was the only child we saw all weekend.

The Details:
Crowne Pointe Historic Inn and Spa
2 Bradford Street
Provincetown, MA 02657 

The Mews Restaurant and Cafe 
429 Commercial St
Provincetown, MA 02657

Friday, March 23, 2012

Barren in Books: Freedom, until you die in a terrible car wreck

There have been lots of non-fiction books about childlessness by choice, but Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom is the first novel I've read that features a character, Lalitha, who is childless by choice.  She shows up about halfway through the book, a twenty-something assistant in an environmental organization that finds its raison d’etre in lobbying to slow population growth.  Her fervor for the cause shows up in her proclamation that she does not want to have children, and the literary GINK (Green Inclinations, No Kids) was born.  Here she is with the book's protagonist, Walter, discussing the topic with his old friend, Richard Katz.  Walter starts:

"...We just want to make having babies more of an embarrassment.  Like smoking's an embarrassment.  Like being obese is an embarrassment.  Like driving an Escalade would be an embarrassment if it weren't for the kiddie argument.  Like living in a four-thousand-square foot house on a two-acre lot should be an embarrassment."

"'Do it if you have to,'" Lalitha said, "'but don't expect to be congratulated anymore.'  That's the message we need to spread."

Katz looked into her crackpot eyes.  "You don't want kids yourself."

"No," she said, holding his gaze.

"You're, what, twenty-five?"


"You might feel differently in five years.  The oven timer goes off around age thirty.  At least that's been my experience with women."

"It won't be mine," she said and widened, for emphasis, her already very round eyes.

The GINK is not a type I relate to much.  My own decision not to have children was nowhere near as principled, although at the time I longed for some kind of principle on which to offload the responsibility of that choice.  A deep-seeded belief system was attractive in the face of my amorphous ambivalence, and I guess this is why I am mildly suspicious of GINKs.  At the risk of being normative, I don’t trust that such a personal decision can be adequately addressed via any variety of dogma.

In Freedom we never get to find out if Lalitha’s childless stance lasts beyond her twenties.  Franzen dashes her into the side of a West Virginia mountain, killing her off before she gets interesting.   Prior to that Franzen doesn’t do much to enhance the reputation of the childless by choice either.  Lalitha is likable, but she also seduces her married boss, Walter, while living under the same roof with him and his wife.  Between the environmental causes and the childless stance and the affair, it wouldn't take much for a Fox News commentator to spin her into the sort of leftie home wrecker that right wing America loves to hate.  Maybe next time Franzen can make up the slight by offering us a more believable childless character.  I am thinking a DINK.  After all, money is the ultimate socially acceptable principle.

Other Barren in Books posts:
On Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love and Committed
On Caitlin Moran's How to be a Woman

Monday, March 19, 2012

"Which underwear should I wear to the gynecologist?" and other ladies' etiquette questions

My decision not to have children means I have little use for an OB/GYN, except of course for that bi-yearly ritual of getting a pap smear.  Women of all child-orientations can bond over this singular delight.  So in the spirit of inclusiveness on this blog I thought I would write a little something about it, inspired by my experience this very morning.

I have never excelled in the medical patient arena.  I have been known to faint when visiting people in the hospital, require grand distractions while having blood drawn, and am enormously grateful that George Clooney now has a career outside of ER, which for me was unwatchable television.  I say all this to explain, at least in part, why I felt so apprehensive as I got ready this morning for my 9AM doctor's appointment, pap smear included. 

The anxiety started in the shower when the thought crossed my mind I should do a little neatening up around the area of soon-to-be-focus.  I am staunchly opposed to the practice of waxing back to an infantile state that is in evidence on so many magazine covers these days, but a little tidying seemed in order.  It was, I reasoned, no different than brushing, flossing, and gargling before visiting the dentist: a general courtesy. Then I remembered I ate Taco Bell for lunch before my last dentist appointment and felt a little bad.  (Sorry, Dr. Shaibani!)  My concentration must have slipped thinking about the whole Taco Bell incident because next thing I know I had nicked the highest altitudes of my inner thigh.  Now I was going to have dried blood on my leg which would make the doctor think at creepy best I shaved just for him (did I mention the doctor was a him?) or, at worst, I have hygiene issues.

With one arm wrapped around my thigh to try and staunch the blood with a clot of wet toilet paper, I started thinking about the next challenge: which underwear to wear?  A thong was definitely out.  Boy cut seemed suitably modest until I noticed one pair had hearts on it, the other polka dots -- way too frivolous for the business at hand.  I settled on a pair of navy blue briefs that, despite lace edging, seemed to send an appropriate signal of modesty.  Next up was what outfit to choose.  It had to be something I could maneuver in and out of easily, so I chose a loose dress.  Unfortunately it went with a pair of espadrilles that were just an inch too high to look sensible, but by this point I was running late and had no time to change.  As I left the house my husband asked why I was dressed so posh, which was the second time I felt creepy that morning.

Of course once I got to the doctor's office I realized all my fuss was for naught.  The nurse had me wearing nothing more than a sack of a robe with a gaping back by the time the doctor arrived.  His opening salvo was to inform me his female colleague was going to perform the pap smear portion of the exam.  I must have looked disappointed as he quickly followed with an explanation that 99% of his patients are male and he is much more familiar with prostates (turns out he is an internist, not an OB/GYN), which left me feeling somehow snubbed after all the work I had put in.  He did, however, give me a consolation prize of a breast exam.  And since I have just turned forty, he also set me my next challenge: choosing the right bra for a mammogram appointment.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Who Will Take Care of You When You're Old?

Flickr Creative Commons
The only scenario that has caused me real pause about my decision not to have children is thinking about old age and dying.  My husband is seven years older than me and this, as well as his gender, stack the odds in favor of me outliving him.  Chances are I will die alone.  (Yes, yes, I know we all die alone, but you know what I mean.) 

I usually don’t think about it much, but it’s hard not to when someone close to you dies as my grandmother did last December.  My mother spent much of the year traveling cross-country to her mother’s house to visit, attend doctor’s appointments and sort out financial matters.  I couldn’t help thinking there would be nobody to do the same for me. 

To cheer myself up I like to point out that having kids is no guarantee they will be there in the end.  Chances are decent they will blame you for ruining their lives, which is perhaps the least horrific of the potential outcomes -- overdose, cancer, eating disorders -- I’ve occasionally witnessed my parent-friends endure.  Overall, expectations for kids in today’s world are pretty low.  To paraphrase Chris Rock, his benchmark for doing a good job as a father is keeping his daughter “off the pole.”  Forget about expecting her to nurse him on his deathbed.

This is what I like to tell myself, although I’m not sure I really believe it.  But like all the other reasons to have kids – from missing out on an essential part of life/being a woman to reducing my chances of developing MS -- that I tried on over the several years I was pondering the decision, in the end it seemed like both a risky and drastic solution for a potential, future, or only perceived problem.  Instead, spurred on by my grandmother’s death, I had a will, trust, health care proxy, and power of attorney drawn up so that, even though there is unlikely to be family, whoever is there will know my wishes.  I also intend to take financial planning around my later years into serious consideration while I am still young enough to do something about it.  I figure with the help of the Internet and books and ideally the identification of a good caregiver, by the time I reach old age it ought to be a little less lonely.

For the last few years of her life, my grandmother was lucky enough to have, in addition to my mother, a caregiver who served as nurse, chauffeur, cook, and cleaner.  Juanita allowed my grandmother the privileges of retaining a social life, ferrying her around to assorted women’s’ clubs, and remaining in her own home until she died.  Juanita also enforced a regimen of eating and bathing my domineering grandmother would have never allowed her own daughter, my mother, to dictate.  My grandmother, a generous but emotionally cold woman with a not insignificant stubborn streak, occasionally used Juanita as a pawn to antagonize my mother.  On her deathbed my grandmother beckoned my mother with the plea she needed to tell her something important.  When my mother got close, my grandmother informed her she was not going to tell her what she had to say, but that she would tell Juanita.  The point of all this is that at the end of your life there is not only no guarantee about how your children will behave, there is also no guarantee about how you will behave.  I will concern myself with the latter.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Return of the Breeders

Last Saturday night something remarkable happened.  My husband and I had dinner with our friends who are parents.  Not the kind of dinner that is dominated by the kids -- either in the form of a tantrum, or a mini pageant in which you are expected to fawn over the child’s talent at spelling or card tricks or song, or, worst, the parents taking ceaselessly about the kids -- but an honest to goodness adult dinner.  The children, now nine and eleven, were holed up in the living room watching what seemed to be an entirely age-inappropriate movie while the grown-ups held court in the dining room.  We talked about work and books and life in general.  The only time the children came up at all is when they appeared to take a helping of dinner and return to the couch.

I remember vividly the fading and then total disappearance of this particular pair of friends.  It started with the birth of their first child, an event they were adamant would not change their lives.  It was evident this wasn’t the case when several months later we all went out to dinner, baby in tow.  Sometime after we ordered and before the appetizers I realized any attempt at conversation was futile.  The need of the nervous new parents to evaluate their infant’s well-being at thirty second intervals precluded the ability to maintain either the interest in or the linearity of a dialogue.  This was followed by a second child and a second memorable attempt at dinner, this time at their house.  We spent several hours watching their two toddlers run around the house naked, screaming at the top of their lungs, and overturning dinner plates.  The mother looked despondent.  The father looked mad at the mother.  We looked at our watches. 

But now that our parent-friends are in their forties and early fifties, it appears they are resurfacing.  The last decade was tough.  First we felt excluded.  Our old friends now only seemed to hang out with the parents of their kids’ friends.  On occasion we were invited along to such social engagements, which seemed to be a way for parents to be around other adults without any expectation of having to talk to each other since everybody was busy tending to their own kids.  This was lonely business for a non-parent.  Both the parents and we recognized this, and soon either they stopped asking or we stopped accepting such invitations.  Then we found a coping mechanism; for the past five years or so our primary friendships have been with gay men.  I had happily assumed this would be the way from here on out, but I suspect as we all get older we will regain some face-time with the parent faction.  Welcome back.  I understand why you had to be away, but I missed you while you were gone.