Madeleine Robins

September 1, 2016

Let me call you… Mister

Filed under: Life,Writing — madeleinerobins @ 8:04 PM
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EtiquetteA friend mentioned the other day that she’d run into a novel set in the mid-19th century in which everyone addressed each other by their first names. All the time. Under every circumstance. It was driving her nuts; her interior historian kept being thrown out of the story. Wouldn’t there have been more formality?  And if the author was fudging this aspect of etiquette, what else was she fudging? Or getting wrong? Or figuring just didn’t matter?

It would drive me nuts too. I’m a very forgiving audience, except when I’m not–I can gloss right over what I believe to be an error in world building, if the story and characters are sufficiently engaging that I just don’t care. But make an error before you’ve got my heart and you’ve lost me.

So: how did people talk to each other in the Olden Days? How did they talk about each other? When did the new informality, if I may call it so, become a Thing? As so often happens when such questions are raised, I turned to Emily Post.

(more…)

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August 5, 2016

Confessions of an Inadvertent Prescriptionist

Filed under: Life,Writing — madeleinerobins @ 7:55 AM
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victorian_teacher_postcard-r54cfbbfd3f9b4af68a22d15a9b640f1a_vgbaq_8byvr_512So my daughter is home for the summer, bringing joy and great conversations and taking over my kitchen. I really enjoy both my daughters, but Younger Girl is such an emphatic presence in the house that you really know she’s here. And we talk. Oh my God do we talk.  And there are some tics in her language that drive me a little crazy.

Such as? “I’m really excited for this vegan dinner.”

The way I understand my language, the sentence above suggests that my kid is excited on behalf of the vegan dinner, which is not what she means (I asked). Once I started hearing her use this particular construction, I realized that it was everywhere.  What happened to about? For the life of me, I can’t see a reason for the shift in prepositions. And that’s what annoys me every time I hear it.

I’ve become, in my own way, a language crank. My daughter calls me on it.

She says at college she’s the one who corrects her friends. She sends me every single paper she writes for me to vet for style and grammar. She also says (and I agree) that English is a living construct, and changes constantly. I’m generally on board with neologisms, and I try not to be too twitchy about the erratic use of spoken grammar (I live on the internet; I have stopped worrying about there/their and your/you’re). But language is also the tool of my trade, and some of the things the kid thinks she’s saying are, well, not.

When the subject comes up my daughter suggests that I’m the problem, that I’m being prescriptive and exclusionary. It’s almost a social justice issue to her. But in my head, I’m like a carpenter that doesn’t like to see the side of a hammer used to sink a nail–what’s wrong with using the tool the way the tool is supposed to be used?

It occurs to me that “that doesn’t mean what you think it does” is the root of my problems with some language shifts. At some point many words do shift (when was the last time you saw “nice” used in its original sense of “choosy”?). But until they have shifted, a speaker risks losing meaning by using those words in their newer sense. Lost meaning = risk of not being completely understood. And that’s it for me: the idea of not making myself understood gives me the screaming collywobbles. But as with so much else about life, Your Mileage May Vary.

I forget sometimes that I’m part of a continuum. I wake up each morning at the very end of evolution, and language (maybe even humans) have reached a point of perfection where there’s no need for further change. So a change that makes no sense to me (like “for” for “about”) feels like a step backward. But in thirty years it’s likely that “about” will feel as awkward to casual English speakers as “for” does to me. So I’m trying to curb my prescriptivist ways. Or at least restrain my flinching.

June 7, 2016

A Cautionary Tale or Two

Filed under: Around the House,Life — madeleinerobins @ 6:05 PM
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stroller
When my older daughter was about three, we went to the park on a hot Spring afternoon. Usually I did not have her in a stroller, but because we were going to a particular park that was about a quarter-hour walk, and because I knew she would be totally exhausted on the trip back, I opted to put her in the little umbrella stroller (lightweight, easily folded, not one of those SUV-type strollers with trays and cupholders… in terms of parenting paraphernalia I was a minimalist). So I strapped her in, hung the bag of playground toys and juice boxes off a handle, and away we went.

We reached 103rd and Riverside, and I started to cross the Avenue. Julie had, unbeknownst to me, learned a new skill: she could unbuckle the safety strap.  And she did. About 2/3rds of the way across the street she stuck her foot down to scuff her toe on the asphalt, which created just enough of a bump that she fell out of the stroller. We got her back in in about three seconds and proceeded to the corner, where I had every intention of 1) buckling her in and 2) giving her a quick scolding. We both knew she hated the harness; this was a demonstration of why it was useful.

Except that when we got to the other side of the street an elderly man was waiting to scold me. He was tall, rather patrician looking, in a suit and tie on a Saturday. And wherever he was going, it was apparently more important that he miss the light in order to give me a dressing down. What kind of parent doesn’t understand the basics of safety? Did I know what that kind of neglect could cost me? Cost my child? It seemed like this went on for five minutes–I generally find it easier not to engage someone like this–but it was probably 30 seconds before Julie unbuckled her harness, got out of the stroller, and said “You leave my mama alone. She’s a very good mama! She buckled me in and I UNDID IT MYSELF!”

At which point the gentleman, missing the point of Julie’s riposte, asked me if I was going to let my daughter address a stranger–an adult–that way. And I took strength from my child’s example and told him that she was repaying his treatment of me in kind. And the kid hopped back into the stroller and I buckled her back in and when we got to the park I got us both ice cream, and so there.

PS163Then there’s the time when I picked up daughter #2 at kindergarten. Her classroom was at the rear of the building in a trailer (much nicer than it sounds) behind a fence about 200 feet from the sidewalk. All the families were picking up their kindergarteners, so as usual it was a bit of a scrum. Becca’s teacher wanted a word, so I checked–she was hanging upside down on a fence with a friend–and stayed to chat for two minutes, watching the fence off and on to keep tabs on her. Finished the chat, turned back, and Becca was no longer on the fence. A matter of maybe five seconds.

There’s a full-body panic flush that you get (at least I got) when you can’t find your five year old daughter in a crowd. What had happened? She had, with the egocentrism of a five-year-old, assumed that I would follow her out to the street and we would go home, and had got off the fence and marched out to 97th Street before she realized that I was not with her. I had, with the egocentrism of an older person, thought she was where I’d seen her five seconds before. Fortunately, a moment later a parent showed up, a very unhappy Becca in tow: we hugged, we cried, we each explained what had had happened, and each promised to do better in the future. She’s now 20–it must have worked.

We are–especially in this day of insta-news and the 24-hour news cycle and Our Friend Social Media–awfully quick to judge. Especially parents. Why is that kid crying so much? How could you not remember to buckle your child into her stroller? Why doesn’t that child have mittens? Why isn’t she wearing a hat? How could you be so thoughtless? Don’t you know what could happen?

Of course you do. Parenting–especially parenting more than one child–is a calculated balancing act. If I hold this one’s hand on the way home from the grocer then I can’t hold the groceries and the other child’s hand at the same time, so I gamble that I’ve trained the kid well enough that she won’t launch off across the street into traffic. If I stop to tie your shoe, your brother won’t climb on that fence and impale himself. If I look away for a second, my toddler won’t climb over barriers and fences in order to get up close and personal with a gorilla.

Frankly, if I’m going to blame anything in the tragic events of the Cincinnati Zoo, it’s the Disneyfication of nature that leads people to adopt a wandering bison calf, or attempt to pet the meerkats at the Zoo. (This is apparently the same mindset that leads people to step off high places at Disneyland because they believe that somehow gravity works differently there. Go figure.)

I am not going to blame the zoo for taking action. Enough has been written about why the gorilla at the Zoo was shot–they know their business far better than I do, and a happy ending and the toddler and the gorilla singing Kumbaya was vanishingly unlikely. I’m terribly sad about the gorilla’s death, but I see this as a perfect storm of bad news for all of them.

And the people screaming about the parents–particularly the mother, because it’s always the mother who should be aware–just… don’t. All it takes is a second (see above). And even the second after that, when every molecule in your body is on fire with terror for your child, you don’t know what to do. Try to squeeze through a space you’re going to be trapped in to go after your child? Scream loudly enough to rile up the animals? A toddler is a peculiarly mono-focused person: yelling “Tommy, you come back here right now!” is not necessarily going to stop even the most well-behaved child when he’s on a curiosity quest.

Parenting is hard, and scary, and exhausting enough. Most parents are doing the best they can, and most parents, I truly believe, do a pretty good job. We’re all making it up as we go along, trying to not do the things our parents do wrong, trying to keep our tempers and our sanities while making the world as rich and exciting for our kids as we can. And sometimes things happen, not because we’re bad people, badly intentioned, or even stupid, but because the world is damned random. You do all the things you can. Sometimes life gets away from you. God willing it’s not a tragedy.

 

April 16, 2016

I Remember It as Clear as Day

Filed under: Life,Writing — madeleinerobins @ 10:04 AM
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blocksLast time I was here, I talked about my earliest memory. I have long considered (because I’m a writer and my brain works that way) that it has some metaphorical connection to the person I became. And because it’s my life and my metaphor, I can say that. Years from now, when my life is being taught as a cautionary tale on millennial writers (as if), an educator can tell their version of what my life was, and why my mother going out to get lemons and leaving her 2 year old at home had nothing to do with anything.

What was lovely about that post was that people started posting their earliest memories, here and elsewhere. I really enjoyed reading them. But they also got me thinking about a memory I have that is utterly false, and yet still compels me.

From three-and-a-half until 13, I went to a school in Greenwich Village: The Little Red School House. It was very small, very lefty, academically very good, and formative for me in ways both excellent and not so excellent. I was a gormless little kid who generally did better with adults than my peers.  I was also physically small and clumsy. If this sounds like a perfect recipe for attracting the less kindly among my peers, you’re right. I suspect, with the wisdom of age, that I was the kind of kid who begged to be picked on because I was so clueless and annoying. Which doesn’t justify bullying, but does explain something of why it was me being bullied.

Anyway: the memory.  Until we were in second grade our “gym” period was held on the roof, which had some playground equipment, balls, etc., but also these big wooden blocks. The blocks were made of plywood, painted a deep forest green, and as best I can estimate from half a century on, most of them were 18-24″ long by 12″ by 6″. Big enough so that a little kid could carry one of them at a time. They were used on the roof only, for building the sorts of things one builds with blocks. And though it wasn’t allowed, the structures were frequently built by the kids to be stood on. I swear, it’s an amazement to me that we all survived to adulthood.

My memory is that on a rainy day, somehow the blocks had been brought down to my classroom (the 4s, or nursery school) and some of the boys were building a big wall out of them, six blocks or so wide and five or six blocks tall. That one of my chief tormentors, a kid named Mark, climbed to the top of the wall and stood there threatening to jump on me, and that suddenly the wall fell. My last memory is of those forest green blocks coming at me. The rest is silence.

And this never happened. I checked with my mother. I checked with my nursery school teacher (the perfectly wonderful Gertrude Asher of blessed memory). Neither one remembered such a thing; each was ready to say categorically that it never happened, because an incident that resulted in one kid being knocked out cold would have been reported, to say the least. Also: those blocks were never brought downstairs, regardless of weather. Also… see incident reports and repercussions to the aggressor party, etc.

And yet it’s one of the clearest memories I have of early childhood. There seems to be nothing else in my history which I might have conflated with school life to create the memory. I made it up out of whole cloth, or it’s a dream that lodged in my psyche and wouldn’t let go. Did I feel small and at the mercy of larger kids? You bet. And I have the m/e/m/o/r/y dream to prove it.

As a writer, this becomes part of a larger conversation for me about truth, and the difficulty of sorting out the objectively true from the subjectively true from, and how a false memory can color all the true memories that surround it. And in practical terms, how can you nest believed truth, perceived truth, and (for the purpose of fiction) actual truth in a way that works for–and perhaps even surprises–the reader. I have more than once used a dream as a way of illuminating a character’s state of mind or beliefs*; talking about this now, I’m suddenly intrigued by the notion of writing a character whose behavior is shaped by a false memory. A false memory that is so seamlessly integrated into the long line of memories that shape belief and behavior as to be unquestionable.

For the purpose of the story, the character would then have to discover that the memory is false, not in terms of perspective (“No, I was sitting there too, and Grandma didn’t eat the last cookie herself. I could see her give it to the dog.”) but in terms of possibility (“Grandma was already dead by that time.”). When a foundational memory gets removed from your structure, do you just go on with the life you’ve based on that memory? Do you actively reject that life? Does it continue to represent itself as a memory?

As the ever appropriate Mr. Shakespeare put it, “When my love swears that she is made of truth/I do believe her, though I know she lies.”

* It is not either cheating. Or a cliche. Sometimes it’s the fastest way to tell the story. So there.

April 7, 2016

My Mother Went Out for Lemons

Filed under: Around the House,Life — madeleinerobins @ 7:45 AM

maryjanesWhat is your earliest memory?

Mine is from when I was somewhere between two and three years old. I’ve heard that it’s unusual to remember anything that early. So I’m unusual: when my mother was still alive I asked her if the following thing ever happened and (subject to the Rashomon effect of her recollection being different from mine) I can say that it did.

As a small child my family lived in the top two floors (or more properly, the top floor and an attic) of a brownstone on 11th Street in New York City. Four years after this story we moved to another brownstone, also on 11th Street, where we lived in the bottom two floors.  But that’s neither here nor there in terms of this memory.

My brother would have been about six months old–I know this because it was spring (and both my brother and I were December babies, but it wasn’t swelteringly hot the way that summer in New York City so often is). I would have been about two and a half. And my mother was making dinner and realized that she needed a lemon. Rather than waking the baby and packing us both into the stroller and going down to the corner to fetch a lemon, Mom made a different call: she sat me down on the couch, told me not to move, and went out to buy a lemon. (more…)

March 19, 2016

Gallantry

Filed under: Being a Woman,Feminism,Life,Semiotics — madeleinerobins @ 6:25 PM

GallantrySo I got into one of those conversations with an old, slightly older than I am, friend last week. Who has a hard time with the idea that unsolicited compliments from strangers on the street is a bad thing. “It’s nice. It’s… ” he searched for the word. “It’s gallantry.”

I think that in his head this phrase called up visions of Camelot, and courtly love and deep bows over the hands of delicately scented ladies wearing satin and lace (I’m pretty certain those are the images… I’ve known him for a while). And those are all charming images. And about as far away from my experience of a guy following me down the street cooing “chickie-chickie-chickie,” escalating to “why aren’t you talking to me, you stuck-up bitch?” as I can imagine.

On my mother’s fortieth birthday several men at a construction site saw her passing and (according to her) burst into a chorus of “God Bless America.” It made her feel a lot better about moving in to the woman-of-a-certain-age demographic. And I’ve always felt kind of good about the sort of exchange where the underlying message is “you’re a human female and I’m a human male, and that’s kind of nifty, isn’t it?” which often shapes into nothing more complex than “Y’all have a nice day, now.” I suspect that’s what my friend is thinking of when he imagines the “gallantry” of addressing a woman unknown to you on the street. 

The reality, as most women know, is a little different. Gallantry should not make its object fearful. Gallantry should not make its object feel dirty. Or like a piece of appealing wallpaper. Gallantry should be aimed at a target that welcomes it. Most street calls (barring “God bless America,” of course) are not.

Where’s the line between a pleasant exchange and a threatening one? Well, maybe at that point where what Robert Heinlein used to call “the gallant response” comes into it.* If someone says to me, “that color looks great on you” that might be nice. If the underlying message is that I am somehow responsible for the speaker’s state of arousal, that is not.

Look, I am rapidly aging out of the cat-call demographic. But I have daughters, and they are beautiful. And thank God, when someone attempts a “gallantry” they don’t like, they don’t put up with it. But afterward they are still, often, left with that shaky feeling of violation.

And there’s nothing gallant about that.

*for those who’d never heard the term: an erection.

October 28, 2015

We Must All Hang Together…

Filed under: Life — madeleinerobins @ 6:25 PM
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hands… or, assuredly, we will all hang separately.*

Being human is not for the faint of heart. Being a kid, being a teen, being an adult, a parent, the child of parents with health or memory issues. There is no age of being human that doesn’t come with challenges. Family helps. But family has changed over the centuries, and our idea of what family owes us (and what we owe our families) has changed too.

Time was, if you had children, they were raised to be part of a support system–doing increasingly complex chores, learning the family business or taking over tasks on the farm. My father and his siblings helped out with his father’s store in Brooklyn; 30 years later my grandmother was living with my aunt and uncle and their family; ten years later I (dimly) recall visiting her at a nursing home (she had Alzheimers). She was cared for within the family as long as possible.  In the same way, my mother’s mother wound up moving into an in-law apartment in my aunt’s home; eventually they knocked out the wall between her apartment and theirs, and she stayed at home through the rest of her life.  (more…)

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