Where Do You Read?

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I went on vacation with my family recently (husband and daughters, ages 7 and 4) and it completely messed up my reading habit. I realize this may sound strange, don’t most people read a lot when on vacation? I used to, before there were children. I would pick out a couple of novels, gather a juicy pile of magazines (New Yorker, Vanity Fair), and stuff a very heavy carry-on bag, a companion at the airport, in the plane, at the beach.

The intention was there. I asked trusted friends for suggestions, went to the library and picked up the first book in Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, Oryx and Crake – which I did read and enjoy, just not during the vacation. I have a digital subscription to the New Yorker, and access to dozens of past issues on my iPad. I read a total of zero articles.

I snuck a little bit of reading, sure. At night, before falling asleep. For brief moments of peace at the beach while the kids played by the water, before I was interrupted by requests to build a sand birthday cake, or my mediation was needed because the  4-year-old had pressed some sea shells a little too hard on the sand birthday cake, which promptly collapsed.

I couldn’t get into my reading, I suspect, because my mind was too engaged – see above – or too relaxed. I took long, quiet walks with our dog, taking the time to enjoy the scenery. I dozed off a couple of times on an old futon in our beach rental’s lovely sun room, open book fallen to the ground.

I did finish the book once I came home, and back to work. I do most of my reading in the train, during the work week. The ride itself is not so long, about half an hour, but there’s some extra time on the platform or in the train before it departs. The act of opening a book (or the Kindle app, occasionally) signals to my brain that the workday is done, or it hasn’t started yet. This is when I desperately need my books, so my mind can disengage from work, schedules, appointments, to-do lists, and check into another world for a little while.

My girls and I have a weekly trip to the library built into our schedule. It’s an outing all three of us look forward to. I usually have a pretty good idea of what I want to get – I will have made my selection in advance, or a hold request will be available. Book in hand, I let the kids browse.

Last weekend the library resumed Fall hours and we were able to have a Sunday visit. I did not know what I wanted to read, and there was nothing on hold. The girls were decisive about their choices: a Flat Stanley adventure, a Peanuts “I Can Read” book, and the 4-year-old’s perennial selection, a Charlie and Lola book. They were ready, having been promised some ice cream from the street fair, and I was empty handed. I ran up to the fiction racks to see if the next book in the Atwood trilogy was available, and it was not. “You’re not getting anything?” the 7-year-old asked, dumbfounded.

The commute has been particularly annoying this week, with widespread delays. An electronic hold became available through Overdrive and I downloaded it, but I still cannot get back into the groove. I blame the vacation. I have been catching up with podcasts, but it is not the same thing. Passively listening, I find the time to check my email 100 times, or mentally plan my work day. Hopefully, by the time the weekly library trip comes along, I will have made some choices. My mind needs a vacation.

Where do you read? What do you do if you lose inspiration for a while? And what should I read next?

More on Home

Brazilian_Disney_Ze_CariocaIn a couple of days I will turn 39 years old. As I am about to transition from one decade to the next, it occurred to me that I may have lived in the US longer than I ever lived in Brazil. Maybe.

My Math skills are not that poor – it is complicated Math, in my case. I first moved here at 17 years old as a foreign exchange student, for my Senior year of High School. After the school year was over, I went home to prepare for the Vestibular, the big, bad, Brazilian college entrance exam. If you think the SATs are unfair, think again. While I took preparatory classes, on the side, I worked on a little project.

While in the US, just like an American high school student, I received dozens and dozens of college brochures in the mail. My High School teachers encouraged me to apply, and with my family’s support, I took the plunge. My mom traveled to Sao Paulo with me so I could take the SATs  (and the TOEFL, to prove that I could keep up with classes in English). I prepared my applications – typed on a typewriter in my grandfather’s office – and entered Boston University as a January Freshman. Even though I could pass for American without really trying (or so I heard, frequently), I was officially an International Student. with every intention of returning to my native country once I had my degree.

After graduation, I worked for less than a year (Practical Training) and went home. Home. I moved back in with my family, got a job, started a relationship, and felt mostly unhappy and sorry for myself. I acted like that time was a mere interlude, which, not surprisingly, is what happened. My college friends had moved to New York after graduation, and I joined them about two years later. I started graduate school in 2000, and by 2002 I had met the man who became my husband and the process of settling down for good, creating our own home, began.

Even with all the comings and goings, I suspect if I were to make a spreadsheet with the chunks of time spent in each country, the sides would be at least equivalent by now. Do I feel different having crossed this meridian? I am not sure. I feel more settled in my adoptive home, having amassed a significant reservoir of American memories and experiences. Yet, I still get homesick for the other home, and sometimes we throw around the idea of going to Brazil for a little while, for the children to learn proper Portuguese.

Sometime in the past decade I realized that I don’t have to choose an allegiance. I don’t have the means to live in more than one country, but home has become a more fluid concept for me as I age. Home is where my mother is. Home is where my husband and children are. Home is New Year’s at the beach. Home is taking the train into work and walking fast like a Manhattanite. It’s feeling displaced and feeling at home in completely different places.

What is home?

“Mommy, you are like Sophia the First,” stated my 7-year-old, triumphantly. “How so,” I asked, eyebrow raised high. “Well, she left her village and joined a new family. And you left your home and now you are in this family.”

Oh. My daughter, a sensitive type, feels excluded whenever I express nostalgia for Brazil, where I grew up. My husband grew up in the New York area, and the childhood memories my daughters are creating every day resemble their Dad’s much more closely than mine. I’ve lived in this country for a long time. In many ways, I am a lot more American than Brazilian. I spent my childhood in Brazil, but my formative years here. Home is here and there. Everywhere and nowhere.

Is it possible to be homesick for a place that is not your only home? I miss so many things. There are obvious ones, like people. My family travels a lot. We go to Brazil every year and a half or so, my Mom visits several times a year. We take advantage of Skype and other technology to see each other in between visits.

When I was in college, we wrote letters. Email was brand new, and while I had a school account (I had to go sign up for it in the basement of the school’s IT building, that’s how old I am), my family in Brazil certainly did not. Once they got dial-up service, it was less than reliable. For most of my college years, I still put pen to paper, then stuffed my scribbles into envelopes. The letters took a week to reach their destination. Most of the time, whatever turmoil I had written about would be resolved and sometimes forgotten by the time my Mom tore the envelope, read my words, and formulated her thoughtful response. There were weekly phone calls too. They were expensive, and any additional calls were saved for IMPORTANT THINGS.

Technology has made living abroad undoubtedly easier. As annoying as Facebook can be – and I could go on and on here – it is sort of a miracle to be able to keep up with friends from middle school, see photos of their children, know what kind of career they have chosen for themselves.

Still, there are so many things I miss. This kind of nostalgia is not helped by technology, quite the opposite. They are the sensory memories: the smell of barbecue permeating through the air on a Sunday morning, as hundreds of families light up their grills for churrasco. Grilled sausage to be eaten inside a fresh roll, with potato salad and steak. Tomato and bean salad. Simple and fresh, all year, not just during the summer months.

I miss a completely different kind of flora, the landscape of my first decades. Trees that don’t lose leaves, and a majestic pine tree that is the symbol of my home state. I miss birthday parties with brigadeiros and guaraná, and people clapping along to “Happy Birthday.” Yes, you can buy brigadeiros and guaraná here, but they are the exception, not the norm. Birthday parties here are pizza and juice boxes, and “Happy Birthday” is not percussive.

I miss the flavors and sounds of my original home because they were the colors of my childhood. I am homesick for a place in the past. Even if I were to move back, some of it would be impossible to recreate, or not as sweet. I explain this to my girl, and try to share my language, my extended family, my history with her and her sister. I tell them about the beautiful city that I left (not a village, not even close), which they have have visited several times, but hardly know. I tell her that one day, she will feel a similar feeling, warm and sad, about her childhood, about today, about hearing my stories about a place and time far, far away.

Our Needs

I recently read Maria Semple’s Where Did You Go Bernadettewhich someone had recommended as a funny, quick read. True and true. The story of Bernadette Fox, told in loose epistolary format (emails, letters, bills, FBI evidence), begins with a mother who is so neurotic and averse to human contact, she hires a personal assistant in India to take care of her family’s every need, from booking a trip to Antarctica to celebrate daughter Bee’s academic prowess, to outfitting the family for the trip, to ordering prescription drugs from a compounding pharmacy. Bernadette is a devoted mother to Bee, but just about everything else in life bothers her. She despises the bleeding-heart liberal parents in Bee’s private school, and most of all, she hates Seattle and everything that goes with it – the weather, the architecture, the people. As the story unravels, we get glimpses of what has made Bernadette’s existence seem so excruciating . Once an award-winning, talented and promising architect in Los Angeles, she crumbles after some professional frustrations and moves to Seattle with her husband once he is hired by Microsoft. The couple buy a decrepit mansion which had been a boarding school for girls, which in time becomes overrun with mildew and vines. Daughter Bee is born after several miscarriages. The baby is frail and sick, and at her bedside, Bernadette makes a trade-off that will define the rest of her life: she will give up professional fulfillment, her architect’s vision, if she can keep her baby. The realism of this scene took my breath away.

Bernadette gets her wish – Bee survives, after going through multiple elaborate surgeries during childhood. The child not only survives, she thrives, but her mother is left hollow. In a novel dripping in caricature and sarcasm (it really is funny), the process of Bernadette’s loss of self – and sanity – is sadly familiar.

I made that same barter after being told by doctors that we weren’t going to keep our little D, after having just lost her twin sister L. In the NICU, hunched over the incubator to protect a fresh C-section scar, as the whizzing respirator kept my tiny baby breathing, I unzipped and stepped out of the suit of my former self. The woman who emerged was raw, afraid, yet newly empowered to mother this fragile creature, to fight for her, with her, to experience the greatest joys and the darkest fears through the child. It is a process that special needs parents will surely recognize – the child needs, and we give, and give, and give. Time, money, energy, creativity, and love, above all. We love our children almost beyond reason, to the point of ignoring who we are, what we need. We have needs too – we need sleep. We need community, and friendship, and time for quiet contemplation. We need nourishing food. We need activities that nourish our souls (whatever that may be, in my case, travel, reading, theater, dance). We need physical activity. We need time with our partner. The list goes on.

Let Bernadette Fox be your (my) cautionary tale. You may be willing to give up everything for your child, but it won’t work. It is not true that the more you give up, the better off the child will be. And eventually, it will catch up with you.

How I love my Kindle

I got a Kindle for my birthday. It’s stunning that it’s taken me years to get one, because I’ve wanted one since they first came out. I flirted with the Nook, rubber-necked fellow commuters’ ipads, but it’s always been about the Kindle. My mom ordered it for me a couple weeks before my birthday, and Amazon promised it for early September. Oh, the wait was torturous. But it was worth it. It arrived days after Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom.

I’ve always loved reading. I used to dream of owning a bookstore/cafe (how behind the times that would be). Sadly, between a full-time job and two kids, the only possible opportunity to read is my one-hour-each-way commute. Occasionally I’d get really into a book, but then it would end up forgotten at my desk at work, or at home, and as anyone who has frequented a crowded subway car knows, flipping through a novel when your face is touching someone else’s armpit is kind of hard.

Months ago I downloaded the Kindle app for my iphone. That did solve the issue of lugging books around. But I had a hard time getting through anything more substantial than Charlaine Harris’s vampire novels. I thought maybe I was just too tired, my attention span corroded by Facebook and blogs and sleep deprivation. Maybe I was no longer a novel kinda person.

And then, the Kindle arrived. Super slim, light, easy to handle with one hand, and with a screen the size of your average paperback. It reads like a book. Real ink on virtual paper, easy on the eyes. The pages turn at the click of a finger, at either side of the screen. All the books that I had purchased for the iphone app automatically appeared once I set up the Kindle. Like magic, I am a reader again. I can’t wait to settle into my uncomfortable seat in the train to dig into a novel.

The downside, though you could also consider it a perk: the instant gratification. I can get the book I want to read (if it’s available for the Kindle, and most new books are) NOW. In seconds. I am tweaking the book budget as we speak. I am enjoying thinking about what I will download for our upcoming trip to Brazil. 10-hour flights, long airport waits. Lots of family to watch the kids at the beach… Books!

How about you? Have you gotten into electronic reading? Do you swear to turn nothing but paper pages forever? What are you reading these days, and in what format?