Monday, March 21, 2011

My Violetta Complex

At times it alarms me that those fictional heroines that intrigue me most are the ones that seem to suffer, and not just suffer, but suffer in great operatic bouts of melancholy, sometimes to persevere, to triumph, although not always. What can I say? I’m Sicilian. Melancholy is like mother’s milk to me (I think it was in my mother’s milk actually).

I blame a more cultured friend from university who took me to my first opera. It was, luckily, Verdi’s La Traviata. I was, and largely still am, an unschooled spectator, intimidated by the length, the recitative in Italian (there were no surtitles then to aid the audience) and the grandeur of the set as it was then staged at the old O’Keefe theatre.
Maria Callas as Violetta
Violetta, a beautiful courtesan, captivates, loves, and then seemingly “discards” her younger lover Alfredo for the sake of his standing in society. She endures a humiliating episode in public where he flings money in her face after she rejects him then dies a wheezing, sputtering death in impoverished circumstances of some unknown disease. Was it consumption? Tuberculosis? She dies in the knowledge that she has done the right thing by releasing Alfredo. He acknowledges her sacrifice at her death bed but it is then too late.

I think this was a life changing moment for me in terms of how I viewed women in art. Until then I had firmly rejected all instances in art where a woman was beaten down, destroyed by the system, ruined by the dictates of family and patriarchy. Here my internal conflict begins: a part of me rebels against Violetta succumbing at all to the wishes of Alfredo’s father who wants his son to be free of the taint of his son's relationship with Violetta. I resist her sacrifice and submission and the way in which she embraces her demise.

I might have been perceived as more militant then in my cultural and literary tastes. But I saw the plot of La Traviata with new eyes. I was evolving (I hope). Verdi’s Violetta pushed me into a trickier, more complex realm of thought where I could intellectually and politically reject subordination for myself and other women and yet I could more clearly understand, feel and love this woman and the work of art she was represented in.

I can recognize now, without a trace of feminist guilt, that Violetta’s sacrifice is beautiful and meaningful in the context of her fictional world. In a manner, her sacrifice is the sacrifice that many women make for the people they love: husbands, lovers, children, in different, often less dramatic, circumstances.

It is the sacrifice that Isabel Archer makes when she decides to remain in a loveless marriage for the sake of her principles and the love of her step-daughter in The Portrait of A Lady. Or Anna Karenina’s decision to throw herself under a train for, in effect, she has been destroyed as easily and completely as her lover Vronsky’s mare during the big race. Or Lily Bart’s slow, inexorable slide into destitution in The House of Mirth as she realizes that she is friendless, poor, not longer “marketable” as a potential wife of a rich man. Yet she is, in a sense, too proud and too late, to save herself.

I am softening, bending a little, not expecting all forms of art to conform to my vision of strong, independent women with few flaws. Call it my Violetta complex.

Published in an altered format at

Monday, March 14, 2011

Confessions of a Non-Tiger Mom

Parents, answer these questions truthfully:

When your child breaks down and cries because she is reprimanded by you or your partner do you sometimes feel sad too because they are hurt or feeling demeaned?

If your child tells you they want to withdraw from a certain lesson or practice or sport because they dislike it or are by bored with it do you, at times, tend to agree with them and think they should?

Do you think your kid should do her own homework without your assistance/interference?

Do you offer unconditional praise and support when your kid presents his or her report card and you are sure that the grades are representative of his or her innate abilities even if the grade is not at the highest level?

Do you think your kid should choose her or his own extracurricular activities?

If you answered yes to all these questions, you, too, are a non-Tiger Mom. Mothers, you all must know about this woman Amy Chua, the Yale law professor who wrote The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom about the superiority of Chinese style of parenting? This it epitomized by this graphic image above.

May I tell you how annoyed I am with her? I can't figure out if this is just a very clever way of marketing the book by pushing people's buttons or if she really believes this stuff. Her rules in raising two daughters (as in things they were never permitted to do):
• attend a sleepover
• have a play date
• be in a school play or complain about not being in a school play
• watch TV or play computer games
• choose their own extracurricular activities
• get any grade less than an A
• not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama
• play any instrument other than the piano or violin or have the choice not play the piano or violin.

Read her account of trying to teach her youngest Lulu a complicated piano piece here. Ech...already my blood is boiling.

I will admit that R is more stringent than I am regarding academics and extracurricular activities. And he is more demanding of good grades. So this is what I have noticed: J is much more concerned what her father thinks about her grades. She will walk right past me (and has often done this) to show dad a particularly good grade on a paper or exam. When I asked her why she said this, "Well you are happy with anything I do but Daddy is a little tougher." A little? Try alot. And then I begin to wonder if I am too soft. R would say I am.

But here is my personal problem with this Tiger Mom approach and why I don't think it is effective for everyone, meaning most kids. I was a smart kid in high school - mostly got mid to high 80s in many grades, worked part time in our family business - including twelve hour shifts on Saturdays and numerous chores throughout the week - was elected to the student council for three years in high school and eventually became President of my high school. 

When I was 15 and brought home a 90% report card my mom said to me with the obvious intent of encouraging me, "That's good but you can get a better grade." So my emotional response was to shut down and do less not more. And, I felt that my family still treated me like I was a lazy underachiever despite my achievements.

I knew that her response was illogical and not helpful to my development - academic or emotional. I knew that instinctively. So intense pressure doesn't work for everyone. The sad thing is that the technique that Chua advocates will work "successfully" on a certain kind of child but...not everyone. But at what cost to their happiness and self esteem (yes that dirty word that Chua despises)? 

Because happy and non-resentful of one's parents is better than high achieving. Happy is better than highly successful but miserable. Happy and well adjusted is infinitely better than bragging about your kid's grades or mastery of the piano. Any kid can tell you that. 

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Influence of Anxiety

I think I have spoken here briefly about Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry, which speculates that it is “the struggle of the artist to find his or her own voice through an ambivalent, anxiety-ridden relation precisely with those precursors whom they most admire.”

But I’d also like to explore what it means to be writer who may be outside of the mainstream as a woman and/or as an ethnic person and the anxiety that that may produce in a writer.

This may perhaps be called the influence of anxiety on such a writer who does not see his or her experiences mirrored in the literature that they read. Now, I definitely don’t belong in the “banish the dead white male” camp (does anyone still work this tired politically correct notion?). Some of my favourite writers are DWMs: Tolstoy, Flaubert, Chekhov, Henry James, and in the category of a little less dead: Fitzgerald and Hemingway…not to mention the DWFs; Woolf, Wharton, Plath,.

It is sometimes unsettling how much they move me as a female reader. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, any of Chekhov’s heroines, James’ Isabel Archer or Kate Croy, Flaubert’s Emma Bovary, are to me, utterly convincing, moving, emotional, living beings. I don’t question the authenticity of the characters or the right of the male authors to create them.

The problem for me lies in the dreams of the aspiring writer – oh let’s say a working class kid from Hamilton who was not exposed to the habits of reading or writing and whose career aspirations were being pushed towards bank telling as an excellent career for girls (truly!) by her family. It is on the receiving end of the aspiring writer that the trouble here lies.

The anxiety mounts, it percolates, it simmers, reaching a crescendo: How I do that? How do I become a writer? Do I have the right to even try? Imagine how preposterous it might be to say to one’s father or mother who may work in factory or in street maintenance for the city or as a seamstress: I want to be a writer.

Is that idea welcome? Is it seen as feasible? Does the person who blurts out that ambition seem rational from their perspective? Not so much. It seems utterly ridiculous. What could you have to say? They are genuinely bewildered by the notion.

Because it’s not just about innate talent and hard work; it’s about opportunity, confidence, networking, marketing oneself.

And so it helps a great deal to see the success and talent of a Nino Ricci or novelist and academic Caterina Edwards or the poet Mary Di Michele to aspire to, to admire. Their success, their visibility, seems to say: yes. Simply yes.

Originally published in an altered format at

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Shift Work

This is my second time shadowing a shift supervisor in the kitchen for Out of the Cold. C, a new friend, has also been recruited as a trainee and is working the dining room tonight. We need a crew of 35 to operate efficiently - about 8-10 in the kitchen and the rest in the dining room.

I am under the command of a woman that I will refer to, with cordial humor, as Tiger Mom - very tough, very organized, and a little bit...terrifying. She primes me in a way that the previous kitchen shift supervisor had not with very specific instructions, expectations and demands. She wants no one in the kitchen unless you have a specific purpose and she is ferocious if you wander in by accident without a purpose. Try it...come on in, I dare you!

She asks me if I want to be in charge as the kitchen supervisor or only shadow her? Uh no ma'am I do not...She tells me that when I do my first shift I should do the following prep work:
  • stack soup bowls and plates with cutlery and napkins for the latecomers and overnight guests above the stove
  • prepare a small pot of soup for latecomers
  • delegate the plating of 80-90 dessert plates with the featured dessert to a kitchen volunteer
  • fill the water jugs for each table (12)
  • place towels on the kitchen table for the racks of dishes to dry on and have some tea towels ready for drying dishes as they come out of the dishwasher
  • bring out and fill the pitchers for the milk for coffee and the gravy boats for the main course
  • prepare the industrial size coffee maker
  • place the serving spoons and utensils on the trolley for the main dishes
  • run the dishwasher once before starting to run the cycle to warm it up
  • keep a fresh bucket of water and tea towel nearby for little messes
And Tiger Mom does all this is before the guests arrive. She shows me where the keys are kept and where to find the vegetable patties for the vegetarian meals (as they are ex-pen-sive).

We get the first request for food - bring in the pot of soup! There are approximately 80 or so guests... Ordinarily, the three food servers come and get the soup but there are alot of new people here tonight and they seem a bit confused by their role - a church group of bright eyed young things who are not familiar with the routine. P, a wonderful regular volunteer, helps me place a large pot of soup on a trolley and we wheel it out. Out goes the soup...

I keep making pots of tea and refilling the carafes of coffee for a trolley in the dining room for the drink servers to dispense. I keep an eye on the dishwasher and the teenage boys loading and wiping the dishes as commanded by Tiger Mom. Things are not going as quickly as Tiger Mom would like. Not good...

Bring in the main course we are told! Tiger Mom and I load three large steel trays with, respectively, roast chicken, roast potatoes and mixed vegetables on to a trolley and wheel that out into the dining room. That goes quickly. Later I am told that we had 105 guests, the highest number this season. Novice that I am, I would not have guessed this as the night is warm(ish) for a February and, apparently, that day a certain social assistance cheque had been dispersed.

I get a request that some guests want soup in the hallway - that's where newcomers are placed if they are late for the dinner. Off I go with three bowls of soup...I guess I don't quite understand what is required of me because when Tiger Mom asks me if anyone else wants food I give her a puzzled look which obviously exasperates her.

Back out I go...there are a few more men. "Does anyone want a meal?" I ask timidly. The corridor is tight. The men are little bit intimidating - more because I don't know what to expect in such close circumstances. Yes they vegetarian meal, one meal with just vegetables, one regular meal. One guy seems a little erratic - is he high or is this a medical thing? He is young but something is not quite right. Best to keep my eye on him I think. Security ordinarily would not let someone in who was high or drunk but it does happen occasionally that someone slips through.

Ack, things are moving so quickly in the kitchen that I am getting flustered. I plate those extra meals and bring them out. A few more orders... The kitchen is very hot with the dishwasher going, me running back forth between kitchen and corridor and the number of people coming in and out. Tiger Mom watches me carefully...will I break under the pressure?

The dessert is served in the main dining room - apple crumble with vanilla ice cream - almost every plate leaves the kitchen.

Some of the men are getting a little chippy in the hallway but it's just me getting, plating and bringing the food. I'm feeling a little resentment when they appear peeved at my "slowness". But...I bite my tongue. I wonder, is it because they are men and I am a younger female that they speak a little disrespectfully? This perturbs me a bit.

Oh no, there's LISA (lady of indeterminate sexual attributes) at the door of the kitchen asking for decaf coffee...again...for the record we never have decaf and Lisa never likes the food. But she is pleasant as she stops me to ask what food we are serving tonight. She tells me she will pass as she doesn't feel well also not an unusual occurrence for Lisa.

Back in the kitchen, Tiger Mom looks concerned - is that because I am messing up or is she worried that she is over-burdening me? I am bright pink and pouring sweat from every pore. C and I confer quickly - do we need a runner to go back and forth from the hallway to the kitchen - perhaps next time?

Tiger Mom is a great teacher, a little frightening, but highly effective. I feel exhausted but more confident on this shift. We are close to leaving. I feel like C and I have passed our first significant test. It's 8.30p and everything is done - tables cleared and cleaned, mattresses set up, kitchen clean and dishes dried.

It's nice to be alone and walking home for a bit after a crazy night. The cold air outside feel good. So when my honey R asks me if I want a ride home I say no. Well done kid, you survived...