Making sense

Anne Lamott, on writing ...

"We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are. Sheep lice do not seem to share this longing, which is one reason why they write so little. But we do. We have so much we want to say and figure out.”

Monday, October 22, 2012

Dammit, Ayelet Waldman ...

First, there's her name: Ayelet.
I don't know how to pronounce it. I remember Oprah pronouncing it "Eye-Uh-Let," but then recently I came across Waldman's name in print, with this pronunciation: "I-Yell-It."
I am flummoxed.
I am bothered.
I am disturbed because I am bothered not knowing how to pronounce the damned name, this name of a woman I have never met, nor will possibly ever meet ~ although I was entertaining the fantasy of meeting "Eye-let" (?) one of these days at some vegan cafe in Berkley ~ considering she was, for forty-eight hours, my new literary role model.
A role model with a name I didn't know how to say.
Until I started reading Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace, Anne Tyler was the writer I most admired. Anne + Tyler: two simple pronunciations. A simple name behind beautifully written family dramas. Tyler has published dozens of novels, and I have read them all. At times, in the middle of parsing a Tyler-esque paragraph regarding a marriage, the thought has come to me that maybe, just maybe, Tyler as a person might be a bit uptight about sex and body parts: she never writes of either. Tyler as a writer could be edgier; still, Tyler's style always makes me smile.
However, after reading Waldman's bad mommy essays, I am now certain that Tyler would never describe her boobies like this (from Bad Mother's page 28): "How well I remember that rack! Those perky breasts that hovered just below my chin. Those pert nipples. That swelling cleavage. After four children and a full seventy-two months of breast-feeding, the last six of which were spent with my nipples clamped in the death vise of a breast pump, it is only by dint of foundation garments designed by teams of MIT professors who otherwise spend their days drawing up plans for the world's longest suspension bridges that my breasts achieve a shape even approximating round. When I undue (sic) the clasps, buckles, straps, and hoists of these miraculous feats of engineering, my boobs tumble
to the ground like boulders falling off a cliff. I could polish my shoes with my nipples."
She could polish her shoes with her nipples.
From that sentence alone, Waldman shoved Tyler out of first place. Here'd I gone a full decade and a half worshipping at the altar of Tyler, which was a comfortable religion, given Tyler's propensity for writing stories about family life (all I care about reading, as family life is the only life I've ever known, and thus I offer no apology for not hightailing it to the library to check out the newest political espionage thriller ~). Tyler would no more describe her nipple shoe polishing talent
than I might write about the Davinci Code, whatever that is, or pen a missive regarding 17th Century Spanish literature.
And so I had a new writer to admire. I went to the library and checked out Waldman's novel, Daughter's Keeper. I watched a few YouTube videos. I enjoyed thinking about Waldman and her novelist husband Michael Chabon, about how cool their lives must be, two writers in the same house.
It was exciting for me to know that both Waldman and Chabon had spent time at MacDowell (Chabon is actually on the board of directors there, maybe even the president ~). I was jealous that not only was Waldman's writing superior and beautiful in its structure, but she, too, was pretty and petite and had glorious green eyes. Also, she got to sleep with the oh-so-handsome blue-eyed
Pulitzer-prize winning author. (People magazine once wanted to place Chabon on its sexiest men list.)
And then I got to Chapter 11, and as quickly as Waldman rose to glory in my eyes, she fell off the pedestal, twisting her ankle on the way down. In this chapter titled "Rocketship," Waldman describes having had an abortion (a "genetic abortion"), with a sense of scientific detachment and a direct explanation, which I found disturbingly hard-hearted. (" Rocketship," explains Waldman, was the "place-holder name Zeke had come up with while we waited to find out the baby's gender." Zeke is one of Waldman and Chabon's four living children.)
Just when I was thinking of writing Waldman a fan letter, I decided I no longer wanted to meet her. I might be pro-choice politically, but I am definitely against "Let's have an abortion!" because a prenatal test shows a genetic defect might ~ might ~ cause physical or emotional or intellectual retardation. Writes Waldman: "I did calculations in my mind of what I could tolerate ~ physical malformations, fine. Who cares? I measure five feet ~ I bet there are parents in the world who'd be horrified at the prospect of having a child doomed never to grow taller than that. But developmental delay. That shook me to my core. Mental retardation. I couldn't go there."
Oh my.
You've got to be kidding me.
I was no longer infatuated with this former lawyer wordsmith whose constant use of five-dollar words simultaneously repulsed and attracted me. Look: I am an active reader. I read with a yellow highlighter and a pencil for annotations. I enjoy learning new words. With Waldman's book, I got out my iPhone and went to my Merriam-Webster app. I needed to look up these words, fancy-schmany five-dollar words that Waldman used liberally: exigency, endogenous, pernicious, paucity, screed, abnegation, capacious, apogee, apraxia, exiguous, and Pyrrhic, the one with the capital P. There is a difference in meaning between Pyrrhic and pyrrhic, but I didn't know this until I consulted my dictionary.
I was attracted to Waldman's clear intellect and command of the English language. I remember thinking, after looking up the twentieth or so unknown word, that if I ever did meet "Eye-let" (?), I would be intimidated by her intelligence and articulate ways. I was repulsed, however, by what I considered an ostentatious display of vocabulary. Every now and then I felt a childhood taunt resurfacing: nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah, I know more words than you do.
I was annoyed that Bad Mommy was using words that most mommies, good or bad, ever employed. Even then, though, I was OK with feeling deficient in my vocabulay.
But the abortion, described in detail, a death necessary to keep a potentially damaged human being from being born? Couldn't identify with that, no matter how I turned it around in my head, tried to intellectualize it. Waldman's book just left me feeling sad and empty. And so very, very grateful for the three children I brought into the world, never knowing whether they would be "perfect," but choosing life for them, anyway.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I read this post of yours earlier, but didn't comment at the time.

Anyway, I have the same shock at Ayelet (I-Yell-It).

Reading about that 4 month old boy fetus "Rocketship" had only made me sad and then angry.

Ayelet had this abortion a thousand years ago and has moved on (etc.), but can she really live down that she had feared that fetus possibly being retarded? I use the word retarded because it is inappropriate just like Ayelet's fear of that fetus ever being a disabled human being. She scared me, too.

I also see that Ayelet has had depression (a mental illness, disorder). Maybe she could have been a genetic abortion if there was a prenatal test available to her own mom that had screened for mental illnesses. So I'm just saying that Ayelet had made that decision and it was hypocritical and had made her a coward.