Place Matters: We Keep What We Choose to Keep

When my parents moved to Carson City in 1960, it was a developing community of around 6,000 people. They bought a house on the edge of town with a view of the Sierras across an open field, expecting it would be developed sometime soon, and they’d be looking at neighbors or a backyard fence.
But it didn’t happen. (I mean it did, eventually, but not for decades. They got very spoiled.) Since they expected it, though, they vowed to appreciate it as long as they could. To my dad, the architect, that meant installing a chicken wire fence, so that visually the yard seemed to extend all the way to the mountains, AND building a patio cover that inclined from the house, carefully measured such that from his chair in the family room, he could see the tops of the mountains. 
It was years before I realized how awesome that was.
It meant I grew up in a giant backyard. We could see the field from the kitchen table. When I was very young, there were cows in the spring and fall.  In the summer, we hopped the fence and played in the field, picnicking on the giant tree stump about a half-mile out. In the winter, we hiked out all the way to “The Pit,” a giant hole big enough to sled down in the winter time, then climb back out and sled down again. 
The rest of the year, there were jack rabbits, coyotes, and meadowlarks. And the mountains. I didn’t quite appreciate the view until we started jumping the fence. The thing you notice most as you return to our house was the gap in the fence line.  Everyone else for three miles, probably, had put up a fence. I was grateful to my dad then that my house was wide open to view and easy to find (good for a kid with no directional sense). 
But now, I’m proud. He saw the opportunity to enjoy that view and he took it.  Seriously, the patio cover was kind of a laughing stock in the neighborhood. Who builds a patio cover that goes up from the house? He had to install extra drainage, so the rain didn’t pool at the house. But when he sat in his comfy chair after dinner, he had the best view on the block.
My sister had her wedding reception in the back yard. Later I chose that lovely venue too. The backdrop was beautiful, and the price was hard to beat. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that the land was sold and developed in to a golf course and subdivision, and the dreaded six-foot wooden fence went up. They could still see the mountain tops, but the field was gone.
I am certain this had an impact on me, growing up. I was lucky enough to feel a little wild, even as the city grew up around us. Now as I develop my tiny backyard wildlife preserve, I try to curate my own space for my kids to feel connected to the natural world—not an easy task in suburban Southern California.
I make it a point to go out in the mornings on the patio—to be in the morning and take part in the light and song and cool air.  I live on a hill, and part of the ambience is overlooking the freeway and a school, too, but it’s all good.  I listen to my sparrows and remember the meadowlarks, appreciate my urban sunrises and remember those backyard sunsets.  

A Summer Story

Today I am struck by the pathological need we have for stories. Maybe it’s just at our house, but a multi-billion dollar entertainment industry tells me it’s pretty universal.
It’s summer, and the last one before my eldest munchkin flies the coop, in whatever way he chooses to do so after graduation next year. He’s particularly keen to fill this summer with all the fun he possibly can, sure as he is that this is the end of an era, and from now on he’ll be working for the man, unable to have anywhere near this amount of fun ever again, so long as he lives. (I have not disabused him of this notion, at least not significantly.)
What he chooses to spend his time on, primarily, is stories. He plays video games with storylines (and his sister and dad play many of the same ones, so they often talk on our dog walks, for instance, about how far they are in whatever game, and who they’ve met and where their character is going).
He plays the fantasy game “Dungeons and Dragons,” as well as the more sci-fi “Mutants and Masterminds.” We play board games, most of which have a story element to them. This summer has been dominated by “Betrayal at House on the Hill,” which offers multiple narratives, so the story is different each time.
And he reads. Some of the books he reads come from his games—like WarHammer 40K or Dungeons and Dragons, but lots of them don’t.
We don’t watch much television; in fact, I’ve watched more than anyone else, and I’m the one who loves to hate tv. But then I don’t play video games. When I do watch tv, I’m looking for interesting, well-developed characters, some I can identify with, and something new and funky that I can learn about, either from the setting or the character development. My last two ‘fixes’ have been set in Australia and the Carribbean, for instance, places I’ve never been.
The point is, when given a break, we have all in our various ways, stuffed our hours full of narratives. We have chosen stories over lots of other options for our summer. Some of the options have been taken off the menu this summer due to health and family issues, so maybe this is therapy. Yeah. That makes sense.
When we have down time–when we need down time–we fill our days and our minds with stories. And they seem to be all we need.  Both kids have commented on what a relaxing summer it’s been, despite the deaths of two family members and a mom in the hospital in the last few months.
They’re not wrong. The ability to escape to another world, whether we’re an active participant, as in a video game, or dragged along (swept away?) by a novelist or screenwriter, lets us come back to our own world refreshed.  Either we’ve seen how problems can be solved, or we’ve actively helped solve them. Either way, stories make us stronger, smarter. Better.

Viva summer.

Picture Books · Reading

Rapunzel Revisited

Five thoughts on Rapunzel that would have taken the first blog too far afield:

1. The Barbie movie is interesting.  In fact, there’s a spate of Barbie movies from about 2001-09 starring Kelly Sheridan as the voice of Barbie, that retell a variety of fairy tales, from Rapunzel to the Nutcracker, and they’re quite good—interesting adaptations. 
Rapunzel does some work to explain why the witch steals the baby (she is a spurned lover of the king—it’s almost like Disney writers know their Barbie).  It also adds a spunky baby dragon sidekick–why not?–and a magic paint brush that Rapunzel can use to paint things in to life.  All these Barbie movies are a little postmodern.  Rapunzel has the means to save herself.
     2. There is a whole rash of folk tales about over-protective fathers throughout myth and folklore.  Some set an impossible task for their daughter’s suitors, like “The Glass Mountain,” which has an early cognate in Marie de France’s “The Two Lovers” and some are just too clingy, like the father in many a “Beauty and the Beast” tale, where Beauty is just as reluctant to leave her father and grow up as he is to let her go.  The desire to imprison one’s daughter to keep her follows about the same fairy tale logic as the bad guy shtick: “You won’t marry me, so I’ll imprison you until you fall in love with me,” but it does serve as an absurd extreme for us to learn from.  Real people, we hope, wouldn’t go that far, but it sometimes helps to see our impulses played out to their logical conclusions.
3. If you want to go Freudian, you certainly can.  In many of the tales where a father locks up a daughter, he puts her in a chest or a box (symbolic of the womb).  In the tales where a woman locks her up, it’s often a tower (a clearly phallic symbol).  Is this a way to control the power of the opposite sex?  I’m not offering answers there, just acknowledging those readings are possible.
4. Leaving the tower is just the beginning.  In Rapunzel tales, frequently the prince finds the maiden because she’s singing, or because he overhears the witch ask Rapunzel for access.  But once he gets up there, she does just what the witch fears—runs away with him or conceives his children.  What happens when they run away is as awkward as the end of The Graduate.  They don’t know what to do.  They wander, sometimes together, sometimes alone.  Sometimes Rapunzel ends up in a desert with twins, and the prince finally finds them and she heals his blindness with her tears.  Sometimes they go a little “Baba Yaga” and have to outrun the witch with the help of magical items given by protective fairies.  But it’s almost never just “leave the tower; get on with Happy Ever After.”  There’s more she has to learn before that can happen, which seems to acknowledge the deficits of her sheltered existence, so I approve.
5. In the past this has been a relevant tale of sexual politics and the marriage economy.  A daughter used to be worth more (literally!) if she were a virgin, and therefore fathers had a reason to ensure they didn’t get too much experience too soon.  But a box or a tower is a ridiculous extreme and almost a challenge, as can be seen in the story of Danae or “The Miller and the Two Clerks.”  Shifting the focus to the mother’s fear changes it somewhat.  Mothers fear losing companions and help with the housework, and when the daughter leaves, she often isn’t seen again.  This gets closer to the modern mindset.  There is a real emotional loss when the baby bird leaves the nest, and we sometimes still need reminding that it’s ok, in fact important, not to build towers, but to build up our daughters instead.
(The image comes from my new favorite version.  My daughter loved it too, commenting on the beautiful images and the charming idea that the characters don’t have to be royalty for the story to work.)
Picture Books · Reading

Rapunzel Tales, or the Fear of Letting Our Daughters Grow Up

The idea of a daughter contained has appealed to many parents over the centuries. In Greek myth, King Acrisius of Argos locks his daughter Danae in a box when an oracle tells him his grandson will kill him. Rather than let events unfold as they might, where his daughter normally would marry someone from another town and go live with her new family, assuring that any grandchildren grew up well away from him, Acrisius acts on his fear and walks right in to the prophecy, as so many do.
He imprisons Danae in a chest and Zeus gets in by trickling in through the cracks as a shower of gold, landing in Danae’s lap. The metaphors abound. The short-sighted father, in trying to keep his daughter off the marriage market, has as much luck as one does avoiding a sunbeam. Danae gives birth to Perseus, who much later and in an accident completely unrelated to his feats of daring, kills his grandfather with a stray discus at an athletic event.
This image of locking away daughters, then, has old roots, and sometimes it is the father who is unwilling to let his daughter grow up. There is a medieval French tale called “The Miller and the Two Clerks” (famous now because Chaucer tweaked it for his “The Reeve’s Tale”), where a father locks his daughter up in a bin each night within his own one-room house to protect her virginity. That fails too, of course, in this case hilariously, when the daughter is convinced to let in a house guest on the grounds that he has a magic ring capable of restoring her virginity.  He neglects to tell her he picked it up from her father’s own fireplace moments before. In any case, the Daughter in a Box trick fails.
And then we get to the tower stories. Many European variants on this tale exist, and many of them make this a woman’s problem. It is, of course. Mothers worry about their daughters and about losing them to marriage. But the Grimms’ version and some Italian versions (“Beautiful Angiola” from Sicily and “Filagranata” from Rome, for instance) change the imprisoner to a witch. The witch possesses something a woman wants—something from her garden that the woman is willing to risk anything to obtain. And the witch, who has no child, wants the baby daughter whom she demands in compensation for theft. In the Grimm version, Rapunzel’s father fetches lettuce for his pregnant wife, but in “Angiola,” the woman and her friends are plundering the witch’s garden before anyone is pregnant, and Angiola is the price her mother pays, some time later, for her thievery.
So something has shifted. The concern of an over-protective father (either for his own sake or for economic reasons—the miller, of course, can marry his daughter higher up the social ladder if she is a confirmed virgin) has shifted to a witch or ogress who has no daughter of her own. The witch protects her as well, but as much from her family as from the world. In these versions the maiden is imprisoned apparently indefinitely, as the witch who imprisons her shows no sign of relenting. In these tales there is no hope of the maiden ever being let go. It goes some distance toward indulging maternal fear to imagine a way to keep a daughter safe from the world, but to make it a witch who orchestrates this shows how unnatural and cruel it is.
But of course, with the inexorability of Acrisius stepping in to his fate, the world comes to Rapunzel if she can’t go out in the world. A dashing prince happens by–or in the recent Disney film, a dashing thief with a complex past but one more than capable of true love–and the maiden’s society, which has been limited to one, doubles: her world explodes. Whatever trials and drama ensues, the process has begun:  Rapunzel embarks on a process of self-discovery that, despite the witch’s best efforts, leads her in to the world, never to return.
In some ways, the maternal fear is confirmed. But in others, the natural cycle of birth, maturing, and starting a new life, even a new family, is a promise made good.  That’s the problem with kids: we can’t keep them forever. They are not for keeping—not in a box, not in a tower, not at all. They are for loving and raising and letting go.
[By the way, the best collection I’ve seen of Rapunzel tales is in the Sur La Lune collection, edited by Heidi Anne Heiner. And today’s image is from the Barbie Rapunzel movie, which adds dragons and a magic paintbrush. Hooray!]