Brain Pickings

The Best LGBT Children’s Books: A Sweet and Assuring Celebration of Diversity and Difference

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From Maurice Sendak to the real-life story of a gay penguin family, by way of grandmothers and kings.

“This is the entire essence of life: Who are you? What are you?” young Leo Tolstoy wrote in his journal of selfhood. The quest for an answer begins as soon as we develop theory of mind as children — usually around the age of four or five — and continues until we dissolve back into stardust. We inherit part of our individual answers from our parents and our culture, in traits passed down via DNA and beliefs synthesized from societal norms, but must contend with the remaining parts on our own. In his magnificent meditation on identity, Andrew Solomon offers a useful distinction between these two answer-sources, calling the inheritable part “vertical identity” and the self-invented part “horizontal identity.” The process of answering this existential question is challenging enough for any human being, increasingly so the further one’s sense of identity falls from a cultural norm. It is especially arduous for the young, the different, and most of all the very young who feel very different.

Gathered here is a selection of intelligent, imaginative, and deeply assuring children’s books for little humans anxious or anguished by their particular point of difference — loving or identifying with a gender other than the one society has prescribed for them to love or be. Vintage and modern, these books dance across the spectra of the playful and the poignant, the sincere and the subversive, the personal and the political.

WE ARE ALL IN THE DUMPS WITH JACK AND GUY

The 1993 masterwork We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy (public library), which I’ve covered extensively here, is the darkest yet most hopeful book Maurice Sendak ever created, as well as one of his most personal. It’s an unusual fusion of two traditional Mother Goose nursery rhymes — “In the Dumps” and “Jack and Gye” — reimagined and interpreted by Sendak’s singular sensibility, and permeated by many layers of cultural and personal subtext.

On a most basic level, the story follows a famished black baby, part of a clan of homeless children dressed in newspaper and living in boxes, kidnapped by a gang of giant rats. Jack and Guy, who are strolling nearby and first brush the homeless kids off, witness the kidnapping and set out to rescue the boy. But the rats challenge them to a rigged game of bridge, with the child as the prize. After a series of challenges that play out across a number of scary scenes, Jack and Guy emerge victorious and save the boy with the help of the omniscient Moon and a mighty white cat that chases the rats away.

Created at the piercing pinnacle of the AIDS plague and amid an epidemic of homelessness, it is a highly symbolic, sensitive tale that reads almost like a cry for mercy, for light, for resurrection of the human spirit at a time of incomprehensible heartbreak and grimness. It is, above all, a living monument to hope — one built not on the denial of hopelessness but on its delicate demolition.

But the book’s true magic lies in its integration of Sendak’s many identities — the son of Holocaust survivors, a gay man witnessing the devastation of AIDS, a deft juggler of darkness and light.

Jack and Guy appear like a gay couple, and their triumph in rescuing the child resembles an adoption, two decades before that was an acceptable subject for a children’s book. “And we’ll bring him up / As other folk do,” the final pages read — and, once again, a double meaning reveals itself as two characters are depicted with wings on their backs, lifting off into the sky, lending the phrase “we’ll bring him up” an aura of salvation. In the end, the three curl up as a makeshift family amidst a world that is still vastly imperfect but full of love.

We are all in the dumps
For diamonds are thumps
The kittens are gone to St. Paul’s!
The baby is bit
The moon’s in a fit
And the houses are built
Without walls

Jack and Guy
Went out in the Rye
And they found a little boy
With one black eye
Come says Jack let’s knock
Him on the head
No says Guy
Let’s buy him some bread
You buy one loaf
And I’ll buy two
And we’ll bring him up
As other folk do

In many ways, this is Sendak’s most important and most personal book. In fact, Sendak would resurrect the characters of Jack and Guy two decades later in his breathtaking final book, a posthumously published love letter to the world and to his partner of fifty years, Eugene Glynn. Jack and Guy, according to playwright Tony Kushner, a dear friend of Sendak’s, represented the two most important people in the beloved illustrator’s life — Jack was his real-life brother Jack, whose death devastated Sendak, and Guy was Eugene, the love of Sendak’s life, who survived him after half a century of what would have been given the legal dignity of a marriage had Sendak lived to see the dawn of marriage equality. (Sendak died thirteen months before the defeat of DOMA.)

All throughout, the book emanates Sendak’s greatest lifelong influence — like the verses and drawings of William Blake, Sendak’s visual poetry in We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy is deeply concerned with the human spirit and, especially, with the plight of children. See more of it here.

AMY ASKS A QUESTION: GRANDMA, WHAT’S A LESBIAN?

Children are our greatest antidote to the narrowing of personality and their pure, earnest curiosity about the unfamiliar only turns into negative judgment or aversion when these responses are modeled by fearful, bigoted, and narrow-minded adults. But, conversely, when children are aided in understanding the unfamiliar rather than judging or fearing it, the seed of benevolence and compassion is planted. That’s the heartening premise behind the 1996 gem Amy Asks a Question: Grandma, What’s a Lesbian? (public library), written by Jeanne Arnold and illustrated by Barbara Lindquist — two grandmothers themselves, who explain in the afterword that twenty years earlier they had fallen in love and stepped out of their “heterosexual privilege.” The book is loosely based on their own lives and dedicated to their six children and eleven grandchildren — doubly delightful today, as we face the disappearance of grandparents from literature.

It tells the story of little Amy, who comes home one day and tells her parents that some boys at school had teased her and the other little girls for hugging each other, calling them “lesbians.” Amy isn’t sure what that means or why it’s an insult. Her parents decide that the question is best addressed by Amy’s grandmother, Bonnie, who has been living with her partner Grandma Jo for more than twenty years.

One Mother’s Day, Amy goes to visit her two grandmas. As she sits in their big armchair pretending to be reading one of their countless books, she overhears them talking about “gay pride” and wonders what that means. She knows what “gay” means — her favorite uncle, who taught her to sign for the deaf, was gay and died of AIDS — but she doesn’t get the pride thing.

Pride? I feel proud of myself when I get my good reports at my school, when I learned to play the flute, and when I help my mom and dad watch out for my brother and sister.

Grandma Bonnie is an artist. Her paintings fill the walls of their home. She is an author, a musician, a computer expert and a woman who owns her own business. And she’s proud of all that. She’s proud of all her four children and eight grandchildren. Why does she want to go to a gay pride parade to feel proud?

Amy knows fragments of her two grandmas’ life-stories — how they met at the hospital where they both worked and where Grandma Jo still works part-time; how Bonnie got fired when management found out that she had gotten divorced and was now living with Jo; how they opened a women’s bookstore to make ends meet while contributing to the community; how they had a “handfasting ceremony,” which is “kind of like a wedding ceremony,” after twenty years of living together.

So on her next visit to her two grandmas’ house, with her mother’s encouragement, Amy poses the big question: “Grandma, what’s a lesbian?”

“Well,” said Grandma Bonnie. “We’ve been waiting for a long time for that question to come from one of our grandchildren.”

Then she took a deep breath and said, “Amy, we are lesbians, Jo and I, and we’re called “lesbians” because we love each other. Lesbians are women who prefer to be with women as friends or who choose women as their lovers and/or partners. Lesbians love women rather than or more than they could love men as lovers or as husbands.

But Grandma Jo interrupts to offer an essential disclaimer that speaks to Amy’s experience with the teasing boys at schools:

But each woman needs to think of herself as a lesbian before anyone else can pin that label on her. You are a lesbian only if you consider yourself one!

Grandma Bonnie adds that they’ve loved each other for twenty years and wistfulness creeps into her words as we’re reminded once again, from the privilege of history’s hindsight, just how much we owe to Edith Windsor:

We would get legally married, if we could.

They go on to recount how in the early years of their love, an era when LGBT couples were truly invisible, they didn’t know any other lesbians at all and felt completely cut off from a sense of community. They tell Amy about the various semi-secret identity signals used to dispel that illusion of hegemony-enforced invisibility:

Lesbians are everywhere — in big cities, small towns and in the country, but they have been almost invisible unless they wear a pink triable pin or a rainbow flag patch on their clothes or have a lavender bumper sticker on the cars saying, “Meet you in Michigan in August.”

The book was published by Mother Courage Press, an imprint Arnold and Lindquist founded to give voice to women’s words. Arnold’s afterword is a heartening testament to how far we’ve come in the two decades since as well as a poignant reminder of how little some things have changed and how much further we have yet to go:

I want to celebrate lesbian values, courage and respectability, our uniqueness and our struggles in the pursuit of happiness.

Many lesbians’ lives go uncelebrated, even unacknowledged. A profound silence casts a shadow over them and their families, friends and co-workers. Many of us have been or are so invisible, it’s as if we are in a secret sorority; it seems like a miracle when we find each other. This silence denies our worth. This silence weakens our lives and our families already vulnerable to society’s pressures.

Those women-loving women who reveal who they are risk themselves each day. The challenge they have accepted is sustained by the courage that it takes to be themselves.

[…]

Energy is wasted by those living in secrecy and silence. It is also wasted by those divided in conflict… The conflict consumes the power that could be better spent strengthening the individual, the family and society in a world without oppression and heterosexism — with people living in freedom and thriving in love.

KING AND KING

From Dutch writer and illustrator duo Linda de Haan and Stern Nijland comes the irreverent, imaginative, absolutely wonderful 2002 treasure King and King (public library) — a fairy tale with a refreshing twist.

This magnificent book — which has been consistently challenged and even brought to court by small-minded bigots and yet remains widely beloved the world over and has been adapted for the theater stage in Vienna and Mexico City — tells the story of a young prince whose grouchy queen-mother, ready for retirement after many long years of ruling the kingdom, keeps pressuring him to get married.

In a rather common defense strategy against maternal nagging, the prince reluctantly agrees to the queen’s unrelenting demand, but not without noting that he “never much cared for princesses.”

The queen brings all of her royal determination to the task and calls the princesses of “every castle, alcazar, and palazzo near and far.” One by one the eligible bachelorettes present themselves to the prince, but none is right — not the “funny little princess from Greenland,” who ends up besotting the prince’s page, nor the pageant queen from Texas who fails to impress the royal family with her juggle act, not even the tall, dark, and elegant beauty from Mumbai, who storms out after the prince remarks that her long arms would be well suited for waving to the people.

Just as the prince and the queen begin to sink into defeat and disappointment, the page announces that there is one more princess, escorted by her brother, Prince Lee.

And as the fairy-tale trope goes, the last resort is the one where the key to happily-ever-after is hidden — except not in the precise way the queen had intended.

As soon as the two princes lay eyes on each other, they fall madly in love as the queen grumbles silently and the princess yawns.

But their wedding is so magical that even the queen can’t help shedding a tear or two. For a delightful touch, Nijland places a groom-and-groom duo atop the wedding cake as the two princes stare lovingly into each other’s eyes under a “CONGRATS” banner.

At last, the queen is free to retire and the two princes take charge of the kingdom, known from that day on as King and King. “And everyone lives happily ever after,” of course.

King and King was followed by King and King and Family, the equally delightful story of the duo’s honeymoon, on which they go to the jungle and see all kinds of animals having babies, so they decide to adopt a child and venture into parenthood themselves.

AND TANGO MAKES THREE

And Tango Makes Three (public library) by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, with charming illustrations by Henry Cole, tells the heartening true story of Roy and Silo — two male chinstrap penguins at the Central Park Zoo. Roy and Silo fell in love in 1998 and started a family, raising little Tango — the zoo’s first and only baby-girl with two daddies.

Published in 2005, nearly a decade before marriage equality, the book is a sweet celebration of modern families through the most indisputable and inclusive assurance — nature itself.

But nothing happened. Then, Mr. Gramzay got an idea:

But the true story has a bittersweet ending — in 2005, just after And Tango Makes Three was published, Roy and Silo parted ways and Silo coupled with a female penguin. Meanwhile, Tango formed a same-sex relationship with another female penguin named Tanuzi. Tango and Tanuzi have remained together for every mating cycle since.

DADDY’S ROOMMATE

Daddy’s Roommate (public library) is the inaugural title by Alyson Wonderland, a children’s-book imprint aimed at offering comfort and camaraderie to the children of LGBT parents.

Written and illustrated by Michael Willhoite in 1990, it tells the story of a little boy whose dad begins living with a man named Frank shortly after he and the boy’s mom divorce. It’s a simple, quietly assuring tale of how the child arrives at loving acceptance of his newly reformulated family as he bears witness to the ordinary day-to-day lives of Daddy and Frank.

In the afterword to the tenth anniversary edition, Willhoite looks back on the “wrath of the religious right,” which descended upon the book when it was first published and how it accomplished exactly the opposite of what those bigoted censors desired — it catapulted the book into national prominence as libraries all over the country “fought like tigers on the book’s behalf.” Willhoite writes:

Daddy’s Roommate has been the target of censorship, burning, theft, defacement, and a well-orchestrated campaign to remove it from libraries. The book is still, triumphantly, what I first intended: a mirror in which children of gay parents can see themselves. Yet it has also been used as a tool to educate children in more traditional families about gay families in their midst.

I am very proud.

HEATHER HAS TWO MOMMIES

In the 1980s, writer Lesléa Newman began noticing that same-sex couples were having kids like everybody else, but had no children’s books to read to them portraying nontraditional family units. At that point, women had been “marrying” one another for ages, but true marriage equality in the eyes of the law and the general public was still two decades away, as were children’s books offering alternate narratives on what makes a family. So Newman enacted the idea that the best way to complain is to make things and penned Heather Has Two Mommies (public library) — a sweet, straightforward picture-book illustrated by Diana Souza, telling the story of a warm and accepting playground discussion of little Heather’s life with Mama Kate, a doctor, and Mama Jane, a carpenter. Today, it is notable primarily for its pioneering status as the world’s first children’s book about a two-mom family.

Heather’s favorite number is two. She has two arms, two legs, two eyes, two ears, two hands, and two feet. She also has two pets: a ginger-colored cat named Gingersnap and a big black dog named Midnight.

Heather also has two mommies: Mama Jane and Mama Kate.

The book, which predated even Maurice Sendak’s controversial children’s story grazing the subject, was unflinchingly pioneering — with the proper social outrage to attest to this status. Not only did it rank number 11 on the American Library Association’s chart of America’s most frequently challenged books in the 1990s, but its impact continued for decades — comedian Bill Hicks, an eloquent champion of free speech, paid homage to it in his final act on Letterman in October of 1993 and it was even parodied in a 2006 episode of The Simpsons titled “Bart Has Two Mommies.”

Despite that, or perhaps precisely because of it, the book lives on as a bold embodiment of Bertrand Russell’s famous proclamation: “Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.”

Twenty years later, Newman followed up with the board books Mommy, Mama, and Me and Daddy, Papa, and Me, affectionately illustrated by artist Carol Thompson.

Complement Heather Has Two Mommies with Andrew Solomon’s remarkable Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity, a moving meditation on how love both changes us and makes us more ourselves, and the impossibly charming And Tango Makes Three, an allegorical marriage equality primer telling the true story of Central Park Zoo’s gay penguin family.

In the decades since, Newman has authored a number of other LGBT-themed children’s books, including Gloria Goes to Gay Pride. A modernized edition of Heather Has Two Mommies, featuring new illustrations by artist Laura Cornell, is being released in March 2015.

MORRIS MICKLEWHITE AND THE TANGERINE DRESS

Of all the imprisoning polarities and stereotypes in our culture, none is more pervasive than the imprisoning gender expectations we instill in kids from an early age. Even young Mark Twain took issue with them in his irreverent 1865 gem Advice to Little Girls, and a New Yorker cartoonist satirized them brilliantly a century later. Today, the situation is improving only slowly, only modestly, thanks to the occasional children’s book encouraging young girls to transcend our gendered vocational stereotypes. But what about little boys who don’t relate to society’s prescription for how they should inhabit their own identity and don’t understand why they aren’t allowed to enjoy what little girls enjoy? As Erika Trafton wrote in her moving meditation on gender identity, “This culture wants little boys to dream only of baseball, trucks, and trains. This culture has no room for little boys who want to be gorgeous.” And yet Andrew Solomon put it best: “Loving our own children is an exercise for the imagination.”

That exercise is what writer and anti-bullying champion Christine Baldacchino and illustrator Isabelle Malenfant explore with great warmth and tenderness in Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress (public library) — the story of a sweet but misunderstood little boy derided and ostracized by his classmates because he loves wearing the tangerine dress in his classroom’s dress-up center.

Imaginative and wildly creative, little Morris likes to paint and sing and do puzzles while humming to himself. He loves the tangerine dress because its color “reminds him of tigers, the sun and his mother’s hair”; he loves the sound it makes, too: “swish, swish, swish when he walks and crinkle, crinkle, crinkle when he sits down.”

When the boys make fun of him and the girls jeer at the pink nail polish on his fingers, he pretends not to notice them, but his heart aches with anguish.

His classmates even shun him from the spaceship they are building — “Astronauts don’t wear dresses,” they scoff.

One day, Morris is so crestfallen over the ceaseless bullying that he begins to feel physically ill. (Indeed, psychologists are now finding that “social pain” has biological repercussions.) He is sent home, where he dreams up a grand space adventure with his cat Moo.

The next day, Morris takes out his brushes and paints a wild, vibrant picture of his dream, complete with a shiny space helmet for Moo. In the drawing, Morris is wearing his beloved tangerine dress riding atop a big blue elephant.

On Monday, Morris went to school with his painting rolled up in his backpack.

When he had the chance, he put on the dress that reminded him of tigers and the sun and his mother’s hair.

Morris swish, swish, swished.
The tangerine dress crinkle, crinkle, crinkled.
His shoes click, click, clicked.
Morris felt wonderful.

The boys in his class are so enchanted by the space-world Morris dreamt up — a world into which he welcomes them — that they decide “it didn’t matter if astronauts wore dresses or not” because “the best astronauts were the ones who knew where all the good adventures were hiding.” With a quiet smile, Morris accepts their acceptance.

When snack time was over, Becky demanded the dress.
Morris told her she could have it when he was done with it.
“Boys don’t wear dresses,” Becky snipped.
Morris smiled as he swished, crinkled and clicked back to his spaceship.
“This boy does.”

* * *

Complement with this reading list of stimulating children’s books celebrating science and this grown-up omnibus of history’s most beautiful LGBT love letters, then revisit The Little Red Schoolbook — a wonderfully honest vintage Danish guide to teenage sexuality, brought back to life after decades of being banned.

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Lewis Carroll on Happiness and How to Alleviate Our Discomfort with Change

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“There’s no use in comparing one’s feelings between one day and the next; you must allow a reasonable interval, for the direction of change to show itself.”

I am the frequent and fortunate recipient of wonderful letters from readers, many of whom share deeply personal stories of their struggles and triumphs. But few have moved me more than a recent one from a 61-year-old woman from Santa Fe, who has been living with Stage IV cancer for nearly twenty-six years — something she revealed not as a centerpiece of the letter, and not as self-pity or even a complaint, but as a mere factual report for context. She went on to describe all the enlivening ways she has found for leading a rich, creative, and rewarding life as she adjusted to her progressively diminishing physical faculties. Astounded at first by her resilience and optimism given the cards she had been dealt, I was reminded of a now-legendary 1978 adaptation theory study (PDF), which found that both lottery winners and people rendered paraplegic by an accident not only return to their baseline happiness level within a few months but also have similar baselines overall, regardless of whether they had great or terrible fortune.

And yet most of us find this difficult to believe because, despite what we may know about the psychology of resilience and our hardwired optimism bias, we dread change enormously. Change — be it negative, neutral, or even positive — is hard; more than that, it’s usually unwelcome — in no small part because we’re stitched together by our routines and rituals. But change is also how we stretch ourselves and grow, and in the tension between the resistance and the necessity lies one of the great paradoxes of the human condition.

The wisest advice I’ve ever encountered on how to assuage our deep discomfort with change comes from Lewis Carroll — a man of timeless and timely insight on so many facets of daily life: In his nine commandments of letter-writing we find guidelines to making modern digital communication more civil, and in his rules for digesting information we find solace for our present state of information overload.

Although Carroll’s beloved Alice in Wonderland is a story about befriending the disorienting strangeness of change, he addressed the subject directly two decades later. In an August 1885 letter included in the altogether addictive The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll (public library; free download) — which also gave us Carroll’s three tips for overcoming creative block — he writes to a young friend named Isabel Standen, who had written to him lamenting her loneliness and unhappiness in a new environment:

I can quite understand, and much sympathize with, what you say of your feeling lonely, and not what you can honestly call “happy.” Now I am going to give you a bit of philosophy about that — my own experience is, that every new form of life we try is, just at first, irksome rather than pleasant. My first day or two at the sea is a little depressing; I miss [my usual] interests, and haven’t taken up the threads of interest here; and, just in the same way, my first day or two, when I get back [home], I miss the seaside pleasures, and feel with unusual clearness the bothers of business-routine. In all such cases, the true philosophy, I believe, is “wait a bit.” Our mental nerves seem to be so adjusted that we feel first and most keenly, the dis-comforts of any new form of life; but, after a bit, we get used to them, and cease to notice them; and then we have time to realize the enjoyable features, which at first we were too much worried to be conscious of.

Illustration for 'Alice in Wonderland' by Tove Jansson. Click image for more.

Almost a century before that famous adaptation theory study, Carroll illustrates his point with a strikingly similar example:

Suppose you hurt your arm, and had to wear it in a sling for a month. For the first two or three days the discomfort of the bandage, the pressure of the sling on the neck and shoulder, the being unable to use the arm, would be a constant worry. You would feel as if all comfort in life were gone; after a couple of days you would be used to the new sensations, after a week you perhaps wouldn’t notice them at all; and life would seem just as comfortable as ever.

So my advice is, don’t think about loneliness, or happiness, or unhappiness, for a week or two. Then “take stock” again, and compare your feelings with what they were two weeks previously. If they have changed, even a little, for the better you are on the right track; if not, we may begin to suspect the life does not suit you. But what I want specially to urge is that there’s no use in comparing one’s feelings between one day and the next; you must allow a reasonable interval, for the direction of change to show itself. Sit on the beach, and watch the waves for a few seconds; you say “the tide is coming in “; watch half a dozen successive waves, and you may say “the last is the lowest; it is going out.” Wait a quarter of an hour, and compare its average place with what it was at first, and you will say “No, it is coming in after all.” …

With love, I am always affectionately yours,

C.L. Dodgson

The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll is a treasure trove of humorous and heartening treats in its entirety. Complement it with Carroll on how to feed the mind, his four rules for digesting information, and the best illustrations from 150 years of Alice in Wonderland.

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Addiction to Truth: David Carr, the Measure of a Person, and the Uncommon Art of Elevating the Common Record

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“We all walk this earth feeling we are frauds. The trick is to be grateful and hope the caper doesn’t end any time soon.”

We spend our lives pulled asunder by the two poles of our potentiality — our basest nature and our most expansive goodness. To elevate oneself from the lowest end of that spectrum to the highest is the great accomplishment of the human spirit. To do this for another person is to give them an invaluable gift. To do it for a group of people — a community, an industry, a culture — is the ultimate act of generosity and grace.

This is what David Carr (September 8, 1956–February 12, 2015) did for us.

He called out what he saw as the product of our lesser selves. He celebrated that which he deemed reflective of our highest potential. And by doing so over and over, with passion and integrity and unrelenting idealism, he nudged us closer to the latter.

He wrote to me once, in his characteristic lowercase: “am missing you. how to fix?” Such was his unaffected sweetness. But, more than that, such was the spirit in which he approached the world — seeing what is missing, seeing what is lacking, and pointing it out, but only for the sake of fixing it. He was a critic but not a cynic in a culture where the difference between the two is increasingly endangered and thus increasingly precious. The caring bluntness of his criticism was driven by the rare give-a-shitness of knowing that we can do better and believing, unflinchingly, that we must.

This is what David Carr did for us — but only because he did it for himself first.

David Carr (Photograph: Chester Higgins Jr. courtesy of The New York Times

The test of one’s decency — the measure of a person — is the honesty one can attain with oneself, the depth to which one is willing to go to debunk one’s own myth and excavate the imperfect, uncomfortable, but absolutely necessary truth beneath. That’s precisely what Carr did in The Night of the Gun (public library) — an exquisitely rigorous, utterly harrowing and utterly heartening memoir of his journey from the vilest depths of crack addiction to his job at The New York Times, where he became the finest and most revered media reporter of our century, and how between these two poles he managed to raise his twin daughters as a single father. It’s the story of how he went from “That Guy, a dynamo of hilarity and then misery” to “This Guy, the one with a family, a house, and a good job.” It’s also a larger story reminding us that we each carry both capacities within us and must face the choice, daily, of which one to let manifest.

The story begins with Carr’s point of reluctant awakening upon being fired from his job as a newspaper reporter in Minneapolis:

For an addict the choice between sanity and chaos is sometimes a riddle, but my mind was suddenly epically clear.

“I’m not done yet.”

With his flair for the unsensationalist drama of real life, he recalls the aftermath of one particularly bad trip, which precipitated his journey out of the abyss:

Every hangover begins with an inventory. The next morning mine began with my mouth. I had been baking all night, and it was as dry as a two-year-old chicken bone. My head was a small prison, all yelps of pain and alarm, each movement seeming to shift bits of broken glass in my skull. My right arm came into view for inspection, caked in blood, and then I saw it had a few actual pieces of glass still embedded in it. So much for metaphor. My legs both hurt, but in remarkably different ways.

[…]

It was a daylight waterfall of regret known to all addicts. It can’t get worse, but it does. When the bottom arrives, the cold fact of it all, it is always a surprise. Over fifteen years, I had made a seemingly organic journey from pothead to party boy, from knockaround guy to friendless thug. At thirty-one, I was washed out of my profession, morally and physically corrupt, but I still had almost a year left in the Life. I wasn’t done yet.

It isn’t hard to see the parallels between that experience and the counterpoint upon which Carr eventually built his career and his reputation. His work as a journalist was very much about taking inventory of our cultural hangovers — the things we let ourselves get away with, the stories we tell ourselves and are told by the media about why it’s okay to do so, and the addiction to untruth that we sustain in the process.

David Carr with his daughter Erin

In fact, this dance between mythmaking and truth is baked into the book’s title — a reference to an incident that took place the night of that bad trip, during which Carr had behaved so badly that his best friend had to point a gun at him to keep him at bay. At least that’s the story Carr told himself for years, only to realize later upon revisiting the incident with a journalist’s scrutiny that the memory — like all memory — was woven of more myth than truth. He writes:

Recollection is often just self-fashioning. Some of it is reflexive, designed to bury truths that cannot be swallowed, but other “memories” are just redemption myths writ small. Personal narrative is not simply opening up a vein and letting the blood flow toward anyone willing to stare. The historical self is created to keep dissonance at bay and render the subject palatable in the present.

We are most concerned, he suggests, with making ourselves palatable to ourselves. (One need only look at Salinger’s architecture of personal mythology and the story of how Freud engineered his own myth for evidence.) But nowhere do we warp our personal narratives more than in our mythologies of conquering adversity — perhaps because to magnify the gap between who we were and who we are is to magnify our achievement of personal growth. Carr admonishes against this tendency:

The meme of abasement followed by salvation is a durable device in literature, but does it abide the complexity of how things really happened? Everyone is told just as much as he needs to know, including the self. In Notes from Underground, Fyodor Dostoevsky explains that recollection — memory, even — is fungible, and often leaves out unspeakable truths, saying, “Man is bound to lie about himself.”

I am not an enthusiastic or adept liar. Even so, can I tell you a true story about the worst day of my life? No. To begin with, it was far from the worst day of my life. And those who were there swear it did not happen the way I recall, on that day and on many others. And if I can’t tell a true story about one of the worst days of my life, what about the rest of those days, that life, this story?

[…]

The power of a memory can be built through repetition, but it is the memory we are recalling when we speak, not the event. And stories are annealed in the telling, edited by turns each time they are recalled until they become little more than chimeras. People remember what they can live with more often than how they lived.

In this experience one finds the seed of Carr’s zero-tolerance policy for untruth — not only in his own life, but in journalism and the media world on which he reported. If anything, the mind-boggling archive of 1,776 articles he wrote for the Times was his way of keeping our collective memory accurate and accountable — an active antidote to the self-interested amnesia of cultural and personal mythmaking. He toiled tirelessly to keep truthful and honorable what Vannevar Bush — another patron saint of media from a different era — poetically called “the common record.”

David Carr with his daughter Meagan

Carr writes of the moment he chose sanity over chaos:

Slowly, I remembered who I was. Hope floats. The small pleasures of being a man, of being a drunk who doesn’t drink, an addict who doesn’t use, buoyed me.

So much of Carr’s character lives in this honest yet deeply poetic sentiment. He was, above all, an idealist. He understood that our addiction to untruths and mythologies spells the death of our ideals, and ideals are the material of the human spirit. He floated us by his hope. He was the E.B. White of twenty-first-century journalism — like White, who believed that “writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life,” Carr shaped for a living; like White, who believed that a writer should “lift people up, not lower them down,” Carr buoyed us with his writing.

In the remainder of The Night of the Gun, Carr goes on to chronicle how he raised his daughters “in the vapor trail of adults who had a lot of growing up to do themselves,” why he relapsed into alcoholism after fourteen years of sobriety and “had to spin out again to remember those very basic lessons” before climbing back out, and what it really means to be “normal” for any person in any life.

Toward the end, he writes:

You are always told to recover for yourself, but the only way I got my head out of my own ass was to remember that there were other asses to consider.

I now inhabit a life I don’t deserve, but we all walk this earth feeling we are frauds. The trick is to be grateful and hope the caper doesn’t end any time soon.

David Carr by Wendy MacNaughton

Am missing you now, David — we all are. How to fix?

Perhaps some breakages can’t be fixed, but I suppose the trick is indeed to be grateful — even when, and especially when, the caper does end; to be grateful that it had begun in the first place.

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The Difference Between Routine and Ritual: How to Master the Balancing Act of Controlling Chaos and Finding Magic in the Mundane

By:

“The wonder of life is often most easily recognizable through habits and routines.”

William James, at the dawn of modern psychology, argued that our habits anchor us to ourselves. As someone equally fascinated by the daily routines of artists and with their curious creative rituals, and as a practitioner of both in my own life, I frequently contemplate the difference between the routine and ritual, these two supreme deities of habit. They seem to be different sides of the same coin — while routine aims to make the chaos of everyday life more containable and controllable, ritual aims to imbue the mundane with an element of the magical. The structure of routine comforts us, and the specialness of ritual vitalizes us. A full life calls for both — too much control, and we become mummified; too little excitement and pleasurable discombobulation, and we become numb. After all, to be overly bobulated is to be dead inside — to doom oneself to a life devoid of the glorious and ennobling messiness of the human experience.

This equipoise of routine and ritual is, to me, one of the essential balancing acts of life — not unlike that of critical thinking and hope, or form and freedom.

In Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair (public library) — her magnificent meditation on how we endure and find sanity in a crazy worldAnne Lamott captures this delicate dance elegantly:

Here’s the true secret of life: We mostly do everything over and over. In the morning, we let the dogs out, make coffee, read the paper, help whoever is around get ready for the day. We do our work. In the afternoon, if we have left, we come home, put down our keys and satchels, let the dogs out, take off constrictive clothing, make a drink or put water on for tea, toast the leftover bit of scone. I love ritual and repetition. Without them, I would be a balloon with a slow leak.

More than a pleasurable rhythm for everyday life, rituals cast an anchor of stability during turbulent times:

Daily rituals, especially walks, even forced marches around the neighborhood, and schedules, whether work or meals with non-awful people, can be the knots you hold on to when you’ve run out of rope.

Illustration for 'Alice in Wonderland' by Lisbeth Zwerger. Click image for more.

And yet the most magical moments happen when life’s soft living body shakes free of the confining exoskeleton our routines impose. Lamott writes:

Beauty is a miracle of things going together imperfectly.

Still, structure and repetition are what keeps us whole:

You have to keep taking the next necessary stitch, and the next one, and the next.

Without stitches, you just have rags.

And we are not rags.

But the true purpose of discipline — for this is the practice at the heart of routine — is to make room for the magical in the mundane. Paradoxically enough, it is an act of liberation rather than submission — routine grants us the stable platform within, from which we can begin not only to tolerate but perhaps even to enjoy the shaky messiness without.

Artwork by Maira Kalman from 'Ah-Ha to Zig-Zag.' Click image for more.

Lamott articulates this beautifully:

The search is the meaning, the search for beauty, love, kindness and restoration in this difficult, wired and often alien modern world. The miracle is that we are here, that no matter how undone we’ve been the night before, we wake up every morning and are still here. It is phenomenal just to be. This idea overwhelms some people. I have found that the wonder of life is often most easily recognizable through habits and routines.

[…]

Order and discipline are important to meaning for me. Discipline, I have learned, leads to freedom, and there is meaning in freedom. If you don’t do ritual things in order, the paper doesn’t read as well, and you’ll be thrown off the whole day. But when you can sit for a while at your table, reach for your coffee, look out the window at the sky or some branches, then back down at the paper or a book, everything feels right for the moment, which is maybe all we have.

Stitches is an immensely rewarding read in its entirety. Complement it with Lamott on grief and gratitude, the perils of perfectionism, the greatest gift of friendship, and how we keep ourselves small with people-pleasing. For more on the magic of repetition and ritual, see the daily routines of celebrated writers and the psychology of the perfect creative routine.

Donating = Loving

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