September 29th, 2007

_Practically Perfect In Every Way_, Jennifer Niesslein

Shortly after Teddy was born, A., C.'s would-be-daughter-in-law-if-marriage-were-involved, came over and gave me a copy of the magazine Brain, Child. She also loaned me _Liberated Parents, Liberated Children_ and recommended Dr. Sears, who I already knew about. A. is amazing.

One of the founders of Brain, Child, Niesslein, recently wrote a book about a couple of years she spend exploring the world of self-help. This was done in the nature of a series of experiments, starting with _Clearing Your Clutter with Feng Shui_, proceeding through _Relationship Rescue_, _Authentic Happiness_, the FlyLady, BeliefNet and assorted other sources of self-help on a wide variety of topics. I was somewhat disturbed by the number of these sources I was personally familiar with. Not hugely disturbed; I wrote a self-help thing myself that lives on my website and I periodically get e-mail from random strangers about its contents (this is distinct from the reproduction thing on my website).

Niesslein is a little younger than I, has a degree in English, and had her child much younger than I had mine. She's also a smoker. Further, having been raised by people who seem loving, attached and relatively sane, her leftover issues from her upbringing are considerably different from mine. This collection of differences resulted in a major difference in our experience of self-help. Yes, self-help stuff is critical and damaging to one's self-esteem, even when it helps one develop a set of habits that help one Take Care of Business (whether that's paying the mortgage off sooner, writing a will, developing a filing system, regularly clearing surfaces of stuff or whatever). However, by comparison to my upbringing (rigid and abusive JW's), the criticism in self-help enables me to feel somewhat normal without increasing my overall level of unhappiness and rage.

Not so much for Niesslein. Lucky her.

I think most of our differences of approach can be chalked up to those differences in family background (lots easier to be dismissive of Bowlby when you grew up cosleeping and you have good relationships with your mother and sisters). For example, my mother's housekeeping standards included raking the carpet after vacuuming to remove the marks left by the vacuum, cleaning the slats of the horizontal blinds weekly, also cleaning the baseboard heaters (inside and out) weekly. You might wonder how she found the time to do this; she didn't. My eldest sister did it until she was old enough to babysit, then I did it. My other two sisters opted out entirely, finding other sources of spare change (I don't know the details but I have a rough idea and I still find it shocking; let's just say it didn't involve my parents). When I had other income, my mother paid someone else to do the work, and at that point was forced to accept their standards of cleaning rather than impose her own, uniquely crazy approach.

As a result, my primary use of self-help for residential upkeep/improvement involved finding ways to let the clutter build up without going binky-bonkers -- that is, learning to be a slob. It took a lot of hard work, and a certain amount of cleverness in terms of finding very fast ways to do the stuff I couldn't stop myself from doing. When I learned that Niesslein got to the ripe old age of 30 without a filing system, I had to take a break from the book for a while. I had a filing system when I was _8_ (don't blame my parents for this one; I take the blame myself). I had a purging policy before I was out of junior high school. (For the files. My sisters had eating disorders. I have food allergies. That was more than enough for me.)

While I was in agreement with Niesslein in principle about avoiding exercise, in practice, I think even at my most inactive I probably got a lot more than she did. Further, my entree into self-help for physical matters was substantially different from hers. I came to the fitness/diet/exercise stuff with a solid belief in Basic Needs and Listening to What One's Body Tells One. Unless I misunderstood her, the level of mind-body disconnect she experienced was substantially more than I have ever experienced. Let me tell you, that was a surprise.

I knew from reading Brain, Child that she was a lot more avoidant of parenting literature than I am. I'm no longer convinced that is true. Certainly she talks a good game, but then she refers to Hulbert's _Raising America_ in a footnote, along with the more recent _Huck's Raft_ (I'll be ordering that one shortly; didn't know about it). I think she may be sincere in avoiding the advice-specific, research (and historically) spare instances of parenting literature, but that may be more of a front than anything else. Hard to know, really. It's abundantly clear from reading the magazine (and this book) that her parenting style is well within the large space that I consider reasonable. She's got issues with Sears (and Bowlby, but that may be the second-wave feminist in her talking), but her parenting strategies at least substantially overlap. Her comments on sleep-weaning were a little weird; I think weaning Caleb must not have been particularly traumatic. In any event, she vastly prefers to rely upon her own (excellent) instincts, but is then brought up short by the way her son takes after some of her habits (the remark about the ledger listing people's infractions is particularly amusing).

_Practically Perfect_ is, essentially, a memoir of a Self-Help Seeker who discovers what Seekers always discover: the journey changed them, but staying home might have had the same effect, or a better effect. You just can't tell. Even better, Niesslein both places Self-Help against Making a Difference -- and notes that you can probably hurt yourself Making a Difference, as happened, to some degree, with her experiments with Self-Help. Best of all, Niesslein firmly keeps an eye on how life circumstances influence what kinds of Self-Help are even possible (especially with the Bach financial books, but also with things as simple as walking for exercise).

While memoirs and Self-Help books are both ubiquitous, this particular intersection of the two genres is definitely NOT. I can easily imagine a future world in which this carefully documented use of self-help literature is grist for someone's theory about women in the early 21st century. But in the here and now, it's a fascinating read, enjoyable and thought-provoking.

Karrie Jacobs, _The Perfect $100,000 House_

I'm halfway through it, but I'm going to post a review at this point anyway. I'm going to try to finish it, but it's going back to its owner on the 8th, one way or another.

Jacobs grew up in a subdivision in New Jersey (this is important), spent her freshman year in college on a mountain in Vermont (ditto), finished up at Evergreen, then went to Seattle to be a part of The Rocket in the early years.

There's a weird image. From 1978-82 (I think those are the years she lived in Seattle), my primary experience of downtown Seattle involved taking the bus to the dentist. Hers was different.

Anyway, Jacobs Loves teh Modern Style. She also loves teh Uncompromising Style. This is a woman who cannot imagine a need for more than one oven. She has no close family since her cat of 17 (?) years died. She can't keep public/private divisions in a house straight because she's got no use for the public parts of a house. And she wants to Lead the Way in Building Excellent Housing for the Masses.

Lordy.

I used to drive around the country (not so much now, with the toddler). On my first forays, I took people with me, having been raised to believe that it wasn't safe to go _anywhere_ alone. Staying in unfamiliar hotels on unfamiliar roads in unfamiliar towns in states I was driving through was the last gasp of afraid-to-be-alone. However, after that trip to Yellowstone with P., I decided alone and at risk was better than in the company of someone incredibly aggravating. I developed a detailed inventory of what made for a good travel companion, and it was damn hard to get someone who met the criteria AND had the time to travel. So I did a lot of my driving alone. I have, therefore, a limited amount of sympathy for someone who expanded this idea to their entire life. But it's pretty limited. I've also been to a lot of the places she mentions in the first half of the book (not the houses, not the architect's offices, not the subdivisions; the towns and cities). I have to say I'm somewhat startled by the things that surprised her. For example, the Harley riders in and around Sturgis. Of _course_ they are middle-aged accountants and other professionals. That's the _cliche_, Jacobs.

Because my father was an electrician, I have some passing familiarity with construction. Jacobs' comments about how modernist housing is as expensive to build as the ticky-tacky stuff are wholly misleading. FAR MORE expensive, is more like. Delusional.

All that aside, having spent a lot of time going to Open Houses (mostly on the West Coast, from the Bay Area to British Columbia), and a limited amount of time going to things like the Street of Dreams, I can sympathize with some of her issues with subdivisions. Here's where I cannot sympathize with her. Builders, architects and ordinary people keep telling her what they want from a house -- and it isn't Uncompromising Style. Not at all. In at least one case, a couple living in a house of Uncompromising Style (altho not modernist, per se) of their own design some decades back, are deeply unhappy without house because it represents exactly their thinking of some decades back. It's Not Working For Them anymore.

Therein lies the problem with Uncompromising. You're going to change. If you house is perfect for you when you buy it, when you do change, it won't be perfect any more.

The problem with style is slightly more complex, but let's go with the brick fireplace she mentions from a class at Evergreen, with the bricks vertical to help the smoke go up. That Is Not Functional. Maybe it's cute. Maybe that cuteness is worth something. But modernist style is very, very, very rarely truly about Functional. And every time it departs from functional to be Functional it's going to piss off the person who has to live and work there. Attempts to reproduce historical Style have related problems (altho apparently thatched roofs are very fire resistant and last like 60 years), in that our life now is so unlike life at the time it made sense to build that way that again, Not functional.

I'm not saying anybody should buy the stuff Hovnanian and KB churn out. I'm just saying that it'd be a tragic day if KB and Hovnanian started building the way Jacobs would like them to build.

Possibly more about this book later. At least she has the sense to acknowledge early on that location (and therefore land price) drives total cost more than anything else, and she wouldn't really want to live anywhere the land is cheap (with the possible, altho imo unlikely exception of some college town). I think she should just buy a condo in a downtown she likes and build dollhouses with Uncompromising Modern Style. Altho where she'll get one for $100,000 is beyond me.