Wednesday, December 5, 2012

"So What Are You Going to Do With That?" An open fan letter to my brother-by-another-mother(-in-law), Tim Kreider

Here's a little dorky academic joke:
Q: How do secular humanists explain cosmic coincidences?
A: They tell the story. (Art imitates life, you know.)

The writer/cartoonist Tim Kreider is my sister-in-law's brother. My brother's (Todd, who I have written about on this blog) brother-in-law. And Todd is my half-brother (different moms), and Tim and my sister-in-law are adopted* (different moms), so by my calculations, we're just one shy of six degrees of mother between us (my niece and nephew live in an episode of Modern Family trying to keep all their aunts, uncles, and grandparents straight). But when I was younger, I looked up to Tim a lot. (And I'm not sure he ever knew that, hence the "fan mail" title.) I've been thinking about him a lot lately, as I ponder, yet again, the question at the top of this post. I have a B.A., an M.A., and a Ph.D. in English, and an M.A.T. in Secondary Education. What am I going to do with all that?

*So, by way of a story, here's the coincidence: Tim wrote beautifully about his experience meeting his birth mother and birth sisters in his book We Learn NothingIt was really weird for me to read that essay, because it's about his sisters, one of whom is my sister, my sister-in-law, my first real sister in a lot of ways (4 boys, one girl, one girl-cousin-sister-cum-au-pair), and I also know his adoptive mom, their mom. And I was literally just thinking about his book and that essay this morning, because I was worrying about writing about my family in this public way--Thai-American midwesterners are not dirty-laundry-airing people, and the essays in Tim's book are quite personal. And so I was thinking about how to write more like Tim, to sound detached and personal at the same time. And then boom! This article lands in my inbox, sent to me by a good friend who has been helping me with all this soul-searching (see previous 10 posts or so). My friend (I have taken to calling him "advice man") thought that Tim's article might model the kind of writing and research that I might want to do, now that I am oh-so-credentialed.

I feel like I got whacked in the head and woke up in August 2000, at my nephew's first birthday party. I was just recounting this memory to my brother this past August, now that my nephew is an honest-to-god YOUNG MAN. In honor of my nephew's first birthday, I had pooled the resources of my other three brothers and purchased, for our nephew, the first 4 Harry Potter books in hardcover (those were the four that were out). I had spent spring break of my sophomore year in college reading the first three Harry Potters, and the fourth one had just come out. I found out about Harry Potter before all of my friends because I had brothers that were still in high school. It's so odd for me to think back on those days and how, even then, I was baffled by the way that reading cultures differ in high school and college. My friends were all into Rushdie and Pynchon and Kundera, and here I was reading kids books. (Not coincidentally, that's what Tim's article is about, too.)

So, birthday party. I can't remember the theme--my sister-in-law throws a killer themed kids' birthday party--maybe either Bob the Builder or Blues Clues. (My niece's love of Dora the Explorer has come in super handy teaching in a mostly Mexican American school. When we look at the world map, I often sing the map song, which is, by the by, the cruelest, most repetitive ear worm in the history of man. Take that hyperlink at your own risk.)

In college I always felt shy and awkward around my brother and sister-in-law's friends at these things because of the age difference. Todd is 9 years older than I am, and I met most of their good friends for the first time at their wedding, when I was an awkward 13-year-old in a floral pantsuit, watching my ladies-men-cousins and my older brother, who got to be a groomsman, hit on the bridesmaids. I'm not kidding. A floral pantsuit. It's no small wonder that I spent most of the wedding hiding behind a video camera and/or stuffing my face with desserts. My brother still teases me about how I ate all the desserts. I have no recollection of this, so I can neither confirm nor deny its factuality. There is supposedly photographic evidence, but I have never seen said evidence.

So they had already unwrapped the 4 Harry Potters, which, on four college-/high-school-student incomes, had felt expensive, and I was pleased, because all of these actual adults seemed to think it was a cool present. And then Tim walks in with this crusty banker's box FULL of used children's books--a lot of them first editions--and all the really great ones. I was so chagrined. It felt like some episode of Sex in the City where one of the girls gives the other an antique baby rattle from Tiffany's, and the other one gives a six-pack of Gerber onesies. Or like a birthday party in Logan Square now, where one person gives the birthday girl a set of saucers from Crate and Barrel, and another gives her a hand-knitted apron with an ironic animal screen-printed on the front. You get the idea. Tim had out-hipstered me avant la lettre.

But let me be clear, there's no resentment here. I think at the time I expressed my embarrassment to their mother, my brother's mother-in-law, and she, always knowing the right thing to say, announced to everyone that, between Uncle Tim and Aunt Lit (my name in my family), our nephew would grow up a reader. And it's true--both my nephew and my niece are terrific readers. It's been fun, as a high school teacher of "struggling readers," to share books with them, and have them share some of theirs with me. Not to brag, but I have gained a lot of cred with them as the aunt who introduced them to both Harry Potter and The Hunger Games. I've been trying, now, to get our nephew to read Lord of the Rings, or A Wrinkle in Time, or Ender's Game. But I also know that it's pretty tough to get my own students to read these children's classics. I actually asked my nephew when I last saw him what had happened to all those books that his Uncle Tim had given him, and he said that he still had them, and I told him he should start reading them now, because they're all so, so good. I haven't heard from him lately about what he's been reading, but I hope he's given one of those a shot--he told me he'd tried Lord of the Rings a few times but had found it kinda boring.

At that birthday party, I so wished I was as cool as Tim. I was entering my junior year in college, and I had been thinking a lot about what I was going to do with my degree in English. In my extended family on both sides, there are a lot of professionals, but not very many humanists. In fact, there are just four English majors: my cousin Alisa Tang (also a writer), my brother Todd (double English and Chemistry, now an MD), Tim, and me. We all grew up with that immigrant ethos--my dad's parents were both first-generation Italian-American, so the question that is the title of this post was asked of us. A whole effing lot. (My cousin Alisa once complained to me that everyone expected her to "just" become a teacher, which, at the time, was what I wanted to do, so I was pretty chagrined, again. Abashedness, mine, comes up a lot in this story.) My parents did not want me to major in English. When I told them as a freshman that I had decided to be an English major, they told me that they thought it was impractical. My father actually said he thought it was a waste of my analytical, scientific mind. (He'll probably deny this now.) At the time, my brother and my sister-in-law and my cousin Alisa, all older, all tried to be encouraging. And my brother and sister-in-law pointed to Tim, who was, at the time, working as a professional writer and cartoonist, but he hadn't "made it" yet. Now, with his book out and a blog on the New York Times website, I think he has, and I'm super proud to know him. I hope the book is a Times Notable Book. I think it deserves it. If he does win it, you heard it here first!

When I was a freshman in college in 1998, I wanted to be Tim when I grew up. By the time my nephew turned 1, I didn't want to be Tim anymore, because I didn't think I could be him. I got to college wanting to become a writer, but I got really discouraged, really fast. First, I quickly discovered that no one wanted to hear me write about myself (shout-out to Abigail), second, that I couldn't be Joan Didion in my wildest dreams because I just wasn't stick-to-itive enough about my writing habits (this is, Abigail, my personal anecdote of how high school and college kill the love of writing), and third, that I was actually much better at writing literary criticism anyway. So, by the time my nephew turned 1 in 2000, I had made a different plan, one that would fit my parents' ambitions and fears for me: I would teach high school for a couple of years, and then I would go get my doctorate in English. This, I thought, would impress my parents. I would still be a doctor, just a different kind! (Aside, because I love to digress like gothic novelists love to digress: My senior year, when I took the GRE, I mentioned casually to my dad that I might take the LSAT just for the heck of it. I sort of tanked the verbal section of my GRE (which shocked everyone), but I did really well on the analytical part, so I thought it might be a good idea to have a high LSAT score in my back pocket, just in case I couldn't get in to any English PhD programs. My dad brought this up with me again about a month after I mentioned it and asked me if I'd thought any more about law school. He's the most tiger mommest dad ever, and he's not even Asian.)

My aunt, who is a retired teacher (one of only two other educators in my family besides my husband), asked me this summer if I was going to make my students call me Dr. Barton. I told her no, but I was going to make everyone in my family--all six of them are MDs--call me that. I graduate next week. My husband and I have already joked about the Instagram photo of me, in my cap and gown, surrounded by the MDs. The caption will read "black sheep."

And I'm still not quite sure what I want to be when I grow up. But I've started to think that I might still, after all these years, want to be Tim, especially now that he's a bona fide public intellectual/renaissance man. He really is an outstanding writer. I was just telling my sister-in-law on the phone the other day how much his writing  reminds me of all the great mid-century essayists I love.

Back then, I wanted to become a renaissance woman, but we all know there's no such thing. I was scared of not getting a "real job." Tim was the only adult I knew well who didn't have a "real job." And I had already decided not to do many things I thought I might like--writer, lighting designer, stage manager--because I thought I wasn't going to be good enough to make it, and I was scared to go into the world without a steady income, without health insurance, without a degree that would impress my parents. Ten or fifteen years scratching out a living on an uncertain path seemed like a long time and a big risk to try to become successful for them. And it has only been in the last three or four years that I realized that I'm supposed to become successful for me. So I'm working on that now. Stay tuned.