An old-fashioned mother would say something like "You don't call, you don't write."
My busy, cosmopolitan mother merely noted that I haven't blogged lately. I explained that was because it's hard to blog when you haven't actually finished a thought in your head for several weeks.
For as far back as I can remember I've longed to be described as useful.
Candidly, I also hoped for leggy, tawny
, and elegant,
but useful was always high on the list because it was the only adjective I had any hope in hell of hitting. I'm here to tell you, prayers are answered. I'm useful, all right. I have four separate volunteer jobs. I'm so useful I've recently been described as “frazzled”. I'd argue with the describer, but it was Consort and just as I was about to quibble I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. Staring back was the Roz Chast-ian
ideal of frazzled. Also, at that exact moment, I remembered I had a half-hour to write another fundraising letter so I dashed off in a frazzled and determined lunge.
Yes, readers, my charitable urges led me deep into social activism’s heart of darkness: fundraising. Wait, now I have five
volunteer jobs. I believe this is what 12-step communities refer to as "bottoming out." But I'm not here to talk about my mental illness, colorful and sparkly as it might be. I'm here to tell you about one of the unexpected side-effects of homeschooling: censorship. And it’s not what you might think.
About two weeks ago, while at the library with the kid, my eye caught the most wonderfully compelling title. I flipped through the book, noticing it to be that perfect combination of good history woven through with bad behavior. It's called The Sexual History of London
and my friends, it's awfully good. The writer, Catharine Arnold, knows her stuff and relates it in a smart yet approachable way. I love English history and I certainly appreciate terrific writing. The frazzled noise in my head -- which sounds like a violin endlessly being tuned -- actually faded away for a few seconds as I skimmed the chapter on the brothels of Londonium.
"What's that?" asked a small curious voice at my shoulder.
"Oh, look. It's...you!" I said stupidly to Daughter, snapping the book closed. We both looked down at the title and the cover artwork.
"I'm guessing that's not for me," she said flatly.
I laughed weakly and dithered about whether or not to check it out. Consort had told me in no uncertain terms that for the sake of my mental health (and by association, his) I was supposed to do something which made me happy and did nothing for anyone else. Sage advice. Reading about the sexual history of London would make me happy the same way reading about the history of rats in Manhattan had made me happy. I'm not prurient. I’m just odd. One problem, of course, is that the kid is always around. If, while reading this book, I forgot that fact and left it someplace available, my child might flip it open and read a couple of pages, at which point I might as well have raised her in the red-light district in Amsterdam. Maybe I should just wait and read interesting things in a few years.
My phone chirped an incoming text message, and then another, and then another. All three texts were from different groups I work with; each with different problem it would be ever so useful of me to fix. It was a sign. To protect my sanity, and my family’s domestic tranquility, I would find a way to read a dirty book. I did, however, take it to the automatic check-out, so as not to require eye contact with anyone. I asked Daughter to answer my text-messages while I swung it through the scanner and buried it deeply in the library bag.
My schedule over the next few days went like this:
Early in the morning, before anyone was awake, Sex in London
. In the middle of the night, if I awoke in a frazzle over something useful-related, more Sex in London.
Hiding in the garage, ostensibly packing the Christmas ornaments, I'd sneak in a little Sex in London.
Because this book is so very compelling, and because I was so eager to have it and its two millennia of carnality and corruption out of my house, I tried to read it in the cracks of my maternal assignments; like while waiting for the kid to finish a music class, but you know, it's not easy to read in semi-public when the title of your book will make people look at you sideways, forever. Daughter's classmates come from nice families with mothers who never seem frazzled because they are all somehow related to Grace Kelly. When these women are observed reading in public, people see the book title and think: "I've always meant to read that” not "Should I be concerned this woman is near my children?"
With this in mind, I first hunched over cross-legged on the ground, covering the book with my legs. Then, concerned someone might catch a glimpse of the phrase tertiary syphilis
over my shoulder, I inched closer into the corner. Finally, for the safety of everyone's decorum, I curled into a ball, my book in the inches between my knees and my collarbone, picking out a word here and there and wishing I owned a sombrero. I looked like a doorstop; a history-of-pornography reading doorstop. Which was when one of the most serene, least-frazzled, and most gently-bred of the mothers I know wandered over to see what I was reading and why it caused me to act so strangely. At which point I shoved the book into my purse and settled in for an hour of cuticle harassment.
It took a few days of sneaking around behind everyone's back, but I finished The Sexual History of London
and for those of you with a less highly-developed social anxiety (and no children at home) I recommend it unequivocally. The odd thing is, for all the excessive, inventive and often deviant behavior in the book, I didn't find it to be titillating. After reading about many people making things more and more erotically byzantine and not appearing to be the happier for it, I found myself wanting to take the odd historical Londoner by the side and say "You know, it doesn't have to be that...complicated. More isn't always better." To which the Londoner would sneeringly remind me I had a volunteering task or six to accomplish and that at least he was having something resembling fun in his excess.
I returned the book and bid it a fond farewell. Wandering past the Science section, a title caught my eye. I read the inner flap, skimmed a few pages, and was captivated.
"Sex on Six Legs
?" Daughter enquired at my elbow.
"It's about bugs," I answered crisply, as I prepared for another week of reading in the garage.