Fiction for the 19th Century

I had books thrust upon me at a young age. When my grandparents moved from what had been my dad’s childhood home to an apartment, he picked out a dozens of books he thought we would grow into. Thanks to that, I never ran out of books. Rather, that is the reason I’ve always had unread books lying around. The reason I never ran out of books I’d willingly read is thanks to the public library.

While I loved the set of 1971 encyclopedias my dad brought home from my grandparents, I was never inclined to pick up any of the novels he’d brought along with them. I tried reading the Mayor of Casterbridge once, but didn’t get as far as the mayor before I put it back down. Those books remained untouched until a few years ago. Puzzling at the selection, I questioned dad’s choice of reading material. He pointed out that guessing what a girl of the 90s would want to read from the library frozen in the early 70s, isn’t the easiest feat. I conceded.

He admitted that he hadn’t really loved those books either. But if I wanted a great story, I should read Last of the Mohicans. I borrowed his copy as a consolation prize. I read it. I am still recovering from the horror.

The best I can say of it is that the book is ideal for young boys. It has uncharted territory, bloodshed, people in need of rescue, forests full of known enemies, and unexpected allies. And, as dad never fails to point out, it’s treatment of Native Americans is advanced for its time. The books treats all men, regardless of race, as having the wisdom to choose between good and evil. It may be that more of the Native Americans are cast as sly and black-hearted, but at least they’ve got a white man or two for company. Women don’t fare as well, since they’re all pretty idiots. But still – advanced for its time!

As literature, the book is wanting. Few characters were blessed by Fenimore Cooper with actual personality. Bit parts are many and stereotypes are rife. The dialogue is stilted, and frequently offensive to modern sensibilities. There is no moral ambiguity, though there’s plenty of ambiguity regarding where the plot is headed. And, perhaps most devastating to me, the books describes the cruel death of the last of the Mohicans, the tribe around whom the book centers.

As my dad pointed out, once his laughter had subsided and he could catch his breathe without crying from the hilarity, the fact that the Mohicans are no more is in the title. He can’t quite believe I found their murder a surprise ending. But my 21st century literary training lead me to believe that the title was an allusion to the end of an era. Turns out that literature was much more straightforward in 1826.

Last of the Mohicans

by James Fenimore Cooper 

Title is also

the ending. Between: damsels,

adventure, and war.

Women For The Win

Until this year, I have never spent time in a place where women were in a minority. In my preschool class, the girls ruled – literally and figuratively. I attend single-sex schools from elementary through college. My first job out of school was in social service – a female-dominated field. The very female environment of my workplace was compounded by the fact that the organization was also a women’s club, created for ladies who lunch. Its members were people who wanted to do good while wearing pearls. The group was a smashing success in its heyday, though by the time I arrived on the scene it was a smaller operation – though no less vocal. The group and its members continued to pride themselves on their position at the forefront of feminism. They had plenty to be proud of, but feminism wasn’t their strong point.

 

The first time I ran a meeting with senior members, I got high marks. The women, all of whom could have been my grandmother – some of them older than my grandmother – regulated the discussion by cutting off anyone who took too long to make her point. I sat quietly, taking notes and redirecting the conversation as necessary. As the meeting wound down, one of the women told the others that they should always have that wonderful girl – pointing at me – at their meetings since they -.

“She’s a woman,” Gerie interrupted, all 90-plus years and 90-odd pounds of her put into the force of her words. “She’s not a girl, she’s a woman.”

“If she’s a woman, than I’m ancient,” someone else shot back.

The group laughed.

Gerie shook her head.

 

Gerie would have gotten along with Mrs. Z, my fourth grade teacher. Every day for recess Mrs. Z would round us up into a semblance of order before we walked out of our classroom. Every day, it was  a struggle. “Women!” she’d shout. “Women, line up.” It was no use telling Mrs. Z that we were 8 and 9 year-olds. “Women, quiet!” she’d yell in response.

 

I should have followed Mrs. Z’s lead then and there – lined up, shut up, and learned that girls are really women. Instead, it took me a few more years to fall into line, I have yet to stop talking, and it wasn’t until my second job that I began to refer to people with the respect they deserve. At that job, my supervisor was also a woman, just like the rest of us in the group. Her emails usually began “Hey Ladies,” and she sometimes called us “The Girls.” One day, I was talking to my dad about work, and in the middle of a sentence, he interrupted.

“…the girls and I -” were the last words I got out before he stopped me.

“I didn’t know you worked with girls,” he said.

Silence.

I tried to backtrack. I did apologize. And I have never referred to my coworkers as girls again.

 

This year, for the first time, I attend a coed school. The graduate school is known and respected. As far as I know there’s never been a charge against the school for discrimination against women.  But in the classroom, there is no mistaking the absence of women. The men dominate business school classes; they’re the majority of school and its most vocal participants. I didn’t think much of it, until I noticed something odd. When we talked about our studies, every male classmate assumed I was going for a degree in finance. I don’t talk about finance. I don’t look like I’m interested in finance. Yet every single man thinks I’m getting a finance degree. It was strange, until Emil explained it – by accident. Emil sat next to me in class; he’d check with me when he didn’t understand the material. One day, I asked him what he wanted to do after graduating.

“Trading,” he responded proudly.

“Eh,” I said.

“Of course you wouldn’t want to do it,” he said, “you’re a girl.”

I laughed. “No,” I explained, “it’s because trading is random. Though it is an excellent way to lose money.”

That ended that conversation.

 

I knew in 4th grade that Mrs. Z was smart. It took me years to realize that she is genius. Because girls become women – and if you fail to show them the respect they will deserve, they may fail to earn the respect they need.

Supreme Kashi Judge

Arguments happen. Sometimes they’re ended when people agree to disagree – as long as they privately know the other person is totally, completely, and irrevocably wrong. On occasion, they’re resolved when one side convinces the other. But then there are arguments which are so all-important that neither side can concede but a resolution must still be reached. That’s when you need a judge of final resort.

In the kitchen, Bubby was that judge. When Special Correspondent Ellen said I couldn’t replace sugar with applesauce, when my dad said I couldn’t leave chicken out overnight, and when I insisted that bread could last more than 6 months in the freezer, Bubby was called in to arbitrate. The answers were you can, you can’t, and of course it does.

There was, however, someone else I could have called. The one person who cooked with Bubby every Rosh Hashana and Peasch for more decades than I’ve lived. A person to whom Bubby would defer. Great-Aunt Rita. Sisters-in-law, they lived a few blocks away for over 40 years – and still they’d talk on the phone almost daily.

So, when Aunt Rita passed judgement on Dad’s kashi, it was fearsome. This is what happened, according to Dad:

The kashi was brought out, and Aunt Rita began her questioning.
Aunt Rita: What kind did you buy?
This had taken a turn that I was not expecting. I was going to be quizzed. I knew she meant. She was asking what was the size of the kashi grains.
Me: Coarse, uhhh sometimes medium.
Aunt Rita: Right
She didn’t say good, because good would imply a range of correct answers. There was only one.
Aunt Rita: How do you make it?
Me: the recipe on the box.
She nodded. I was relieved. She did not ask about bow ties, which I took to mean that she didn’t think they were essential. I had left them out.
Aunt Rita: I have a new way of making it. You mix the kashi with egg, microwave, separate with a fork, as you have to do. Microwave again and pour boiling water over it. It comes out great.
I have not tried it yet, but maybe the next time.

For traditionalists, the original recipe is still available here.