No Real Plot.

[WARNING] Grown-up Life May Trigger Upsetting Thoughts

Thank you, Jennifer Puryear, for including me in your tasty book club!

Guest Post from Laura Cooper:

IMG_4966Regular Bacon contributor Laura Cooper and husband John have spent much of the fall “coming to grips with the (happy, but still!) fact that our boys are really growing up.  It can’t be said at all that we have small children.  We find ourselves almost frantically attentive to the job of making them good grown-ups, knowing our time is running out (just imagine how much fun that is for THEM!).  But it’s also letting us recall and reconstruct what grown-up life was and will be again for us, too.  Kind of a rich, amazing time.”DSC09938

To that end, she and John “chucked our pre-holiday to-do list last week and ran away to Miami, where we had three wonderful, lazy days of NOT rearing boys.  Bliss!  And a convertible even!”

I’m not sure I believe that Laura spent much time being lazy.  I know she must have been glowing with the knowledge that she had a guest column coming out in the Washington Post this Monday! Check it out while you take a deep cleansing breath:  “Parents: We Need to Get a Grip on Our Own College Application Anxiety”.

She’s thinking a lot about college and life beyond, for her boys and for herself.  In today’s post, she thinks about what it means to live a good – and grown-up – life.

From Laura:

Ever watch super-high-octane action movies?  Play pinball?  Or ride the thrilling haunted-house roller-coaster at your favorite amusement park?  Then I bet you’ve seen this sign: “Flashing lights may cause seizures in some viewers.”

That’s a trigger warning.  It lets unusually sensitive audience members choose to avoid an experience that might trigger a physically harmful seizure reaction.  Sensible and humane, right?

Now consider this.  Students at a growing number of U.S. colleges are demanding “trigger warnings” on school assignments and classroom activities that might cause them to experience upsetting thoughts and feelings about hard topics.  The Great Gatsby? [TW: suicide, domestic abuse, and graphic violence].  Mrs. Dalloway? [TW: suicide].  The Merchant of Venice? [TW: anti-semitism].

Online, reliably, the movement’s even sillier.  Which topics should carry trigger warnings?  Try blood, insects, alcohol, pregnancy, bullying, the rapper Chris Brown, and – I’m not kidding – certain plot lines on Downton Abbey.

To be fair, the Trigger Warning movement first targeted graphic classroom material (and online chat topics) that might foreseeably trigger actual post-traumatic stress symptoms in those who have suffered rape or battlefield trauma.  Fair enough.  That’s sensible and humane, like strobe lights and epilepsy.

But at Oberlin College, administrators urged professors to put trigger warnings on all class material that might “disrupt a student’s learning” or “cause trauma,” including anything that depicted “racism, classism, sexism . . . and other issues of privilege and oppression.”

Never mind, by the way, that sexist privileged men once barred women from prestigious universities altogether – including law schools – because they claimed we were too fragile, and our intellects too tender, to grapple with the full range of human experience found in the traumatic real world.  As Justice Bradley wrote for the U.S. Supreme Court in 1872, ruling that the Constitution didn’t require States to let women join the Bar: “the natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for the practice of law.”

Is it really progress for college students to demand the right to exempt themselves from the trauma of serious adult discourse, for the same reasons?

So the college Trigger Warning movement just makes me sad. How did it become hip to be so intellectually fragile, so in need of protection?  So unfit for grown-up life?

Unknown-6If that bothers you too, I offer an antidote: Stoner, by John Williams.

Published in 1965, Stoner is a novel for readers determined to be full-fledged adults.  It tells the life story of William Stoner, a dirt-poor Missouri farm boy who, in 1910, enters the University of Missouri to earn an Agriculture degree.  Stoner moves in near the college with his mother’s distant cousins, where he gets meager room and board in exchange for harsh farm labor morning and night.

Stoner’s life transforms when he takes a required survey course in English literature.  The enigmatic professor prods his farm-boy student until he opens his heart to Shakespeare’s sonnets, and then to philosophy and history, Latin and Greek, Chaucer and beyond.  Stoner abandons Ag school, earns his BA and Master’s in literature, and then stays on, as World War I erupts, to teach English and work on his doctorate.  Decades later, he dies just days after teaching a last class in that same University, a man who’s spent his life immersed in the literature that first captured his heart.

Sound idyllic?  Well, novels about university life tend to follow one of a few well-traveled paths.  They can be funny and wry, like David Lodge’s Nice Work.  Or they’re dark and eventful, like Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim or Philip Roth’s The Human Stain.  Stoner is something else again: in outward form, at least, Stoner’s life is a relentless, largely joyless march into disappointment and grinding obscurity.

He marries an unstable, spoiled woman.  She spends their long, unhappy marriage thwarting him emotionally, and alienating him from their only child. At work, the power-hungry department chair becomes Stoner’s lifelong enemy, blocking his promotion and crippling his scholarship.  Stoner does find true love – real, true love – with a young woman scholar, but poisonous faculty politics destroy that, too.

Indeed, John Williams opens the novel with the fact that, after 46 years at the University, Stoner has died without making any kind of mark that anyone would ever recognize.  His “colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all[.]”

And yet, twenty years after publishing Stoner, and nearing the end of his own career, John Williams called Stoner a “real hero,” a man who “had a very good life.”  How can that be?

Maybe it’s because William Stoner is, at the core, a true grown-up.  He finds the things in life that he can love – his teaching, his reading, his daughter, his one great affair – and he loves and tends them despite the disappointments and frustrations, the quite brutal traumas, that crowd in with them.  He loves and tends them even when they fail him, and reject him, and even when they bring him little more than the plain long years of keeping them company.  He digs in and hangs on; he endures, and he does his job.  In John Williams’ later words, Stoner “kept the faith.”

Reading Stoner isn’t easy.  Williams writes with such clarity, with such a cool and unclouded gaze, that much of Stoner’s life is painful to watch.  And yes, reading this novel will surely trigger upsetting thoughts, if you’re paying attention at all.

But if you make it through to the end, to Stoner’s own final days and hours, you might find yourself sharing the state of rhythmic, patient being – not resolution, not revelation, just patient being – that John Williams grants Stoner at the last.

A gift to you, from one determined grown-up to another.

To read this post in its original form, see:

And For more of Jennifer’s delicious picks and posts, visit her here:

Parents: We need to get a grip on our own college application anxiety – The Washington Post

My new essay — in the Washington Post!


Parents: We need to get a grip on our own college application anxiety – The Washington Post.

By Laura Fitzgerald Cooper November 17 at 12:47 PM

My oldest son just turned 15.

His birthday slid by, nothing like a milestone. He’s been a teenager for years. He won’t vote for ages. Kind of a holding year, right?

But, actually, something’s going on. Like the matter of his birthday cake. He wanted just a plain homemade one, not the bakery-bought extravaganza we’ve had for years. No 3-D dioramas built out of icing? No. Apparently not.

He cleaned out his room and carted boxes of dusty action figures to the attic. He’ll give me a hug without being asked. He even had a Homecoming date.

And then came College Night. I almost didn’t catch it on the 9th grade calendar, so unaccustomed am I to considering him – or myself, for that matter – far enough along to start the college chase. Yet off we marched, and there we encountered the Dreaded Graph of Harsh Reality, displayed for us all to see:


Yes, you’re reading it right. All those red dots? Pretty much every kid below (and many above) a 3.5 GPA? Denied.

And then there’s Princeton:


Look closely at that clot of 4.0 Denials. Now shut your eyes and picture all those Red Dots up late perfecting homework, school night after school night. All those urgent anxious heart-to-hearts with Moms and Dads who just knew that Red Dot was capable of more than he was producing. It’s actually a compliment that we push you to aim so high. Now, off to your test-prep tutor.

To be fair, my son’s school made a heroic effort, there at College Night, to stress the well-rounded application. The sports, the community service, the extra-curriculars. Essays, teacher recommendations. They joked it helps if your last name’s also what admissions officers call the college library. Funny.

But once they shoot the Dreaded Graph of Harsh Reality up on that giant auditorium screen, it’s hard to think about all the other intangibles, those pieces of your child’s intellect – of your child’s heart – that are random, unquantifiable, ungraph-able. The pieces that emerge in fits and starts, the quick passions so quickly abandoned, the restless curiosity chased by bland inertia. All the spiky, tangled bits that can’t be groomed, that simply can’t be curated, to please an admissions officer down the road.

Infuriating? Terrifying? Absolutely, yes, to the parent facing down the barrel of the Dreaded Graph. I looked up behind me, at my son sitting with his lovely, goofy classmates. Do we really need to launch this race? When he’s just started the pivot from childhood to, well, whatever comes next? When he’s just slowed the gyrations of adolescence enough to begin the practice of introspection, self-inquiry, self-knowledge? When he’s just given up diorama birthday cakes?

There’s been a lot of hand-wringing recently about what should be the purpose and goal of college education, especially in the elite schools rejecting all those Red Dots. Last July, William Deresiewicz threw the first bomb, charging, in The New Republic, that our top colleges doggedly seek, and then relentlessly promote, “people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.” In other words, “excellent sheep.”

Predictably, the Empire struck back. No, complained Harvard Professor Steven Pinker, the real problem with elite college admissions these days is that they’re too soft, too “squeamish” to rely heavily enough on what he calls that “magic measuring stick”: standardized testing.

And, by the way, elite employers should hire college graduates that way too, using more “magic” standardized tests. Others waded in, guns blazing. If elite colleges shouldn’t simply spot and polish highpowered hoop-jumpers, those most “excellent sheep,” what should they try instead?

From where I sat at College Night, under the glare of the Dreaded Graph, all that talk sounds almost fantastical. How can we seriously discuss what our children should learn in college – once they’ve won the race to that starting line – until we address how distorting and disabling the college race itself can be? Must I really let that Graph direct the rich years my son and I are entering together?

It’s not like his heart and mind will re-bloom, start fresh, the day I drop him in some freshman dorm.

I can’t say for sure what college should teach its students. But I do know one thing about the mad sprint to get in: parents like me need to slam on the brakes, and get a grip on our own anxiety. It’s time to question our own devotion to the hoop-jumping path, and give up our own ambition, however dark and secret, to join the best possible flock come that first Parents’ Weekend.

So I have a plan. Not for my son, but for myself. Sure, it’s fine for me to push him to work hard, take school seriously, and do his best. I can insist he treat standardized tests like any other essential skill he must work to improve, if he’s not a natural. I can rant when he lets cross-country interfere with Geometry homework. I’m cleared to reward him when effort earns a good grade.

But I also promise to watch closely for the signals his own heart and mind will send about what the real purpose of his life might be. I promise to stay alert for signs and hints of his authentic strengths and interests, not just the ones that might game the Dreaded Graph someday. I won’t skew his college search to the highest-ranked schools that his numbers make possible. And I’ll listen more to what he wants to learn there than to how many alums are hedge fund billionaires or high officials in the White House. I swear I’ll dig deep for enough imagination to picture him on paths without traditional college if it comes to that – quite a dramatic leap for this former academic. I pray he learns to think this way about his own life, too.

Just let it not be me who’s the most excellent sheep of all.

Lessons from Queen Charley.

So, it turns out that claiming you’re too tired and creaky to go for a walk doesn’t mean you’re too tired and creaky to climb up on the picnic table and lick up chocolate ice cream. Lesson learned.



Living up to Big Data.

Last July, my sons were jolted into mild uproar by the rumor that I had packed — simply packed, mind you — a swimsuit for our vacation at the beach.  Since baby number three, me in a bathing suit’s been much like the ivory-billed woodpecker:  someone’s always claiming to have seen it, but the reports remain unconfirmed and uncorroborated. Or they unravel as mere exaggerated speculation. Did my cheerful mom-worthy tunic in fact hide a demure black full-coverage tank suit, with strategic waist-level shirring?  That’s just a hypothesis, boys.

But out there on the internet, a tireless algorithm nurtures a parallel vision of me and my swimsuit mojo.  It wants me to know I belong in a different league.  A braver, prouder, more ambitious league.  And it’s finally sent me a sign.


Inspired?  You bet I am. I’d hate to let Big Data down.

Mornings at the jockey club.

Three sons. One van. One race to school.  How hard could it be?

Yet we just barely make it out of the gate.

Guest Post: Laura Cooper on The Fourth of July and Mischief Abroad

What I’ve Done So Far This Summer:

Guest Post: Laura Cooper on The Fourth of July and Mischief Abroad


DSC09139Regular Bacon contributor Laura Cooper recently returned from a family trip to Italy, where her army of three sons and a husband were equal parts barbarians at the gate and consumers of gelato.  Today, she thinks about the American abroad, historically speaking.  For Laura’s bio and to read her prior post, please click here!  I’m so happy to share her thoughts again today.

From Laura:  It’s nearly the Fourth of July – our 238th anniversary as an upstart start-up.  As a Nation, we’re having a great run, but there’s no denying our persistent fascination with Europe.  That forever push-pull between rowdy independence and backwards-glance yearning makes for great fiction.  And a terrific summer beach read.

Nope, I’m not going to talk about a Henry James novel.  Though I could, since he perfected the plot where a modern, clean-lined American travels to Europe then slips into the murky, entrancing embrace of a culture where social values are fatally foreign and obscure.  Instead, here’s a book that bumps the classic plot line up a few notches on the creepy scale: The Talented Mr. Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith, a prose master so personally peculiar that she carried live snails in her handbag to entertain herself when bored at dinner parties.

First published in 1955, The Talented Mr. Ripley tells the story of an American father, a shipbuilding magnate, whose adult son, Dickie, has run off 9780393332148_p0_v1_s114x166to a tiny town on the Bay of Naples to escape his future as heir to the family business.  The father, desperate to retrieve his son, makes a terrible error: he mistakes a penniless, small-time conman named Tom Ripley for one of Dickie’s college friends, and he asks Ripley to travel to Italy and persuade Dickie to return home to New York.

Classic set-up.  In fact, Henry James’s The Ambassadors starts almost exactly the same way (minus the conman).  But where James explores how the benign, innocent American messenger is first enchanted and then ensnared by European culture, Tom Ripley carries to Italy a ruthless self-regard, a raw hunger for wealth and experience, that remains fully American, in its own twisted way.  Henry James, on the Dark Side.

Ripley finds Dickie, befriends him, and falls in love.  He falls in love with Dickie, but even more with Dickie’s life, with his money and easy social confidence, with his leisure and his personal charm, with his privileged, educated way of talking and standing and dressing and sailing his small boat in the Bay.  Dickie’s the American golden boy, the perfect Jamesean expatriate, and Ripley is ravenous to be him.

So one day, when they’re alone together in a small boat off the Italian Riviera, Tom Ripley bludgeons Dickie to death with an oar and dumps his body into the sea.  He then assumes Dickie’s identity so seamlessly – cashing his checks, wearing his clothes, forging letters to his friends and family – that it takes months and a second murder for the Italian police and Dickie’s circle even to notice that something strange is happening.

All the while, Tom Ripley chases his fantasy of the cultivated European life, as alluring to him as to any Henry James heroine.  He rents an elegant palazzo on Venice’s Grand Canal, where he carefully polishes his custom antelope suitcase and admires his new collection of leather-bound books. He’s a fixture on the expat cocktail circuit.  He daydreams about collecting fine art, and even funding young artists like a modern de Medici.  He plots his travels through Europe, Asia, and South America.  He keeps his crimes well out of mind, at least most of the time.

Will Tom Ripley get caught?  Or will he fool everyone with his trail of intricate stone-cold lies, rooted so deeply in that most American of ambitions: to rise above his origins and live the life he thinks he deserves?  That’s the mystery in this novel, that magic spot where Agatha Christie meets Fyodor Dostoyevsky.  If you can bear the suspense, and the sheer claustrophobic company of the talented Tom Ripley, this book is a thrilling read.

Nothing more fun for the Fourth of July.

To see this essay in its original form, see

Mom, the Obscure.

Mother’s Day is coming.  And the blitz is on.


My inbox is crammed with gift guides.  These high-end hawkers must know what they’re talking about. Right? All that big-data firepower aimed at just one demographic, for just one Sunday in May?  Surely we can learn something deeply insightful here about women and desire.

So what do mothers want?

1.  We want pink purses.  Large or small.  Shell or fuchsia.  We want them to cost at least $1500, though if someone wants to spend up to $3000 and more, we’ll just have to accept that extra tribute to our mothering excellence.

2.  We want heavy gold bracelets that look like bridle bits. Here too, there’s room for variation, and our donors can use their own judgment, if they dare. Gucci recommends one for $7600.  True, that’s a lot of filial love, but then Gucci’s proposed pink purse only costs $1100. So there’s that.

3.  We want candles.  This one surprised me.  I myself love candles on cakes and dinner tables, and every once in a while I’ll light one in the kitchen if I sautéed onions without the hood fan on.  But it turns out the demographic mother can’t get enough candles in scents of, say, tobacco and tiger.  There’s even a candle that claims to smell like a particular hipster neighborhood here in Nashville. Yes! A neighborhood scented candle! I just didn’t realize I yearned for that.

4.  We want lipstick.   Boy, do we want lipstick!  Obviously, pink is mandatory. Though I admire the aspirational genius behind “Jungle Queen” lipstick: “one killer accessory.”  Say no more.

These aren’t all, of course.  There’s also scarves and flowers.  Books about flowers.  Books about famous women who grew and/or arranged flowers.  A cocktail shaker made out of a Mason Jar.  Jewelry galore.  All completely lovely, and they’d all be unwrapped with joy on the big day.

Still,  I offer a modest alternative.  How about a Mother’s Day tribute that really captures what’s true about mothering, when you dig deep into it.  Not the rosy pink, scrubbed surface we might aim for.  But the authentic, grubby grist of real family life?  All those days we spend negotiating the gap — sometimes narrow, sometimes cavernous — between the mother we aspire to be, for the family we aspire to have, and the mother we end up being, for the family we actually have.

So this year, I propose we celebrate how ludicrous the whole enterprise of family can be. For this, I recommend the master:

Enjoy.  And happy Mother’s Day.

I feel bad about my brand.

My personal marketing strategy is a disgrace.

I should have known it would come to this.  For some time I’ve sensed that the world as imagined by literature majors was steadily giving way to the world as constructed by advertising majors.  We can’t help ourselves:  the minute that Instagram app installs on our phones, we’re all our own Don Drapers.

Of course, the personal brand divas set a very high bar.

Brand Diva One LabelledStill, there’s no shortage of advice out there for someone like me, coming late to the self-marketing party.  A quick Google tour taught me a few powerful basics.

First, I need to re-conceive my entire life as one complete, integrated brand. Nothing is tangential to my core mission, that of promoting myself.  And no aspect of my personal brand should be left to chance. I can’t even tell you what brand chaos I’ve brought on myself by not articulating a comprehensive mission statement. Here are two that, really, just say it all:

Diva Mission StatementSecond, if I’m going to embrace the personal brand of (1) being a woman who works at all aspects of my life while also (2) living beautifully in an effortless way, then I need to rethink my clothes.  Not just for the big outings, when I already know to take that shower and pull something nice from the back of the closet, there behind the neglected Pilates ball.  Nope.  My personal brand must be tireless.  As one guru explains, “It’s the way you leave your house every morning, unaware of who might cross your path that you want to pitch, impress or partner with.”  No more assuming I’m actually invisible when racing from carline to grocery.  Or that others think I’m just deep-conditioning my hair.  Time to straighten up.

20090918shiffpost1And, by the way, don’t believe your own front door protects you from brand failure either, warns “Forget PJs, Dress Your Brand Even at Your Home Office.”  By “PJs,” they presumably also mean to ban jeans and the same T-shirt/sweater combo that cling conveniently together when you slough them off at bedtime. Just because they’re still lying next to your toothbrush the next morning doesn’t mean they can be worn again and again beautifully, no matter how effortless that might seem.  Beware.  Learn from my mistakes.

Finally, I’ve come to accept that my husband and sons carry their own responsibility for advancing my personal marketing strategy.  For too long I’ve let the stragglers and slackers in that group tarnish my brand at will.  No more. I’m imposing some overdue brand discipline.  It’s time for a little team work.

Divas with kids labelledIt’s for their own good, and for mine.

988836_10152345747207682_1565289366_n 2

I’ve got a lot to catch up on.

Be Strong.

I first posted this last year.  But March marks the annual invasion of the bikini catalogs, so it’s a good time to revisit first principles:

This woman gave birth one month ago.


She’s stunning, of course.  But for merely mortal mothers, this is not helpful. Instead, I draw inspiration from the great moms of literature.  Like these:

Sal's Mom in Kitchen

Sal’s mother has a real J.Crew-meets-Etsy-Vintage vibe that works for most of us.  Note the chic choppy bob and her sheer cheek color, from her afternoon out rescuing Sal from blueberry-drunk bears.

Olivia's Mom in Talbott's

Here, Olivia’s mother wears a day-to-evening sheath, which adds authority to her bedtime negotiations.  By day, she’ll out-shine the other moms (“Is she working again?”) on her urban school run and, perhaps, be photographed for a street-style blog.  She also knows how to get on with the business of wearing a bathing suit, even when she might rather not.  Similar sunglasses by The Row available at Barneys New York and Net-A-Porter.

Olivia's Mom in tank

For dressing up, it’s hard to beat the mother of Iggy Peck, Architect.  She’s like Edie Sedgwick married to a banker instead of mooning after Warhol. Love how the haircut complements her look of constant consternation.  Now, that’s real mom style.

Iggy Peck's Mom in 60's print

She also wins the prize for fully committing to date night.

Iggy Peck's Mom in Evening

Finally, a word about accessories.  One great statement piece can really make an outfit, define your personal style, and lift your spirits.  None better than this knockout necklace on Ferdinand’s mom:

Ferdinand's Mom

Most covetable of all, that smile from knowing she’s “an understanding mother, even though she was a cow.”  I vote we all aspire to that.

Bossy’s Days are Numbered.

News Flash: Sheryl Sandberg and Beyonce launch campaign to ban calling little girls “bossy.”

Okay, so I guess I must confess: I call my young boys, repeat BOYS, “bossy” all the time, and not in a good way.

I call them “bossy” when they insist on having their way about (1) what they’re required to eat at dinner; (2) what movie we all watch together; and (3) where they sit in the family van. I call them “bossy” when they demand supreme unilateral power to enforce the rules for Risk (who actually knows how to play that game, anyway?). I call them “bossy” when they try to bulldoze a brother into swapping an esteemed Star Wars guy for a handful of cast-off Legos. They’re “bossy” when they argue with me about lights-out, no matter how few pages to the end of their chapter.

ban_bossyIn fact, I call them bossy, in a bad way, whenever they act like their needs and desires matter more than anyone else’s in the room. When they insist that every environment and every other human adapt to suit them, first and foremost, including their paper-thin skins. When they claim to know everything, all the time. When they disregard the effect their conduct has on other people’s feelings, as we all make our way in our shared world.

Yes, being called “bossy” is a bad thing, but that’s because being “bossy” is a bad thing. It’s uncomfortable behavior coming from anyone, woman or man, girl or boy.

In the twenty-five years since I graduated from law school, I’ve had great bosses — truly great, inspiring leaders, teachers, supporters, and friends — who would have been mortified if anyone thought their work behavior was “bossy.” Not because being called that would have intimidated them from taking on the mantle of true leadership, but because they knew true leadership is not about bossing. It’s about compassion, patience, and the habit of thinking about others and not just your own self. It’s about that most endangered human quality, in our self-regarding culture: kindness.

Wouldn’t it be something if we could all lean in to that.


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