No Real Plot.

What is the Value of Motherhood?

Some thoughts for every parent facing the August back-to-school to-do list. Originally published in the Washington Post on July 10, 2015.


My young cousin just earned a Vanderbilt Masters degree in Accountancy and Valuation. He’s off to Wall Street to seek his fortune.

A Masters in Valuation. Revolutionary.

I’m deep in that season of the year when my time and attention (like any involved parent’s) are profoundly splintered and – face it – frittered away by the details of my children’s lives. With three young sons, the end of school was one long march of recitals (baked goods needed), class parties (more baked goods), teacher conferences, and convocations. Photo collage for the third-grade memory book. Cub Scout service project. All in under the wire.

Then, exam lock-down at home, where life is half Sound of Music, half Shawshank Redemption. And now, summer. I’ve filed the health forms and permission slips. I’ve sourced the shorts, sneakers, and required-reading books. Let’s state the obvious: school holidays are no holiday for parents.

Hold on. Did I really complain my time’s frittered away? As in squandered, misspent, dissipated, or (brace yourself) wasted?

It’s the central paradox of my life as a parent. I love the details of looking after my boys, the work of attending to every individual, granular job I can. I recognize it’s a privilege that I’m at home to do it myself, and I’m grateful for that every day. But at the same time, I’m horrified at the cumulative cost that detail work has imposed on my capacity to concentrate on – or to accomplish – much else. For years.

I’m not the only one. Writing in the New York Times, Judith Shulevin quotes sociologists who use the term “worry work” to describe the family role of managing “the nonroutine details of taking care of children – when they have to go to the doctor, when they need permission slips for school, paying attention at that level.” The parent who does most of that work is the “‘designated worrier,’ because you need large reserves of emotional energy to stay on top of it all.” Shulevin writes, “whether a [parent] loves or hates worry work, it can scatter her focus on what she does for pay and knock her partway or clean off a career path.”

It’s death by a thousand bake sales.

Shulevin’s focus is gender disparity in how couples tend to share “worry work,” how in some families those details get dropped mostly on mothers because they’re less likely (or less empowered) to scorn them. That’s a problem, of course. But her op-ed got me thinking about something else. How would all the “designated worriers” feel if managing those everyday details of family life were highly, even extravagantly, valued?

I don’t mean valued as in Mother’s Day carnations or weepy graduation tributes, (though I’d hate to do without those). Appreciation at that level, however welcome and well-meaning, is ceremonial and largely symbolic. It’s abstract and scrubbed of any careful attention to the job’s grainy particulars, or the costs they exact.

In fact, I’ll go farther and make this bold, if preliminary, claim. I think the popular culture currently values family detail work in negative territory. I mean it’s valued at less than zero, especially when done by educated, once-professional but now un- or under-employed mothers. Think I’m crazy? Name another work-identified group you’re allowed to call derisive names, in print, as a matter of course. Helicopter Moms? Snowplow Moms? Tiger Moms? Believe me, they’re not compliments. And just try googling “Whiny SAHMs.” Prepare for a hot blast of shaming contempt.

We can do better. We need a serious, structural rethinking of what work counts in our culture, what work is worthy, and what work deserves widespread respect.

We need a new Masters in Valuation.

We’re used to backing into value judgments about work from the starting point of money. Work that makes money has presumptive value, so long as it’s legal. We might add conditions, like it must not exploit people, animals, or the environment. We might prefer it be non-profit (like charity fundraising). But even so, we tend to start from the basic presumption that work, and time, count more when someone pays you for them.

Maybe we could shoehorn the detail parent’s work into this transactional model, but I doubt that’s the answer. For one thing, I suspect few families ever price the market value of the time and attention a designated worrier invests unless they’re hiring a nanny to take over the job altogether. Truth is, most families couldn’t afford their own Worrier, if it came to that.

For another thing, how many of us really want those transactional values stamped onto the deep structure of our marriages and families? There’s a spectrum here. The monetized Mommy Blog might earn our grudging respect (“Wish I’d thought of ad revenue from stroller product placement!”). Yet we’re scandalized by the claim, from anthropologist Wednesday Martin in her new book Primates of New York, that certain “rich, powerful” men in Manhattan award their stay-at-home spouses a year-end cash “wife bonus” tied to the women’s performance on traditional motherly tasks, like making sure their kids get into “good” schools and then excel there. Readers cringe: Wife Bonus? Ewww.

How then to value our gritty family work, if not with money?

David Brooks raised my hopes last April in “The Moral Bucket List,” a New York Times op-ed adapted from his new book, The Road to Character. Brooks confesses his project “to work harder to save [his] own soul” by swapping “resume virtues” – “the skills you bring to the marketplace” – for “eulogy virtues,” those that let you “look after other people” while “not thinking about [yourself] at all.”

Eulogy virtues reject the “culture of the Big Me” and resist the lure of “money, status, security.” Instead, Brooks urges, the better soul seeks a life “embedded in a web of unconditional loves.” You’ll stop asking what you want from life. You’ll ask, instead, “How can I match my intrinsic talent with one of the world’s deep needs?”

Sound familiar?

Has David Brooks – rock star pundit, celebrated author, and speaker-circuit luminary – just discovered . . . parenthood? Is this the revolution?

Well, yes and no. I’m glad he’s pushing the virtues of what he calls “the Small, Happy Life,” the life spent tending with great care to little jobs that benefit others. I’m glad he wants to “shift the conversation” and critique the “culture that focuses on external success.”

But it’s hardly a “eulogy” move – hardly a rejection of “the Big Me”– to hawk the modest, unself-centered virtues by selling a commercial book about them. Or by taking a victory lap around the highest-end, for-pay speaking gigs that New York, Washington, and the Aspen Institute can provide. Am I the only one wondering how he’ll find the time, between his TED talks and his TV appearances, to “listen well” and “look after others?”

Revolution? Not so much.

I’m back to square one. What’s a “designated worrier” really worth? How to claim meaningful value for our time and care – for our work – managing the gritty details of family life?

I have two ideas how to start, one big and one little.

First, the big: I propose we make Home Economics a serious, required high school course for both girls and boys. A graded course, teaching the skills and commitments essential to a functional adult life, inside a functional family. Taught by an esteemed academic teacher. With mandatory field work outside the classroom.

Want to signal that the culture should highly value the work of looking after others with care and commitment? Let Home Ec bump a teenager’s sixth AP course off his schedule, or claw back time from his travel sports team, or from his ACT-prep sessions.

Maybe if we stop teaching kids, institutionally, to value their own ambitious trajectory above all else, they’ll be more equipped when the time comes to honor the granular detail work of looking after others at home – whether they do it themselves, delegate it to a spouse, or outsource it to a paid employee. Home Ec for All, that’s a big idea. It’s a start.

Now, my little idea. Back at the end of school, while I was knee-deep in all those time-crushing details, something wonderful happened. A few days after I ran the Cub Scout service project – baking cookies for a local soup kitchen – I got a letter from the mother of one of my scouts. Handwritten on real stationery, in the real mail, with a stamp, she thanked me for making the project happen, for the planning and the buying, and the pre-mixing and the packaging and the crowd control on the Sunday afternoon when all those little boys jammed into my kitchen to bake. She didn’t shoot me an e-mail, or grab me in carline, or wave across the playground on teacher conference day. She didn’t text me “thx!!” She sat down, thought about all those small, gritty details, and thanked me with care and attention.

It made my day, for days.

So for the first assignment, towards our new Masters of Valuation, I propose we all follow that mother’s example. Sit down quietly, think hard about a job someone else has done to benefit you or someone you love. The smaller the job, the better. Take time to consider all the details that person managed in order to make the job happen. Weigh what you would have had to put aside to do the job yourself. And then write a letter, on paper, saying thank you. Yes, thank you: we needed that.


Laura Fitzgerald Cooper lives in Nashville with her husband and three sons. She was a professor of public constitutional law at Washington and Lee University before retiring to spend time with her boys. Follow her blog at No Real Plot.

Hearts and Flowers. But also.

Another Mother’s Day is behind us. Did you download your specialty mom-tribute playlist? There’s the “Top 10 Mother’s Day Country Songs” (Faith Hill, Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood, Martina McBride), each one certified to make you cry. There’s Billboard’s “20 Songs for Mom” (The-Dream, Danzig, 2Pac, Pink Floyd). There’s “31 Most Adorable Songs About Moms” featuring Kanye West, whose “Hey Mama” includes this:

“Can’t you see you’re like a book of poetry? / Maya Angelou, Nicky Giovanni / Turn one page and there’s my mommy.”

Yes. Kanye says “Mommy.” Nice!

But my under-16 boys have not yet evolved to that happy stage where they’d look at me and think, like *NSYNC: “(God Must Have Spent) A Little More Time on You.” Not quite.

IMG_7016 2So I propose a Mothers’ playlist to capture the experiences of those, like me, who do not yet wholly inhabit the land of Hearts and Flowers.

It’s just a start. What should I add? Comment to nominate your favorites. And, as they say, rock on.

This is 15½.

When did he grow up enough to be such a good sport?IMG_6702

Here’s how I see him, when I’m not really thinking about it.Thanksgiving 028

Guess it’s time to revise my mind’s eye.

IMG_6510 2

Dream to Table.

Thanks again to Jennifer Puryear for including me in her tasty book club! Follow her at


Fantasy can be tricky.

It can make you stockpile empty photo albums, blank journals, and unfinished needlepoint kits. Your cobwebbed mountain bike? Your “Kitchen Gardens” Pinterest board?

Cosmetics that flaunt the “M”-word?

pp-magic-cream-large (1)

That’s fantasy at work.

But it can also work wonders. Take two cookbooks that have kept me busy all this grey, homebound winter: Heritage, by Sean Brock, and A Kitchen in France, by Mimi Thorisson. I confess, I bought them both out of sheer fantasy. Just look at these covers:

Screen Shot 2015-03-22 at 6.16.07 PM

They push every button, don’t they? Gorgeous woman, heirloom dogs, stately romantic kitchen. Check. Next, jewel-rich beans, scarred stone worktop, genius tattoo. Check. (And yes, every true Virginian secretly covets that cardinal tattoo. As if we were that hip.).

Inside both books, the fantasy goes deep. Sean Brock, the rock-star James Beard-winning chef of Husk restaurant fame, describes learning to love food as a boy on his grandparents’ farm in Wise County, Virginia, coal country deep in Appalachia. He writes, they “plowed the fields with Haflinger horses and grew plants that were indigenous to our culture.” Their house “was a beautifully mysterious playground, filled with bubbling vats of wine and fermented ears of corn. Every inch of [the] basement was covered with preserved food.” I can smell that sweet dark cellar from here. Mimi Thorisson, raised in Hong Kong and educated in Paris, left a career in television journalism to settle in Paris with her handsome Icelandic photographer/art director husband. Their family had grown to three young children (plus his two older children), a baby on the way, and five dogs when they decided to pull up stakes and move to a farmhouse in the Médoc, near Bordeaux. There, she writes the luscious food blog Manger, at

In A Kitchen in France, she admits that her “current country lifestyle – complete with a big rowdy family, lots of dogs, and a huge kitchen where I can make all my culinary fantasies come true – is something I always wanted.” Well, yes, I’ve joined that club.

But here’s the thing. Unlike Magic Face Cream (or the post-Christmas gym membership), good cookbooks sell a fantasy you can achieve just because you want to, on whatever day you choose. And these two cookbooks are terrific.

So, for a crowd coming to watch the Patriots play the Colts for the AFC championship? Here’s what looked good to me: Sean Brock’s slow roasted pork, tomato gravy, and creamed corn. For dessert, buttermilk pie with cornmeal crust.

Screen Shot 2015-03-22 at 6.18.55 PM (1)

I’m not saying it tasted like Husk, but the recipes all worked. By the end of the game, I had grown men eating pork with their fingers straight from the serving platter. Fantasy? Yes. Magic? No.

Then came February. Iced in for days with three fidgety sons: of course, I cooked like mad. And practiced my French. I made potato pie with Comté cheese, and I made pear flognarde.Screen Shot 2015-03-22 at 6.20.08 PM

I made slow-roasted lamb, and apple tart with Calvados and crème fraîche.

I made Garbure des Pyrénées:


Sure, Mimi Thorisson’s garbure recipe comes with the story of how she learned the soup from her friend, a charming Bordeaux antiques dealer. Very chic.

Screen Shot 2015-03-19 at 9.20.38 AMBut at heart, garbure is just beans cooked with cabbage and a ham hock, fragrant for hours on the back burner while you play Monopoly and Scrabble and hope school gets cancelled again the next morning. It’s soup to feed a house full of restless boys, and then send out to friends who didn’t have time to cook that icy day. It’s soup that can prompt your mac-n-cheese-atarian to flip through the cookbook, point to a photograph, and ask for this:

img053Pig in a blanket, you say? We call it Lyonniase Sausage Roll. And we’re eating it for supper.

Fantasy at its best.

It’s that time again.

This week, the bikini catalogs launched their annual mailbox assault. Time to revisit first principles:

Claire Danes gave birth one month before this photo was taken.


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.

Ride ‘Em.

One snowy June evening, I took my two older sons to the rodeo in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

It was a Wednesday.  The Sunday before, we’d traveled from Nashville to a dude ranch two hours’ drive from Jackson Hole. Way out of town, way out of any town, on the muddiest, slickest unpaved road I’d ever driven, past sheer-drop canyons with no guardrails.

By rodeo Wednesday, I and my sons, then 6 and 8, had spent three sleeting days as near-novice riders on horses wrenched from winter grazing only the weekend before.  The other kids, all older than mine, had appraised us immediately (two unhappy, too-young children and one delusional mother), and then retreated to their iPods and Hunger Games.

Goosewing Ranch 2My boys unraveled into whining and bickering.  Our one triumph, those first days, was that my 6-year-old survived when his horse bolted from the plodding trail line, straight downhill into a very steep ravine, racing back to the barn. Smart horse.

By Wednesday afternoon, even I could see I’d over-fantasized the whole dude-ranch venture.  I loved horses, sure.  And I’d loved riding before my sons were born.  My vision had been pure:  the three of us would leave the toddler brother back home in Nashville with the horse-averse Dad, and canter free through western fields with the Tetons rising behind.  The three of us, learning cowboy songs around a campfire while our horses nuzzled us gently out of love and respect.  Turns out, my boys mostly grieved that the ranch swimming pool was closed for snow.  And the teenagers rarely shared the one board game.

So, the rodeo.  True, a salvage operation, but still. We fishtailed back into town for the evening show.

wheeldonNEWOne family’s run the Jackson Hole rodeo for more than a century.  It takes place in an outdoor ring that would fit inside any small county fair.  Two modest stands face off across a dirt arena.  A cinderblock snack bar hides under the bleachers.  Could it possibly be worth the four hours’  drive?

My sons slumped beside me. Another round of Cokes.

Into the ring charged a horse and rider racing furiously around a course of tall barrels. The horse floated off the ground, nearly horizontal, on the turns.  Another set of headlong barrel racers followed them, and then another.  More levitating horses.

BARREL_RACINGMy boys perked up.

The gates across the arena opened, and out rode a cowboy on a horse bucking so wildly the man’s head would surely rattle off his spine.  The man spiraled out of the saddle, high into the dusty air, and hit the ground hard.  Out came another bucking bronco, this one even wilder.  Another flying cowboy.

Jackson-Hole-Rodeo-Bronc-RideThen out of those gates came a gigantic angry bull, snorting and glaring.  You could see his ferocious eyes even from where we sat, clutching our Cokes and Hershey bars.  And on the bull’s back, again, was a man in a cowboy hat, hanging onto this unreasonable, terrifying creature while it kicked and spun and pawed a dusty path across the ring.  Off flew that cowboy too – in ran the incongruous rescue clowns – and then another cowboy and another crazed bull raged in, then another.  And another.

rank4My 6-year-old was standing on his seat now, his face shining, his eyes shooting sparks.  “Next up,” the announcer declared, “the moment you’ve all been waiting for.”  My son rose to his tiptoes.

The announcer paused, then roared, “Bareback riding!”

My son turned to me with great joy.  “Now they’re going to ride the bears?”

The fantasies I chase elude me, always.  But there I had my young son, whose imagination was so free, so unbound by habits of ordinary impossibility, so transported by the exotic wonders he’d just seen with his own eyes, he was perfectly prepared to believe the next marvel out of the gate across the ring would be a cowboy riding a grizzly.

What could I say?  “Maybe not this time.”  I handed him a Hershey square.  “But who knows for next year?”


Photo sources, from top: my own;; Longmont, CO; Arnica Spring,

Tile Baths, Radiant Heat.


On this good gray day, I’m rethinking the basics.

Photograph mine. U.S. Route 11, near Spottswood, Virginia.
January 21, 2015.

The Girl With Her Back to the Crowd.

Boating, Gabriele Münter, 1909

Devoted acolyte happily rows genius towards his glorious future.  Right?

There’s a Kandinsky retrospective in town. More than a hundred paintings, drawings, and prints organized to show how Wassily Kandinsky evolved from a young Moscow law professor into the Father of 20th Century Expressionism.

It’s an impressive show, built around the disruptive-artist-hero story that Kandinsky liked to tell (not inaccurately) about himself, a St. George fearlessly slaying the dragon of traditional figurative art and modern materialist culture.

2012_02_28_21_19_030Improvisation III, Wassily Kandinsky, 1909

Most of the exhibited works come from the Pompidou Center in Paris, whose extensive Kandinsky collection was a gift from Nina Kandinsky, his widow and second wife. Or his third wife, depending on how you count it.

Which brings us to the girl rowing that boat.

She’s Gabriele Münter, the German-born daughter of a Jackson, Tennessee dentist and general-store owner, her father an immigrant who’d fled back to Westphalia to escape the American Civil War, leaving in-laws behind in Coffee Landing, Tennessee. Gabriele — or Ella (or Ellchen), as Kandinsky called her — was twenty-five years old in early 1902, when she joined a Munich art class taught by the 36-year-old, married Kandinsky.

Gabriele was looking for a serious art teacher. At that time, Germany’s formal art academies refused to admit women, for the most part, on the view that their biologically passive role of bearing and nurturing children meant they lacked men’s capacity for active artistic creativity. As one critic put it, quoting Goethe: “[S]ince woman cannot be original, she can only attach herself to men’s art. She is the imitatrix par excellence, the empathizer who sentimentalizes and disguises manly art forms . . . . ‘She is not capable of a single idea[.]’  . . . She is the born dilettante.” Women who tried serious art anyway? They became a bitter, de-feminized “third sex,” monstrous and unproductive, no good for babies and no good for art either.

gabrillemunter2Self-Portrait, Gabriele Münter, 1908

So women like Gabriele Münter ended up studying art privately, or in small informal studios, or in Ladies’ Academies that struggled to keep good teachers any longer than it took them to get jobs in the “real” art schools, teaching the men who’d become “real” artists. It was a disorganized, unsystematic, and frustrating way to learn. Thus, Gabriele was delighted to discover Kandinsky’s life drawing class in the Phalanx school he’d recently founded with a few other progressives. She later remembered, “[T]hat was a new artistic experience, how K., quite unlike the other teachers — painstakingly, comprehensively explained things and regarded me as a consciously striving person, capable of setting herself tasks and goals. This was something new for me, it impressed me.”

But Kandinsky began to press her for a more personal, romantic relationship, despite his marriage. By October of 1902, he could write, “I love you very much, and again a hundred times as much. You have to believe it and you musn’t forget it.” Still, he insisted, “When you come [visit him and his wife at home] on Monday don’t let it be apparent that we have seen each other more than twice. Yes? Once in school and once at your place yesterday.”

Gabriele, in turn, wrote Kandinsky (in a letter she did not mail):

My idea of happiness is a domesticity as cozy and harmonious as I could make it & someone who wholly & always belongs to me — but — it does not have to be that way at all — if it does not come about & if I do not find the right man — I am still very content & happy I intend now to find pleasure in work again . . . . At any rate I have always so despised & hated any kind of lying & secrecy that I just could not lend myself to it. If we cannot be friends in the eyes of the world I must do without entirely — I want no more than I can be open about & I want to be responsible for what I do — otherwise I am unhappy.

img042Interior (Still Life), Gabriele Münter, 1909 (Kandinsky in next room)

By the summer of 1903, Kandinsky’s wife had agreed in principle to divorce him, and he and Gabriele celebrated what he called their “engagement.” For the next roughly thirteen years — while he produced much of his most innovative and most famous Expressionist paintings, published his most influential theoretic manifestos, and organized his most well-known art movement, the Blue Rider — they lived and traveled together, a couple. As a couple, they developed their two prodigious bodies of work side by side.

And I mean two prodigious bodies of work. You already know his from Art History 101. The power of hers might surprise you.

img035Still Life, Yellow, Gabriele Münter, 1909

Still, as Kandinsky became the increasingly prominent public figure, Gabriele’s status as his unmarried partner left her life confined and circumscribed in the conservative Munich society outside their small circle of artist friends. Even her own family, loving but solidly middle class, found it difficult to understand how she could live so intimately with this man. It was bad enough that he was not her husband, but, worse, he was still married to another woman.

img023Return from Shopping (In The Streetcar), Gabriele Münter, 1908/09

In 1909, urged by Kandinsky, Gabriele bought a country house for them to share in Murnau, outside Munich. He’d still not pushed through his divorce, and in fact he spent the New Year holiday that year with his wife, writing Gabriele: “At the end of this coming year, you might not remain as lonely, as abandoned as has become the case now.”

Finally, we’re back to the boat.

In the summer of 1910, Gabriele Münter began to make preparatory studies for a portrait of herself rowing across Lake Staffel, near their Murnau villa. The figure of Kandinsky did not appear in sketches at first. But by the time she finished Boating, later that year, he’d taken up his dominant, standing position in the bow, like Washington crossing the Delaware. He stares down the viewer, electric blue eyes mirroring the mountains behind him and Münter’s ladylike hat low in the stern. She staunchly grasps the oars, single-handedly hauling him, their two idle guests, and a dog across the lake. Not only is her face turned away, her entire head is hidden, obscured beneath the demure, oversized hat. She and Kandinsky together form one strong, blue vertical beam. It’s a connection of color and direction, but not touch, nor shared viewpoint.

7f5aaffcbea554bef715cf88eacbb50f 3Both times I toured the exhibit here in Nashville, my guide made the same crisp claim: Gabriele Münter painted Boating to celebrate Kandinsky’s growing pre-eminence among the avant-garde, and to show how whole-heartedly she embraced her subordinate role as disciple and assistant, keeping his show on the road (or the lake, as it were). The catalogue calls her his “companion,” a “valued source of advice for the painter”; it notes she “compiled the first inventory of his works,” but says little else about her own work. “Münter’s hiding her face,” explained my guide. “She’s literally self-effacing.”

But I think that’s wishful thinking. Seeing Boating in person, hanging in the gallery near Kandinsky’s rushing blue horse, it struck me that Gabriele Münter’s maybe saying something else, something far harder for the hero-seeking art viewer to swallow. For maybe Boating‘s a portrait of the artist as a faceless, breaking heart.

Talk about Expressionism.

The year after Boating, Kandinsky traveled alone to Russia for an extended visit with his family and his old circle of friends, and the couple entered a period of prolonged separate travels, with shorter times together in between. They wrote letters, often daily, many of them fond and sometimes even passionate. They shared business concerns, a slippery gallery owner, a petty personal feud among artist friends. They made plans to reunite, and they discussed the house at Murnau. But Kandinsky’s tone cools, unmistakably, and Gabriele becomes increasingly pointed about his long-delayed promise to divorce his wife and marry her. They both allude to tension and trouble in their relationship during the previous year, 1910. He insisted they hire a housekeeper who’d once worked for him and his wife, a woman who disliked Gabriele and blamed her for the marriage’s disruption.

img029Still Life with Saint George, Gabriele Münter, 1911

Revising and republishing his essays and manifestos for his growing audience, Kandinsky began to edit out complimentary references to Gabriele’s own work.

When World War I began in August 1914, Kandinsky raced back to his family in Russia, leaving Gabriele behind in Switzerland and Munich with instructions to dismantle their shared apartment and help his wife prepare to join him. Gabriele proposed they meet in Stockholm, hoping Kandinsky would call her onto St. Petersburg. She pressed Kandinsky to join her there, but he refused, saying he had no money to travel and feared being stranded outside Russia. In March 1915, he wrote,

Now I have been living alone . . and realize that this is the appropriate way of life for me. . . . I want to give my heart away and am incapable of doing it. . . . [P]erhaps I lack the ability. . . .This love, of which I speak, you have also never experienced and never had.  That is why I tell you . . . that you never loved me. And life together as husband and wife without this love is a compromise with a greater or lesser aftertaste of a lie, that is, of sin. . . .You must never forget and must constantly feel that I, who ruined your life, actually am prepared to shed my blood for you.

In the summer of 1916, he promised again to travel to Stockholm that next December, to marry Gabriele soon after his fiftieth birthday.

img021Woman Seeking, Gabriele Münter, 1916

Instead, in February 1917, he married 17-year-old Nina von Andressvksaya. He did not inform Gabriele; he simply stopped answering her letters. He never told her he and Nina had a son, who died as a toddler in the chaos of Revolutionary Russia.

In 1921, finally, Kandinsky sent an agent to demand Gabriele return some paintings and other property she’d stored for him. He refused to communicate with her in person, and they never spoke again. But in 1922, he sent her a registered letter admitting that he’d “broken his promise to marry [her] legally,” accepting her as his “wife in conscience” (as she put it), and agreeing to a formal division of the disputed property, which took place in 1926. In the meantime, Gabriele struggled for money, seeking out portrait commissions and informal teaching jobs, and moving among friends’ houses and boarding houses.

As for Boating? It’s probably Gabriele Münter’s best-known work. She exhibited it herself, repeatedly, in Munich, Berlin, Paris, Zurich, Stockholm, and Copenhagen.

But not after 1919, when Kandinsky disappeared truly from her life.

An awfully traditional ending to this high-modernist tale.


Sources: Reinhold Heller, Gabriele Münter: The Years of Expressionism 1903-1920 (Prestel-Verlag, 1997); Annegret Hoberg, Wassily Kandinsky and Gabriele Münter: Letters and Reminiscences 1902-1914 (Prestel-Verlag, 1994); Angela Lampe & Brady Roberts, Kandinsky: A Retrospective (Centre Pompidou, Paris, & Milwaukee Art Museum; Distributed by Yale University Press, 2014).

[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.


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