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Laurent and Madeleine Bao Yi Belsie enjoy their last day in Guangzhou before they pack their bags and prepare for their flight back to the US as a new family. (Courtesy of the Belsie family)

China adoption diary: Homeward where yours versus mine becomes ours

By Gretchen BelsieGuest blogger / 07.17.12

Part 14 of Gretchen Belsie’s account of her trip with husband Laurent and their first adopted Chinese daughter – 10-year-old Grace – as they head to meet and bring home 7-year-old Madeleine Bao Yi. This is the final daily update in the China adoption series, but Gretchen will continue to provide occasional updates on the Belsie family for Modern Parenthood.

Once I’m done here, Laurent will unplug the computer and pack it in the suitcase so we’ll be ready to head out early in the morning for the Hong Kong airport.

It’s always hard for me to wrap up a trip, to say goodbye to friends, to close a chapter.

Living in five-star hotels for two weeks doesn’t replicate real life, but it’s sort of fun. Grace is sad to leave the Garden Hotel, though inveterate hospitality sample collector that she is, she’ll have enough shampoo squirreled away to make it to at least Columbus Day. Laurent will miss the respite from work. I know Madeleine Bao Yi will miss the breakfast buffet with all its choices. We’ll be scaling down the options to two items instead of half a dozen. I’ll miss seeing all the international families with Chinese children sitting in the “adoption gulag” section of the breakfast room.

I’ll also miss the camaraderie of fellow adopters, some of whom encounter more cross-cultural snags than the rest of us. It was only late yesterday that one family realized they would have to give back the stroller loaned to them from the hotel concierge and that they needed to buy something for the trip home. The father asked the concierge where he might find one in the stores around the hotel. He was given a piece of paper with Chinese characters on it and assumed that the words said “stroller.” He proceeded to the Trust-Mart and showed the paper to various clerks who, in turn, smiled, shook their heads “yes” and pointed to the floor.

After several such interactions, he came back to the hotel, sans stroller. Later on, when he asked Simon what the paper said, and  Simon smiled and responded, “Why, it says ‘Trust-Mart.’”

I suggested he try Gucci or Fendi, but my advice fell on deaf ears.       

For me, today was all about introspection. While the other three went down to the pool twice for a refreshing swim, I was busy packing things up, double checking all our documents, and reflecting on what the last two weeks had meant to me – and to us as a family. I really didn’t mind the solitude. It seemed important to examine this period of great change and see what I could see.

There had been a bumpy patch this morning when a minor turf war broke out over a pair of Mary Janes from Payless. Even though they now pinch a bit, Grace felt the shoes were hers. Period. Bao Yi, on the other hand, liked the look – especially when paired with oversized white socks that leave the heel part way up on the ankle and puffed out slightly.

Laurent used cool male logic to reason with Grace but it didn’t wash. I could tell she was bewildered and felt apprehensive about boundaries and limits with her sister. What it all boiled down to was the notion of possession.

After they all left for the pool, I felt a momentary sense of panic. With the language barrier among us, it would take some time for the basics of fair play and sharing to be clearly stated and understood. Then there was the unknown variable from Bao Yi’s past experience. Had she been deprived? Could she learn to adjust to the American standard of “more than enough”?

How would we be able to help our daughters bridge this gap?

In that brief moment, the thought came to me “What have we done?” And right on its heels came the response “What have we done!” It’s all about the punctuation. Parenting angst turned slowly but surely to expectation for our future as an interracial, multi-lingual family. Certainly there will be bumps along the road we’ll travel, but the views may well be spectacular.

So starting tomorrow morning at 5 a.m., as we get Grace and Bao Yi ready for the long journey home, we’ll have a fresh opportunity to address the question of “yours” versus “mine.”

The answer is right in front of us: From here on out, let’s think in terms of “ours.” 

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Avery Cardinal looks at flavors of ice cream at Il Laboratorio del Gelato, an ice cream shop, while on vacation with her family in New York on July 15, 2012. The author suggests that having a mission – like trying a variety of ice cream flavors – can make accomplishing goals more fun. (Andrew Burton/Reuters)

Mission happiness: Go on a mission, find happiness in the journey

By Guest blogger / 07.16.12

Writer Jean Stafford scoffed, “Happy people don’t need to have fun.”

But in fact, studies show that the absence of feeling bad isn’t enough to make you feel good; you must strive to find sources of feeling good. Research shows that regularly having fun is a key factor in having a happy life; people who have fun are twenty times more likely to feel happy.

Recently, I noticed a pattern among activities that people find fun: Go on a mission. There’s something about having a playful purpose, of trying to achieve something, that makes an activity more fun.

For example, a friend told me that she loved visiting flea markets and antique stores to look for old globes – not fancy ones, cheap ones. She has a rule that she’ll never pay more than $20. She’s the kind of person who loves poking around in those kinds of shops in any case, but having a mission makes it more fun, less aimless.

For that matter, having a collection of any sort is a very popular way to have a mission. My younger daughter is thrilled every time she finds a piece of sea glass, and looking for sea glass makes the beach more fun for her. My mother enjoys a perpetual hunt for truly outstanding Santa Claus tree ornaments.

It’s also possible to collect experiences, like my friend who wants to attend a game in every Major League Baseball stadium. You might want to run in as many marathons as possible, or try every flavor at your favorite ice cream store. I’ve noticed that I enjoy a walk more when I have some sort of mission – mailing a letter, buying a cup of coffee, doing a quick errand. I often walk in Central Park, and by making it my mission to see Bethesda Fountain (one of my favorite sights in all of New York City), the whole walk seems more purposeful.

In fact, much of the fun of a physical collection is the experience of searching and acquiring — not just the ownership of the collection itself. That’s why it’s not much fun to be given or to buy a collection.

Taking photos is a common way to incorporate a mission into traveling. Not only does this help keep memories vivid, it also makes you more attuned to your environment while traveling. (Although for some people, taking photos can become a barrier to experience; they get so focused on getting the photos that they don’t enjoy the reality.) For example, during one visit to New Haven, Conn., I had a lot more fun wandering around once I set myself the mission of taking tourist photos of my own romance.

Some people have a mission to take photos during everyday life: taking a photo of people’s bare feet whenever they get the chance, taking a photo of every red barn they see. Artist Nicholas Nixon did a series called The Brown Sisters, a series of black-and-white photos of his wife and her three sisters taken every year from 1975-2006. It’s absolutely riveting.

Why does the resolution to “go on a mission” add to happiness? The First Splendid Truth holds that to be happier, you have to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.

The more I’ve thought about happiness, the more surprised I’ve been at the importance of the “atmosphere of growth.” I think this is a huge engine of happiness, and when you have a mission, you create an atmosphere of growth whenever you pursue that mission.

Have you found a way to have a mission? What is it – and does it boost your happiness?

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best family and parenting bloggers out there. Our contributing and guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor, and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. Gretchen Rubin blogs at The Happiness Project.

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In this Nov. 17, 2006 file photo, actors Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes leave a Rome restaurant with their daughter Suri. Holmes and Suri have been photographed constantly since Holmes filed for divorce. (Alessandra Tarantino/AP)

Katie Holmes and Suri Cruise: Time to give them a break?

By Correspondent / 07.16.12

Anyone else out there starting to feel a little squeamish about the non-stop paparazzi attention on Katie Holmes – described in some tabloids last week as “New York’s most famous ex” – and daughter Suri Cruise these days?
I’ll admit, I was one of the fascinated ones just the other week, when celebrity news organizations (and heck, mainstream ones, too) began reporting that the actress had taken husband Tom Cruise by surprise with her “bombshell” divorce filing. I read the speculation – all speculation, mind you, with all unnamed sources – about whether Cruise’s Scientology religion was to blame; about how Holmes plotted the deed for a quick escape while Cruise was filming in Iceland;  even about how her spokespeople seemed to be consciously calling her “Katie,” rather than the “Kate” that Cruise had insisted was more becoming.

And clearly, I wasn’t alone. Besides taking up ridiculous amounts of press space, this “celebrity divorce of the year” (what a weird world) seemed to touch a nerve particularly with other women in their 30s.

“I don’t usually follow this stuff, but I’m just fascinated,” is what one friend admitted to me, sounding similar to a number of others.

There was something about the uneven power dynamics of the Holmes-Cruise relationship – the older, more professionally-established man who seemed to be in control – that touched a sympathetic nerve. And there was that twist on the "meet and marry the prince" fairytale that was almost Elizabeth Gilbert-like in its “now I need to do what’s right for my life” style.

And man, for someone who getting divorced, Holmes looked pretty awesome.

But ... it’s getting a bit much.  And I kinda feel that the TomKat daughter, who is only 6 years old, should be afforded a bit of privacy.

Every day, it seems, there are more photographs of Holmes and Suri walking down the street, going into shops, playing at the zoo, and eating ice cream. Today I checked the news and there was a crying Suri, upset apparently because Holmes wouldn’t buy her a puppy.  

Some of the celebrity sites were even analyzing (positively, but c’mon) Suri’s fashion choices.

Holmes looks great in photos, confident and determined mommy smile in place, but the woman is an actress. Divorce is hard on everyone – certainly on kids.

It’s time, I think, to give the ladies a break.

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Madeleine Bao Yi gives a salute at the US Consulate in Guangzhou after the citizenship ceremony. (Courtesy of the Belsie family)

China adoption diary: Madeleine becomes a US citizen in minutes

By Gretchen BelsieGuest blogger / 07.16.12

Part 13 of Gretchen Belsie’s account of her trip with husband Laurent and their first adopted Chinese daughter – 10-year-old Grace – as they head to meet and bring home 7-year-old Madeleine Bao Yi.

It was an early call this morning for our group’s appointment at the US Consulate for the final review of paperwork and the citizenship ceremony. Laurent had set the alarm on his smartphone for 6:45 a.m., but in typical fashion, I had been up checking the nightstand clock on and off since 3 a.m.

Breakfast was more hurried than usual but after nearly 10 days, we know our way around the buffet. Scrambled eggs on even-numbered days, hardboiled on the odds.

Madeleine Bao Yi seemed a bit sleepy at the table and went at her plate load with a leisurely pace. She managed the waffle and the meat dumpling, the watermelon chunks and the olive loaf, but still had a way to go when Simon indicated that we should head out to the van. We stood up and motioned for her to come along, and she panicked. There was a perfectly good, freshly peeled hardboiled egg still on her plate. With one swoop of the hand, she put the whole thing in her mouth à la Lucille Ball, grabbed the saltines, and was ready to roll.

We have a ways to go before even considering an application to Miss Wellington’s Finishing School for Young Ladies.        

For some reason we had neglected to bring from home a particular vaccination affidavit document, despite the compulsive triple-checking of the accordion file of very important papers, but we were able to take care of that at a US Citizenship and Immigration mini-branch just down the hall from the Consulate. Finally, we entered a small room with several rows of chairs and maybe seven service windows staffed by consular personnel. There was a good bit of squalling and wailing by the assorted babies in tow. Besides the four families in our group, we saw some other familiar faces from the Garden Hotel – most notably, a couple who must now be retired, their fuzzy-headed baby in a front sling carrier. I wish I knew their story.

One by one, we were called up to the windows and the officials inspected our papers. Everything was in perfect order and we’ll receive Bao Yi’s travel visa through Simon tomorrow. When it came time for the parents to raise their right hands and take the oath for their children, it was a bit emotional for me. Someday, Bao Yi will understand what it all meant but at that moment, she was busy drawing on the wall-mounted chalkboard with the other kids.

The moment was bittersweet, too, because for us, it will most likely be our last international adoption experience. I’m grateful we had our two turns at bat.

Everything was wrapped up by 9:30 and we came back to the hotel to take a celebratory group photo in the lobby. It took some doing to get the wigglers to sit still and the weepers to face forward instead of sobbing into their mothers’ chests, but it was finally accomplished.

Lunch was a drawn-out affair at Tomatoes 24 Hour Pizzeria during a mid-day cloudburst.

The rains came again with full force, so we hid under the roof of a small pavilion and waited it out as Bao Yi began her daily mantra of “yo-yong, yo-yong” (swimming).

Several days ago, Simon told us that the average Chinese knows 5,000 characters for basic literacy but a scholar could have mastered upward of 25,000. That’s a bit hard to swallow. Over the past seven years of Chinese school on Sunday afternoons, Grace and I have probably racked up a little over 600 characters, and Laurent, about the same. It’s one thing to learn them and quite another to remember them all. By my calculations, all our hard work and dedicated study have put our speaking skills somewhere between a newborn and a kindergartener.

Somewhere along the line, either at Chinese school or in adoption circles, we came upon the designations “ABC” and “CBC,” meaning “American-born Chinese” and “China-born Chinese.” Grace has been very clear in referring to herself as “CBC.” This is true, but now that she has a fast-talking little sister from Shenzhen City, the pressure is on. We hope to find a speaking tutor for all of us when we get home and settled into a routine.

We have one last day tomorrow in bustling Guangzhou but there will be little sightseeing for me. My chief task will be to organize the suitcases and get everything ready for departure while the other three cavort in the pool. No matter. This sort of logistics routine suits me. It’s been a wonderful two weeks abroad, but it’s time to head for home. I’m feeling a tremendous need for a tossed salad with fat-free ranch dressing.

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Belsie sisters Grace and Madeleine Bao Yi during the "apple" course of the night's meal. Madeleine is wearing the green lifesaver-shaped jade pendant and adorning her head is a sticker ripped off from a water bottle and attached to a barrette. (Courtesy of the Belsie family)

China adoption diary: Siblings in sync, even in snores

By Gretchen BelsieGuest blogger / 07.15.12

Part 12 of Gretchen Belsie’s account of her trip with husband Laurent and their first adopted Chinese daughter – 10-year-old Grace – as they head to meet and bring home 7-year-old Madeleine Bao Yi.

The Chinese have a lovely expression that translates as “sibling” – “shou zu” (pronounced show-zoo) literally means “hand and foot.” Siblings will walk the road of life together, side-by-side, holding hands and synchronizing their steps. That image is a comfort to me as a parent.

Late last night, I bent over the bed for one last check on our daughters and realized that I could not match up the tangle of body parts. Grace decided to use Madeleine Bao Yi’s head as a pillow but little sister didn’t seem to notice. At least they synchronized their snoring.  

I’m so glad we’ve been able to give Grace a sister. She was such a content only child, but in the last week new dimensions of her character have emerged. She thinks and plans ahead for two now, gathering what she thinks Bao Yi will need in her backpack for an outing. She tries to keep the mounting tide of hair elastics and colored pencils under control. Yes, Grace can be bossy at times, but as a counterpoint to infrequent headstrong eruptions from Bao Yi. All in all, she’s shown herself to be pretty tolerant – and definitely nurturing.

As for Bao Yi, she took a bold step forward today in acknowledging her new family. Grace asked her “Do you know Mama loves you?” She answered, “Yes, I know that.”

I coasted on that for the rest of the day.  

We spent the morning touring the four-story Guangdong Provincial Museum of Culture and History in the new skyscraper section of Guangzhou. Though, we only really saw two floors because of the large group. Still, it was a fascinating journey through centuries of Chinese history.

The Chinese regard learning as “putting knowledge in the belly.” We got a much broader sense of history and culture at the museum, but you can also pick up a lot of relevant insights into contemporary Chinese life while wending your way through the maze of downtown highways in a taupe mini-bus. Simon has worked for 14 years in international adoption as a facilitator for our agency and has seen the dynamics change radically.

According to him, from 1997-2007, nearly 70,000 healthy Chinese baby girls were adopted and moved to the US and other countries abroad. That’s an average of 7,000 per year, with a wait time that was minimal compared to the current protracted paperwork maze. (We waited for 14 months for Grace after our dossier had landed in China. Adopting families today can expect to wait up to five and a half years for a healthy baby unless they opt for a designated “special needs” child. Then, the process speeds up considerably.) That decade marked the end of the golden era of Chinese adoptions, and the future is unclear.

Laurent asked about the demographic imbalance that has resulted from this sustained exodus of young females from China. Most countries statistically report 97 males to every 100 females in the general population, but China’s figures show 107 males to every 90 females. The gap will be hard to close in the future when this generation comes to marriageable age.

Once our museum session was declared “completed,” Simon took the group to a Japanese-style restaurant for a rousing eight-course lunch. For a mere 30 yuan per person – the equivalent of $5 – we feasted on egg drop soup with tomato bits, chicken and onions, seared beef, two types of fish, garlic grilled tofu, fried rice, and a topper of sizzled bok choy.

Given the size of the lunch, no one was much interested in dinner this evening, even after a long cooling-off session in the swimming pool. We threw caution to the wind for supper and ate sliced apples in the room, followed by ice cream chasers from a nearby 7-11.

We have an early call tomorrow morning at 8:30 at the US Consulate on Shamian Island for the children’s citizenship ceremony. Shen Bao Yi will become Madeleine Isabel Bao Yi Belsie, newly minted American. It’s a wonderfully poignant moment, but one that is also bittersweet to me. By week’s end, she’ll leave her homeland and culture to be transported 7,000 miles away and transplanted in metro Boston, where undoubtedly she’ll bloom. Knowing Bao Yi, she’ll carry her Chinese identity with her always and hopefully become a true East-West girl.

It’s funny how Grace wanted to be sure we knew the Chinese for “Keep up the pace!” before we set out on this adventure. She was so concerned about losing her new sister on the busy streets of Guangzhou. The more useful phrase we have learned is “Bao Yi, wait!” It’s not always effective, but that’s OK.

For Madeleine Belsie, I suspect the game plan will be “Watch out, America. Here I come!”

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Grace Belsie stands with two fiddler statues located near the White Swan Hotel on Shamian Island, where the Belsies stayed when they adopted Grace in 2003. (Courtesy of the Belsie family)

China adoption diary: East-West diplomacy, and family normalizing

By Gretchen BelsieGuest blogger / 07.14.12

Part 11 of Gretchen Belsie’s account of her trip with husband Laurent and their first adopted Chinese daughter – 10-year-old Grace – as they head to meet and bring home 7-year-old Madeleine Bao Yi.

Today was the day we all returned to the medical clinic to have our children’s tuberculosis injections checked after the required 48-hour waiting period. Of course, Madeleine Bao Yi had no idea what was in store as she sat happily at breakfast, enjoying olive loaf, a hardboiled egg, and some dumplings.

It’s interesting to watch the dynamics of the adoptive families as they start out their day in the breakfast room. The waitresses, dressed in vests and long skirts slit way up the side, are quite attentive. They clear the used dishes away promptly as well as offer immediate linguistic intervention when a Chinese child goes ballistic, much to the consternation of his or her American parents. Once the child feels heard, things usually settle down. If not, administer Goldfish, ASAP.

We arrived at the clinic shortly after 1 p.m. to find the place very crowded with Chinese families. Simon brought us to the special section for adoptive families and we were waited on right away. The requirement for passing the tuberculosis test was that the welt on the forearm could not be longer than 10 millimeters. The other three families were in and out in a flash. As we approached the door, Bao Yi looked very hesitant but we coaxed her in. The nurse on duty poked the welt, looked at it this way and that way, drew a faint line on the skin with a pen, got out a measuring stick and conferred with her assistant. This process was then repeated. Finally, the nurse admitted that the welt was 9+ millimeters and let us walk.

Things picked up considerably as we headed to Shamian Island, an island carved out in the Pearl River that was once the location of the British, French, and other legations, which facilitated and forced trade between China and the West. The feel of the island is that of a calm, garden-like oasis with gracious European architecture and brick streets amid the hustle and bustle of greater Guangzhou. Pale yellow and peach stucco buildings, black wrought iron fences, colorful flowers, and immaculate shrubbery.

Shamian Island holds a special place in the hearts of many adoptive families because the White Swan Hotel is located there. This beloved high-rise cocoon for newly blended families has been under massive reconstruction for more than two years now. When we stayed there in 2003, each family received, gratis, a special edition “adoption Barbie,” featuring the standard leggy California blonde with a tiny Chinese baby in her arms.

For old time’s sake, we walked over there so Grace could see where it all began. The hotel was closed but we could see inside the lobby, or what was left of it. The Swan was officially gutted; piles of broken cement and tiles were roped off and heaped up in the once-elegant entrance. Right down the street, The Deli Shop was also closed, though we retold, once again, the story of how Laurent went out that first night as a daddy and brought back red bean and tuna sandwiches for his little family.        

In our wanderings, we came across several photo shoots with brides and grooms done up in full trendy wedding attire. We assumed that this was a spread for a magazine, but Simon later assured us that no, these were the wedding couples themselves getting the all-important photos taken months before the actual marriage took place. The quiet side streets lend themselves as classy backdrops for a wedding album. Numerous photography studios are located on the island and they rent the clothes used in the photo shoots, even though they may not be the same style clothes the couple will wear on their special day.

The big finish for the afternoon was a return to the hotel swimming pool. When we finally told Bao Yi it was time for swimming, she began to chortle and hop around the room in a true happy dance. We all went down to the pool and enjoyed some cooling off.

Tomorrow’s plan includes a visit to a cultural museum and a group lunch at a Thai restaurant called “Cow and Bridge.” We look forward to it all as our time here is growing short.

After the girls go to sleep, I must go into the bathroom and sneakily wash out the one outfit that Bao Yi insists on wearing, day in and day out. It could certainly stand to be cleaned, but more importantly, Grace has requested it. “Mama, please wash that outfit tonight. I just can’t bear the thought of Bao Yi going out on the street in it again.”

It’s all about East-West diplomacy, my friends.

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Big box stores like Costco and Sam's Club add to clutter at home, researchers found. Here David Lee shops at a Costco Wholesale store in Portland, Ore. in May of this year. (Rick Bowmer/AP)

Culture of clutter taking over American families, says new book

By Correspondent / 07.13.12

Raise your hand if any of this sounds disturbingly familiar:

A garage that doesn’t have room for the family car because it’s filled with bikes, baseball bats, rusting tools, old furniture and possibly even a large snow blower. (Arm a-waving over here. The snow blower is a long story.)

Or, how about a hall closet that can’t hold any more coats? Or a child’s room filled with more than 100 Beanie Babies?  Or a fridge covered in hundreds of pictures, magnets (even the free ones that come in the mail, because, you know, you never can have enough magnets), calendars, dry erase boards and shopping lists?

Clutter, it turns out, is a hallmark of mainstream America. (Depressing, no?)  And now a new book coming out by researchers from University of California, Los Angeles, and Connecticut College – “Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century” – details just how much clutter, and promises to take a sharp look at the impact of all this stuff on daily family life.

The researchers immersed themselves into the daily lives of 32 families in the Los Angeles area, taking tens of thousands of photographs, hundreds of hours of video, and copious notes from first-hand observations about how people move through their homes, and what they have.

“People’s homes are a canvas for self-expression, so it is crucial to see what middle-class America buys, cherishes and displays at home, along with, in their own words, what their possessions mean to them,” said Jeanne E. Arnold, professor of anthropology at UCLA and the lead author of the book, according to the Connecticut College news service. “We measured. We photographed. We filmed. We interviewed. We gave parents and older kids cameras and they gave us narrated home tours. We now know what goes on moment-by-moment and, as our book documents, we know exactly what people keep in their homes and where and how they use things.”

Some of the findings:

  • The volume and sheer number of things in our homes is unprecedented. From toys to music collections to books to knick knacks to large quantities of paper towels bought (it was a deal!) from Costco. And managing the volume of possessions turns out to be so stressful that it elevated the level of stress hormones for moms.
  • Most families spent little time in their yards – even if they had spent a lot of money on outdoor furnishings.
  • Seventy-five percent of garages had too much stuff in them to fit cars.
  • And I love this one: The number of objects clinging to your refrigerator may indicate how much clutter can be found throughout your home.

“Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century” is coming out in August, but I am already tempted to get a trash bag and start tossing stuff.  Anything.  Because one of the other findings of the authors is that Americans are really bad at getting rid of things – we think that we’ll use them some day, or that it’s wasteful to just toss objects.

And in the meantime, the stuff takes over. 

A good time, I say, to ponder consumption, materialism and how to adjust our way of life.

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"Fifty Shades of Grey" author E.L. James signs a copy of her book during the first day of Comic-Con convention held at the San Diego Convention Center on July 12, 2012. One mother doesn't see what all the fuss is about. (Denis Poroy/Invision/AP)

'Fifty Shades of Grey:' Another series that is not for this mom

By Contributing blogger / 07.13.12

Alright, here we go again. Yet another book series that is wildly popular and I just don’t get it. Out of sheer curiosity, I downloaded a sample of "Fifty Shades of Grey" to my Nook. (Side note: I love that I can download samples. At the end of the sample, if I am wondering what’s going to happen next, I buy the full version. If I’m kind of like, meh … I won’t bother. 'Tis brilliant, in my opinion.)

So, I read the sample and honestly, the writing seemed very amateur-ish at best. The storyline did not hold my attention at all; in fact, I was skipping many of the pages to see what all of the hype was really about. I never got to it and therefore, won’t be buying the book.

I don’t understand what the media frenzy is really all about. The New York times called it “mommy porn” but it still doesn’t explain what is so special about this particular series. There are plenty of erotica novels out there – there have been for years. This is not a new concept, so if it isn’t the writing, what sets this one apart from the rest?

And I have just come to find out that Universal Pictures bought the rights to the entire trilogy: Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker, and Fifty Shades Freed. Really? Are they going to release it in the theater? I don’t know that I’d want to see that play out on the big screen with crowds of women, who have gone insane for this series.

Dear Universal: Since you already spent seven figures on the rights to this series, I highly recommend that you release this trilogy immediately to DVD. Since millions of women enjoyed reading them from the privacy of their own homes, it may be best if they also watched the movies from the privacy of their own homes. I’d imagine the theater employees would thank you. Just saying.

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best family and parenting bloggers out there. Our contributing and guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor, and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. Lauren Parker-Gill blogs at Spill the Beans.

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This film image released by Disney/Pixar shows the character Merida, voiced by Kelly Macdonald, in a scene from "Brave." With her wild red mane and her killer skills with sword and bow, Merida has become the latest in Hollywood's growing line of successful female action heroes. (Disney/Pixar/AP)

'Brave' princess breaks Disney stereotypes. Or does she?

By Guest blogger / 07.13.12

I saw Disney-Pixar’s "Brave" the day it debuted in theaters, and I’m glad that Merida is a different kind of princess – one who can be read as a critique of both the trope that princesses are passive and the trend to tell their stories as romances.

But I also have some mixed feelings. For example:

  • The film’s marketing, which essentially ignores that "Brave" is a tale of a mother-daughter relationship (presumably for fear that such a story wouldn’t be a box office draw), is insulting.
  • The storyline itself features such unappealing would-be suitors that Merida’s disinterest in romance is undercut: What if the three young men who must vie for her hand were more like Prince Charmings than doofuses?
  • Finally, having studied girl power media for several years, it bothers me that Merida is presented as isolated, an anomalous female, without a community of female peers her own age. Can’t a girl who is supposed to be strong not be a loner?

With all that in mind, since the release of "Brave," I’ve been reading reviews and commentaries of the film with interest. There are two strands of criticism that I would like to address: 1) that the film is unoriginal, and 2) that Merida is a brat.

Is "Brave" an unoriginal film?

When Joanna Weiss of the Boston Globe and I talked about "Brave," she mentioned that a lot of early reviews complained the film was unoriginal – ”just another princess movie,” she said. Reviewers were complaining that unlike other Pixar films, "Brave" didn’t feature a fully fabricated, fantastically unexpected world; it seemed to be treading old ground.

For example, Todd McCarthy wrote in The Hollywood Reporter that "Brave" is “familiar” and treads “startlingly well-worn territory.” He also complains that it is “laden with standard-issue fairy tale and familiar girl-empowerment tropes.” But is it, really? It’s a story about a mother-daughter relationship. How is this “familiar” and “well-worn?” He and other reviewers complain that Brave is too Disney and not enough Pixar. In reading reviews like these, I sensed the reviewers just couldn’t get past the fact that "Brave" is about a princess, rather than something as unexpected as talking cars or talking toys or talking fish.

Ask any girl who’s been raised on princess films, and she’ll tell you that Merida is different, and very unlike her Disney Princess peers. As far as the narrative goes, what does Merida have in common with Disney Princesses, exactly? The fact that she’s a princess who has utterly fantastic hair. That’s about it.

(Even the witch in "Brave" seems perfectly nice. Unlike Disney’s approach, there’s no vilification of old ladies in Pixar’s film, which is refreshing.)

Other than that, while watching "Brave," I was amused to notice how closely the film follows Pixar’s formula for its protagonists:

  • The protagonist (e.g., Woody, Lightning McQueen, Marlin) makes some bad decisions, portrayed in ways that make them seem not entirely likable. (Because of his ego and jealousy, Woody is a jerk to Buzz; Lightning is self-centered, smugly superior, and judgmental of others; Marlin is a smothering, over-protective parent.)
  • The protagonist does something that causes harm or potential harm to someone else. (Woody pushes Buzz out a window; Lightning coerces Mack into driving overnight; Marlin embarrasses Nemo in front of peers so badly that Nemo takes a risk and is captured by a diver.)
  • Said protagonist has unexpected experiences, a journey beyond his comfort zone. (Woody has to leave Andy’s house to save Buzz, and gets to know him better; Lightning, separated from Mack, has an unexpected several-day detour through Radiator Springs, and actually gets to know its citizens; Marlin travels across the ocean to find his son, confronting his worst fears.)
  • As a result of these experiences, the protagonist changes. (Woody becomes less egotistical and ultimately makes friends with Buzz; Lightning becomes less egotistical and ultimately makes friends with the citizens of Radiator Springs; Marlin calms down and becomes a better parent.)

Merida goes through a similar journey. She begins as a self-absorbed teenager who wants to avoid the responsibilities of being a princess. After a fight with her mother, she finds herself someplace new and strange. Merida makes a bad decision that turns her mother into a bear. While trying to save her mother from this predicament, Merida then spends an awful lot of time insisting that it’s not her fault.

Finally, however, Merida changes, developing a better understanding of her mother and growing as a person. She realizes it is her fault, and by the movie’s conclusion, she has incorporated some of her mother’s statements into her own worldview, such as “Legends are lessons. They ring with truth,” and “How do you know you don’t like it if you won’t try it?” (At this, a young child seated behind me and my son in the theater marveled, “She’s acting like her mother!”)

So if the film seems familiar to reviewers, I don’t think it’s because it’s a Disney princess story. Merida is so different from the other Disney Princesses. Do Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, or Ariel have journeys in which they learn something about themselves and change? No. Their problems are solved by others. What about Belle? No. She longs for “adventure in the great wide somewhere,” but ultimately she is reduced to a catalyst of change for someone else – the Beast.

I really think that "Brave" feels familiar to many viewers because it’s telling the same type of story Pixar has been trading in for years. And so, as I told Joanna, it seems a little sexist for reviewers to place the blame for the film’s familiar feeling on the fact that Merida is a princess.

Is Merida a brat?

Another strand of conversation that has caught my eye is the debate over whether Merida is more bratty than brave. After all, she’s sassy and outspoken and argues openly with her mother. A reviewer at expresses concern that “the movie may tilt the balance too far in Mom’s direction, so that the film’s ostensible heroine ceases to seem adorably spunky and becomes more like an awful brat.”

Indeed, in some audience members’ opinions, this seems to be the case. One blogger writes that the movie “seems to accept and perhaps even glorify the defiance of the diva, the ‘coolness’ of being a brat, and the idea that insolence is synonymous with independence. When did respect for one’s parents, a gentle spirit, and a longing for a loving partnership involving mutual sacrifice become sexist and outdated?” Another argues, “I worry that our culture perpetuates a sort of entitled-brat attitude in girls these days: that our daughters deserve to get what they want, when they want it simply because they are girls. And nobody can tell girls these days what to do or what to want. They’re in charge.”

In all of this, I haven’t seen anyone acknowledge the reality of teenagers’ relationships with their parents. As the book Nurture Shock explains, studies indicate that 96 percent of teenagers lie to their parents, often about really big issues. Which teens lie the least? Those whose parents consistently enforce rules while being the most warm and having the most conversations with their children. They explain why rules exist but are supportive of their children’s autonomy and freedom.

This, perhaps, can be understood as Elinor’s big parenting mistake: She dictates things to Merida without really explaining them to her, and so it seems to Merida that her mother does not support her freedom.

Yet ironically, Merida’s protestations and efforts to change her mother’s mind are not signs of a bad mother-daughter relationship. Studies also show that the teens who argue more openly with their parents are the teens who are the most honest. According to Nurture Shock, one study showed that families with less deception had “a much higher ratio of arguing/complaining. Arguing was good–arguing was honesty.” However, “The parents didn’t necessarily realize this. The arguing stressed them out.”

Meanwhile, another study of mother-daughter arguments summarized in Nurture Shock found that while nearly half of mothers felt arguments with their daughters were bad for their relationships, less than a quarter of daughters felt the same way. For daughters, what was most important was how these arguments ended. The daughters needed to feel heard by their mothers, and over time, they needed to win some arguments and get small concessions from others. But they did not need to win every battle; they mainly needed to feel heard. (As Merida says to her mother, “Just listen to me!”)

In other words, the fact that Merida makes her disagreements clear to her mother does not make her a brat. As unpleasant as this may be for parents to consider, Merida’s argumentative nature may actually be a sign of respect and a mother-daughter relationship that is fundamentally sound. That’s important to keep in mind. When Merida and her mother begin to really consider one another’s perspectives, both parties grow as individuals, and their relationship becomes stronger. For parents worried that Merida is a “brat” who is setting a poor example for their children, these facts could provide useful talking points for the entire family.

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best family and parenting bloggers out there. Our contributing and guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor, and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. Rebecca Hains blogs at

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Albie, the 3-year-old Yellow Lab-Golden Retriever mix rescued by the Zheutlin family is as gentle and sweet as the family could have hoped. (Courtesy of Peter Zheutlin)

Rescue dog Albie arrives at his new home after a long journey

By Correspondent / 07.13.12

As readers of this blog know, we adopted a 3-year-old Yellow Lab-Golden Retriever mix named Albie, and last Monday, after the longest, slowest weekend ever recorded in our house, Albie arrived after a tiring journey from Louisiana.

Now, there are two things you need to know straight away. First, I am not, repeat not, going to be one of those obnoxious pet owners convinced that everyone with an Internet connection is interested in seeing pictures of my dog or reading about every cute thing he does or listening to me brag about what a great dog he is. Second, this is by far the greatest, cutest, smartest dog in the world and I have the pictures to prove it. (I had one of Albie doing the New York Times crossword puzzle, but accidentally deleted it.)

To be honest, the term “rescue dog” was completely unfamiliar to me just two weeks ago. When my wife Judy began talking about adopting a “rescue” I thought she meant one of those dogs that locates wayward Swiss skiers in the Alps, or finds earthquake victims in the rubble. I had no idea that we were the ones doing the rescuing.

You never really know what you’re in for when a new dog arrives and we had fallen for Albie based on a twenty-second video posted on the Labs4Rescue website. For all we knew those were the happiest, most adorable, heart warming twenty seconds of his life. Off camera he could have been the reincarnation of Cujo.

Well, I’m happy to report the video did not lie. He was cuddly and affectionate from the ‘git go (when you pet him he always rests his paw, or both of them, on your arms), and is as gentle and sweet as you can possibly imagine.

Albie was a stray so we find ourselves speculating about the life he led before March when he was found in central Louisiana. Was he let go? Hard to imagine anyone parting with a dog this affectionate. But many dogs in the south are abandoned when they don’t prove to be good hunting dogs, and Albie surely seems to lack the temperament or the instinct for the hunt. We even had a little trouble getting him to chase a tennis ball. Getting in the car and going up and down stairs seem unfamiliar to him. Did he live in a one-story house? Or any house at all? Had he never been in a car? We’ll likely never know anything about the first three years of his life, but our goal is to make the next ten or twelve happy ones.

Being a dog owner for all of 24 hours I have a sense already about what it is that binds people to their dogs and why people get such nachus (that’s Yiddish for satisfaction, pleasure, and contentment) from them. In our first long walk together, around the lake at Wellesley College, Albie got plenty of compliments and admiration from passers-by. We thanked them as if his adorability and sunny disposition somehow reflected on us, which, of course, it doesn’t. And when you get all that uncomplicated affection from your pup its easy to feel virtuous and flatter yourself, as if the dog has reserved all that love just for you because you are so darned wonderful. But the truth is Albie could have been plunked down in any one of a million homes and he’d have been just as trusting and just as sweet. So, we feel very lucky indeed that he fell in with us.

Still, at the risk of sounding self-serving, he’s really lucky to be with us, too. He could just as easily have landed with the Kardashians.

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