Saturday, June 16, 2012

SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED: A JOURNAL OF MY SON'S FIRST SON by Anne Lamott with Sam Lamott

My 9-month-old grandson is indubitably the cutest, sweetest, smartest, most amazing baby in the whole world. These traits must run in our family: the same adjectives could be (and often are) applied to my three other grandchildren, now extraordinary teenagers. Here, let me show you pictures ...

Well, at least Anne Lamott didn't include photos in this sequel to her 1993 best-seller, Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year. Apart from that unaccountable omission, Some Assembly Required is a pure outpouring of grandmotherly fervor, adoration, obsession, and--in Lamott's inimitable (but often parroted) style--neurosis. I first learned of this book in an airport bookstore, en route to see my most recent prodigious grandbaby. How could I resist?

Lamott, who became a single parent in 1989, was startled to learn that her son, Sam, was going to become a parent in 2009, shortly before his 20th birthday. Sam's partner, Amy, was a year older. They were not sure if they were going to stay together.

If you are an Anne Lamott fan, you are no doubt eager to know what happens to this precarious young family. If you have yet to get acquainted with Ms. Lamott's simultaneously self-absorbed and self-deprecating nonfiction, however, don't start here. Opt rather for Operating Instructions or Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, fine essay-memoirs that lay the necessary groundwork for appreciating Lamott's singular foibles and quirks.

I especially liked two things about Some Assembly Required. First, in an extended aside (pages 126 to 160), Lamott describes her trip to India. It has little to do with baby Jax, but I love the way she depicts how it feels for a relatively privileged introverted Californian (I identify) to plunge into the very different world of Delhi:
People were going about their day: Brahmans, vendors, beggars, rickshaw drivers, schoolchildren in eentsy-beentsy buses. Some people were waking up under blankets: families who lived on the streets in this soft fever dream, with temporary homes built against low walls and fences. A kitchen materializes when the mother produces two bricks and some dung and someone has found pieces of coal or wood from packing crates; they have a rice pot and a minimal amount of grains to cook. In the market stalls were great vats of milk boiling, and clay pots in which yogurt would be made, from warm milk and yesterday's curds. Everywhere, people were doing their daily puja, their offering of flowers, fruit, devotions: in their stalls, on their blankets, in their rickshaws, in their fleeting homes on the street.
The second thing I really liked about the book struck me at first as annoying. Throughout the entire year, Lamott is on a constant cycle of trying to control the lives of Sam, Amy, and Jax; complaining to her friends when things don't go her way; getting told that this isn't about her; and eventually feeling all contrite and wise. But then I realized that she is describing the fundamental task of grandparents and, indeed, of all of us of grandparent age. Unless we're the Queen of England, the time comes when we have to let go and turn the running of the world over to the next generation.

It isn't easy. It takes a lot of practice and plenty of forgiveness on both sides. And even if we think we've left the stage and are now in the audience wildly applauding the current crop of actors, our kids may not see it that way. Here's some of Lamott's wisdom, in a chastened moment:
It is the most difficult Zen practice to leave people to their destiny, even though it's painful--just loving them, and breathing with them, and distracting them in a sweet way, and laughing with them.
    Whose life was I living? I was living Annie's life (and maybe a bit of the dogs'). And it was complex enough. I had enough to wrestle, wrangle, and settle back into, with this one life of mine. Besides, I knew beyond a shadow of doubt that if something was not my problem, I probably did not have the solution.
     There are no words for how much I hate, resent, and resist this.
The fact that Anne's son Sam contributed a great deal to this book tells me she must be doing a  good-enough job of letting go. And anyway, Jax is about to turn three. I suspect he has been asserting his own generational rights for at least a year now.

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