Ranting And Roaring Over The Tiger Mother

(Originally published January 18, 2011 at playgroupwithsylviaplath.com)

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Rarely – if EVER – does an article on parenting styles make national headlines.

Sure, there was the call to arms to stop shaken-baby-syndrome. Then we had Octomom and Kate Gosselin to make everyone feel better about their own childrearing choices.  And the election brought plenty of fodder on the parenting front with the complicated lives of Sarah Palin and Michelle Obama.

Now let us welcome Amy Chua to the Parenting Hall of Fame in modern America.

For those of you not yet familiar with this latest media firestorm, Ms. Chua will be known as the woman who took the term “Chinese mother” from referring simply to ethnic heritage to an entire school of thought on discipline and parenting. Or as a friend calls her, “that woman who beats her children into superiority.”

Battle Hymn of The Tiger Mother, the memoir of her experience as a “Chinese mother” was just released and was excerpted in last weekend’s Wall Street Journal.  One week later, the piece is still the most read and most emailed item in the paper.  It has elicited nearly 7,000 comments from readers – more than any other piece in the history of WSJ.com.

It’s easy to see why.  Everyone has either been parented or is parenting.  And everyone has an opinion on the topic. And headlines like “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” are meant to fuel our subconscious fears for our country and our children. (Which explains why the book is being marketed in China under the title American Mother.)

Because parenting is a personal and private endeavor, there are no annual reviews, bonuses or grades.  So, we’re often left with comparing ourselves to the efforts, outcomes, strengths and weaknesses of other parents.

Two years ago, I was waiting in the airport security line with my kids when the mother in front of us turned to her teenage daughter and said through gritted teeth, “I can’t wait until we get home because I am going to kick your ass.”

My boys turned to me with wide eyes and red faces.  I’ve never totally understood the phrase “discretion is the better part of valor,” but I was pretty sure that standing in my stocking feet holding my clogs was it.

But, invoking the old, “remember that mom in the airport?” was starting to lose its effectiveness over my boys.  I was in need of a new crutch.  And along came the Tiger Mother.

In her excerpt she extols the extremes of her parenting.  Any grade lower than an “A” is unacceptable (excluding gym and drama, which, let’s face it, there’s meaning in that exclusion).  Her daughters practice the piano or violin two to three hours everyday, including weekends, summers and vacations.  Also, there’s no television, no computer games, no play-dates and no sleepovers.

Now, I hate sleepovers as much as the next mom (just ask my boys), but sometimes the mini-hockey champion of the world tournament does not end by nightfall and simply must continue through pancakes the next morning. And, I’m sure many would agree, some of the most enduring wisdom from a sleepover is the 11 pm call, “Come get me.”

I read some of the juiciest bits of Ms. Chua’s piece to my family over dinner – conveniently just before the evening’s round of piano practice was to begin.  Which we can now refer to as “piano practice for pikers.”

Ms. Chua’s tells of coercion at the piano with threats of no lunch, no dinner, no Christmas or Hanukkah presents and no birthday parties for years to come.  There’s kicking and thrashing thrown in and sheet music is ripped to shreds. She tells her then 7-year-old to stop being lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic.  She calls her older daughter “garbage”, and she refuses a handmade birthday card from her youngest because  “I expect better.”

Certainly, extremes raise discussion and controversy and perhaps boost book sales. And I mean to take nothing away from Ms. Chua’s love for and pride in her children, nor the accomplishments of the young women.  But as another friend said, “It all sounds very exhausting. Who wants to listen to your child play violin for three hours a day? I can barely sit through a Holiday concert.”

The examples Ms. Chua uses and the tone with which she writes unfortunately take away from the interesting points she raises. First, she sets up her argument as Chinese or “immigrant” parenting versus “Western” parenting.  Although not explicitly stated, it is abundantly clear that, in her mind, one is right and the other is wrong.

This is unnecessary, dangerous, and patronizing. She makes a strong case for “Chinese” parenting to attain certain goals — quantifiable academic achievement and musical accomplishment. By her calculations these will lead to the ultimate goal, success.  But a crucial, and perhaps very “Western” element is missing. An intangible we call “happiness”.

Now I’m not espousing a regimen of “all play and no work make Jack an American boy.” I’m just raising the lesson that Americans have learned from a few cycles of prosperity.  Success and happiness are not the same thing.  Certainly, we hope that they are not mutually exclusive.  But American parents expend real time and emotional energy trying to teach their kids the value of finding pleasure and pride – as well as a paycheck – in the work that you do.

Ms. Chua makes no allowance for such fragile aspirations in her parenting or that of others. On the contrary, every reference she makes to “Western” parenting drips with condescension and disdain. Granted, much of what she says may actually be true, but the biggest lesson I have learned as a parent is that of humility.

There is nothing more important to people than how they raise their children.  And frequently how they struggle to do so. How one parents is inextricably a reflection of beliefs and culture. Ms. Chua offers some explanation for her unyielding approach: “Chinese parents believe that their kids owe them everything: Chinese children must spend their lives repaying their parents by obeying them and making them proud.”

Her husband explains the Western stance. (Said husband, by the way, has been voted one of the country’s “hottest” law school deans. Don’t know how The Wall Street Journal could’ve left that out.) “It’s parents who foist life on their kids, so it’s the parents’ responsibility to provide for them. Kids don’t owe their parents anything. Their duty will be to their own kids.”

Chua’s reaction? “This strikes me as a terrible deal for the Western parent.”

Agreed, but the notion of raising my children to believe that they “owe me” is even more unseemly.

Apparently it runs strong in the Chua family. Ms. Chua writes of coming in second place in a history competition as a child. After the awards ceremony, her father said to her, “Never, ever disgrace me like that again.”

She credits Chinese parents with recognizing “that nothing is fun until you’re good at it.” She notes that many American parents allow a child to give up when something becomes difficult, whereas a Chinese parent will not.  She reasons that rote repetition and more practice will lead to success, which leads to praise, admiration, satisfaction and confidence.

I’m rolling along and agreeing with her on this point. Rooting for the kid, rooting for the parent, loving the struggle that leads to the joy of mastering something, and then she blows it.  And reminds us that she is a “Chinese mother” and not a “Western” parent.  “This in turn makes it easier for the parent to get the child to work even more,” she says.

The debate over parenting styles was certainly on my mind when I read another piece this week called Social Animal: How the new sciences of human nature can help make sense of a life.  (Obviously, I cannot be burdened with too many play-dates, sleepovers and three-hour piano practices when I have so many non-essential articles, books, and reality television shows to ponder.)

In his New Yorker piece, David Brooks synthesizes some of the latest studies on reason, intuition, connecting and happiness. He couches these complex scientific theories and results in a fictional tale, because to “Western” readers, story, characters, people and relationships are powerful things.

“The building blocks of his happiness had little to do with the lines on his resume,” the fictional Harold observes.  “What the inner mind really wants is connection.” Brooks backs that up with science, citing research that found “joining a group that meets just once a month produces the same increase in happiness as doubling your income.”

No surprise, findings show that the endeavors that contribute most to happiness are those we do together — “having sex, socializing after work and having dinner with friends.” In Brooks’ piece, Harold realizes that “the things that didn’t lead to happiness and flourishing had been emphasized at the expense of the things that did.”

It was actually my boys who made the connection between Ms. Chua and a favorite movie, Akeelah and the Bee. When the contest is down to just two spellers, Akeelah Anderson and Dylan Chiu, they take a water break.

In the men’s room, the Chinese American father says to his son, “If you lose to that girl, you’re second place your whole life. No way, you hear me? No way.”

In the ladies’ room, Akeelah looks in the mirror and says to herself and her deceased father, “Pretty good, huh?”

We just might need to watch that one again this weekend.  Right after we finish Minuet in G.

All I Want For Christmas Is…

(Originally published December 14, 2010 at playgroupwithsylviaplath.com)

IMG_0004.JPGWhen I started this blog, I promised myself (and my four readers) that I would not write any posts about my laundry, what to make for dinner, or how long the lines are at Target. (Because, really, isn’t that what Facebook is for?)  I’m not interested in hearing about someone else’s domestic minutiae or the logistics of the care and feeding of their children.  So why would anyone be interested in mine?

But sometimes, as a parent, and particularly as a parent in December, September and May-June, all you’re left with is care and feeding and domestic minutiae.

The saga of my Fall started with the diluvial rains we experienced the last night of September and has ended with me getting a Christmas present I never knew I wanted.

Like any good domestic adventure, this one began with a drip – right over Thing Three’s head while he was practicing the piano. A quick sprint to the bathroom above proved that no, the pipes were not leaking, but indeed the second floor ceiling was.  A trip to the third floor attic showed a knee-wall paint job rippled with water waiting to escape.

Expecting that I might not be the only one with water issues, I called my contractor to reserve my spot in line for the morning.  (And, you know he’s a keeper when given the modern marvel of caller-ID, he still picks up.)

Somewhere in the 7-inches of rain and attendant winds during the night, we lost power.  But, Slim’s keep-the-dream-alive aging athlete’s body still woke at 5:15 for men’s ice hockey. His dreams of greatness were short-lived, when he discovered the source of our troubles.  A large tree had been uprooted and had come to rest across our dead-end street, blocking all possibility of exit.

Still, in those magic moments before sunrise loved by men’s hockey die-hards, Slim put his bag away in the basement and stepped into 8 inches of water.

Daylight brought more excitement.  Dylan Thomas need not have worried, the tree did not go gently into that good night.  It brought down the power lines, the transformer box and the entire utility pole to a grassy resting spot next to my driveway.

My boys (big and small) got to use a chainsaw to cut back enough of the tree to get out of our driveway.  A neighbor let us drive across his lawn to leave the street, and the saintly contractor sent over a pump and a generator to empty the basement.

Even the roofer showed up to give me his diagnosis.  He was happy to be avoiding his own domestic flood plane – where he was supposed to be hosting his brother-in-law’s wedding on his lawn the next day.  (Let’s recall those 7 inches of rain.)   As my feet sank into my backyard, I felt like I might be the lucky one.

“You see that roofline up there?” the roofer says, as he points to my third-floor attic. “You ever been up there?”

I’m uncertain whether to be flattered or insulted that he thinks that my 5-foot, suburban mother self, might be found on a three-story rooftop.  He explains that that’s where the water is getting in, and he’ll happily tarp it for me until it can be repaired.

So, by day’s end, we had a downed power pole on the lawn, a tarped roof, and the contents of our basement drying in the yard. Including 47 linear feet of Astroturf (Thing Two’s beloved birthday gift.)  Can you hear the Sanford & Son theme song? (By Quincy Jones, by the way.)

After two days of cold showers and “family time” around candles and flashlights, the utility company arrived.  They cleared the tree, untangled wires and freed the downed pole.  I was optimistic that our power would be restored imminently if not immediately.

“Uh, ma’am. I have bad news,” the crew’s foreman says. “That’s a private utility pole.”

Sure private property, no-trespassing, I get that.  But a private utility pole?

“Yes, ma’am you apparently own this pole, so we’re not going to be able to connect your power until you get a new pole installed.”  In disbelief, I ask this fine employee of the utility company, who, if not the utility company, might someone contact to install a private pole?

“Oh, ma’am I have no idea.”

On the third day, another crew from the utility company arrives with their bucket trucks, saws, and service equipment.  A new foreman – Slanker (seriously, that’s his name) – assures me that, indeed, I am the owner of my own (downed) utility pole.

I take solace vacuuming the remaining water from my basement using the generator that’s been left in my yard.  I expect having a generator is like having a label maker – you find yourself looking for excuses to use it.

Soon, Slim appears and begins shouting what I hope is good news over my janitorial symphony of the wet-dry vac and the generator.  “You know Slanker out there? He used to coach the Bantam team before they switched rinks. He’s got some names for a new pole.”

Of course.  All hopes of getting my power restored could rest in the hands of youth sports.  So my new friend, Coach Slanker, gives me his power pole connections, and then says, “I could probably jury-rig something to get power to your house.”

Under normal circumstances, you do not want the terms “jury-rig” “power” and “your house” to be used in the same sentence. But I own my own utility pole.  These are not normal circumstances.

By nightfall, Slanker’s team had engineered a contraption of pulleys, cinches and ropes tied to various trees to hold up the rotted pole. We had lights, heat and were even ready to relay the Astroturf in the basement.  Thing Three was repositioning the regulation hockey net when a brown slime oozed from the metal frame.

“Ooh, jeez, I hope that doesn’t stain the Astroturf,” he said.  Truer words my friend, truer words.

Before we move on, I’d like you to consider the things in your own home that were originally meant as “temporary” but through inertia became “semi-permanent.” Like that case of toilet paper that served as a coffee table for months in a New York apartment. “Just throw that weed-beast fabric wall-hanging from college over it and no one will know,” one of you might have said.

Well, at my house, the blue tarp on the roof and the utility pole held up with ropes crisscrossing the yard became part of the scenery while we waited for bids, permits and scheduling.

Things finally came to a head on a recent sunny afternoon.  I returned from the grocery store to discover that Slim had our 13-year-old driving my SUV to haul tarps of raked leaves from the backyard to the front.

My husband beamed with pride as he called out to his first-born son, “and be careful driving around the low ropes holding up the utility pole.”  (I realize that this scene gives some credence to the notion that I might be found on my rooftop.)

It was time to take action.

On the day of installation all the stars seemed to be aligned.  The crew arrived with a new pole just as the roofers were leaving with their ladders. And then the doorbell rang.

There in his regulation orange vest was Steve from the township. Here to confirm that I was indeed installing my own private utility pole.

“I have some bad news ma’am.  I backed in to your mailbox with my truck.  We’re going to have to replace that.”

I’m sure that Steve from the township has no idea how close he came to making a grown woman cry over a standard-issue mailbox post.

Wishing you a little less excitement this December.  But, if you find yourself needing a utility pole, I know a guy who knows a guy.


(I’m pretty sure he’s attaching a bright red holiday bow here.)

1985 — A Great Song And A Great Year

(Originally published November 18, 2010 at playgroupwithsylviaplath.com)

I have always loved listening to music.  I listen to old music, new music, pop music, show tunes, rap, Latin, classical, and the much-maligned adult contemporary. I love to hear what’s new and I want to know what other people are listening to.


Of course, I made mix-tapes in high school and college, and I’ll even be so bold as to say I still make a pretty mean mix-CD today. When you hear songs on the radio, that’s music and a message others are selling to you. But when you take the time to handpick songs, then that mix, conscious or not, says something about the way you see the world and yourself. A music mix is like emotional carbon dating.

So, imagine my thrill when for my birthday last month my thirteen-year-old made me a mix-CD.  Okay, so he was a few days late and he cut the song list too small so it keeps sliding out the case.  But he listened to and thought about music. He arranged 15 songs in a particular order.  And he gave it to me.

Perhaps jealous they hadn’t thought of it themselves, my younger two were quick to dismiss his song choices for their suburban mother.  They paid no mind to the Ike and Tina Turner or UB40 selections but moved right on to today’s chart toppers.

“Seriously, Ke$ha?” one said.

“You put Eminem on a CD for mom?” asked the other.

“What’s wrong, you don’t think I like Eminem?” I asked him.

“It’s just a little inappropriate for you,” my nine-year-old told me.

While I appreciated the concern for my vulnerable ears and the moral high ground emanating from the backseat, I’d frankly heard it all before.

It was actually 25 years ago this month, when the music industry bowed to pressure from Tipper Gore, other political wives and the National Parent Teacher Association and began labeling music that contained explicit material. The “Tipper Sticker,” which evolved into the Parental Advisory label was born.

The debate raged that fall – over album covers, videos, backmasking, and explicit song lyrics – particularly those of “The Filthy Fifteen” – songs from Prince, Sheena Easton (?), AC/DC, Madonna, Def Leppard and Cyndi Lauper.  The hearings in the capital brought out Frank Zappa, John Denver and Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider.  (Such star power wouldn’t be seen again in the chambers until Stephen Colbert told Congress this fall that farm work “is really hard.”)

People took sides on the Senate floor, in the recording studios, and in my childhood home. Even though my sister already owned the requisite leg warmers, headband and satin shorts, my mother would not let her buy Olivia Newtown-John’s album, Let’s Get Physical.  And my father was not a fan of us singing along with The J. Geils Band to (Angel Is A) Centerfold as he drove us to our parochial school.

But sing along and listen away we did. With our radios, our friends, our records, our cassette tapes and our Sony Walkmans. We wanted our MTV and we got it.

Watching the popular 1984 music video We’re Not Gonna Take It is still entertaining and now comically nostalgic. The dad screams, “What do you want to do with your life?” And the buttoned-up pre-teen with Yale and Stanford pennants on his wall says, “I want to ROCK” before morphing into Dee Snider, hair icon of the decade (which is, actually, really saying something).

So, 25 years later, Dee Snider spends time raising money and awareness for the March of Dimes through Bikers for Babies. And I have not-so babies in the backseat singing along to Usher, Kid Cudi, Katy Perry, Lily Allen and Jay-Z. Some of it’s good; some of it’s awful. Some would be laughably explicit, if they weren’t also crude.  And my kids love it all.

We talk a lot together about the music and the artists. We play “name that tune.” We decipher some of the lyrics and we leave others alone. They own a few CDs with the parental advisory label, and they download some “explicit” songs from iTunes.

But every time, material is marked “explicit” or has an advisory label, it forces me to investigate, ask why, and make the decision myself.  Perhaps just as it was intended those many years ago, the label raises a flag and actually calls on me to make a decision as the parent.

I know that my kids listen to more without me, and that’s okay. I don’t believe that pop or rap will cause them to wake up in Vegas and “shake the glitter” from their clothes or think that domestic abuse is okay.  No more than I bought into Madonna telling me “the boy with the cold hard cash is always Mister Right.”

Yes, a remarkable amount of today’s music contains depictions of violence and sex. I say “no” to some and “yes” to others.  I change the station a lot.  Music has always been a generational defining line. I tell them they need a little Van Morrison and the Clash.  And they tell me what I need.

“Mom, you would love this song because it’s about The Flinstones,” my youngest eagerly told me one day. Sure it is.  Because the refrain goes like this, “call me Mr. Flinstone, cause I can make your bed rock.”  Wilma would’ve loved that one.

This week, I was the guilty party peddling inappropriateness when I brought up rock legend Meat Loaf in conversation and my children replied with disgust, “What is that?”  I decided the situation needed to be remedied immediately.

And let me assure you.  No matter how great you remember Paradise By The Dashboard Light sounding in the women’s ice hockey locker room during college, it is a decidedly different experience while driving your three young children to school at 7:45 in the morning.

Meat Loaf sings, “Ain’t no doubt about it, we were doubly blessed – cause we were barely seventeen and we were barely dressed.”  I ended our mutual discomfort, when my oldest said, “This is terrible! What is the deal with the baseball announcer?”

No matter the alarm, fear and anger raised by Tipper Gore and her Parents Music Resource Center 25 years ago, the changes they brought are probably just about right.

No music was or is censored. Artists still create what they want and businesses still sell it.  And the parental advisory label does just what it should. It announces to consumers, corporations, artists, children, and to parents themselves, that the ultimate authority in the life of a child is the parents.

While he actually spoke in support of the record companies in 1985, John Denver’s Senate testimony speaks to me today:

“The problem has to do with our willingness as parents, to take responsibility for the upbringing of our children. To pay attention to their interests, to respond to their needs and to recognize that we, as parents and as individuals, have a greater influence on our children and on each other than anything else could possibly have.”

Now I’m just waiting for Weezer’s latest single to start climbing the charts.  The refrain goes, “Smart girls, never get enough of those smart girls, smart girls.”

My Child, My “Friend”

(Originally published October 27, 2010 at playgroupwithsylviaplath.com)

Since this post is largely about sharing things online, here are two images that warrant such treatment.


Sure, that’s one way to generate interest in a car, but here’s another.


And now, back to the regularly scheduled post.

After months of discussions, deliberations and negotiations, I finally gave in.

I let my oldest child join Facebook.

I had spent the past two years telling him it’s completely unnecessary, it’s a waste of time, it’s more appropriate in high school or college, and that it’s just one more playground of vulnerability.  I still hold every bit of this to be true.

I am also, actually, very glad that he is on Facebook.

As a thirteen-year-old in his last year of middle school, my son has a veritable lifetime of on-line exposure and virtual social networking ahead of him.  And yes, as we’ve seen over the past months, that exposure and those interactions can be hurtful, dangerous and even tragic.

There are middle schoolers caught distributing explicit photos of themselves or others with their cell phones.  There are high schoolers expelled for bullying on Facebook.  There are graduates with job offers rescinded because of pictures others posted of them online.  There are employees who have lost their jobs because of their blogs.  And there are individuals who have taken their own lives because their privacy was no longer theirs.

That’s why I’m happy to have my teenager experiment and make mistakes while the computer sits on a desk steps from the kitchen table rather than in a dorm room hundreds of miles away.

We start our kids on bicycles with training wheels, we read to them before they can sing the alphabet, and we require them to have a learner’s permit before putting them behind the wheel of a car.

Yet many parents think nothing of handing a child a laptop and telling themselves, “it’s educational.”  (I’m sure the parents of the Duke co-ed whose PowerPoint presentation on the sexual attributes of her 13 partners did not find the viral sensation “educational.”)

I think lessons about the responsibility and power that can come with technology and social media should be learned and practiced at home first.  (Same goes for the privilege and dangers of alcohol, but that’s an issue for another day.)

For an adolescent, there’s the initial thrill of “joining” Facebook. You’re a member of something.  You’re wanted.  You have friends.  In fact, if you are thirteen, you have hundreds of friends.  Overnight.

You get to say things.  Funny things.  Dumb things.  And sometimes really, really dumb funny things.

I joined Facebook a few years ago largely as research for an article.  But I also knew I was joining to be there first, before my son wanted in.

Like most parents I know, I let him join Facebook on the condition that he not only had to be my “friend” (thanks for that bit of generosity there, son), but also that I be granted complete access to his page if I ever asked for it.  We set up the account together and talked through each of the privacy options that came up.

Obviously, the questions raise the issues of protecting children’s safety on the internet, the sexual exploitation of minors, and identity theft. Those were the easy ones.

The more significant conversations were about taking responsibility for one’s online identity and behavior and understanding the meaning of privacy and a private life.  And just as important, respect for the privacy and private lives of others.

Sure, Facebook, texting, instant messaging and other social media sites are more arenas in which students can bully, tease and hurt each other.

I assert that the opposite is also true.  It is easy and powerful to write “great game today” on someone’s Facebook page.  And it can be supremely validating when an older schoolmate or a girl writes on your page, “Yoooooo! So happy you’re here.”

Some parents and schools decry that students feel safer bullying online because it is faceless and takes just a few keyboard strokes and a click of the mouse.

But what of a student who feels safer standing up for him or herself online because it is faceless?  From simple statements of “likes” and “dislikes” and the clever or not-so-clever status updates, each is a valuable exercise in self-expression.

I watched as my son updated his “friends” that he had completed his homework and was moving on to a favorite television show. (Let’s accept that why anyone needs to know this – or what my “friends” have just purchased at Costco – is beside the point.)  Within an hour he’d amassed all kinds of comments passing judgment on his choice of entertainment.

At the lunch table, he might have been stunned into silence and personal doubt, but with the benefit of a screen and a deep breath, he was able to spout back in his own defense and smile.

Knowing that technology will spread into nearly every corner of my children’s lives as they get older, I expect that they will feel very at home online.

And home is where I want them to learn that friendship is a human relationship, not a technological transaction.  And that privacy is a gift to be guarded and respected, not a setting on a computer.

Losing My Innocents

(Originally published October 15, 2010 at playgroupwithsylviaplath.com)


Of course I knew it would happen.  I have three boys.  I’m not in denial.  I just kept thinking, “They’re so young. Does it have to happen so early?”

First, it was my oldest son up in his room.  Alone.

The other day, I was cleaning out my middle son’s backpack.  There it was at the bottom of his school bag.

Then, the postal service delivered a thick envelope for my husband.  It didn’t actually say what was inside, but I knew.

One by one, I’m losing the boys in my house to J.R.R. Tolkien and The Lord of The Rings.  It started with the paperbacks from our own shelves, then the audio books, extra copies checked out from the library, and now Netflix DVDs of the Peter Jackson masterpieces.  I thought the tales might be a passing fad in our house, but their pull and power seem to get stronger.

Back in college when I moved to China for a semester, my now husband told me he wanted to give me a gift to remember him by while I was halfway around the world.  He then presented me with The Lord of The Rings trilogy in paperback – plus the prequel, The Hobbit, to get me started.  That should have been my first hint to the whole Mars and Venus debate.

But, I hadn’t read the stories and was eager to find clues to the deeper meaning of our relationship that were surely written within.  I read away – all 1,646 pages (excluding appendices).  And no clues emerged from the depths.  Just Gollum and Smaug and other man-beast-amphibian type creatures.

The books did eventually unlock one mystery for me. Like, why I had so many male suitors to my Chinese dorm room.  We’d have tea, make vocabulary flash cards, and practice our Mandarin accents.  Eventually, every time, they’d find the way around to asking, “Can I borrow your Return of The King?”

Yes, all those adventurous American college boys halfway around the world wanted a little piece of The Fellowship.  They and more than 150 million other readers – making it the second best-selling book of all time, just behind Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.

As if the written words weren’t enough, New Zealand director Sir Peter Jackson renewed and deepened the spell cast over men and boys by Lord of The Rings – or LOTR to its fans – with his big-screen version of the trilogy released in 2001, 2002 and 2003.

Slim and I walked out of the first installment together, both nearly speechless.  He finally mustered the words to say something akin to, “I think that was the best movie I’ve ever seen.”  I was still trying to wake myself from a 2 hour 18 minute stupor of incomparable boredom.

The husband of a friend uses his VHS (!) tape of the movie to lull himself to sleep at night — like the soothing lullaby of a trusted storyteller.  His trusted, soothing wife waits about five minutes and then turns it off.

Sir Peter and his shire-mates are hard at work on the two-part film of The Hobbit.  The movie’s production is rumored to be the most expensive of all time.  And that was before this month’s fire ripped through Jackson’s studio of miniatures used to create scenes and special effects for the films.  Mind you those are miniatures, not Gandalf and Frodo dolls.

Yes, I get it.  Boys love fantasy and a good adventure story.  But why these more than any others?  And why do they still appeal almost exclusively to male readers, when girls have been borrowing from the fantasy bookshelf for years?

The answer is apparently the only simple thing about Tolkien’s complex world.

“Basically, it’s a men’s club.  A very interesting one, but a men’s club,” says Anita Silvey, the premier authority on books for children and young adults.  “Children always like to see themselves reflected in a book – there has to be a role for them to play.  This is a cast of all male characters, with women playing only very minor roles.”

It shouldn’t surprise you that there are all kinds of websites with games, wikis, role-playing, and quizzes dedicated to the lore of LOTR. In the “Which Lord of The Rings Girl R U?” quiz, I landed Galadriel.  I don’t care if Tolkien did consider her “the greatest of elven women.”  If she doesn’t end up with Viggo Mortensen, I’m not interested.

Silvey says that Tolkien’s mastery of the genre and the English language has also bolstered his tales’ endurance.  “He set the highest standard of fantasy for anyone in the twentieth century.  So it’s no surprise that readers who don’t normally want a fantasy world are perfectly happy to live in that fantasy world.”

Which explains why Thing One, who has no patience for the fantastical and make-believe, will gladly trade the action of a game of men fighting for the ball on one channel for the tale of men fighting for a ring on another.

Completing The Lord of The Rings series is no small feat for any reader. But for a child or a maturing reader, the accomplishment can be a milestone.  “A child who finishes Tolkien knows that all of literature is open to them,” says Silvey.  “It is one of those books that changes the way you look at the world.  And those are very rare.”

That sentiment has me warming to the fact that Thing Two has taken to the books after resisting the series for years.  “In reading, you are looking for the right book, for the right child, at the right time.”  Silvey says that many readers attempt the series a number of times before they are ready.  “And then one day, you think I am really ready to go on this journey with them.  And with The Lord of The Rings you’ve got to be prepared to go all the way to the end.”

And that explains why a friend of mine calls The Hobbit a gateway drug.

Mr. Tolkien ends the first book – which, like so much of fine literature, began as a bedtime story for his children – with a blend of inspiration and reassurance to which most parents can only aspire. “You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!”

As a mother of three little fellows in the wide world only too eager to be part of an epic journey to Middle Earth, I am considering adding the book to the stack on my night table.

“I envy anyone who can read it for the first time,” says Silvey.

Then again, maybe I’ll just read Jane Eyre for the fourth time.