Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Book Review: Mama Rock's Rules

A Fair Trade Book

Title: Mama Rock’s Rules

Author: Rose Rock

Author's son's web page:

Author's other son's web page:

Author's other son's web page:

Author's daughter's web page:

(Author has other children whose occupations don't require them to maintain web pages.)

Date: 2008

Publisher: Harper Collins

ISBN: 978-0-06-153612-0

Length: 232 pages

Illustrations: some black-and-white photos

Quote: “Rule #1: I am the Parent. I make the rules.”

Everybody likes Chris Rock, right? I don’t watch enough television to know (before looking it up online) whether he’s still active as a TV comedian, but I remember reading his book Rock This and finding it…passable. Raunchy enough to show that he was playing to the younger generation, but not devoid of family values.

Well, this is the book about his family. In this book Mrs. Rock shares a select few pictures of her brood, including official and unofficial foster children as well as her own children, and an equally select, although more generous, sampling of stories about the things they did right as a family. It seems to have worked since the children are all reasonably successful, attractive young adults, as of the time of writing. Each chapter breaks down a rule into related rules, “parenting” tips and tricks, and memories. Here are the primary rules that shape the book:

1. Parents make the rules.
2. Children need attention.
3. Use clean, courteous language.
4. Use family meals as bonding time.
5. Be true to yourself; don’t merely conform.
6. Read real books and newspapers, and get an education.
7. Don’t give up easily.
8. Be mindful about sex.
9. Preserve family memories.
10. Practice your religion seriously.

Some of Mama Rock’s rules seem on the surface to conflict directly with my mother’s rules. I mention this because they seem to be in conflict. Underneath I think the case might be made that there’s an agreement.

By the time you get to Rock’s chapter eight you have a clear image of her and her family’s situation. Mine was different. In the 1970s, “casual sex” was the big fad. New antibiotics worked on the older sexually transmitted diseases, unhygienic social mores exposed everyone to all the airborne diseases constantly (regardless of where you sit, everybody on a bus is breathing in that virus that’s going around), and we didn’t know about AIDS. Pop culture had a steady refrain of “Everybody’s doing it, doing it, doing it.” Everybody except a few ministerial students talked to everyone at work or school the way Anita Hill claimed to feel so hurt by Clarence Thomas talking to her. The danger we often saw young girls facing was mistaking a Teen Romance for True Love and thus taking any of the sexual banter seriously. My mother was in favor of love and marriage, but she thought True Love could stand a little torture-testing and so Teen Romance should always be debunked, denounced, even sabotaged. As a teenager I knew my parents’ “You can go out on dates when you’re sixteen, if you bring the boy home first” basically meant “Get a home of your own before you even think about dating.”

So why is Mama Rock in favor of “romance”? In order to understand chapter eight of Mama Rock’s Rules, it's good to read the other chapters and know what she’s talking about. There are young people out there who have so little experience of love, whose families are so fragmented, whose social lives are so confused, who may not even have had a real bonding experience with an animal, that a physical attraction is all they know about, have to offer, or expect. These guys aren’t offering “love”; these gals aren’t asking for “love.” At best both of them just want to explore sensations that feel interesting to them, together, in a mutual way. More likely the guy is demanding sexual acts as the price for a date or some sort of personal favor. To them Mama Rock says, “At least hold out for a little ‘romance’ before you start summoning the stork.”

The bottom line is the same. No parent wants to be made a grandparent before his or her time. All parents have to find someway to encourage teenagers to maintain control of themselves, stand against the hormonal tide, build nests before they start broods. What they say may depend on what else is being said and what they think their teenagers can understand.

Why do I go into this? Partly, of course, for The Nephews. I think they know that they don’t want to become parents until they’re married and settled and solvent and, ideally, over thirty-five years old. Late marriage, a social expectation that couples will be settled and solvent before they take any chances on having babies, is the most effective population control measure ever invented: more of those who are born live long, healthy lives, and fewer humans are born. Despite some recent efforts to “preserve more nature” by depopulating small towns and pushing more people into slums, which is much less effective (up to the point of plague) and much less humane, the human population of Earth is out of balance and does need to decline, overall.

Some of The Nephews have those nifty minority White genes; started out with blond hair and will probably always have blue eyes. Those are the ones I’m most concerned about. They are the ones likely to hear that the global minority of true White people is in a slight decline relative to the majority physical type, so those who  have White genes need to try to “outbreed” the other types. They need to think about this line of thought in order to reply to it, properly, with “Bosh.” Blue eyes are one of the more functional genetic mutations known to science, unlikely ever to become a majority, unlikely ever to die out. If you wait until you’re able to give your children the advantages of a single home, in an uncrowded environment, to do all their growing up in, and then have one child each, you’re more likely to have healthy, intelligent heirs than you are by hauling a litter of children from projects to hovels in a series of slum environments. In any case, what makes our family special and needs to be preserved is not a physical type but a character type. Heirs with good strong consciences, broad but not empty minds, fortitude, generosity, and loyalty are better than heirs who merely happen to have a certain “look.”

Others in the group addressed as The Nephews are the majority type; some even have a few of those minority Black genes. I’m not concerned about people who might say that your DNA is inferior, or that the Earth is flat. Sickle-cell anemia is even more inconvenient than gluten intolerance but, so far as we know, youall have inherited neither of these undesirable genes, and your “look” happens to be fashionable at the moment, so count your blessings. I am concerned about your relationship with the Black American (as distinct from recent-African-immigrant-American) subculture, which is also fashionable at the moment. Within that subculture there are solid families with roots and loyalty and tradition, just like ours, which is what Mama Rock presents her family as being. They are swimming against a cultural tide of opinion that “It’s cool to be a ‘player’ or a ‘welfare queen,’ let the government worry about feeding and educating our babies, blame White people and a long-gone ‘legacy of slavery’ for everything that makes that lifestyle so truly inferior and so depressing.”

Slavery was indeed blameworthy, but when people start blathering about its “legacy” we need to run a reality check. Are there guys in prison, gals on the street corners, drug addicts dying “old” at twenty-five, whose great-great-grandparents were enslaved? There are. And are there, likewise, guys in prison, gals on the street corner, and drug addicts dying “old” at twenty-five, whose great-great-grandparents were wealthy? There are. As explained in the classic calypso: 

Individual choices help all of us to discard the “legacy” of bad things and fill in any gaps in the “legacy” of good things our ancestors handed down. Even if your great-great-grandfather had devoted his entire life to the goal of making you rich and successful or poor and miserable, that goal was beyond his power to achieve. You have a great deal more control over your success or failure in life than all of your ancestors had together.

The idea of settling for failure and whining because bad things happened to your ancestors, let’s call it the Trend Towards Trashiness, has certainly had a lot of influence on non-Black Americans too. It comes in a full range of ethnic flavors. It’s compatible with the “redneck” fads for White people, it was first noticed on this continent as the “Drunken Indian” stereotype, and let’s never forget that the word “ghetto” comes from Europe and originally described Jewish neighborhoods—I know it’s the last thing that comes to mind when we think of Jewish Americans nowadays, but yes, when they let themselves be herded into slums, Jewish people slumped into embittered, alcoholic, disease-ridden, whining-about-the-past misery too

Around the time I left Washington, if you wanted to try to visualize what that looked like, you could just go to a neighborhood like formerly nice Bethesda that had been infested by Eurotrash; socialist efforts to sell the dream of nation-scale communism certainly had left a legacy to those people, which explained, but did not excuse, their deficiencies of manners, ethics, and hygiene. And why was Bethesda infested? Why, because Bethesda was the neighborhood where diplomats had been leasing houses for a hundred years; because permanent residents of Bethesda were familiar with European diplomats, and adored them. Did they ever get a nasty surprise.

The Trend Towards Trashiness is not caused by prejudice. Prejudice can also inspire people to defy and overcome whatever has been said about them. The inspiring story of Glenn Cunningham has grown into a cliché: every time I’ve watched the Olympics I’ve seen a story about how one of the champions had some sort of disease, injury, or disability, against which s/he had to work so hard in therapy that s/he went on to become a world-class athlete. A lot of the great achievers in every field were once told “You’ll never succeed at” whatever it was, so they proved that they could. The Trend Towards Trashiness is caused, primarily, by weak character. When people don’t have the fortitude to get up in the morning, putting them in a subsidized housing project with hot running water in the showers does not motivate them to get up and take showers; if anything it may motivate them to wreck the shower system.

Mama Rock’s Rules is a book about fighting that trend to indulge in a weak character. I think the cover of this book may put some people off. If you don’t recognize the famous comedians you might think this is a book about bossy authoritarian mothers who stifle their children. You have to be familiar with Chris Rock’s work, and recognize those baby pictures of his talented relatives, to get the message that it’s about authoritative parents who have raised “a houseful of successful children.”

As a book of guidance for young parents, what can I say? Other parents’ memoirs can offer moral support. No book is going to anticipate your real problems. You might open a book like Mama Rock’s Rules—there are other witty-celebrity-parent books out there, like Everything but Money and The Secret World of Kids—and find just the pointer you need, during some family crisis. Or not.

As a witty celebrity memoir…I think part of Chris Rock’s comedic appeal is delivery, and that goes double for Mama Rock, who has not made a career of comedy. When you’re not actually looking at the face of someone narrating a story like, “They were itching for a chance to make a scene with Ally. Andre and Tony walked over and stood next to Ally without a word. They looked at the girls sternly. Those girls moved real fast down the block,” you’re not sure where the story may be going, whether you’re supposed to laugh or express empathy, so you might not laugh. 

Professional comedy writers replace drawn-out words, raised eyebrows, and similar nonverbal “laugh” cues with extraneous joke lines that may compromise the narrative point for the sake of the laugh (“They looked down at those two little weasels, waiting for the impact of their massive bulk to seep slowly through the Cheez Whiz in the weasel-girls’ heads”). Whatever. If your childhood memories include any experience of avoiding potential discomfort because the approach of an older person suddenly reminded your childhood enemy of an urgent appointment, you’ll laugh, either way. 

“I…said to my kid when he got a 97 percent on a test, ‘Good work, but what happened to the other three points?’” might even be “triggering” for some of the hypersensitive souls out there. Still, if you can visualize it being presented as comedy acts or even as lectures, Mama Rock’s Rules contains plenty of chuckles. Like Erma Bombeck’s later books, it also packs a full payload of inspirational “Yesss!” moments. It is way better than Wanda Sykes. These are serious lectures with a sense of humor more than comedy routines, but they leave the reader feeling good.

Another use for this book is as a trigger for reflection, maybe journal writing, blogging, or discussion with your family, about how Mama Rock’s Rules are like and different from your parents’ rules and the rules you’ve chosen to follow as a parent (or parent-surrogate, e.g. a teacher). Since most adults do eventually have to interact with children in some sort of parent/teacher role, most adults can potentially become more mindful and gain useful insights from this book.

If you are a Black American, Mama Rock's Rules is a wonderful "yes we can" book. If you're not...I'm legally White, and at no time did anything in this book make me feel excluded. This is a book of "Here's to us, who's like us" bragging by a family with plenty to brag about. My relatives have been known to indulge in similar reminiscences so I felt right at home.

So, if you've not already read this book and you want to read a celebrity family memoir, run don't walk. As usual: to buy the book here, send $5 per book + $5 per package + $1 per online payment to the address at the very bottom of the page. (In order to discourage spammers and scammers, the e-mail address at the bottom of the page belongs to a "Message Squirrel" account whose function is to sort out the correct e-mail address to which those who really want to buy a book should send payments.) You could easily fit Rock This into the package along with Mama Rock's Rules for a total of $15 (or $16 online). Since both authors are still living, both books are Fair Trade Books, which means that for each book you buy we send $1 to the author or a charity of his or her choice. And if you click on the link just below this paragraph for "A FAIR TRADE BOOK," that "Label" will open a page of links to even more books by living authors you could support...and at least one of their books, possibly three, depending on sizes, could also fit into one $5 package.