Wednesday, April 24, 2013

A Step Forward?

Here's something interesting.

I did some crappy parenting tonight.  Wait!  Don't leave!  That's not the interesting part!

So yeah, the Winemaker was out all evening.  This is in the interest of Papa Sanity, which we are all in favor of.  At least in theory.  Until I'm home alone with the kids all evening.  Then it occurs to us that Papa Sanity might be slightly less important the Mama Not Killing The Kids. 

Dinner went okay.  Dishes even went okay.  The first melt-down was when Linden had to come in from playing outside, but could hear her brother on the trampoline at the neighbors.  (There's more to that story, but the short version is, they're not both allowed over there at the same time, and it was his turn.)  She was standing by me weeping.  "Oak is having fun, and I'm not!" I pointed out that while SHE was over there bouncing on the trampoline, Oak had been doing dishes, so really, she still was coming out ahead, but the weeping continued. 

I know I'm supposed to support my children in experiencing their big emotions.  I do better at this with some emotions than others, and some days I just do better or worse at this in general.  Today I was feeling rather impatient.  Her heartbreak and sense of exclusion was real, but my grumpy interior voice said, "Whininess."   So after a few minutes, I told her to take her shoes off, because obviously she was over tired and just needed to head to bed.  I still maintain that this was truly part of the problem, but I also know that being sent to bed early is an absolutely horrifying concept to her.  She refused to take off her shoes.

Pay attention here.  I started to wrestle her shoes off her feet, but I stopped myself.  I took a breath and (as) calmly (as I could) told her again to take them off.

"Please wait, Mama, I'm trying to calm myself down!" she replied.


I'll move on to an hour later.  We're all inside, teeth are brushed, stories are chosen, and Oak suddenly decides to blow his nose onto Linden's nightshirt.  Chaos ensues.  Defiance.  (His.)  Tears (Hers.)  Overreaction. (Mine, OF FREAKING COURSE.)  Ten minutes later, I'm holding him forcibly in my lap in his newly torn-apart bedroom while she weeps under the blankets in her room.  He laughs, a jeering sound, at her tears.  The first time, that had egged on my overreaction.  This time I concentrate really hard, and instead of crushing his bones in my fury, I deliberately relax my grip.  I rest my cheek against his head.  I take a huge, slow breath.

"Mama?"  he says in a quiet, conversational voice.  "Can you help me calm down?" 


What do we see here?

First, that my kids even have the concept that when they're all wound up and upset, they have the right, the responsibility, and the plain ol' a-bility to calm down--that's amazing.  How did they learn that?  Are we doing something right?  And they were able to articulate it too.  I'm still kind of stunned.  Both times, the other kid wasn't within ready ear-shot, so they both came up with it independently.  Wow. 

Next, that both kids moved to that place the INSTANT I took a step toward calming myself down.  Downright freaky how aware they are of my emotional state.  And very, very powerful to see what that allowed them to do. 

If I had much left in me, I'd try to come up with a wise statement about how the crappy parenting moments are the ones I can learn from, the gift of imperfection, blah blah blah.  But I still kind of wish I hadn't dumped his drawerful of t-shirts on the floor when he refused to get one out to loan his sister in lieu of the snotty one.  And that I'd given her a hug instead of a threat when she was sad.  But given that I suck (no, seriously) I guess I'll have to settle for at least having paid attention and noticed the good thing. 

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Sweet Pea

I wrote this for the Family & Friends blog.  It had really cute pictures.  I'm sorry, but I took them all out, except for one that's about 30 years old, of me and my sisters.  We are kind of cute, but trust me, Linden's cuter.  And yes, I went ahead and bought the damn doll.  I got Rebecca, the 1914 Russian immigrant. 
She turns seven tomorrow. It's our first birthday with her, our first kid's birthday despite her being the younger of the two. I talked to her the other night about what a big year six has been. New family, new country, new language. Plus lots of other more typical, but still huge, developments. Learned to ride a bike. Learned to sound out words. Learned to whistle, to snap, to turn a cartwheel, and to crack an egg into a bowl. Lost teeth, grew new ones. Seven will hopefully bring more stability, but just as much learning. At the rate she's going, I won't be surprised if she's reading chapter books by this time next year. And, we all hope, her bangs will have grown out and she'll no longer look like an English Sheepdog half the time. 

Tonight I'm up late because I couldn't start the cheesecake she requested until after bedtime, and then it turned out I'd forgotten a few key ingredients (like, um, cream cheese and graham crackers) and had to go to the store first. As she was crawling into bed (late, of course, because I had things to do once she got to sleep), she added casually, "And I need fun erasers for my classmates since we're not bringing cupcakes." This came from a conversation we had about two months ago, when she anticipated bringing in treats for her birthday, and I reminded her of the letter home we got the first week in school asking families to not do that. I could easily have just said, no, we're not doing erasers either, but what the hell. (Or, as Oak inadvertantly says, "Mutt the heck.") It's her first birthday here. Dollar Tree is open late, it turns out, and I figured it's worth the 3 bucks for the 3 dozen silly erasers if it makes her feel magnificent on her birthday.

Besides, it's a long honored family tradition that Mom be crabby on special occasions because she stayed up too late the night before trying to finish up some handicraft that no one will fully appreciate until years later, if ever. Am I right, sisters?

(Who are all those skinny, dark-haired young women, anyway?*)

This child.
She's been through a lot. I have not always been the Mama she deserves, which breaks my heart. She's still not 100% sure what the purpose of a Papa is, which breaks the Winemaker's heart. She is gonna have some stuff to work on as she gets older. But she has a belly laugh that is full of joy. She is a willing helper, and her help is actually helpful. She is a persistent learner. She is a loving friend. She takes things seriously, and she tries so hard. She's a rule follower, and she's a peace lover.

We took her to the Trillium Festival at a local park a few weeks ago, and on the guided hike, she told the ranger, "I have a question!"


"My middle name is Trillium!" He was bemused. I was bowled over with love.

Then on our way home, she said, "I love being in the woods. It makes me happy." Oh, sweet girl. I am so glad. Let's go hiking again soon.

Happy Birthday, sweet pea!

*Little joke for the F&F blog, because two of my sisters are now blonde, the other two of us have plenty of grey, and three of us are noticably chunkier than we were here.  Damn skinny older sister. 

Wednesday, April 10, 2013


I'm teaching a short novel right now.  It's called Nightjohn, and it's by Gary Paulsen, whom my mentor teacher once described as "Hemingway for middle schoolers."  I first came across and taught this book during my first year of teaching in the US, 1998, to a group of intermediate ESL students.  I've taught it about five times since then. 

It is about a 12 year old slave girl and the slave who teaches her to read.  It is a slim little book that pulls no punches--there's a rape, one man is killed by dogs and another bleeds to death after being castrated.  And those are all just in the side plots; in the book's central scene the narrator's mother figure is stripped and harnessed to a buggy she is whipped into pulling, and the teacher figure gets two toes chopped off.  You can hear a pin drop in the room while I'm reading that scene.  This is a book where the only white characters are Evil with a capital E..  It's also a book about the power of education, about the strength of the human spirit, and about the ways in which we dehumanize others in order to justify treating them poorly.  But the overwhelming message is SLAVERY WAS ENTIRELY VILE.  Hard to disagree with, which makes it a less compelling thesis than some books have. 

I've alway taught ESL, in fairly rural districts.  In my part of the country, this means my students are 99% Mexican.  So I've always taught this book as the only white person in the room, to kids who know racism backwards and forwards, but who don't have an immediate connection to this particular piece of it.

This year I'm teaching plain old 8th grade language arts.  45% of my students are white, and I'm realizing how much guilt and self-loathing--or worse, defensiveness--this story could engender in young people who haven't really confronted this reality yet. 

I also have, for the very first time, two black students.  One is a Somali immigrant and is identified as a "selective mute," so it's truly hard to figure out what his response is to the story.  The other is African American, one of maybe half a dozen in our school of 800 students.  I find myself aware of her every day as I read.  She is concentrating fiercely on the story, but then again, she is the kind of student who takes her work seriously anyway.  It makes me realize that for all my awareness of white privilege, for all my intentional work to address racism in my classroom, I have in large part seen this story through the lens of my middle class white background.

 It is My Story in that it shows me the history of what it has meant to be white in America, and it demonstrates to me the very worst aspects of that.  But this is really Her Story, and the parts of the story that reflect her are the rape, the castration, the amputation, the humiliation.  My history is the history of the bully, the sadist, the person who will do, literally, anything to prove to himself that blacks are inferior, and he is powerful.  Hers is the history of abuse and survival.  What is it like to be 14 years old, hearing your white teacher read this aloud, surrounded by a sea of horrified, guilty white kids and horrified but disinterested brown kids, all listening to your history of victimization and resiliency? 

I wish I could ask her, but of course my white guilt extends to tokenizing her, making her represent her entire race.  Her experience with the story is what it is.  Paulsen (a big, burly white guy, according to photos I've seen) dedicates the book to Sally Hemings, saying she was "owned, raised and subsequently used by Thomas Jefferson without benefit of ever drawing a single free breath."  I point out to the kids that the author's tone is immediately clear from that.  This is a book with good guys and bad guys.  Slaveowners, like Nazis, don't need demonizing, because they've done such a good job demonizing themselves.  Would it confuse the issue to write of a more "civilized" slave-owner, or would kids be able to recognize that just because one person chose not to abuse and terrorize their slaves doesn't change the fact that the person still COULD HAVE done so at any time? 

The book itself is shorter and skinnier than most, and comes in at less than 100 of these mini-pages.  As I pass it around the classroom, I can grab handfuls of copies at a time.  I've been lulled by the way that violence and resulting sense of outrage pull the students in, even the ones who hate books.  That collective suck of air when I read, "Thunk!" as the protagnoist's toe is cut off.  I read that scene five times in the past two days, and every single time I had a room full of 8th graders' full attention.  Science teachers get to blow stuff up on occasion.  I get to read Nightjohn.  I am grateful that this new mix of students is forcing me to think in different ways about more than just the plot.  Hemingway for middle schoolers.  Paulsen has done something, if I can teach this book so many times and still be thinking of it differently. 


In 1951, the high school science teacher told my mom she couldn't sign up for physics, because girls didn't need upper level science, because, "you're just going to get married and have babies."  My mom had her sights on a Bachelor of Nursing program, an intensive year-round program, and she needed to take physics.  Her mom showed up in the principal's office the next day, and Mom and another girl were allowed to enroll in the class.  They both earned A's.

She started working in the hospital her freshman year. When her dad was diagnosed with polio and spent six months in an iron lung, she visited him after her shift and before studying.  Every day.  She was a slow but dogged reader, and her homework took her longer than most of her classmates, but she worked hard, learned a lot, and graduated in three years.  She married my dad three days after passing her nursing boards.  She got pregnant a month later.

She quit nursing to have her baby in 1955. In 1958 she had twins.  She stayed home with her girls, and when she looked around one day and realized all her babies were grown, she had another one.  The plan was for there to be a sibling for me, but when I was six months old, her heart started acting up, due to childhood rheumatic fever, and that changed their mind.   In 1974, when I started kindergarten, she went back to school to renew her nursing license, and in 1975, after twenty years as a housewife (neither homemakers nor SAHMs had been invented yet), with a first grader and two high school students still at home, she went back to full time nursing. 

My sisters and I have often told each other than mom must have had a particularly rough menopause.  We remember explosive anger, usually but not always directed at us or our dad.  It was never physically expressed, and usually mixed in self-pity and guilt trips with the criticism and anger.  90% of the time she was warm, loving, creative, nurturing, spontaneous, reflective, and fun.  So that other 10% of the time, we figured as adults who had loving relationships with her, must have been hormones. 

Just now it occurs to me--my God, the stress she was under.  Working full time.  Parenting.  Still expecting herself to clean the house top to bottom.  Every.  Single.  Week.  She baked her own bread.  She was our Campfire leader.  We never ate fast food.  She sewed the majority of our clothes, made matching outfits for my dolls and me for Christmas, packed school lunches.  We had a little cabin at the beach--no really, a shack, not the Beach House friends had.  It was two rooms, and was a mile from the ocean.  The family joke was the only way to get Mom to relax was to go there.  She would play solitaire, read, take naps, go for long walks.  At home she rarely gave herself permission to be "unproductive" like that.  We didn't own a TV, so there was no vegging out after the kids went to bed.  No freaking WONDER she was cranky.  My dad loved and supported her, and pulled his weight in all the ways expected of men raised in their days.  But the housework and the parenting work were her responsibility, even if she delegated pieces to him and to my older sisters.  And oh, that heart problem.  That may have been challenging for her too. 

And nursing, like my profession of teaching, is a job that takes an emotional toll.  You are constantly at others' beck and call; you can't even set your own bathroom breaks.  You pour yourself into people who may or may not choose to do what they should be doing to improve.  It's kind of like parenting...then you go home and parent.  How do you keep enough energy and enthusiasm for both? 

When I was 11, my sisters graduated from college.  Mom continued working that year, and the money she earned went towards a trip to Germany for the three of us left at home, visiting my sisters who were spending a post-graduate year studying there.  Then she quit, left nursing for good.  The open heart surgery she'd had when I was 8 was only a temporary fix, and she couldn't take the physical strain of nursing any longer.  Not surprisingly, although she maintained a fierce temper until the day she died 30 years later, the mean and scary mama largely disappeared.  She spent her time making fabric art, and although she treated it as seriously as a job--still not allowing much down time in her daily schedule--at least it was a job she loved, a creative job, a job where nobody was giving her attitude, or dying, or barking orders at her.  She had a stroke following her second open heart surgery in 1986.  She regained her physical abilities (walked a marathon at age 68, for example), but struggled with word loss that left her feeling shy and shut out at times.

 My sisters all left home during the worst of her behavior towards us.  I spent my teenaged years with a mom who wasn't as stressed out.  We were close, and in my 20's, I continued to use my parents' home as my place of return, allowing me to do things like join the Peace Corps and then go to graduate school.  As a result, my adult relationship with her was always much easier than my sisters'.

When I rage at my kids, when I find myself relieved that I remember to call for my husband to come take over before I do something horrible, I remember that scary Mom.  Part of me resents her for leaving me that model, and for being so scary that I learned to squelch my own anger--right up until the day I had small, powerless people living in my house.   And I know that my sense that the should JUST FUCKING OBEY ME comes directly from my mom's attitude, minus the f-word.  I find it particularly messed up that because I have such an aversion to yelling, I don't yell at my kids, but instead I find myself wanting to smack them. Mom spanked me maybe two or three times, but otherwise never laid an angry hand on me. 

But lately, my parenting struggles have actually given me more empathy for her.  Coming home exhausted from a 12 hour shift, and the kitchen is a mess, and she just loses it.  Of course she does.  What the hell are the other five people in the house doing, anyway?  And when the five year old, frightened by her yelling, bursts into tears, and she blames it on the others instead of on her yelling--again, of course she does.  There is so much riding on her, she can't afford to be the one making mistakes.  She can't apologize (like I now know I can), because she can't be wrong, because she is fucking doing it all, so it has to be right.  The same determination that propelled her into a class she was denied access to makes her bulldoze right over the people she loves. 

I wish I could tell her. 

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Boys Playing Poker: A Report from the Front Lines

There's a poker party going on in the other room.  I've never actually been to a poker party, and have cleared out of the house the few times the Winemaker has hosted in the past.  But, um, we have kids now, so although I took them out and kept them out past their bedtimes in hope they'd be able to fall into exhausted sleep despite there being PEOPLE!  DOWNSTAIRS! EATING CHIPS!, I still did have to return home while the boys were going strong. 

Now I feel like an anthropologist.  We have out there 8 men, all in their 40s (I think).  We've got plenty of liberals, because that's how we roll, and a couple of conservatives, because my husband used to work at a place that seemed to have lots of fairly right-wing guys.  No fights have broken out, although when one made a definitive economic statement, another politely but firmly disagreed.  We have the guy down the street, whom we met last summer because of our kids being kindergarten best friends, and his next-door neighbor, who brought the actual poker table.  (I somehow thought that family were Mormon, but this guy is the drinking/smoking/swearing leader at the table, so I guess I was wrong on that.) We've got a couple of quiet guys, my husband being one, and a few extroverted comedians.  There's even a genuine ex-con, which somehow seems like not the person to play poker with. 

I sat with them for awhile, soaking in the atmosphere, but one of our friends seemed to feel like he should be talking to me, and I felt bad for him, so I slipped away.  Much like when I get together with my old friends, the humor is definitely sophomoric, with plenty of teasing going on.  One guy is doing some subtle bitching about his wife, and one is doing some less subtle complaning about his kids.  The others are not taking the bait, and I think it's not just due to my presence.  I think the not-Mormon-neighbor is the only one who had more than a couple of beers, and the only one who smoked.  (Stepped outside, thank God, but still pretty stinky.)  They all have been given nicknames.  I think a stranger would have a hard time telling which ones are old friends and which are just meeting others tonight. 

I know which guys take strategy games pretty seriously--like, say, my husband and his oldest friend here tonight, both of whom were on the national championship chess team when they were in high school.  The stranger-neighbor seemed maybe a little too drunk to really focus, but the rest are all doing their best.  The game has gotten quieter and quieter as this round progresses. 

Conventional wisdom is that men bond over experiences, and don't necessarily share emotionally even with men they consider to be good friends.  The Winemaker misses the friendships he had when he was younger--I think because in those days "the guys" got together frequently to drink and/or hang out, and now that they are all fathers and husbands first, friends second, those events have dwindled away.  I think this kind of group event is still where my husband can relax and bond.  My friendships, for the most part, are based around talking to one other person.  We can do stuff while we talk, but the talking is the bonding part.  So I don't need to invite a bunch of people over and plan an event to keep that friendship connection--I can meet one friend and her kid in the park, and we can chat and laugh over our kids' heads, or I can sit and have coffee with another friend for as long as I can get away.  I understand the appeal of this kind of evening--I have a group of old friends that I love to see, because I know there will be belly laughs--but I wish for the Winemaker that he could find simpler ways to stay connected to people.  Still, they're having a good time, and the only guy who got drunk is going to walk home.