Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Extreme Participant Observation: DFW Edition

You know how Texas had that really fun Christmas Day Storm yesterday, the totally unexpected and unusual one? Well, R and I made it to DFW, our scheduled layover en route to Mexico, just in time to get stuck here for ... going on 24 hours now.

As always, air travel provides an interesting opportunity to observe the wide variety of parenting approaches and the results thereof. If you happen to be collecting data to decide whether or not to procreate, there may be no better source of evidence than a large airport right after four hundred flights have been canceled.

Data point #1: Teenagers. Teenagers are okay to travel with, if you can handle the eye rolling. In our first trip through the security line, R chuckled and told me that he had seen a spot-on exasperated Twelve expression on a teenage girl in line behind us. This corresponds exactly with data from the few times I've traveled with Twelve, with the added bonus of her world-weary, this-is-so-boring, done-it-all-before attitude. They can carry their own stuff and probably won't need you to check their pants for poop.

Data point #2: Babies. If it is absolutely necessary to fly somewhere before your kid is thirteen, do it before they can walk, or better yet before they can sit up on their own. The moms with babes in arms - and yes, they are all moms; some of the moms have dads along to help carry stuff, but I don't think I've ever seen a man traveling alone with a baby - seem to do okay. The main factor here seems to be, see below, the amount of accessory crap that you bring along and whether or not you have a helper.

Data point #3: Children between the ages of one and eleven. I suggest that you just stay home during this decade. I'm not even thinking about the rest of us, although I did once score a free drink on a plane by joking to the flight attendant that if they were giving free booze to folks in the Noisy Kid Section, I'd love a Jack and ginger ale. Nice person that I am, I'm protecting your own sanity here, particularly if all your carefully made plans become shot to shit and you are gifted with an extra three hours of tarmac-sitting or the pleasure of an unplanned night at the Comfort Inn DFW North (both of which happened to us yesterday).

Data point #4: Gadgets. If you must take a seven year old on a plane (or a two year old, a four year old, a six year old, an eight year old, and a ten year old, as did one blond family with whom we shared the three hour tarmac sit), you are going to want a few Primate Anesthetizing Devices. As the dad of the four blondies said as they were trying to get everyone settled, "Once you sit down, I'll give you your iPads." This is excellent advice for anyone traveling with children, at least everyone who can afford individual iPads. For the rest of us, anything that emits moving lights and sounds will do. I'm not saying this is good for your kids, but it will help keep them from climbing up into the overhead bins, and, I sincerely hope, from kicking the seat in front of them. It is quietly terrifying to watch a tiny child fluidly navigating a smartphone, but hey - some people give babies Benadryl, so call it a wash. Just, for the love of God, don't forget the headphones.

Data point #5: Stuff. The more you and your children carry on, the more you will hate your life. Having little tiny roller bags for each child is cute, especially if they match, but if those wheels aren't widely spaced enough and if those loads aren't evenly balanced, it's just not going to work. Your family will become the erratically moving island around which I will need to navigate, and I may be tempted to drop kick those cutely useless bags across the concourse.

The number of bags the adults are trying to manage matters too. We went through security this morning with an utterly charming family of three who had approximately thirty-seven items. I don't know what airline lets you have that many carry-ons, but the checked baggage fee seems like money well spent if you are wrangling a toddler. The other side of that coin is that having all your stuff with you would make a forced camp out at your gate more fun - the plane full of people who were told in the same breath that their flight to Puerto Rico was canceled and that their bags were going there without them would attest to this - so I guess you might as well flip that coin. Or, like me, vow to never fly anywhere ever again and just save yourself the trouble.

Data point #6: Well, I was going to discuss my observations of the moms who travel just them and their child/ren, but I'm distracted by the stench of what I think is a diaper change, so let's first discuss how gross that is. It's disgusting. Don't do that at the gate.

Rats. Our flight just got canceled for lack of flight attendants, it still smells like diaper around here, and I didn't get to the part about how being broke while raising Twelve meant the mixed blessing of never having flown with her until she was old enough to handle herself.

I may never leave home again.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

In Which We Ponder Public Storytelling (But Have Left Out the Laugh Track Cues)

Except for the nerdy awesomeness that is Click and Clack, NPR sucks moldy mothballs on Saturdays during the day. Saturday nights, however, are kind of awesome. There are at least three different shows on which it is possible to tell a story on public radio on Saturday nights.

As I drove home tonight from dropping Twelve at the airport and spending some time with a friend at her family home (I always say that people make more sense in the context of their families), I did what I am almost always doing: Imagining myself telling a story in front of people and/or on the radio.

To clarify: I am not almost always imagining myself telling stories publicly. I am almost always putting myself in the position of whoever is doing whatever is being done. This is the basis of whatever ability I may have to understand privilege and oppression in any of the forms I don't experience, but it is also a major drawback when I read novels like Room. I have read about A LOT of fictional and factual shit that fictional or actual people have experienced and am pretty good at mentally rehearsing what I'd do in those situations. As a kid, I read about Corrie ten Boom and Anne Frank in Germany during World War II. Sergei Kourdakov, smashing in Christians' faces in the 70s in the Soviet Union. James Herriot, scrabbling around on the freezing cold byre floor, trying and trying and trying to deliver that damn calf. Cambodian refugee families becoming acclimated to the US in my very own town, thinly disguised. Those soccer - or was it rugby? - players whose plane crashed and who became severely constipated as a result of all the cannibalism. As an adult, I continued the tradition: I went through a second wave feminist memoir stage, discovered that we banished Japanese Americans to internment camps during WWII, and got to know Eva Khatchadourian in We Need to Talk About Kevin.

Room, though ... Room messed with my head, big time. Kept me up fretting the night after I finished it, even. I am pretty confident that I could have handled most of that other stuff. I wouldn't have enjoyed it, per se, and maybe I would have handled things slightly differently, but I can imagine myself at least surviving. Stick me in an eleven square foot cage with a deranged zookeeper, though, and I'm not sure I would have made it, much less managed to nurture a child. 

Anyway, I was driving home and thinking about what story I'd tell if I ever got around to telling stories in public.

Problem: I couldn't think of any actual stories. I've never brought joy to a roomful of elderly people by dancing with my wheelchair-bound grandmother. I've never reached a point of familial truce with my acerbic father by simply being present when he finds out his mother has died. I've never had my credit card stolen by a pizza place employee and played detective to find the crook. Stories about Twelve are not quite ... story-like. They're not long enough to be stories: They're anecdotes, the haiku of prose. They're the amuse bouche of storytelling. They don't quite have the satisfaction of a big bowl of hot, spicy ramen. The actual telling of the story should take longer than it takes to get up to the microphone, right?

Finally, as I'm imagining myself sputtering and totally wasting my single 60-second opportunity to wow producers with my voicemail-leaving ability, I figure out what my story could be. And here it is: 

I have been sewing for as long as I can remember. I come from a long line of women who sew. My mother grew up sewing her own clothes, once made us reasonably successful matching swimsuits, and taught me to sew, even though she refused to teach me how to do set-in sleeves when I was about ten, claiming they were too complicated. When I figured out how simple it was to do set-in sleeves a few years later, I distinctly remember feeling betrayed.

Her mother also grew up sewing her own clothes, taught my mother to sew, and once declined my request to teach me how to do hemstitching on a scrap of linen I had found somewhere in her house. Apparently hemstitching on linen is not something you just 'do' in a spare minute.

Her mother also grew up sewing her own clothes, taught my grandmother to sew, and there is a yellowed photograph of her teaching me to knit, during the same visit during which I asked - on camera, on a VHS tape that has now been digitized for all eternity - why she put a walnut in her canned peaches. It was a peach pit.

Given this Old Testament-like litany of sewing matriarchy, it's probably not surprising that there are certain things that are sewn and given on certain occasions in my family. Many of these ritual gifts occur at the birth of new family members, specifically Sally Doll and Star Man.

Sally Doll has a pointed head, an embroidered face, and a ribbon tied around its neck. Star Man is an eponymously shaped creature with an embroidered face on one of the points. Both are made of serviceable fabric, typically of the time period in which it is given.

My Sally Doll is made out of double knit polyester.

When the current generation of babies began to show up, my mother inherited the Sally Doll and Star Man making duties for my sister's and cousins' children. My mother also makes Hooded Towels.

If you've had a baby in the last couple of decades and my mother was invited to your shower, you know what I'm talking about.

The Hooded Towel is a brilliant baby shower gift; it's simple and inexpensive enough to make frequently, it's easy to match the color to gender or bathroom decor, it's unique, and the whole DIY craze of the last few years has really ramped up the appreciation factor for the homemade gift.

Here's the thing, though. My friends have started to have babies and I'm starting to be invited to baby showers. I was thinking about how I don't have time to make elaborate gifts for everyone when I remembered about the Hooded Towel.

My mom doesn't know these people! I realized. She's not going to be invited to the showers! I don't have to kill myself making six baby quilts in as many weeks; I can buy six bath towels and six matching washcloths and be done in one afternoon!

As my friend untied the ribbon around her Hooded Towel, I explained that this was a traditional gift in my family and joked that I had now officially become my mother.

But - giant ten-pound handbags aside - that's okay. The women in my family have been on the cutting edge of DIY since before it was cool. Way before. We also have a depression-era recipe for chocolate cake that just so happens to be vegan. BOOM. 

Entertaining Twelve [or] TSA Patdown Fun

Twelve is often easily amused. It cracks her up that I'm having trouble getting used to my new Kindle Fire (I HATE this thing!), farts and testicles are consistently hilarious, and I actually induced a guffaw earlier today when I said that the guy at the oil change place had indeed been flirting with me, just not the way seventh graders do it (in case you don't get the joke, it's funny because all the guy did was talk to me, which is the exact opposite of how seventh graders flirt).

As we went through security this morning on our way to put her on a plane for yet another cross- continental journey, I set off all kinds of alarms. The scanner freaked out about the two buttons on my jeans fly, the (small, non-tacky) rhinestones on the back pockets, and my hands.

The simple, in-public pat down took care of the jeans problem, but my hands needed to be swiped by the special wand thingy, the results of which led to a private special session with two women agents behind a very, very sketchy looking closed door.

I got a real pat down.

I was informed of all the steps in the process - three horizontal swipes in the zipper region, one hand on each side of each leg moving up until they hit resistance - in a manner very reminiscent of how the gynecologist gives you the play-by-play before shoving a speculum (a word that Kindle's dictionary doesn't know, by the way) in your vag (no, damn you, I am not trying to type "bag"!).

It turned out that, in addition to decanting all liquids into three-ounce-or-smaller containers, one should never scrub the bathtub before going through security. Apparently the chemicals in bon ami can be used to make bombs. Who knew, right?

(And just when I thought it was impossible for my bathtub to be scrubbed less often.)

Twelve got to come with me through the unmarked, dented door with the scratched-up paint, probably to avoid possible lawsuits, and she thought the whole thing was a grand lark. Okay, whatever, dude. Sure, I'm just here to entertain. I will get you back, however, by posting that silly picture from this morning on Facebook.

Not that you asked, but the Kindle's camera function was designed by narcissistic morons; it only takes pictures from the front, so if you want to take a picture of anything other than your multiple chins, you have to perform some awkwardly carpal tunnel-inducing maneuvers.

Can I write a blog in which I review new consumer electronics? Then everyone could join Twelve in mocking my incompetence.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Tea with Twelve

I generally tend to downplay my achievements: I'll admit that I love how the quilt that I just finished for my baby niece turned out, but I'll let you notice for yourself (or not) that the mitered corners are almost perfect, the binding width is even, and that there are zero wrinkles in the quilted layers. I describe myself as a competent writer, even though there's lots of evidence to suggest that I'm actually better than, well, the writers of most of the dissertations that my department has produced. I say that I'm an 'experienced' Casino dancer instead of outright claiming to be one of the best follows in the area - maybe even in the country.

However, I'm going to make an exception and be completely and immodestly triumphant about having established something called Tea, which is when Twelve and I sit down in the living room with a tray of tea and small snacks when she gets home from school.

It may be the most awesome thing I've ever done. 

I got the idea about three weeks ago while reading a book that's I suppose optimistically titled Our Last Best Shot, which is all about how adolescence is the last stage in which we adults have any hope of positively influencing incipient adults. Apparently, setting up situations that include space for them to talk to us is a good thing. It doesn't specifically describe Tea, but it inspired me to write "Tea, 3 pm daily" on a post-it note (that I think I'll save for posterity). I had visions of delicately appointed tea trays, like the ones brought to Cora by the evil Miss O'Brien, and all of Twelve's friends clamoring to be included.

In reality, the tea tray is a very ordinary top of one of those cheap folding tv tray tables, not an antique tray with turned spindle legs and a cute little railing. We use the regular mugs, and the only special thing is that we do actually use a teapot and the snacks are in individual little dishes. So far, Twelve absolutely refuses to consider inviting friends.

Twelve was skeptical when I first announced the plan. The first couple of days, she did a bit of playacted reluctance, and I had to insist that she sit her butt down on the couch. Day three, she said that she wasn't going to do it anymore for some non-reason that I've forgotten (I think her exact phrase was "this is going to be a short-lived tradition" because blah blah blah), so I had to insist again. By week two, however, she was dumping her stuff in the bedroom, plopping down on the couch, and waiting impatiently for me to bring in the tray. She's even starting to talk before she makes it to the couch.

Like everything this year, I don't know how long this is going to last, but for now it's pretty great. She talks up a storm, and does a pretty good job of hearing me when I coach her on ways to handle things that come up. Today's conversation-slash-coaching session was centered on the referral that she got from her social studies teacher, who seems to have finally gotten fed up with Twelve's constant chattering in class. She had been sent to the time-out chair (I was a bit surprised that seventh grade has time-out chairs, too) for talking to her best friend during quiet work time, and then while sitting in the time-out chair had asked another classmate if she could borrow a textbook. That's what got her hauled out of class and sent to the office with a referral.

Twelve's putting on this blustery, I don't know why I got in trouble, everyone I talked to didn't get in trouble kind of front, but eventually - eventually - we pared the situation down to: Are you allowed to talk during quiet work time? No? 

But I was just asking L questions about the assignment! very indignantly. Okay, it sounds like you're frustrated about not knowing what you're supposed to be doing. What if you ask the teacher? He's very dismissive when we ask questions. (Very nice use of 'dismissive,' very nice indeed.)

Okay, if you're asking L, how does she know what you're supposed to do, hmmm? Oh, she looks at the board, where the page numbers are written? Could you possibly look at the board to find out what page you're supposed to be on? Twelve sees my logic there, so she backtracks quickly and says that was not a real example.

Okay, final question: Are you supposed to be working collaboratively during quiet work time? No? At this point, Twelve is getting tired of being bested by mom, so she's quite relieved when the phone rings and Tea ends peremptorily. It was too bad, because I was enjoying it a bit.

Later, when I bring it back up and say that what I'm really looking for from her is assurance that she'll refrain from talking in class, she sort of says she'll try but claims that she can't possibly just stop all together. I laugh at her about this, and give her the bit from Friends where Chandler says dramatically to Joey, "If only there was something in your head to control the things you say!" and I let the subject drop. I've told her that I'm going to request a meeting with her teacher to discuss all of this in person, and while she scoffed at that a bit, I think it may help; if nothing else, the teacher will perhaps enjoy that I bothered to try, and Twelve will have gotten another lesson in how to navigate the world.

Ah, the concerted cultivation of middle class children. As Annette Lareau describes in Unequal Childhoods,* middle class children are routinely trained in the navigation and manipulation of social institutions. For example, when a middle class child (ahem) does not understand why she got 37 out of 50 points on a social studies assignment, a middle class parent might encourage her to ask the teacher if she can meet with him during break, and then during the meeting, ask him to show her where she missed the thirteen points. Whether or not Twelve actually follows through on this particular suggestion remains to be seen - we may very well discuss it at the same meeting that we discuss the referral - but even the implicit lesson is clear; when something doesn't go your way, challenge it, and there are more and less effective ways to do that.

The approach of working class families, by contrast, is of the accomplishment of natural growth.
Children are cared and provided for, but are largely left to their own devices. Schools and other social institutions are seen as authoritarian and a bit omniscient and are not to be challenged. Without putting value judgements on which method is better for kids, it's clear that the middle class approach is more effective at teaching children how to navigate powerful institutions to get what you want or need. 

Between the fact that somewhat unmotivated doctoral candidates have the freedom to be home every day at three o'clock in the afternoon and the opportunity for middle class coaching that provides, we're basically ingesting class privilege along with our Tea. It may not be the kind of class privilege that lets me buy $230 UGG boots that button up the side for Twelve for Christmas, but it's the kind of class privilege that will make it easier for Twelve to get the kind of job that will let her buy whatever godawful boots she wants when she grows up.

*One of the best books ever.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

It's Gwum and Gwoomy Out There Today

Winter where we live isn't real winter, with icy coldness and snow that sticks; winter here means drizzling rain and not seeing the sky for weeks at a time. It's miserable, consistently miserable, and we don't even get the dramatic effect of real weather; when we get a half inch of snow accumulation every second or third year, we panic and close the schools. And it gets dark right after lunch.

I put a full-spectrum bulb in my new round paper dangling lamp in the cubbyhole in the basement that I'm calling my dissertation writing office, and if I survive until August, you'll know it worked.

Twelve, riding her bike to school every day regardless of the weather, says she hates it here and wants to go live with her dad, whose state on the other side of the country is apparently a dry, warm oasis, except that it's not. It rains there during the winter and is hot and humid in the summer, which Twelve knows perfectly well is miserable (I don't think she goes outside when she's there in the summer).

If I allowed myself to give in to insecurities such as this one, I would drive Twelve to school every day to make her like me better. As it is, I drive her to school when she has an appointment afterwards and when the weather is really bad. See above: The weather here almost never gets really bad.

Anyway, complaining about the weather is just something we do together: Twelve because she comes home damp after school sometimes and me because my feet are cold unless it's seventy degrees and I hate wearing multiple layers of clothing. It's a well-rehearsed, sympathetic and pathetic script; we often refer to chilly, dark, damp days as being gwum and gwoomy, in affected baby talk voices. 

I had forgotten where that came from until this afternoon, when I grabbed an Anastasia book to read while I waited for my ramen to cook. A few pages in, I got to the part where Anastasia is trying to figure out the acronyms in the personals section of some prestigious magazine, and asks her mom what 'gwm' means, except that she's not sure what the vowel is. They go through gwem and gwam and gwim and Katherine says there's no such word. Then she grins and says she does know what gwum means: "A person with a slight speech impediment? If that person is sad or depressed? He's gwum. A widdle bit gwum and gwoomy." I poked my head and the book into Twelve's room (the layout of our house being conducive to this) and asked if she had read this one lately, and said that I had forgotten where we got gwum and gwoomy.

Every time I initiate this kind of contact with Twelve, I'm secretly holding my breath in fear that she's going to scowl and yell at me and tell me to go away. 

She laughed a little at the shared joke.

I do wish that Katherine Krupnik, my model of adolescent parenting skills, had found a way to introduce gwum and gwoomy into our vocabularies without poking gentle fun at individuals with slight speech impediments, but for Twelve and me, gwum and gwoomy weather has become a valuable place of commiseration and shared experience. And the more of these places we have in the next few years, the better.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Who Will Run the World? GIRLS!

This week in my Facebook newsfeed: Willow Pinkett Smith shaved her head. A seventeen-year-old girl named Ela wore a head scarf around a US mall for an afternoon to learn about discrimination against Muslim women. The e-mail account associated with a fake Victoria's Secret 'PINK Loves CONSENT' campaign was inundated with supportive emails.

These are small things, perhaps, but they give me hope.

Granted, people flipped out about the fact that Willow no longer has hair to flip around. Apparently, members of the general public think that it's their business to complain that someone else' twelve-year-old doesn't look feminine enough.

Granted, Muslim women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to drive and are now electronically monitored at border crossings.

Granted, the PINK Loves CONSENT campaign was a protest action, not a groundbreaking shift in Victoria's Secret's marketing approach. Victoria's Secret still sells thongs that advertize sexual availability in child sizes and still displays its wares on uniformly and unnaturally shaped models. 



The times, they are a-changing: Willow Pinkett Smith did shave off her hair, and the absurdity of the public's response gave Jada Pinkett the opportunity to point out that women of all ages "are constantly reminded that they don't belong to themselves; that their bodies are not their own" and that people should back the fuck off and mind their own damn business instead of worrying about her daughter's hair (my paraphrase).

Ela, having overheard children at the mall asking their mother if she was a terrorist while she was wearing a head scarf, now reports feeling a sense of empathy with veiled women and girls rather than seeing them as distant Others.

If it's smarter than the boxes its panties come in, Victoria's Secret will recognize that its consumers like the idea of sexual consent and oppose rape, and will immediately release a statement in support of consent and against rape, eliminate "sure thing" from its tween-sized vagina covers, and recruit a runway's worth of models who represent the full range of women's bodies. 

I really, really hated that "Who Run the World (Girls)" song when it was popular there for a few minutes last summer, partly because of the missing helping verb but mostly because girls don't run the world, so pretending that we do is just stupid. And pretending we do while dancing around in the manner that the patriarchy defines for us sexy is regressive, which is actually worse: I'd much rather Twelve think that women have any say at all in how the world is run than to learn what it means to be sexual based on that video. 

It's amazing how one's perspective changes when one switches from just watching a video to considering what one's adolescent daughter would learn from it.

Anyway, I am feeling okay about the future of the world at the moment. Twelve may not care much right now about anything other than which Sorel boots she wants for Christmas, but there are other young women out there who do, and gradually things will change. In fifty years, we'll be sitting around reminiscing about how bad it was in the olden days when abortion rights were in jeopardy, our first nonwhite President was a big deal, men raped women on a regular basis, and marriage rights were restricted to heteros. Veteran women politicians will tell girls about how Sarah Palin's bizarre 2008 Vice-Presidential candidacy inspired them to enter the political arena, just to show that all women are not complete idiots.

There are a few other problems with this video that I remember now that I'm watching it again: What's with this "disrespect us no they won't" bit? Um, disrespect us yes, they do, and all the time. "You'll do anything for me"? Are we asking or telling men this? Because asking hasn't done us a whole hell of a lot of good, historically speaking, and if we're telling them, well, I would need to see some evidence that they're following our instructions. And the whole concept of the video is fundamentally flawed; shouldn't situations in which scantily clad women dance suggestively in front of passive men be the thing we're fighting to end? Can we not (I ask, rhetorically) find a way for women to be strong and sexual that doesn't require a male audience?

Ugh. I'm so glad I'm not watching this with Twelve.

I am fascinated by dance videos: If the dancing is bad, it's fun to think, "Heh, I could do that," and if the dancing is good, I'm mesmerized.

The costuming is interesting too.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Relative Importance

Life is all about determining the relative importance of things in order to make appropriate decisions. The vintage quilt I spent twenty-some hours finishing is more important than the blanket I made with leftover sweater squares, so the latter is the one that's okay for R to wrap around his legs and feet while working at the kitchen table. He says he's afraid to touch the other one. Sometimes these determinations are complicated and context-specific: It's more important to not spill coffee on the couch than on the big blue chair, even though the big blue chair is more important as the place where Twelve and I sit together, so go ahead and eat in the chair, though the couch is totally replaceable in the event of a cross-country move.

Distinguishing between important and unimportant household artifacts is relatively straightforward and based on value continua: Homemade vs. mass-produced. Old vs. new. Matched sets vs. hodgepodge accumulations. There's probably some really fascinating research potential in how folks view their household crap, in that we're very, very weird about the things that we care about. For example, I don't care if you break the glass we only have one of, but I was annoyed with myself for shattering a glass last week because that I like having lots of matching glasses, even if they're completely unremarkable. A friend brought a batch of dip to one of my parties in what turned out to be her roommate's semi-disposable plastic container, and the roommate specifically requested its return. The friend and I shook our heads, but validated and accommodated the request because, I'm sure, we were both thinking of the things that we're equally weird about.

Deciding about the relative importance of person-related things, though, is another story, because the values aren't as readily defined. Even if someone doesn't care about old quilts, I think most people understand that some people like antique things and aren't going to challenge your protective attitude toward yours - at least not much and not to your face. With person-related situations, though, it's much more difficult to make allowances.

Delivering Twelve to the plane that would take her across the country to her dad's for the week, I met a woman who was doing the same thing. While waiting for the plane to pull away from the gate, we compared notes on our experiences, and I was struck first by how much worse mine and Twelve's could be and later by how differently the other mom had assessed the relative importance of child support payments and the prospect of co-parenting with a douchebag.

It could definitely be worse for us: The other daughter had started her cross-country flights at five or six, whereas Twelve had reached what now seems like a grand old age of eight before being flung across the continent. The other dad has never paid child support, whereas the sperm donor of Twelve always has, even if begrudgingly and only because I had the presence of mind to have the state handle the support payments from the very beginning. Twelve's dad's wife has gone above and beyond to be nice to Twelve, while the other dad's new wife is actively mean to her stepdaughter.

The first two are small enough semi-victories, but I cannot fathom how it must feel to knowingly send your daughter into the care of someone who treats her cruelly. Until that moment, it had never occurred to me to try. I've knowingly sent my daughter into the care of someone who I don't believe actually knows her as a person and who sees her as an additional charm on his familial bracelet, but that's a very different prospect than the certainty of outright malice.

The other mom's assessments of importance around child support and facilitating the father-daughter relationship mystify me. She decided that compelling her ex to pay child support is less important than preventing arguments with him and she goes out of her way to arrange for her daughter to be with him. Providing financially for one's child, particularly when one has backed out of the daily, physical care and feeding of it, seems the least that should be expected of any parent. I can partially relate, since I didn't request a review of the child support amount until I was sure that the amount would not be reduced. In the years when I suspected that my ex was paying less than he should, I consoled myself with the thought that he had originally agreed to pay a higher amount than the state would have calculated for him and that it was better to let sleeping dogs lie (a philosophy that doesn't take into account the possibility that the sleeping dog will wake up eventually and attack when you least expect it). However, letting him off the hook because you don't want to make him mad just seems impossible.

I also don't understand, on a visceral level, the other mom's commitment to making sure that her ex and her daughter have a relationship. She is the one who reaches out to schedule visits, and so forth. I have always refused to make the first move in arranging for Twelve to visit her dad. It's always been very important to me that I not pretend to Twelve that her dad's actions are any different than they are: He is the one who left and the one who disappeared for five years, therefore, it is his responsibility to reach out to her if he wants to have a relationship with her. My entire childhood took place on stage with a father whose role as a piece of furniture was hidden from me because everyone else was pretending he was a fine dad, so I didn't know anything was wrong. I suspect-slash-hope that if I had known how to identify a man who is present but not accounted for, I wouldn't have married my ex. I won't lie to Twelve about her father, period. I won't try to convince her that he loves her or plaster our house with his photos like Michelle Pfieffer does in One Fine Day. I won't tell her he doesn't love her or confiscate the few photos of himself that he provides, but I'll be damned (as will she) if I create a relationship out of thin air. He doesn't deserve it, for one thing, and it's worse to have a furniture father than none at all.

Even something as emotionally humdrum as where to spend the Thanksgiving holiday has gotten me to get out the importance scales. None of us care so much about being together for each and every holiday that it's a problem when R and I are elsewhere or when my sister was in Hawaii for a basketball tournament, but we do like to be all together occasionally, and the holidays are a kind of obvious time to do that. My family is doing the dinner on Friday, since both of my siblings are with their partners' families on the actual day. R and I said that we shouldn't be considered in the planning process, since we thought we might be able to squeeze in a visit to his vacation property while Twelve's away. We kind of forgot to incorporate Twelve's actual return flight in the plan, I think, because we thought of her as being gone for the whole week, even though she gets back at 7 pm on Friday. My folks' house is in the opposite direction as the airport, so going from the airport to their house is at least a four hour drive. Twelve has a party to attend on Saturday afternoon, not to mention school on Monday morning, so we're not going to make it to Grandma and Grandpas this year and Twelve will miss out on helping retrieve the two dozen or so boxes of Christmas decorations from the attic (a post-Thanksgiving tradition that's surprisingly fun). The importance of avoiding five extra hours of driving and Twelve going to the party had easily won out over a really short trip and leftovers.

Anyway, none of this mattered very much until this morning, when I got a text message from my sister. No pressure, she said, but mom's husband's two sons have announced their intention of being present at Friday's dinner, and that would be the only chance to get a group photo until maybe next winter. 

Aw, crap. 

I don't particularly feel that those two sons are part of my family, since our parents married after I moved out, but for my mother they are a major component of the family that she and her husband have created. I call it fictitious, but hey, I believe in people defining their own families however they wish (hello, marriage equality). Group Photo Op, then, threatens to tip the scales and put a few hundred miles on my car. I don't mind taking one for the team, especially at thirty-three miles to the gallon on the freeway, but [insert dramatic music here] Twelve's heart is set on going to this party. I'm pretty sure the boy she currently likes will be there, and he is an absolutely stellar example of a human being. Straight As, polite, impeccable phone manners of the type I thought were obsolete, and I think he's also good at sports.

Luckily, as I went over the logistics with my sister, she conceded that it wasn't going to work, since apparently one of the sons is leaving Saturday morning. Technically, we could go straight there from the airport on Friday night and get Twelve home in time for the party on Saturday afternoon, but I don't think that will be required.

My family might be a little bit crazy about certain things, but we can be practical when absolutely necessary.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Great Expectations [or] Reality Bites

I did not plan to have Twelve, and how I ended up pregnant is a subject for another day, but today I would like to know what people think is going to happen when they have children. Seriously, what the fuck did you expect? is the exact phrasing. 

This question came up today in talking with R, who is finally home from being on the other side of the planet and needs to get caught up on important things like the conversation I had this morning with a good friend and the general themes and trends of things that people have been posting on Facebook. 

My friend M, the mother of our fairy godson, is annoyed because she's hosting the third annual Friendsgiving dinner this weekend and people are either bailing because they have better things to do or failing to respond at all.

(Just for the record, I believe that Facebook has totally ruined both invitations as a concept and the practice of responding to invitations. Another subject for another day.)

M is also annoyed that, since baby was born, her social life has changed. One of my cousins is annoyed because she has to go to work and leave baby at home. My sister is annoyed that she has to commute an hour each way for a couple of weeks because her husband has to work double during the holidays, so they're staying at his folks' house because grandma is the babysitter when they're both working. A friend is visibly ambivalent about his son because his wife will insist that he stop going out with friends in the evenings once it's born.

SERIOUSLY, people? What did you think was going to happen when you became parents? What did you think was going to fill the social void that's created by the fact that you can't take a toddler to happy hour? Did you think that your husband would magically get a job that pays enough that you could stay home with baby, despite the fact that he hasn't graduated from college yet and the economy still sucks? Do you think that there are never times when you have to do things that you don't particularly like, just because you're a parent?

First of all, you women all chose to have babies in a culture in which the person who gestates and births the baby is the person who is responsible for it. If you're lucky, the father participates, but only as much as he wants to, despite what he says or what you may have deluded yourself into believing. If he does bail, you are entitled to a small amount of child support, if he's employed and findable, but you may have to negotiate a complicated and stressful legal situation to make that happen. Society-at-large, in the form of government assistance, only gets involved if you are totally destitute and extremely lucky, and even that depends on which ideological faction is currently in charge in your state. Don't even bother to ask about things like federally-funded day or health care for your kiddo, because you had it in the wrong country if that's what you're looking for.

Secondly, you all chose to become parents. M's may have been a bit unexpected, but you other three deliberately went out and got pregnant, and all of y'all decided to carry to term, knowing that you have jobs and that your partners have jobs and that you would have to figure this shit out. Again, I can't relate to this, but I'm taking your word at face value, so I cannot fathom why you're complaining about having gotten what you asked for. Do children who finally, after years of begging, get those ponies then complain about having to feed them every day?

Probably. Maybe that's my point: Grow up.

Grow up, and understand that, as young women in the year 2012, you have to make the best of a shitty situation. Yes, we were all told from childhood that we could have it all, and yes, that's a huge lie, so I get where the confusion comes from. What I don't get, at least in the case of my sister and cousin, is why you didn't listen to me when I tried to tell you the truth. You'd been to my house, you'd seen the titles of the books, you knew what my masters degree is in, and you must have known that I know things about this because you certainly knew when to poo-pooh me and be dismissive. Why didn't you listen? Why didn't you LEARN? You watched my life, for goodness sake, you saw me raising Twelve and putting her in day care and struggling to pay for everything.

Good Lord. What if I made it look too easy? 

Okay, that I've not considered before. Maybe, instead of a warning signal flashing and blaring terribly, my life has actually inspired other people to procreate. I suppose that from far away, my accomplishments over the last decade do seem acceptable: Homeowner, graduate school, stable long-term relationship, teenage daughter who's not on drugs.

If I wasn't so indignant right now, my typing fingers stomping angrily, the thought that my life looks good on paper would be as funny as R's straight-faced claim last night that he's not a nerd about his birds. I spluttered my tea all over when he said that, because it's almost as ridiculous as anyone actually wanting to do what I've done.

For all that I'm loving the stage Twelve's at now and have immensely enjoyed each stage of her life, I wouldn't do it again. I don't wish her away, of course, but I wouldn't start over from the beginning for anything. I know the choices that I've been forced into by the reality of the here and now, and they're impossible ones. I turned down a good job when Twelve was small because they wanted me to work on Saturdays, when no child care is available. Later, a crappy job forced me to leave my daughter home alone before I was ready to do that. I'm strongly considering the prospect of staying here until Twelve graduates from high school, which will probably mean underemployment and and an inexplicable gap in my cv.

I often say of interpersonal relationship-related matters that all the cliches are true: We fall in love when we least expect it, it's impossible to predict who will turn out to be your soul mate, be careful what you wish for, and so on. It's also true that reality bites and life sucks, though (only because the indignance has been dissipated by sufficient stomping) I'll leave you with Monica's version, given to Rachel just after she's cut up her dad's credit cards: Welcome to the real world. It sucks! You're gonna love it. 

Friday, November 9, 2012

On Babies, and Confessing to an Abiding Disinterest in Same

About two years ago, I looked around, mentally tilted my head to one side thoughtfully, and said to myself, All of these people are going to start having babies pretty soon. I started joking to R that we're going to need to make a new batch of friends.

Two years ago, the first of our married couple friends had a baby girl. 

Eighteen months ago, a good friend reported an unexpected pregnancy, now my eleven-month-old fairy godson. 

A year ago, my cousin and sister waved around sonogram images.

Approximately six months ago, the first baby girl's parents had twin boys, and no fewer than three other sets of married friends announced upcoming births.

All those weddings that happened over the last five years? Warning signs. Big red fucking flags.

Chatting online with R tonight (he's been on another continent for the last six weeks), I repeated, jokingly, that we need to get cracking on these hypothetical new friends, given that three babies are due to arrive after the new year. 

Secretly? It's not really a joke.

Secretly? I don't really like children very much. Yes, I have one, and yes, I was a early childhood substitute teacher at our Waldorf school for a year, and yes I know what to do with an infant. Yes, I can recite A. A. Milne poetry with the best of them. Yes, babies are indeed quite adorable, some of them anyway. But that doesn't mean that I want to be around them very much or come into contact with any of their bodily fluids or excretions. Or their food, for that matter, as it stinks and usually is found smeared in inexplicable and unexpected places.

The thing is, mine is grown up, almost, and I am both glad about and ready for that. I've made a point enjoying her tremendously at every stage while simultaneously refusing to look back. I've never wished Twelve back a stage. I'm okay with other seventh-grade-sized children in small doses, but I'm just not interested in the smaller ones, for a variety of legitimate and completely morally indefensible reasons. Babies are cute for about seven minutes, and then, since they are still doing pretty much the same thing that they were doing seven minutes ago, they get boring fast. As soon as they can scoot around, they start to mess things up, literally (as in the wanton destruction of whatever's within reach) and figuratively (as in no more casual last-minute evening plans with their parents). They're annoying, they interrupt constantly (often deploying one or more bodily fluids in the process), and they often make terrible noises for no discernible reason. When they become coordinated enough, some of them even touch you without permission, something I find discomfiting even when bodily fluids and food residue are not involved. The bottom line is that kids are gross; have I mentioned that kids are gross?

I know, I know, the parental pot is calling all the other parental kettles black. Am I not allowed to do that, since mine is thirteen and her impact on my life is fading? That's not accurate, actually, given that between volleyball, physical therapy, orthodontist appointments, and riding lessons, I'm not sure that my calendar has ever been more dominated by child-related entries. But those things feel more like things that you do with other people and less like things involving children.

I'm loving barreling down the tracks of adolescence and keeping one eye on the light at the end of the tunnel at the same time. I recommend this approach, actually, because it's realistic and because, let's face it, it's working pretty damn well with Twelve (n = 1). As I told my sister the other night, our whole job as parents is to make ourselves unnecessary. We've got eighteen years to do this, but woe to the parent who waits to start that process until the week before high school graduation. 

I did not have to start moving Twelve intensely in that direction quite as soon as some; one of the things for which I will be forever grateful to the universe is that I was able to stay home with Twelve for almost her first two years. Mind you, I was married to a douche canoe and we lived in the basement of his grandparents' house (in which his father also lived), but the reason they're called silver linings is that they shine brightly in clouds of total shit, and even though the carpeting was orange shag and the grandmother's shrill harping audible, my whole life was devoted to the care and feeding of Twelve, and I loved it.

I find Tillie Olsen's short story I Stand Here Ironing incredibly moving because it reminds me that Twelve and I were given a tremendous gift that too many mothers and daughters aren't: The mental, emotional, and financial freedom to nurture and be nurtured. Between the reminder that being able to give my daughter the gift of nurturing care was and is only possible because I was given the same gift by my mother and the reminder that I must carry a deeply-felt burden of respect for those who are denied that experience, that story gets me every time.


Just because I spent the first year of the new millennium contentedly with my baby does not mean that I want to repeat that process with everyone else' babies. Wearing my Minored in Philosophy hat, I can justify this by pointing out that when I had a small child, I spent time with a) people with children, b) people who liked children, and c) no one, so it is not inconsistent of me to be uncomfortable with children now. When Twelve was old enough to interact with adults with minimal obnoxiousness, I took her into more and more adult-oriented spaces and invited child-free adults to participate in our life to the extent they wanted to. If someone had chosen not to become part of our lives because they didn't like children, I'm not sure I would have noticed, but if I had, I would have figured that I didn't really care what they thought anyway.

The problem is that I still like the people who are reproducing so prolifically, and I'd rather not write them off entirely. I'm just afraid that their lives are going to change so much that we won't fit into them anymore unless we participate in all of the smeary, stinky, noisiness of childhood. Many of them are friends with each other, peripherally at least, which means that our group social events are going to become more and more kid-oriented, just as my life becomes less and less so. This isn't a bad thing, necessarily, I'm just not particularly interested.

Ugh. I may be the worst person on the planet. I'll think about it some more and try to decide if I care, and hopefully no one will smear mashed squash on my couch in the meantime. 

Monday, November 5, 2012

Just Planning My Midlife Crisis, That's All, Nothing to See Here

I've been planning my midlife crisis for a few years now. It's mostly a joke that when Twelve turns eighteen and moves out, I'll only be 38, and able to do all the things I haven't been able to do whilst being a single parent: Travel a lot, have an adorable little two-seater classic car that I restored myself, and live in a fabulous Manhattan apartment with high ceilings and original moldings. Think half Friends and half Kathleen Kelly's life in You've Got Mail, except that I don't know where I'll work now that Fox Books has taken over everything. (Yes, I need a long-lost uncle to die suddenly, leaving me the only heir to his ethically accumulated fortune.)

Recently I realized that there's another layer to my little fan fiction. I'll have spent eighteen years teaching Twelve how to live without me, but I'm not sure I'll know how to go about living without Twelve. 

I certainly could have lived without Twelve this past weekend; two no-school days plus two regularly-scheduled weekend days equals YOU'RE DRIVING ME UP THE WALL. Long weekends with Twelve have been a bad idea since she was about six. If we have something to do or somewhere to go, we're fine, but if we're just at home, by Sunday afternoon we're both in need of diversion. She needs other people and I need her to go away.

We've been working on the concept of good attention vs. bad attention: She sort of gets that when she wanders out of her room and speaks to me without interrupting (just because you came to a good stopping point in your Harry Potter re-reading marathon does not mean that I am at a good stopping point in whatever I'm doing), I am more than happy to chat. She must understand by now that when she interrupts me, plops down on my lap, and farts, I am not interested in chatting and am probably still irritated at being interrupted in the first place.

Somehow, and apparently this is due to faulty wiring in the adolescent brain, she doesn't always know or care about the difference between good and bad attention. Even though she's often perfectly pleasant to hang out with, I'm becoming less and less tolerant of this kind of intentionally annoying behavior. I've gotten pretty good at the standing lap dump, in which you simultaneously detach hands from clothing or body parts while standing up from the big blue chair, depositing the annoying farter on the floor.

Similarly, being startled by Twelve's maniacally grinning face every time I come up the stairs gets old fast over the course of four days. It's like Ramona's father's grandmother would have said: First time is funny, second time is silly, third time I'm taking away your iPod.

Again, much of the time she's a thing of beauty and a joy forever, and I have no doubt that she'll be just fine when she fledges. She'll do better than Rachel Green, at least; no matching pink marshmallow Peep laundry for her. With her well-developed sense of how things ought to be and the confidence to say so, I can just imagine her making impassioned speeches about any perceived injustice. She already says I'm far too nice to incompetent people, like the person who completely forgot to turn in my time sheet this month. My approach, given that I need to work with this person for the rest of the year: It's not a total emergency, since I noticed it in time and my landlord hasn't cashed my rent check yet, but can you help me figure out what's going on here? Twelve's approach, definitively stated: I would just tell her off.

So, when Twelve is off conquering the world (oh god, I hope she uses her powers for good instead of for evil), what will I do? I will enjoy the uninterrupted quiet, that's for sure, and perhaps I will regain the ability to focus on something for longer than seventeen minutes at a time. When I feel the need to interact with other humans I will call one of them on the phone and we will meet for a nice cocktail. When I want to leave town for the night or the week or the month, I'll just do it. I will use my passport for something other than helping to justify the file folder marked 'Important.' No more asking friends and family if Twelve can stay with them while I go off to a conference, a wedding, or simply to spend time in the company of adults. No one will demand that we go grocery shopping because we're out of organic sliced processed ham food product; in fact, I think I'll just eat out all the time, except for toast. And tea. The markup on tea bags in restaurants is something like five hundred percent. Unless the water is very hot, it's a fancy loose-leaf tea, and you get your own little tea pot, cup, saucer, spoon, and a little dish to set the strainer in, you're just getting ripped off. 

The problem with my midlife crisis plan as it's currently written is that I'll want to do all those things with Twelve. Between our school schedules, her visits to her dad, and my lack of funds, we've done very little traveling together. We're both bummed that she can't come with me and R to a friend's wedding in Mexico during her winter break, and whenever I squeeze a weekend trip with friends out of my budget, she's always annoyed that she's not invited. With occasional exceptions, she's included in whatever local outings she's allowed and wants to do. Tomorrow I'm meeting up with friends to watch the election unfold at a pub down the street, and Twelve is planning to come along. Granted, she just wants carte blanche from the happy hour menu, but still; these are some nerdy-ass people and it can't help but be a more enriching experience than re-Kindle-ing Harry Potter.

I am not worried too much about traveling with or without Twelve. We'll do that if we want, not that we'll be able to afford it. I'm more concerned that I'm going to demand too much of Twelve once she's moved out. I don't want a reversal of our current roles in which I'm the one ignoring the distinction between good and bad attention. I don't want to annoy her, farting pathetically, until she dumps me onto the floor. I want to do interesting things with my life and let her call me when she's particularly proud of having verbally triumphed over some jerk or another. I want to click 'like' when her Facebook status update is that she aced yet another philosophy essay.

Ah, that's what it is. I want the apple to fall just the perfect distance from the tree: Far enough to know you're not part of it anymore, but close enough to appreciate where you came from.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Parent-Teacher Conferences

This morning I went to parent-teacher conferences. I'm going to skip the part about how parent-teacher conferences are constructed by Twelve's school in a manner that is almost completely inaccessible to working and/or single parents, and get to the part about abstinence-based sex education.

Going around the room, Twelve's teachers all said pretty much the same thing: She's smart, doesn't always attend to detail or try very hard, and talks too much in class. No surprises there. She's a great kid, smiles a lot, has a great peer group. Yup, I knew that too.

What I didn't know until I met with her PE teacher is that when sex ed is covered in health class next year, she'll be taught that sex is stupid. Okay, I'm with you at this point, and I actually agree that it's stupid for eighth graders to be having sex, but tell me more. Oh, it's abstinence-based? How so? It gives them info on contraception, right? Okay, go get the curriculum, I'll wait here. Hmmm ... protection and contraception methods are covered as an afterthought in lesson seven? You refer to them as 'safer stupid'?

At this point I'm trying very hard not to panic and just focusing on not alienating this guy. The PE/health teacher is a nice enough young man, and I'm sure that when he mentioned 'protecting one's reputation' as one of the reasons why eighth graders should refrain from sex, he meant to reassure me about the thoroughness of the curriculum. He probably wasn't expecting me to ask him if he plans to cover the gendered sexual double standard and women's double bind, since he looked at me blankly and asked what I meant.

Mind you, when faced with utter ignorance, my policy is to practice the flies-with-honey approach when at all possible, and I had had my tea by this time, so I paused for a bit of mental rummaging-around. 

How do you convey ten weeks' worth of information, discussion, and in-class exercises into a ten-second sound bite? This guy hadn't even read the assigned readings in preparation for our discussion! I backed way up and just started blabbering. "Like how when boys sleep around they're considered studs, but when girls do the same way, they're called a whole list of derogatory names." Tracking with me here, he nodded thoughtfully, and made a connection to how they had been talking about body image the week prior, and he had pointed out to the class that body image is a bigger deal for girls than for boys.


It was rather precious, actually; he had the same reaction as Twelve's kindergarten teacher the day that she realized that the day's story did, in fact, contain a gender stereotype. The Dawn of Awareness, I'll call it. No, that's too strong a term. The Beginnings of an Inkling of Awareness is more like it.

I can work with this.

I consider it a privilege to be present at such moments, and I'd hate to puncture anyone's burgeoning awareness bubble, so I left it with a brief mention of my masters degree and offering to be a resource for incorporating an awareness of gender into the curriculum. I didn't bother to explain that femininity and masculinity are social constructs of the meanings of biological sexual differences, I just said that there are lots of things that we all know and that we just don't have the terms to articulate them yet. He seemed receptive enough, so we'll see how it goes.

Of course I daydreamed about possible in-class activities all the way home: I think eighth graders could handle the gender box exercise, where things that are okay for girls are written inside the girl box and things that are not okay for girls are written outside, and vice verse for the boy box. The 'sit like a boy/sit like a girl' activity would work just fine - it's one of my favorites because it's so simple, yet so profound - and I betcha they could generate lists of terms that are applied to promiscuous individuals of each gender. I dunno if they'll let me guest-lecture - Twelve, I'm sure, would be appalled at the very thought - but at least I won't be blindsided next year during Curriculum Night.

When I got home, Twelve asked what her teachers had said about her. I asked what she thought they said, and she grinned. "I talk too much?"


Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Fun with Seventh Graders [or] Packing Our Invisible Knapsacks

After school last week, I had the privilege of driving Twelve and three of her friends across town to put together 1200 goody bags to get ready for some sort of Harry Potter event. I had a wonderful time, strangely enough, and it was a stellar example of how social class privilege reproduces itself. (Yes, some of us are incapable of having a good time without analyzing everything.)

Fun first: These girls are a total kick in the pants. In the span of maybe 20 minutes (I drove slowly), topics ranged from how Twelve and I look like sisters to how they're not sure about the boy Twelve has a crush on because he uses bad language. I can't even begin to describe the conversation; I was trying mightily to enjoy it fully while remembering everything so I could write about it later, which I never do very well.

A small recording device would come in very handy sometimes.

I was tickled pink about the whole situation for at least two reasons: The girls were talking candidly in the presence of an adult, which I doubt very much will continue very much longer, and they were being distinctly critical of a popular boy because he used 'the word that starts with W and rhymes with door.' He was apparently tossing this term around in Twelve's direction. Granted, I'm critical of anyone who calls people whores, too, but I don't necessarily expect seventh graders to hold their peers to such a high standard. It was incredibly cute how earnestly and innocently appalled they were. Suspicious of the flippant nature of the name-calling incident, I asked the girls if they thought that he knows what that word means. No, they replied, but he has two older brothers who teach him all kinds of stuff, so he probably learned it from them. 

Sensing a teachable moment, I added that it's not necessarily a problem to know the words - Twelve has known all the words for a really long time - it's just a problem if one doesn't know how to use the words only in appropriate contexts. Twelve is technically allowed to use whatever language she wants at home, although she doesn't take advantage of that freedom very often. Our joke is that I better not get any phone calls from school about her using 'bad' words, and the fact that this is a shared joke indicates that she's on board. 

Ah, I am in such a bubble of pre-adolescent bliss.

Twelve has always been exposed to a great deal of very adult conversation, both in the terms used and in the topics discussed, and I've done that very intentionally: I want her to know what's going on. I know the feeling of not getting whatever other people are talking about; not knowing what 'boner' meant in seventh grade caused me at least one miserable class period, and just the other day I had to consult Urban Dictionary to grasp the point of a Facebook comment thread about feltching.

Note: I do not recommend finding out what feltching is.

Anyway, we proceeded to the event center, and I walked the girls inside. One of the girls' dads is the director of the whole department, which is how this whole thing came about, and it happens to be the first place I worked after college (the first time), so I know the woman who runs the center. As the girls introduced themselves and were shown to their work area, it dawned on me that this is exactly how the intangible aspects of class privilege accrue. Being behind the scenes of a cultural event held at a major state university's conference center auditorium provides tidbits of information about things that members of the privileged class know and take for granted:
  • Stately buildings exist for the sole purpose of gathering well-dressed people for cultural and intellectual pursuits. 
  • It’s someone’s job to organize everything and delegate responsibility, and there are other people whose job it is to do what she says. 
  • The person in charge wears her choice of professional clothing and shoes, and the other people wear matching polo shirts, khaki pants, and serviceable shoes. 
  • Vendor areas are common to such events, and each space is delineated by a system of ‘pipe and drape’ (which is exactly what it sounds like). 
  • Clean water is available via several drinking fountains. 
  • Clean restrooms, always fully stocked, are located to the left and right.
What am I missing? I don’t know; I’m sure there’s an equally long list of things of which I’m completely unaware.

Twelve, having attended many events at that particular venue, already had a great deal of the kind of context that helps you soak up even more information, and the process will continue until her invisible knapsack is fully stocked. 

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Sisterly Advice

My little sister called me this afternoon for a chat. She calls on a regular basis during her commute to work, usually just to check in, sometimes to ask, like she did last week, what Twelve wants for the holidays (what is it with people planning holiday gifts two months ahead of time?), and occasionally for advice. 

A bit of background on my baby sister: She's twenty-six, six-foot-one, and outweighs me by a good 20 pounds of muscle. She graduated from high school as valedictorian/class president/queen of all the heteronormative celebrations, went directly to college from which she graduated in exactly four years, got married to the guy she'd gone out on a first date with ON VALENTINE'S DAY, was recruited to do the job she'd gone to college for, and had a baby approximately four days after they paid off their student loans. She's your basic poster child for doing everything by the book, and she tries to humor her crazy big sister.

I, the big sister who accidentally dropped the damn book in the toilet right after high school, try not to be condescending about her lack of real-world experience, even though she somehow manages to be condescending about the subjects of my graduate studies.

Since I am apparently the closest thing she has to a professional woman mentor, the advice phone calls started shortly after she started her job. We talked about things like not letting your employer take advantage of you and how to bring workload issues up in a productive way: I'm finding that task x is taking me longer than we anticipated, which leaves less time time for activity y.

She caught on fast, gained confidence as she went along, and successfully negotiated an acceptable part-time arrangement after the baby was born. She and her husband are able to arrange their work schedules so that, with a bit of help from the grandparents, they don't need outside childcare: He works in the mornings, she works in the afternoons.

Today, she called to talk about the fact that it's not working very well; her husband is often late getting home, so she's late to work frequently enough that people are starting to notice. My sister is Type A enough that this bothers her a lot, and my suspicion is that her husband tends to brush it off because he know she's more tightly strung in this regard than he is.

However, this whole thing is a much bigger deal than occasionally being a few minutes late to work. As I explained to my sister, working mothers are held to a higher standard than non-mothers. It's entirely unfair, of course, but it's a real phenomenon. It's not just about you, personally, either, I continued. You're representing all working women. Just as people of color understand that any social transgression - chewing open-mouthed, being late for a meeting, laughing too loudly or interrupting too much - may be taken as an indictment of their entire race, so must working mothers be particularly careful. Because society has defined the ideal worker as someone who is free of household or familial responsibility and the ideal mother as someone who is 100% focused on her children, employed women are presumed to be insufficiently committed to their jobs unless they perform perfectly. No one performs perfectly, of course, but mothers tend not to be given the benefit of the doubt when it comes to things like being late.

This isn't really making me feel any better, my sister replied with the barest hint of sarcasm. She had caught me in the act of climbing up on this particular soapbox. I chuckled, and changed course to the advice part, which is easy. The problem is a logistical one - it's not about what either of them are doing or intending, it's about the fact that they need more transition time. My brother-in-law has the flexibility to start work earlier and get home earlier, and it's time to take advantage of that. My sister just needs to initiate a conversation that doesn't accuse him of being a lazy, inconsiderate jerk and that does include a possible solution: Ya know what? We've been trying it this way, and it isn't working. Let's try giving ourselves more time! She seemed relieved to realize that the solution was so simple, and I suggested that she discuss the working mothers' unfairly higher standard as a rhetorical buttress.

I may also have offered to come give my brother-in-law a PowerPoint presentation on the social construction of motherhood and ideal worker norms.

For me, this conversation was a triple win: I love being asked for advice, I am thrilled when I get to provide a useful solution, and my sister is showing signs of taking one of my professional interests seriously.

Now I'm starting with the ahead-of-time holiday gift ideas: The Dialectic of Sex for my sister and Unbending Gender: How Work and Family Conflict and What to Do About It for my brother-in-law. 

[insert sarcastically evil chuckle here]

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Luddite and Okay With It

I got an out-of-the-blue email from my ex the other day, saying that he knows that we don't usually coordinate holiday gifts, but that they're giving Twelve the headphones that she wants and he just wants to make sure we don't both give them to her. As far as I know, he's referring to the brightly colored Beats by Dre headphones that retail for approximately my entire monthly grocery budget.

I haven't replied to the email, because the response that comes to mind is something along the lines of YOU'VE GOT TO BE FUCKING KIDDING ME IF YOU THINK I CAN AFFORD THREE HUNDRED DOLLAR HEADPHONES.

I don't mind the headphones themselves, actually; I like the bright colors, I appreciate their fresh design, and I presume that they're relatively high quality. I don't think that a) teenagers can appreciate the difference in audio quality or b) that it matters, given the crappy music they listen to, but I'm not holding that against the product itself. I just hope Twelve gets the color she wants - and that the color she wants doesn't change between the time she puts in her order and when she gets them.

The thing that annoys me (secondarily to my ex being a douche canoe) is that I am aware of this product's existence.

Knowing more than I want to about various aspects of popular culture is, I've concluded, a byproduct of having an adolescent daughter. We were watching all the LMFAO videos the other night (some of them are just dumb, but I adore the satirical portrayal of men waggling their secondary sex characteristics around in public), and Twelve pointed out all the Beats by Dre headphones - sorry, they're referred to as Beats, I looked it up - in the video. 

I like being clueless about the newest trendy gadget that I can't afford and didn't know I needed (hellooo, iThings). I pride myself on not knowing the latest teenage singers or current television offerings. I keep track of my schedule in an actual notebook, using an actual pencil that periodically needs sharpening in an actual pencil sharpener. I read real books. I still don't have a smartphone, for Pete's sake (and I just used the expression 'for Pete's sake').

So, it's pretty galling to know about Twilight, One Direction, several of the identikit young teenage girl musicians who have come (and not necessarily gone) in the last few years, and those doggone Nike Elite socks. 

It's an imperfect and inconsistent cluelessness, of course. I resolutely avoided finding out who Lady Gaga was for an admirably long time, but then when I finally gave in and watched all of her videos, I loved them (because awesome). I scoff at the latest ridiculous fashion trends only unless I really like something, like legwarmers, of which I made four pairs last night out of sweater sleeves, because that's how I roll. Granted, I checked the internet and I am not the first person who realized that legwarmers and sleeves are similarly shaped, but my version (that uses the band at the hem of the sweater to finish the cut-off end of the sleeve) is by far the best if I do say so myself. I started a doctorate program in an apparel design department with no clue that premium denim was a thing (irony!), and three years later all my jeans are Paige, Joe's, and Habitual.

Twelve's home from school now, so I'm off to get her to troubleshoot this outfit for me; the legwarmers are working with my Cate the Great boots, but I don't like what's going on above the knee.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Parenting, Krupnik Style

My parenting heroes are Katherine and Myron Krupnik. You know, Anastasia's parents. You've met them, right? From the Lois Lowry novels? I've been thinking about how I've been meaning to write about the smiles that Twelve and I have shared when she's done or said something particularly Anastasia-like: Complaining about her oily hair and being embarrassment about my existence. I absolutely love it that we have Anastasia as a common reference; it means I don't have to inflict the Twilight novels on myself to have something in common with Twelve, and I cherish those shared smiles.

Because who knows how much longer we'll have them.

Last night, I realized that in addition to being charming and hysterically funny, the Anastasia books are useful parenting manuals. Anastasia's parents always seem to respond effectively to whatever adolescent nonsense she manages to throw at them. Because I have a policy of not changing my dissertation topic every time a new and exciting idea presents itself, I can't do a proper analysis, but this is a good excuse to jot down a few examples of how my parenting style has been influenced by my favorite fictional family. 

When Anastasia wanders into the room, her parents pay attention to her. Sometimes they carry on with what they're doing, sometimes they stop, but they almost always engage her in conversation. The dinner table is a place to discuss Anastasia's problems and, occasionally, make lists of possible solutions. I am not always great at either of these things - I try to strike a balance between being available and teaching Twelve that it's rude to interrupt - but I have learned that there's magic in follow-up questions, even on the most inane topics. If I bring something up, I get a dismissive one-word reply, but if she mentions something, I can usually gently encourage her to keep talking. As annoying as driving to and from volleyball practice can be, we can't do much other than chat during that time, and she'll often pipe up with something that's on her mind.

The Krupniks take Anastasia and her feelings seriously, even when she's being ridiculous. When she asks her father to take her to the store to buy a goldfish for their new neighbor, Myron agrees, no questions asked. When she tells her mother that she's afraid that she's going to have to marry Robert Giannini, Katherine listens to her concerns and provides useful perspective and advice. Katherine indulges her daughter's feelings that her hair is too oily by offering a new bottle of shampoo.

At the same time that they're taking her seriously, Myron and Katherine tease Anastasia and allow her to tease them back. When Anastasia is melodramatically acting out death scenes and says that she's, like Cleopatra (presumably), clasping an asp to her bosom, Katherine points out that it "must have been a heck of a disappointment for the asp. You hardly even have a bosom." Anastasia chucks a pillow at her mother, and (after a few groaning lessons - Anastasia had been pronouncing the word 'groan' instead of actually groaning) they discuss Anastasia's feelings over coffee and Kool-Aid. Twelve and I tease each other constantly. She's getting pretty good at it, too.

The senior Krupniks allow Anastasia to make as many choices as possible without letting her yank them around; Anastasia decides for herself whether or not to go to California for an aunt's funeral, but within an appropriate time frame. They go out of their way to solicit Anastasia's contributions on matters large and small. Katherine even asks her where a particular bowl should go in the cabinets when they're moving into their new house; it's a tiny thing, and it was asked as a side note when Anastasia came into the room to say she misses her old wallpaper, but it's a clear example of how her parents make Anastasia feel like a participating member of the household. Then, Katherine validates Anastasia's feelings by offering to find out if the wallpaper is still available for her new room. I do this kind of thing as much as possible. It helps that Twelve is an only child and that R is not her parent, but I try to treat her like a roommate as much as I can. A roommate I have authority over, but who gets to weigh in on certain household decisions: We are currently competing with ourselves to see how long we can go without firing up the furnace - I'm not sure why.

Katherine and Myron are always realistic and honest, and occasionally meta: The chances of Anastasia being discovered by the film industry during a two-day visit to LA are, as Katherine says in one humorous exchange, zero. Then, when Anastasia complains that her mom could have been more supportive, Katherine explains her parenting approach: "I'm being honest, and honesty is supportive." I feel like it's important for adolescents to understand why parents do what they do. I often tell Twelve things like, I've already told you x and I need to be consistent, so please don't ask again.

The Krupnik household has a clear intellectual focus. Myron responds to Anastasia's chronic overuse of the word 'weird' by listing a few the possible synonyms ("PHANTASMAGORICAL!"), and when Anastasia mentions Cosmo, he rhetorically points out that the family subscribes to a variety of high quality material. I bribed Twelve with cold, hard cash last summer to break herself of the habit of, like, saying 'like' every, like, other word (which worked, and raised her apparent IQ by about twenty points), and I keep trying to casually hand her the latest issue of our state Historical Quarterly journal. I think she might have flipped through one, once. The Krupnik parents and I share, I'm sure, a sense of resignation regarding adolescent interests.

I know, I know; I left out at least one major theme, and I didn't cite my sources or give page numbers of quoted material. There isn't even a Works Cited section! Luckily, diaries are not peer-reviewed or examined by committee members, and it's your loss if you haven't yet read the Anastasia books, so I don't care.

I'm going to take another look at my dissertation outline now. I doubt that I can work in an Anastasia reference, but I'll try.