Sunday, January 29, 2012

In the Shelter of ... the Big Blue Chair

I'm reading another Mary Pipher book. This time, it's The Shelter of Each Other: Rebuilding Our Families. It's dated, for sure; there are lots of quaint references to modems, chat rooms, and car phones. However, there's a ring of truth to the stories of parents trying to deal with incomprehensible childrearing situations, and Dr. Pipher's suggestions for healthy families remain entirely relevant: Shared time, places, and activities act as shelters for families. Shared celebrations, rituals, and stories act to connect family members with one another.

I was feeling pretty smug for most of the book: My child's not doing drugs. My partner's not beating me. Our school is safe. We don't watch six hours of television every day. I am quite often home after school.

Damn. I'm lucky as hell.

Then I got to the chapter about all the lovely things that some families manage to do. Oh, crap. We don't formally assign a new right and a new responsibility to Twelve on each birthday. We don't make annual trips to Mexico to build schools in impoverished neighborhoods. We don't eat balanced meals around the dinner table every night. We don't go on rising-moon walks at sunset every month.

But then it occurred to me: We do have the Big Blue Chair.

The Big Blue Chair is an ugly blue recliner. It was a hand-me-down from Twelve's paternal great-grandparents, I nursed her in it, we've hauled it around to at least four houses, and I have never liked it. A few years ago, I was given a really nice brown suede-like couch. The kind of I might have actually picked out for myself, if buying 'real' furniture was a thing that I did. It occurred to me that maybe, just maybe, I could finally get rid of the ugly Big Blue Chair. I never really got around to replacing it, so a year ago when a friend's son had shoulder surgery and needed to sleep in a recliner, I jumped at the chance to loan/give them Big Blue. I'll get something else! I thought excitedly.

Once it was gone, I realized my mistake: Over the years, my daughter and I had unintentionally developed a history with the Big Blue Chair. In Mary Pipher terms, it's a sheltering place and a ritual. I'd get home from work or whatever, and invite my girl to sit with me in the Big Blue Chair. Or she'd wander into the room on a Saturday afternoon and ask "Can I sit with you in the Big Blue Chair? I'll go get Soft Blankie." I somehow knew to (almost) always accept these opportunities. Computer closed, book put down, whatever.

The friend's son's shoulder healed. They brought the chair back. Whew.

Since she's been Twelve, I have recognized sitting with her in the Big Blue Chair as the gift it truly is. It happens somewhat less often now, but that's okay because it will still be a thing. We'll refer to it and those references will be just as significant as the actual sitting.

So ... I might as well resign myself to always having this darn chair around. Hopefully it will eventually be relegated to a basement rec room. If I'm really lucky, I'll be able to foist it off on Twelve when she moves out. If she has children, though, maybe I'll give her a gift certificate to the best furniture store in her town: There's no harm in creating shelter, ritual, and memories in, say, a black leather wing-backed recliner with brass rivets.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Twelve: Prejudice Diagnostician

Every December, my folks take their two granddaughters to the nearest big city for a special weekend. They go to a show or play, stay in a fancy hotel, go to a special brunch, and receive elaborately wrapped, matching dress-up outfits. It's a little bit weird - okay, the matching outfits are really weird - but the girls LOVE it.

This past year, they watched a few movies in their hotel room with Grandma. One of them was the Glee movie. I haven't seen it, but I understand that it's basically a mashup of songs from the show. Apparently enough gender-nonconformity and non-heterosexuality came through to freak out my mother.

"Grandma was appalled," Twelve reported later, with a somewhat superior air. I nodded ruefully in agreement. My mom is not the most forward-thinking of people; her standards for propriety do not include anyone outside fairly strict gender and identity boxes.

For example: Awhile back, I shared on Facebook a video clip of a guy who did an amazing pole dance routine wearing silver heels, shorts, and glitter. Later I received a paragraphs-long tirade from my mom about how disgusted she was. I could not muster a response. It would have taken pages.

Twelve has not exactly been marinated in non-conforming media, although I suppose it's fair to say that a good bit of the media she has been exposed to is non-conforming. She has, however, been steeped in conversations about gender, sexual identity, and so on. To be clear, by 'conversations' I mean things I say to which her response is eye rolling, sighs, and an exasperated, "Can't you ever have a normal conversation?"

She didn't used to be like this, though. In kindergarten, she once piped up with "That's a gender stereotype" during story time. When the teacher reported this to me she added in wonderment, "And you know, I realized -- she was right!" Yes, yes, she was.

Back to last December's discussion. As I agreed that Grandma's delicate sensibilities were likely quite challenged by the Glee movie, Twelve continued, "What's it called when it's like racism but you're against gay people?" "Homophobia?" I replied, inwardly thrilled that she has finally retained SOMETHING that I've been talking about for so long.

"Yeah, Grandma definitely has that," Twelve said.

Has that. As if it's a disease. Something you catch; something you can become cured of.

Well done, Twelve. Well done.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Renob, Phalange, Testicle, and Other Indispensible Bits o' Knowledge

Today Twelve was giving me a scary manicure. You know, the kind that involves A LOT of giggling, haphazardly deployed emery boards, and an inexplicable variety of pointy tools that I absolutely refused to allow anywhere near me.

Suddenly - and by this I mean completely and totally without warning or precedent - she said, "Phalanges is a funny word. [chortle] It sounds like it should mean testicles or something." And then [chortle, chortle] she added something else funny, maybe regarding dangling phalanges; I tried really hard to remember it, but she has definitely started to notice when I take notes.

Clearly our time in the safe haven of fart-joke territory is limited.

I couldn't resist mentioning this on Facebook - come on, phalanges and testicles? No way I'm passing this up - and I forgot to block my mom from seeing the post. This is going to be an issue.

Blah, blah, blah, inappropriate, blah, blah, unseemly, blah, blah, blah, unladylike ... bllleeechhhhhh. I just don't care. You see, I was the twelve-year-old paralyzed by not knowing what the heck was going on. In seventh grade science class, I had no idea what the word "renob" meant, or why the guy at my table was so incredulous about my ignorance. Ignorance which continued even when he explained to me that it was "boner" spelled backwards. Boner? What's that? Thankfully, I was too shy to request more information.

(Is my fondness for the phrase "That's what SHE said" starting to make more sense yet?)

Perhaps I am overcompensating by daring to accompany Twelve on her forays into the realm of adolescent humor. However, I enjoy a balls joke as much as the next person, and I want her to be able to practice in the safe company of adult friends. Maybe I'm just projecting my own memories of failure onto her; almost certainly her peers aren't making any better jokes, but at any rate, with us her real clunkers incur no social penalty.

If some football jock (of course he was a football player, that guy at my seventh grade science table) manages to produce some new slang term that Twelve doesn't know, you know what she'll do? She'll bluff her way through. She'll figure out what it means and use it even more cleverly. She'll retort that it's not a real word. She'll turn the joke around on him. She'll change the subject. She'll get bored and walk away.

I dunno what the hell Twelve will do, but she damn well won't sit there silently, uncomfortable, not knowing what to do.

And twenty years later? She won't remember the interaction.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Vision of the Future

I spent some time with a sixteen-year-old last night. She's a delightful young lady, an exceptional athlete, tall, beautiful, a fairly accomplished self-taught seamstress, and relatively articulate except for an unfortunate tendency to say "like" way too often. I've known her for about eight years, not particularly well, but well enough to be able to say that I'd be pleased if Twelve turned out as well as she has.

I had helped her design and draft a pattern for a shrug jacket to wear to the Winter Formal, and she was stopping by to return the shoes I lent her and show us photos. I offered tea, and she ended up staying for three hours. She told us about the dance, her subsequent dating adventures, and the experience of adolescence.

I am now terrified.

I was afraid before, of course, but in a much more abstract way. Somehow, the realities of hormonal disruption, personality fluctuation, and general confusion hadn't quite sunk in before. I've been blithely saying for a few months now that I'm enjoying age twelve while it lasts, that I'm making the most of every loving moment with Twelve while I still get them, that any day now she could turn into a monster ... but now these platitudes have taken on a whole new gravity.

I personally experience exactly one day of misery each month, sometimes a day and a half. I'm grouchy, I'm irritable, I'm negative about everything and my sense of smell is heightened to the point of major annoyance. We call it my Irrational Day, and I am given a wide berth, comforting foods, and a great deal of understanding by Twelve and R.

I've concluded that adolescence must be like an unending string of Irrational Days, and I'm just not sure there is enough space, comforting food, and understanding in this household.

We may need to move.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Interstitial Parenting, Part One

Interstitial space: The gap between the principle and the reality. I've got a bunch of them, mostly in the realms of heterosexuality, femininity, oppression, and privilege: I recognize the inherent impossibility of relating to a man as an equal, but I'm partnered with one. I understand the role of conventional femininity in perpetuating the second-class status of both all women and unattractive women, but look at me and you see a fairly attractive, mostly feminine woman. I don't want to participate in causing oppression or experience unearned privilege, but all I really do when you get right down to it is try to treat all people well and continue to expect to be treated well by everyone.

When it comes to raising a daughter, I've always had excellent principles. No candy! Lots of vegetables! No television! No movies! No exposure to hypersexualized media images of femininity! No negative body talk! No music with inappropriate lyrics! One hundred percent edifying conversations! Books with positive images of strong, independent women! Excellent adult friend role models!

Well, you can imagine how well all that works. The candy embargo lasted until she was about a year old, when she discovered what candy is. Vegetables were a bit more successful, at least until school lunches became unavoidably more convenient. We've never had TV at home, but you'd be surprised at how many places there are for a kid to encounter the latest shows. Likewise with movies, media images, negative body talk, and don't even get me started on the sorry state of popular music these days.

We do okay with edifying conversations, unless you count the references to farts, gonads, and nail polish. We've got books by the dozens, depending on whether adolescent babysitters count as strong and independent. And then there's the adult role models part.

Twelve has a wide assortment of adults in her life. Well-educated adults. Nerdy adults. Adults she's known as long as she can remember and who have witnessed her ascent into awesomeness over the last few years. Ideally these adults would be anti-oppression advocates for social justice, totally committed to helping create a utopian alternate reality in which to raise Twelve.

Yeah, hasn't quite worked out that way. Not all of Twelve's adult friends are pillars of the social justice community. They're great people, by all but the strictest feminist standards, but they're not quite perfect. A few examples: Several of the women take pole dancing lessons occasionally, without so much as a canned third wave rhetorical justification. At least one of the 40-something men routinely chases after 20-something women with no awareness of the dynamics of gender, age, and power. One couple is composed of a cop husband and a DV advocate wife, while another is a male building contractor and a female therapist/homemaker - how much more stereotypical could we possibly get, right?

You know what, though? It's okay to live in the space between the principle and the reality. The wanna be pole dancers may not be able to articulate it, but they're living a third-wave reality to the extent that anyone can. The tail-chasing guy may be a stereotypical guy in some ways, but he routinely cooks for all of us and mixes a mean mojito. The cop dislikes emotionally taxing dramatic television and verbally processes everything. The women's advocate has short hair and is very nearly a blue belt in jiu jitsu. The builder does tend to look for biological explanations for gender differences, but he's not a total jerk about it. The therapist is, well, a bit crazy, and this is why we're such close friends. In another couple, he may be an engineer, but so is she - and she's the one who owns their home.

All in all, the adults in Twelve's life come closer than they realize to embodying the alternate reality that I'm going for; a reality in which people are people, with less regard for gender conformity than they probably realize. As a whole, feminism tends to define conventional gender roles as outdated and oppressive, which isn't wrong, but does oversimplify just a bit. As long as there's a reasonable sprinkling of guys doing girly things and girls doing guy things, I figure Twelve will be okay.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

"I'm twelve years old - I shouldn't have ANY balls in my pants!"

Ah, Twelve. Your gleeful enjoyment of certain types of bodily humor just never gets old, does it? First it was the basic functions, when any mention of poop, pee, or farting was good for a laugh. In particular, the word "fart." For several years now, just saying "fart" to Twelve triggers helpless laughter. Saying it several times in a row heightens the effect, until she gets to that stage where you know she's forcing herself to keep going.

In the last few months, Twelve has become increasingly aware of the nuances of body part humor. Between my feminism and R's science, we pretty much just use all the words, and Twelve's starting to pick up on this. Gonads, testicles, junk, bosoms, breasts, sexuality ... just say the word, and she laughs, even when she has no idea why. She just knows it's somehow sexual or about boys and that's good enough. I figure we may as well expose her to everything (that's not contributing to oppression or otherwise harmful, I mean) and that she'll either get it, in which case she's fine, or it will go over her head, in which case, again, she's fine.

For awhile there, she even experimented with appending "That's what she said" to things that female-identified persons had said. No clue about the sexual innuendo. It was HILARIOUS. I never did manage to write down a direct quote, but it was along the lines of me saying something like "Grandma told me she's going to come to your volleyball game tomorrow" and Twelve saying, under her breath in a way that totally gave away the fact that she was just testing it out, "That's what she said."

Today we woke up to a couple of inches of fresh snow, which is unusual enough that we bundled up for a walk. Somehow, Twelve was wearing tight pants that didn't want to stay up. As in, she's bending over to scoop up a handful of snow, and her pants are down around her butt. Cue general mockery (on the part of the adults) and show-offy, hopping-around, wedgie-picking (Twelve's response).

(When it comes to her wardrobe, I don't ask questions and I don't demand anything other than relative weather-appropriateness. Luckily Twelve is modest and the worst I ever have to do is grouse about how cold she must be and tell her to put on another layer. It's like that Family Circus cartoon where Dolly tells the little brothers that they have to put on sweaters because Mommy's cold.)

Anyway, naturally Twelve and R started throwing snowballs at each other (Twelve's ability to do this being significantly impaired by uncontrollable laughter). I - threatening DIRE consequences should I become collateral damage - ended up back in the house, posting on Facebook that no one need worry about the shrieking because it's just a snowball fight. Soon enough, in they came, R with snow inexplicably packed in behind his glasses and Twelve with snow, well, everywhere.

During dinner, in between overly dramatic complaints about too-numerous green beans, Twelve accused R of putting a snowball down her pants. I retorted with something about it being awfully easy when her pants were falling off. Twelve, who I sometimes fear is practicing to be a stand-up comic, pretty much ended the conversation with a fairly well-timed, "I'm twelve years old - I shouldn't have ANY balls in my pants!"

I doubt she really meant it this way, but my feeling is: No, no, you shouldn't. Let's hold off on anybody getting into your pants for a few more years, shall we?

Friday, January 13, 2012

UPDATE: Blue Nail Polish

The shimmery blue nail polish turned out to be worth all of the 99 cents that Twelve paid for it. While it was on, it came off with the slightest of friction, and when I tried to take it off, it left a blue stain on my nails AND the surrounding skin. Luckily, a long hot shower and nubby washcloth did the trick, and I was able to conduct my Important Professional Shit in an appropriately blue-nail-polish-free manner.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Letting Go, Holding On

All her life, I've encouraged Twelve to be independent. Bit by bit, she's taken on more responsibility and earned more freedom. I'm the first to admit that my life gets easier with each bit, but my real goal has always been to parent myself out of a job. If I time it just right, I figure, by the time she's eighteen I'll on the road to sunny Mexico (figuratively speaking, although I am planning to have a fantastic midlife crisis involving lots of travel to warm places).

A lot of the early stuff is pretty fuzzy by now, but I remember a moment when Twelve was maybe a year old, and had just crashed to her bottom after a failed attempt to pull herself to standing. She looked up at me, clearly wondering if she needed to cry. I looked at her and smiled, with a cheerful and matter-of-fact, "You're just fine!" She tried again, and pulled herself back up. Lesson learned: I don't need Mommy when I startle myself by sitting down unexpectedly.

The stakes have gotten higher every year: In the third grade, she rode her scooter to school each morning and I stopped being responsible for getting her out of bed. At age ten, when we moved into a house with a (somehow) exciting front-loading washing machine in the basement, she started doing her own laundry. Later that year, she learned to use the city bus system to get to and from school. Now, in the sixth grade, she bikes to school - so far, regardless of the weather - and packs her own lunch.

I can't quite take full credit for this, however: There's something about Twelve that makes her go above and beyond. Her first steps were away from me - luckily, we were in a safe place. In the fourth grade, I walked her the two blocks to the city bus stop on the first day or two, just on principle. The second day, I got a phone call from the bus: "Mom, can I just stay on the bus and get off at the library? I'll walk home when I'm done." She is now expected to keep me informed of her whereabouts, but she can pretty much go wherever she's comfortable going - on foot, by bicycle, or on the bus.

The interesting thing is that now, after over a decade of gently encouraging her to go out into the world on her own and do her thing, I'm holding on tighter than ever. Not in a restrictive way, not to restrict the levels of freedom and responsibility she's achieved, but in a companionable, unobtrusively available sort of way. Sure, we can go to the Goodwill, yet another hoodie can't hurt. Yeah, let's go to the grocery store, you do need lunch foods. Whoa, your new nail polish pens are super-duper exciting! Yes, I can be home when you get home from school today. And, occasionally (with a dramatic sigh): Okay, I will put your laundry in the dryer before I go to bed.

I've got two complementary theories about why I've suddenly developed this approach. First, I've heard the stories. I know that a teenage nightmare might be just around the next birthday, and I'm terrified. Twelve is a lovely - if albeit periodically maddening - young person, and I want to enjoy it whilst it lasts. If she wants to go shopping with me, then by golly, we're going to go shopping. If she wants to sit on my lap, whadda ya know, my lap is available. Not to be overly sappy about it, but every day is a gift.

Second, Mary Pipher wrote this book called Reviving Ophelia. A great book. I haven't quite decided if it should be read before your daughter hits adolescence (so you know what to avoid), or after (so you know what you avoided), but you should definitely read it. Anyway, she says something about teenage angst having to do with the confusing state of wanting lots of separation from parents but at the same time needing lots of support from parents. I figure that Twelve has always had as much separation as she wants, so she's probably okay there for now, and I might as well add in some extra support.

If it just so happens that support comes in the form of shimmery turquoise nail polish that I am definitely going to have to remove before teaching my next class, so be it.

Reading: Keeping up with Twelve

Twelve did not really start reading until she was nine or ten, but has been making up for it in the last couple of years. In the last few months, though, we've been madly reading the same books, arguing playfully about who gets to read what first and pretending to spoil the endings for each other.

My policy has always been that she can read whatever she wants. When she first started reading independently, I didn't push any given book overly much, I just made piles of secondhand paperbacks appear, and casually mentioned that she was welcome to read any of the books that have been on the shelves as long as she can remember. So far, she's avoided the Dworkin/Firestone/Borg/Ehrenreich/Kingsolver/Gladwell shelves entirely.

At the same time, I wanted her to read good books. I made my peace with the Babysitters' Club a few years back because a friend of mine handed down approximately one billion Babysitters' Club books to her, but how could I possibly encourage Good Literature without making it sound, well, boring? We all know what the official stamp of approval does to the appeal of anything. (Sorry, mom, I never did read anything by David Copperfield. Or was that the name of a character?)

Luckily, she definitely enjoyed quite a few of the books I loved as a child and which still occupy my bookshelves; Gone Away Lake, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and the Anastasia books, to name a few. I have absolutely loved re-reading them alongside her. (Full confession: I read Gone Away Lake and its sequel every couple of years anyway.)

Our current state of obsession, though, really started with Lois Lowry's Anastasia books. One afternoon, we took turns reading aloud the opening section of the one in which Anastasia is lying on the floor groaning, but doesn't realize that groaning isn't actually a pronunciation of the word 'groan,' so her mom comes in because she thought she heard Anastasia calling 'mom.' It may not sound like much of a scene, but when you are reading it to your twelve-year-old through giggles and both of you are acting out the deathbed scenes along with Anastasia (Charlotte, of Charlotte's Web, is a highlight), it's HILARIOUS.

I'm not sure who to thank for introducing Twelve to Hunger Games, but we both slurped it right up and demanded more. That series really cemented the habit of looking for and reading books together. We soon "discovered" that if we like a book, the same person might have written others! The mad hunt for all the Anastasia books soon led to excitement about finding any Lois Lowry title. I told Twelve about how excited I was as a child when I described a book I'd read to the librarian, who nodded knowingly and led me to an ENTIRE SHELF of Boxcar Children titles. What I didn't tell her is how exciting it is to relive that experience with her - or how much fun it is to have a really, really good excuse to read young adult fiction!

Also, Twelve wants to sit on my lap now.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Introducing Twelve, the Diary of, and the Characters Herein

Twelve is an overwhelmingly delightful person who has been twelve for about three months. She's tall for her age, smart, unexpectedly funny, habitually snarky, thoroughly independent, selectively capable, and inconveniently logical. She's beautiful, and I really, really wish it was ethical to share pictures.

I'm her mom. I sew. I read. I go to graduate school. I work part-time at a job unrelated to any of the above, for the money but also because when I am there I do not have to worry about the fact that I am not accomplishing any of the things I am supposed to be accomplishing.

My partner is R. His relationship to Twelve has no name. Not father, not stepfather, not uncle, not big brother, not friend, not teacher, not anything for which a term exists. This does not seem to bother any of us. R and Twelve are quite fond of each other, but you didn't hear it from me.

Various friends and relations. In Twelve's life, all of the adults are specialists and all but a couple have college degrees: Ornithology, herpetology, rocket science, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, business, immunology, counseling, construction, Cuban dance, athletic training, Women Studies, public policy, geology. When Twelve has a question, I take a stab at the answer and suggest that she call the appropriate expert. When Twelve has a school science project, it's discussed with gravity by experts. When Twelve is ready for college, she'll have options across the country with faculty who have known her most of her life. Twelve takes none of this very seriously.

About a month ago (in the shower, the source of all inspiration), I realized that I have Things to Say about her, about the charmed and ridiculous life she leads, about raising her thus far, and about how I hope to carry on raising her. Things that I will want to remember later; Things that might even be interesting to someone else.

So, it's begun: A chronicle of my daughter's twelfth year, so that I don't forget how amazing it was.