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.