Monday, February 25, 2013

Perfection vs. Chaos vs. NO THANK YOU

About a month ago, I officially (if privately) declared myself as being a part-time doctoral dissertation proposal writer. My new co-advisors (who are fantastic, compared to my previous nightmare advisor - I got an email from them asking if I wanted to meet to discuss my progress, and nearly fell out of my chair) are encouraging me to set my own pace, and when one sets one's own pace, why should one be knocking herself out when one does not have to? It was remarkably freeing to disengage myself from the expectation that I be frantically trying to finish.

And then today a couple of friends shared this post about how we sanitize our lives before posting them on Facebook and how we really should be sharing more of the reality - frustrations, spilled cocoa, and all. That's all very well and good, I suppose - although a more truthful version of my news feed would involve way more carbohydrate cravings than anyone is interested in hearing about, particularly from a thin person - but it also just idealizes the other end of the spectrum.

The way I'm seeing it this afternoon, there are two fields of battle on the internet, as well as "IRL": 'Whose life is more perfect' (Pintrest, you are an accessory here) and 'Whose life is most hectic.' Both options exhaust me. I'd like to declare myself the Switzerland of this particular war. I would like to just not play this game. I would like to define perfection for my own self, and this morning that was waking up on a Monday morning with one important task on my list: Mail four packages.

You see, by being on the part-time track, I am rediscovering things about myself that I had lost and hadn't even remembered to miss; laughing out loud at the computer screen and going out of my way to do nice things for people. I surprised myself at one point, bursting into laughter at the guy who fell off a treadmill, shoes flying every which way. I laughed when Bones breezed through Booth's crossword puzzle and then earnestly asked where Gilligan's Island is located. It's such an amazing feeling! It's like deja vu; I think I remember it but I'm not quite sure.

One of my packages this morning was just my Gingher scissors that need sharpening (dropping really good scissors on a cement floor should be punishable by a lot more than an eight dollar refurbishing fee). The other three, though, were little presents for friends across the country, people that I don't necessarily even know very well, I just felt like doing something nice for them. This shouldn't feel so unusual, is the point; I used to be the kind of person who did stuff like this on a fairly regular basis, I think. I don't want to live a life in which writing an address and making a trip to the automated postage thingy feels like the final, camel-killing straw. I don't want the little things in life to be shoved out by the panic of too much to do. We'd have to ask my friends if they really wanted me to make them a set of cloth napkins, but - cliche alert - it's the little things in life that really matter.

I love/hate it when yet another cliche turns out to be true. I love that we have such pat phrases to describe life truths, but I hate not being able to come up with a more original way to say it. I feel like I did when I read The Dialectic of Sex for the first time and had an utterly profound realization, only to turn the page and discover that Shulamith Firestone had figured it out before I was even born.

It's also true that it's easy for me to come to this conclusion from my relatively privileged position. Between child support, the margin on the house I rent out, a very lucky housing situation, and a modest standard of living, our basic needs are mostly covered. I can work part-time, write my dissertation part-time, and still have time for three o'clock tea with Twelve and the occasional gratuitous Anastasia re-read.

I'd conclude with something cheesy and grossly side-steppy like "everybody should be so lucky," but what I really mean is that everyone should be empowered to pursue whatever kind of life they want, whether that is super-perfect or super-frantic or just plain chill. This is partly - perhaps mostly - a call for society to distribute wealth in a manner that makes this possible, but for many of us in the middle class it's also a question of personal empowerment; a personal decision to step off the treadmill (hopefully gracefully and with no loss of shoes) and define success for oneself.

My next challenge is to define my parenting efforts as successful even though Twelve's definition of success still involves owning handbags with garish logos.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Nine Weird Steps to a Fantastic Thirteen-Year-Old Daughter

Awhile back, I posted something precious about Twelve on Facebook, and one of the comments was a semi-serious "How did you do it?"-type question. I've been sitting on the idea until now because I couldn't quite put my finger on how to explain what I've done that's made Twelve so totally awesome. I was thinking about it again yesterday, because my high schooler friend, A, came over for tea and a catch-up and I realized that she and Twelve are heading for similar experiences in early adulthood, when they realize that their peers are dunderheads. They are both ahead of the game right now - A particularly in academics, Twelve particularly in social awareness, and both in common sense and critical thinking more generally - and I suspect that they both expect on some level that eventually they will be in the company of equals.

I'm very sorry, ladies, but that's not going to happen.

For Twelve, the problem is that she's going to show up at the dorm with carefully chosen accessories and high hopes for meeting fun new people, only to realize that almost everyone else is socially awkward, insecure, and incapable of doing their own laundry. She'll be excited about the first party she's invited to, until she gets there and realizes that she had more fun with her mom's friends when she was thirteen. (True story: We were just sitting around comparing Sidecar recipes when she came out of her room and asked me if we could play Catchphrase. I said Sure, but only if you make it happen. Ninety seconds later, that red disk was making its way around the room, and it was an excellent party.) I've been very careful to expose her to just enough adult behavior to completely demystify it for her. I haven't let her taste alcohol yet, but I hope that her first drinking experiences are at home and I hope that she learns to appreciate the difference between good tequila and the well crap that you get for two bucks at college town bars.

For A, the problem is that she's going to show up in her first college classes with carefully selected required textbooks and high hopes for being challenged academically, only to realize that her written work is still getting perfect marks because she's a competent writer and the only student who actually grasped the point of the assignment. Go to the most academically rigorous school you can find, I told her, because even at the doctoral level at my state university I am praised for writing that I barely want to claim. She's also struggling to maintain her values, amongst peers who seem more concerned with the number of likes they accumulate on Instagram than things like human trafficking and global poverty.

Anyway, I was trying to identify some similarities in A's mother's parenting approach and mine, to maybe come up with a list of instructions, when I figured out the real answer, which is as follows:

How to Raise a Fantastic Thirteen-Year-Old Daughter

Step One: Be Successfully Nurtured. It's really hard to pass along what we haven't received. Possible, I suppose, but difficult. As I was just saying (wearing my Captain Obvious hat) to my sister in regards to my niece who just doesn't like strange people, it's good for her to be securely attached to her known caregivers. It's a pain in the ass, yes, because it's going to be a lot more work to help her learn to transition between situations, but it's infinitely better than the alternative.

Step Two: Be (or Become) Highly Educated. The mother's level of education is the single most significant predictor of individual success, period. As a bonus, attending college while your daughter is growing up means that she literally cannot conceive of life without higher education.

Step Three: Have Sufficient Financial Resources. Awhile back, some cutesy thing went around Facebook to the effect that the problem with kids today is that they need to learn to cook, clean their rooms, do their homework, go outside and play, etc, etc. To which I replied indignantly along the lines of (but with much gentler phrasing) Okay, now we just need to ensure that every child has a fully stocked kitchen, an appropriately furnished bedroom, schools that bother to assign homework and spaces at home in which to do it, and neighborhoods in which it is FUCKING SAFE TO BE OUTDOORS.

Step Four: Live in a Place with Excellent Infrastructure. You want well-funded fire and police departments, ample, safe, and convenient playgrounds, sidewalks, organic grocery stores, libraries, parks, and schools. A major state college town with lots of excellent public schools and at least three private schools is good, especially if your third grader can walk or ride her scooter to elementary school and then later, in a completely different neighborhood, bike to the fantastic small public middle school that's eighteen blocks away.

Step Five: Pick Private School. The first time you visit, Waldorf kindergarten classrooms seem completely and totally weird. Stick with it, though, because by about the third visit you cannot imagine how kindergarten could ever be any other way. The muted colors and natural materials somehow imbue the space with a kind of magic. For two years, I couldn't go in that room without tearing up a little bit, and every 'regular' kindergarten classroom I've seen since seems chaotic and harshly overstimulating. Never mind that it costs as much as college tuition; you may be eligible for a tuition adjustment that, in the words of Tim Farrington, brings "the cost of the grand gesture down from inconceivable to merely prodigal."

Step Six: Be and Breed White. White children find it much easier to fit in and feel normal; they are broadly represented everywhere, and don't have to bother to learn how to switch between multiple cultures to navigate home and public spaces.

Step Seven: Have Thin Genes. With thin genes, your child will never have to seriously worry about her size. She might show you a pinched flap of midriff and you might despair that she actually believes that the pictures in magazines actually look like that, but she'll fit into regular desks and regular airplane seats and find clothes that fit in regular stores. Exercise will be about becoming more athletic, and you can joke about turning into all those cupcakes you've eaten rather than worry about diabetes.

Step Eight: Be and Breed Beautiful. This is inextricably linked to steps Six and Seven; your daughter will have a snowball's chance of reaching Step Eight herself if you don't have thin genes and if you're not white or pretty close to looking like it. Symmetrical features and straight teeth are absolute musts; the latter can be faked with enough orthodontia, so you might get lucky there.

Step Nine: Provide Appropriate Costuming. Help your daughter dress the way she wants to be seen. If necessary, buy secondhand clothing to help her pass herself off as a child of a wealthier family, even if the peers she's emulating are backed by ten times your household income.

Okay, I'm sick of this exercise, so - like the people who collect a bunch of funny photos or clever household hints and then just count them and call it a headline - I'm stopping now, with no pretense to the list's comprehensiveness. I don't mean to suggest that I haven't contributed anything to Twelve's general awesomeness, because I'm sure I have. However, I'm equally sure that whatever actual advice I could come up with would be absolutely grounded in these fundamental realities. It's always been easy for me to encourage Twelve to be independent and capable, because our neighborhoods are safe and our infrastructure quite good.

Case in point: She made cupcakes from scratch yesterday, from ingredients and with equipment that are customarily present in our kitchen. She preheated the oven and used a portion scoop to distribute the batter into the hot pink zebra patterned cupcake papers she found in her Christmas stocking. I showed her the miraculous transformation of butter, vanilla, milk, and powdered sugar into frosting via KitchenAid (she really should have been more impressed). After the finished cakes cooled on the special baking cooling racks, she frosted them and added the several different kinds of decorative sprinkles.

Okay, so our kitchen isn't perfect; the baking soda jar was empty and she had to look up how much baking powder to use instead. She did that all on her own, now that I think about it, providing another handy example of how our kitchen's fundamental infrastructure allowed her to practice the kind of resourcefulness that will help her do things like checking the syllabus if she has a question about an assignment instead of emailing the professor in an incoherent panic at the last minute.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Hand-Me-Down Values

I grew up wearing other people's clothes. Specifically, my older cousin's. Whenever we saw them, I usually ended up with a few paper bags of her outgrown clothing to go through. They sort of fit, at least until I got a lot taller than her, and I suppose they were stylish enough, though from photos it's hard to distinguish awful-because-eighties from awful-during-eighties.

We rarely shopped for new clothes, and when we did, it was just the clearance racks. It wasn't that my family couldn't afford it, I don't think; it was that clothes for the kids weren't a priority to the breadwinner, so they weren't purchased. Our mom went along with it, because that's what you do when you are a young Christian homemaker wife and mother, and we kids didn't know any differently. How was I supposed to know at age eight that being worried about money when our dad bought a new power tool meant that his financial priorities were all fucked up?

I didn't mind about the hand-me-down clothes - it didn't occur to me to mind - until junior high, when I entered public school and had something to compare my clothes with. I realized that mine were all wrong and that other people did things like go to the store in August and buy a new wardrobe for school. Some families designated hundreds - hundreds! - of dollars especially for that purpose, which I swear to god I didn't know was possible.

After my undergraduate degree, when Twelve was little and I had a 'real' job, I went through a stage of buying new clothes for her, in batches, from Gap or another of those generic but 'name brand' shops. That lasted until the credit card debt started piling up and I went to graduate school to become a highly educated person with skills no one wants to actually pay for.

I still don't see the point of paying full price for anything, especially now that I know that the markup on retail clothing is upwards of fifty percent. And then there's the ethical question of apparel production, which makes purchasing new clothes from most brands an absolutely immoral act. So we buy secondhand for the most part, though I do make my own clothes when I can find soft jersey knits in good colors.

Twelve has, I hope, a healthy respect for the fact that our lifestyle includes only occasional purchases of relatively big-ticket items. I don't think that she worries that we won't be able to pay rent because we spent too much on clothes. It's all relative, of course, in that the things that are big-ticket to us are absolutely impossibly astronomically big-ticket to some and business-as-usual to others. We also have a particular value system in that we'll pay more for certain things, like good boot socks, and never dream of spending much on others, like Juicy Couture wallets. (Forty bucks for a wallet? Are you kidding me?)

It helps that her dad buys her things like color-coordinated Beats headphones and Coach bag (THEY FUCKING MATCH), so she fits in just fine at school, but one of the things I really appreciate about my otherwise ridiculous progeny is her sensible approach to buying clothes. She is perfectly satisfied with her thrift store clothing at three and four and five bucks a pop. And why wouldn't she be? She gets way more stuff that way than she would if she insisted that everything come from a mall.

But the thing is, I would buy her new clothes from the mall if that's what it took for her to feel good about what she wore. There wouldn't be as much of it - I'm not ever going to do the credit card debt thing again, thankyouverymuch - but if for some reason she needed that, I'd make it happen. I'd be symbolically rescuing my former self, I'm sure, but what else is parenthood if not the chance to work through one's own issues? Abused children vow not to inflict similar abuse on their own offspring, impoverished children become workaholic adults in the quest of giving their own children a better life, and children of argumentative parents work really hard to achieve harmony in their adult partnerships.

The hand-me-down system remains alive and well in my extended family. I don't get paper bags of my cousin's castoffs anymore, but unwanted clothing is still circulated until ... I don't know what eventually happens to it. I imagine that eventually someone either keeps it or takes it to Goodwill, but whenever I see my mom, she has some sort of hand-me-down bag for us, usually with clothes or some sort of sewing paraphernalia. Once the bag contained a really terrible black velvet button-up shirt that I had gotten rid of several years before. It had made the rounds of my sister and at least two aunts before coming back to me.

Don't get me wrong, it's a great system much of the time. R has inherited quite a few things from my brother, a beneficial partnership because my brother is quite the clothes horse and R is, well, let's just say that I've definitely pondered the ethics of getting rid of certain garments while their owner is out of the country. Twelve also has a variety of t-shirts and sweatshirts that are remnants of my sister's high school and college athletic days. It is a very sweet symbol of the auntie-niece relationship and signifies our as-yet-unfounded expectation that Twelve will become an athlete. The garments lead to some pretty surreal situations that we get a kick out of; her PE teacher recognized a high school track sweatshirt because he had previously taught at a neighboring school. When the orthopedist recognized one of the college basketball t-shirts, I gestured toward it and said 'my little sister' by way of explanation. His expression led me to quickly clarify that the t-shirt, not the wearer, was my sister's. The rusty patio furniture that came with the house R lived in when I met him has since been handed around amongst our friends at least three times. It's currently on the back patio of the house that I helped our friend N pick out, and I think I speak for all of us when I say that we are really looking forward to that first shiveringly optimistic cookout of the spring.

I love that Twelve has eaten so many times at the same set of crappy-ass patio furniture. I love that hand-me-down clothes mean something different to Twelve than they did to me. She wears her Auntie's old t-shirts and hoodies because her aunt is awesome, not because she has no other options. I love that wearing secondhand clothes is for Twelve a pragmatic way to get more of what she wants, not a resented result of a parent's reluctance to spend money on her.

However, I really hope she doesn't figure out that I'd buy her clothes at the mall if necessary. I really hate malls.