Saturday, July 23, 2011

The World is Too Much with Us

So much sadness recently: a massacre, a young woman's talent and potential wasted, unexplained deaths, children killed in horrific ways.  Summer is the time I spend almost every waking hour (and many sleeping ones, especially when we travel), with my children, and I invariably begin to feel that looming fear and lack of control as we prepare to go our separate school ways in August.  A spate of highly publicized bad news presses in on the fragile membrane of every family's bubble of bliss, reminding us that of course these tragedies remain possible. The fears of threats to my people spike and wane in cycles, with the occasional wide-eyed midnight waking hours worrying about kidnappers and car accidents.  But mostly I feel safe.

I am much more susceptible to the dull ache of daily reminders that we've still got work to do to keep hopelessness at bay.  I was recently reading an essay by Poe Ballantine in The Sun in which he describes a familiar and discouraging landscape:
...families were divided, parents divorced, children drowning under waves of chemical pleasure like flies in syrup.  Why were the mom and dad drunk?  Why did they seem not to care?  Why did they molest and beat their daughters and sons or, at best, leave them unattended?  Why didn't someone clean the kitchen, fix the heater, mow the lawn, have that broken-down car towed away?  Why did everyone give up?  What was the source of all this anguish and despair?  Why, in every house, was the television always on?
Children without adequate resources for enriching camps and family field trips often languish during these long summers and then return to school each fall, where a free public education attempts to provide an equal opportunity for all, despite unequal advantages and privileges.  I often feel daunted by the task before us.

I'd pay more taxes if I knew we could ensure good jobs, clean dwellings, childcare, medical care, rehab programs, counseling, and healthy food for all.

I spoke with a fellow educator about this phenomenon of recognizing our impotence in the face of enduring cycles which provide challenges in our work:  poverty, families in crisis, addiction, illness.

He reminded me of the Buddhist practice of acknowledging reality and recognizing one's limitations, without giving up or feeling helpless (or unhelpful).

How do you cope with and reconcile the realities around you?  How do you stave off fear, panic, and the gloom of enduring poverty, famine, and depravity?  Escape?  Assemble an earthquake kit?  Install an alarm system?  Plant a garden?

Cultivating connections with my people helps, starting with, of course, my inner sanctum--the four of us and critters.  When I feel us spinning out--over-scheduled and overtired--I tend to close our doors and protect our time together.  Family dinners, family walks, and family movie nights, as simple (and cheap) as they are, instill some confidence in me that all is right with my world, and that I am capable of affecting the greater one as well.

I am reading The Future of Success (Working and Living in the New Economy) by former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, who argues that "one way to better social balance might be through a great moral and spiritual 'reawakening' in which people rose en masse to renounce the excesses of acquisitive individualism."  Acknowledging, however, the difficulty of channeling "moral fervor" in any one agreeable direction, he advocates for a balanced society which would help "cushion people against sudden economic shocks," "widen the circle of prosperity," "give caring attention to those who need it most," and "reverse the sorting mechanisms" which create distinctions between the qualities of neighborhoods and schools.  I know many would argue that as an American I ought to be focused primarily on my own bootstraps, but I've come to recognize my sense of well being as highly affected by the well being of those around me.

In the meantime (while waiting for the revolution), I'll keep on keepin' on:  Work on my personal health and the health of my family.  Assist our neighbors.  Offer a meal.  Donate a little.  Give some time.

What does Sarah McLachlan say?  "The world is on fire/it's more than I can handle...I'll tap into the water/bring what I am able."

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Follow-Through is a Bitch

Not to mention that it makes me feel like one, too.

The thing about parenting is that it is fraught with threats. The threats start in the womb, what with the threat of miscarriage and then of developmental disabilities, which give way to threats of catastrophic injury, kidnapping, and cancer. Heck, I was just trying to convince myself the other day that I could probably start relaxing about drowning, when I recalled that a local college student recently drowned in a river while studying abroad.

While the threats may dull, they never fade away completely. And underpinning these fears is the threat of failing at parenting.  Whatever 'failing' is.

Which is part of why we invest so much energy in trying to do it right. Whatever 'right' is. Understanding we can't control the perils of the world and their potential effects on our offspring, we wrestle ourselves instead. Naturally, that desire to control an unruly, entropic universe translates into urges to control our children. Metaphorically speaking, we wrestle with them, too. And some days they tap out more readily.

I've been reminding myself and emphasizing that my job as a parent is to promote the health and safety of my children and help them be the best 'themselves' they can be.  When I focus on these goals, my priorities are intact and I keep my controlling tendencies at bay.  Nevertheless, while eating on the couch is not a threat to health, safety, or good character, I can't let it be okay.  I don't want to have too many rules, but what can I say.  I have some rules.

This summer our daughters and I have spent a lot of time together, traveling, out and about, and at home.      A month in, as I realize that most of time my time has been devoted exclusively to them and their needs, I recognize some signs that helping the girls be their best selves means a little humility training.  These signs include you put the wrong kind of jam on my sandwich, Mom; this isn't the bathing suit I wanted to wear, Mom; why can't we do it right now, Mom?  Okay, how about now?; and, but I don't want to go!

Naturally, ungrateful attitudes and senses of entitlement have been met with the cliched allusions to children without such luxuries as organic jam, swimsuits (and places to swim), available mothers, and fun destinations (not to mention the car we use to get there).  And threats.  Threats, of course!  The threats.  Threats of Time Out, toys in solitary confinement, withholding of privileges.

Years ago, a colleague and parent of two described to me the sad conclusion of a family night out to dinner when his kids were in high school.  Apparently brother and sister were quibbling in the backseat en route to the restaurant, squabbling and being unpleasant as they took their seats and surveyed the menu.  My coworker and his wife looked at each other across the table and asked, "Do you want to be here right now...with them?  Like this?  And pay good money for it?"  No, they didn't.  So, despite having drinks and appetizers on the way, they paid for their order, and calmly left the joint with their kids in tow.  Their children were aghast.  But the parents made their point:  Be nice.  Be pleasant.  Or else.

And I know someone told me about someone they knew who turned the car around on the freeway halfway to Disneyland because the kids were acting like (as my father accused his five children from time to time) ungrateful pigs.  I thought that was big.  I thought that was a real parenting humdinger.  Assuming the parents really wanted to go to Disneyland, too.

Like we wanted to go to Soak City yesterday.  Husband had the day off...a day off in common with me in the summer, a rarity.  And we planned to take the girls to the local water park for a family adventure.  But the morning was a struggle with general lack of cooperation and good cheer, chores were neglected, requests for ponytails and toothbrushing were ignored or met with indolence, and we loaded in the car feeling exasperated instead of excited.  After ten minutes in the car, daughter decided her swimsuit wasn't suitable for a day on the water slides--the same suit I earlier suggested pairing with shorts--and then wouldn't accept her reality and adjust her attitude, OR ELSE, as we threatened.  We watched in the rear view mirror as the car hurtled closer to Splash Nirvana.  Tears were rolling.  Pouting was not concluding.

So we turned the car around.

As a friend who is reading Scream Free Parenting quoted to me later in the day, "Parents, watch what you threaten.  Be prepared to live with it."

Because we wanted to cry too.  We pulled up at home, downcast but resolved, with apologetic yet defiant daughter.  We all needed to retreat to our corners, husband with a magazine, I with cleaner and sponge, daughters to the fairy garden in the backyard.  After some time regrouping, we salvaged our Family Day, which was not to be sacrificed.  We had a picnic and a swim, and everyone was happy, despite the unspoken recognition that we could have been floating together on the Lazy River.

The moral of this story?  I am not sure.  I did not feel the triumph of Ultimate Parenting Follow-Through (there are no prizes for sweeping the family out of the restaurant or canceling plans), wishing instead for a lesser victory earlier in the day, resulting in cooperative, cheerful children and the day unfolding as envisioned.

Were our daughters ultimately contrite and conscious of their choices and consequences?  Yes.  Will they continue to test limits?  Invariably.  Will they believe us next time we threaten to call their bluffs?  Surely.

But here's to not getting there again, anytime soon.

I'm off in search of a mutually agreeable jam for sandwiches.  But ultimately, you'll get what you get and you won't throw a fit.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

A Piercing Dilemma

I had my ears pierced at 13, but I don't remember feeling like I was the last of the hole-less ears to be impaled on my block. Big Sis, however, is fairly surrounded by friends, neighbors, classmates--and now relative, as her cousin just got hers done--with pierced ears. Our little girl who was formerly a little frightened of the process is suddenly feeling very left out.

But I don't want to budge on making her wait on this "milestone." Actually, I already budged. In a knee-jerk compromise, I promised she could have her ears pierced when she finished elementary school. She'll be...eleven? Twelve? That's less than thirteen, our original threshold, after all...

Nevertheless, I find myself examining my rationale for delaying the inevitable. It's not a moral debate. I don't think ear-piercing is dirty or inappropriate or scandalous or that she can't take care of her ears or earrings. My reluctance comes from deep in my gut...from the same place that spawns overwhelming urges to scoop her up and hold her tight and stunt her growth, somehow.

I just don't want my child to have holes in her skin...yet. She's my child...still a child. There's only so much time for being one, and for looking like one. For sporting kids' clothes and flat shoes and pigtails and a gap-toothed smile. She feels too little and unmarred for now. I can't want her to have earrings.

I am very comfortable upholding and maintaining parenting stances that go a bit against the grain, even if everyone else is doing it, Mom! And I know my daughter will accept the limits we determine.

Still I can't help asking myself if this is more about me than about her. About ideals of Peter Pan and elusive innocence I am transferring to my daughter. Is this a hill to die on, especially when Big Sis has already packed up her big guns in favor of silent longing? Should there be a reward for sweet acquiescence?

Your thoughts are welcome; I'm all ears (with five holes).

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Beer is Nice in Oregon, and So Are the People

I just blogged about preferring to crash at your place, didn't I? Be glad we didn't land on your doorstep the other night, when we derailed from our overnight train (Portland--->Oakland) in Eugene after Big Sis lost her lunch on the seat next to her, and in the aisle, and on her shirt and on my jacket AND in the plastic Amtrak kids' goody bag with the box of crayons remaining inside.

No one on the train even looked horrified. Or made that face of ewwww. I don't care where they were from; I am giving the credit to Oregon. Because besides the guy on the road who flipped off my sister, everyone in Oregon has been remarkably kind. Not disingenuous, sticky-sweet ingratiating, but nice. Like it's normal to be concerned about people and willing to go out of one's way. Even the strung-out looking woman we encountered today near the "Parole/Probations" building who was fighting with her boyfriend thoughtfully shushed him with a "there are little kids!" when she saw us coming.

When it seemed a better solution for everyone concerned that we get off the train in Eugene and hope that the 24-hour waiting period wasn't the same as incubation for next kid's bout of flu, the conductor helped reserve us places on the next night's train, and a helpful man at the depot pointed out that the Hilton was within walking distance. "It might cost you $50, though," he warned me.

If only! At least Big Sis thought the joint was "like the Disney Hotel," (where we've never stayed), and she could have a bath and throw up somewhere with towels and laundry that doesn't belong to any of our friends.

We woke up in Eugene the next morning feeling A-OK and with a day to explore before we re-boarded the train. More Oregonian helpfulness: when the hotel manager saw me plugging my cell charger into every available outlet before determining it didn't work, he promised me a functional one from the hotel's stash of left-behinds. And the bellhop offered us a ride to the train station, only three blocks away, but saving this Mama/Sherpa the agony of three blocks of whining as my daughters dragged their suitcases.

Which reminds me of a story about when I travelled to Morocco and joined a truck camping tour. Our group mates were to meet at the Iqbal Hotel after taking the plane or train to Casablanca. I arrived by air and caught a cab to the hotel. In the hotel bar that evening, members of our tour got acquainted and compared travel stories. Our Canadian friend Matt shared that he had arrived by train and hailed a taxi outside the station. His driver pointed out various Casablanca landmarks en route to our hotel, conveniently located...across the street from the train station.

"Hey...!!" exclaimed Matt to his cabbie, when he looked outside the taxi and noticed both the Iqbal and train station in his line of sight. "You didn't tell me the hotel was across the street!" The driver shrugged and demanded his fare.

Sometimes the ride is worth it (and the story to tell, too).

So glad we didn't drive to Oregon. So glad we waited a day to sleep on the train. So glad to be on this trip with my daughters.

Even if the unexpected costs of this trip make me want to throw up a little.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Hotel "Your House"

Oh, there are so many reasons I would rather crash at your house than stay at a hotel!

First, there's the check-in: The warm, personal greeting accompanied by a sincere "We've been waiting for you!" The kids run off to play and you offer me a drink. I can leave the luggage by the door for now. I know you cleaned your house for us because places in your home (floorboards, windowsills) are spic and span in a way ours have never been. We'll help you mess things up in short order, starting with leaving our shiz all over the place.

Oh my goodness, you have an ice maker. Your water tastes better than ours. Your toys are cooler, too. Hotels don't have toys. Lame! We are so happy to be here! Especially because the long drive up here gave us hemorrhoids and headaches.

I love your towels--so soft and fluffy! I check their brand on the tag, just in case I actually replace the towels we use that my mom sent me in college. Can we talk about your detergent, too? It smells yummy in here. I think our washer must suck. Our laundry is not capable of harboring such good scents.

You welcome us to all your food and snacks. No mini-bar, this is real life and it's awesome. The kids agree you have better bread; your vegetables are fresh and you make some wicked chicken. I become convinced I need a rice cooker (which I can't afford when I get home and buy new towels and mattresses and detergent) and then your other dinner guest teaches us her fail-proof tips for preparing perfect rice. Not gonna learn that in a hotel.

I realize most people don't have as many dishes and silverware as we do (why we don't have to empty our dishwasher daily, and why our cupboards and drawers are overstuffed). We try coconut milk and almond butter sandwiches. You sprinkle brewer's yeast on popcorn. Brilliant!

We read your books (and you recommend some); you introduce us to a new kids' science show, light sabers, and spray bottles.

You have a flat-screen TV. You help me with my iPad--two fingers on the screen to scroll in a text box! Thank you.

I marvel at your functioning toilets (You have more than one; take that, hotel!). You offer to watch the kids while I go for a run, and your hills are forgiving and the air tastes more oxygenated. Your shower is hot and stays so; the water pressure makes me sigh. I try your shampoo. All natural. Not the cheap kind. Goat's milk soap! Luxury.

We take in tourist attractions and fit in a few errands; I admire your efficiency. We feed kids, bathe kids, read to them, let them watch a show so we can chat. I watch your parenting and am alternately inspired and validated. I feel at home in your house, so much so I fear I didn't leave things neater than I found them. I sacrifice tidying for talking with you. I take for granted you'll forgive us when we leave a wake.

No mints on our pillows, but you offer chocolate-chip-loaded graham crackers and the best ice cream in the world, you swear. I snuggle with my kids in bed and read my book to the flashlight you find for me. We sleep in because the sun sets later here and we're tired from the laughing and playing and shouting and shrieking (ssshhhhh!) and running around and driving around and love, love, love. Your kids are my kids now, again.

And you are giving us all your space and time and we don't want to leave. Except we have to, so that we can come back again welcomed with open arms and so we can check in at the next Somebody's House, before we return to our own home which is a little bit more boring than where we've been this trip. But we hope you won't think so the next time you come by.

I might have new towels by then.