Spring!

I am aware that it appears as though I’ve been loading up my  u-haul for the last three weeks in preparation for my move to the East Coast, where I will be pitching a tent in the Guilford Green and taking showers in the Guilford Free Library, because I will have no home and no job there when I arrive.

But, in fact, that’s not what happened after my recent trip to the east coast.  I got home to Berkeley.  Spring’s arrival is unambiguous.  Poppies everywhere.  Jasmine blooming in huge bunches.   Meyer lemons bursting on our bush outside.  How could I live anywhere but where I live?  And so I became distracted from blogging and everything else, and for three weeks I’ve been picking bunches of blooming things and coloring easter eggs and cooking stuff.   Lovely.

While doing all that, I’ve been thinking about this particular time in my life.  Spring is universal and timeless.  It comes.  It goes.   Things burst into life and then they are dormant.  Against that backdrop though, my children are becoming teenagers — a season I won’t ever see again, but one I love watching from a distance.

What I’ve noticed is that this  bursting-into-life, their spring, is actually pretty wonderful.  Adolescence is a time of big, gusty emotion, which can be a pain to deal with and can really unbalance a woman who isn’t used to that kind of drama (except when she’s doing it).  It’s also, though, a hugely fun time.  My kids are mischievous — they tease each other and me, and although I know that doesn’t sound like a big thing, I love it that they feel enough freedom to give me a hard time about listening to Lady GaGa.   I also love it that Lady GaGa, with her many weird outfits exists this spring.  And my kids are excited about being freer, about going to a big urban high school in the fall, about finding their own way — on the bus and at that school and then into the bigger world.

This weekend, Jack’s performing in Rigoletto — he has three lines on that huge stage, but he belts them out beautifully.  And Charlie?  He’s jumping off things on his skateboard that are very big — and spinning around when he does it and then landing and looking like it was all no big deal.  (While he wears the helmet I force him to wear).  It’s scary and exciting and fun to watch them.  I love being the mother of these kids, love the way they’re stepping onto the stage and launching themselves into life.

Happy Spring!

Shared Parenting

There was a big thing in the New York Times Magazine yesterday about “equal parenting,” which apparently is a kind of stealth movement out there in parent-land, where both parents juggle it all instead of just one parent juggling it all.

I was sort of busy revising my novel while W (my husband) was outside finishing the skateboard thing he’s building for the boys and running around town to buy Jack some last minute items for his choir tour, but I did register the thought that we’re those kind of parents. I mean, I think we are, because I didn’t have time to read the whole article and most of what I know about it comes from the captions on the pictures of people who looked awfully young to me.

The thing is, though, that the last time we were able to talk about our shared parenting (in some way other than a two second conversation about who’s going to pick up William from his drum lessons) was in 1990. Okay. Since it’s been 18 years since I last really articulated the thinking that goes into the parenting I do with W , I’m due for a little talking about it. Oh, and also, it was Father’s Day yesterday, so it seems appropriate to talk about fathering.

Here’s the setting for that conversation. Fall 1990. We were probably having a drought here in California, because it was hot, hot, hot and we had all the windows open. We were driving to Yosemite, on one of those very windy roads where to keep yourself from getting sick and to make sure the driver (in this case W) is not falling asleep at the wheel, you must absolutely bring up a controversial topic in a loud voice so you can be distracted from getting sick and he can be distracted from falling asleep.

We were about to get married, so there was a ton of stuff to talk about. (Don’t get me started on why it was that I had to wear the complicated dress, complicated both from a fashion and political point of view and he got to rent the same penguin suit thing all men wear.) The discussion I chose to start had to do with whether we were going to have children. Of course, the reason we were getting married was because we were pretty sure we’d have some children, but we’d never really discussed it, so it seemed like a good thing to bring up.

At that time, I could still remember some of the feminist theory I’d read in college. There hadn’t been a lot of stuff about parenting. In fact, the only thing I knew about feminist parenting came from Dorothy Dinnerstein (remember her? Mermaid? Minotaur?). From her, for some reason, I had drawn the conclusion that the Reason There is So Much Fighting in the World is because men aren ‘t properly parented. Which is to say they don’t have fathers who mother them and so they end up killing each other. Or something like that.

So I said, honey, I’m not going to have children unless you’re going to raise them as much as I am. Half and half, okay? At that time, W was busy thinking about whether he was going to take one of those jobs where you go to far away places and make a bunch of money as a consultant, and see your wife and family not that often. So he took this statement seriously. We drove and drove and drove on that twisty road talking about mermaids and minotaurs and consulting jobs and stuff, and by the end of it, we’d agreed — we would be equal parents. I am not surprised that he agreed to this because he is a person of integrity and fairness and he likes to work hard at things, which, it turned out, is what parenting is all about.

He bought a small company of his own, in the end, and never did become a consultant, in part because when you are the boss you get to decide how you’re going to run things. Which is to say that the single best way to institute family friendly work policies is to own the company at which those policies are in force. What are those policies, you ask? The ability to work at home is one. The flexibility to do things with your children when those things must be done, and then stay up until midnight doing the other things that could wait just a bit so you could take your child to the orthodontist is another.

It turns out, though, that our equal parenting also had a lot to do with having twins. I can see how we might not have ended up the way we did. That’s because my impulse when I became pregnant was to just take over. Look, I can carry two at once! Next, I’ll give birth to them in beautiful pain! And then, hey, how about all that nursing I will do! I had no idea what he’d do, before he started doing it.

That happened when they arrived — both of them. Fortunately for me, the babies and W, you can’t monopolize parenting if you have two babies at once and you discover all that nursing is making you really, really tired. And so, because we started off having to share, it just never ended. It’s not exact — but for both of us it feels pretty even. (Lately, W would say it is not even, and that I spend so much time writing that our children don’t know what a mother looks like, unless it’s the OTHER mothers they see way more than they see me. He might be right, you know. I wonder what Dorothy Dinnerstein would make of that. Still, equal parenting can sustain a little unequal stint every once in a while — it rights itself, I think, if you pay attention to it.)

This is what it looked like today, for example. It is summer vacation. We both work. Jack had to be taken to the airport. I took him and came into work. Charlie and William have no plans today. W arranged for them to meet a good friend at his work, and go to the park with her. (Please note that I did not make this plan. Shared parenting means being totally responsible for the planning of the days you are on duty as the parent.) I am writing this afternoon and tonight. W is taking the boys out to dinner. Tomorrow he is working at home, while they are at home hanging out. I am working, and writing. I’m in charge of Wednesday and am working on childcare arrangements for the time I will be at work. Thursday he is in charge. Next week, after I get back from a weekend away, he and I are on vacation and we will all be in charge. That is usually a very exciting free-for-all of strong willed people that sometimes ends in tears or a lot of yelling and sometimes is a lot of fun. After that, the camps I organized, and the two nice young women I’ve hired to hang out with the boys take over the childcare.

Which brings me to another important point.  We share parenting between more than  just the two of us.  Important people in our lives and the lives of our children have helped us raise our children.  I have always worked part time (except for a year or so of full time work) and W has always worked a schedule where he either does the morning shift at home or the afternoon school pick up shift.  When the boys were little, one woman — Aurelia Madrid — cared for them during the days both of us had to be at work.  It is hard to think of a name for her — she’s neither an aunt nor a nanny.  She’s a third parent, really.  She brings things into our lives that we wouldn’t otherwise have:  she has a better sense of humor than I do, she’s more easy-going, she keeps them busy really beautifully, and she loves them, as they do her.  So, you see, shared parenting isn’t a two people endeavor, not at least in our life.

And so it goes. A lot of stuff around here gets done at the last minute. Sometimes it is more W doing the child care, sometimes it is more me. We are both sometimes up very late doing the things we love to do that we did not get to do during the day because we are also parents. Shared parenting may not change the world and stop wars, but it does make people happy — both of us. My husband loves his fathering work as much as he loves being an engineer and designing amazing things, and being a windsurfer who’s very fast out there on the San Francisco Bay and a great skier and rock climber to boot. He does all these things, and feels, as I do about my own passions, that he doesn’t do any of them as well as he’d like, but at least he gets to give it a shot. So, yes, I can honestly say, 12 years into the shared parenting endeavor, that it’s a good, worthwhile thing to do. Not everyone can do it, or wants to do it and that’s fine too. I know plenty of families where one parent specializes in the on-site parenting work and, honestly, I no longer believe those children are going to go out and start a bunch of wars. The funny thing is that if people choose that sort of parenting arrangement (women mostly, I think), rather than have it thrust on them, that works pretty well too.

I can’t think of how to end this post except to say that my husband is a remarkable man, and I am lucky to have met him and married him and had those three children with him. He’s a gem. Tired, but a gem.

Christmas on the Prairie

                     

I’ve been feeling less than literary these days, which is one of the occupational hazards of teetering on top of the work/life balance.  I’ve noticed that when you’re up there on that precarious perch, it’s hard to keep your balance if you have a book or a pen and paper in your hand.   I’ve also noticed that it’s particularly difficult to keep yourself from crashing to the ground during the holidays, a time when there are more than the usual number of things to do that I’m not particularly good at doing.   Like sewing.   

Since I’ve been on the subject of household management lately, I want to discuss sewing with all of you.  First, let me say that I do know how to sew.  I’ve never thought of myself as being from any particular generation, much less one that’s been around for a while, but it turns out that I’m from the tail end of a generation of women who had to take home economics in junior high, which makes me a person who’s lived in a world that many young women don’t know anything about.

If you missed it, home ec is what you took when the boys were learning to weld in shop.  It was where you learned to make coffee cake, muffins (don’t stir too much) and dresses.  They waited until the spring for sewing, wanting to make sure they could trust us with dangerous objects like knives before setting us lose on machines.  My sewing project was a dress that had six zillion darts in it.  To this day, I can’t see a dart without having a shuddery flashback to myself, c. 1974, hunched over a dress that, even by the very low standards of that decade, was terribly, terribly ugly.  

After that one dress, I put the sewing machine away for a few years.  Until 1976, in fact, when for some reason I am unable to quite fathom, I became a high school cheerleader and actually had to sew an entire uniform to wear during basketball season.  Apparently, it wasn’t enough to have one expensive uniform, the skirt and sweater you wore to football games.  Nope.  You had to have another entire get-up for the sport that mattered more than football in our town, which was basketball.   

So there I was, 16 years old, a recovering seamstress, with a pattern and a lot of red and blue and white material that I’d stuffed under my bed the instant I brought it home from the fabric store right before Christmas vacation.  It was clear to me that I was on my own when it came to sewing that basketball uniform.  My mother was busy working as a bookkeeper at J.C. Penney’s and she really didn’t want to hear about my issues with the uniform, a piece of apparel that was way more complicated than anything I could handle, involving as it did buttons and fabric that was slinky in that way only a 1970s cheerleading uniform could be slinky. 

Part of the problem in getting help with this whole uniform issue was that neither of my parents understood or approved of cheerleading.  (I don’t blame them, I don’t approve of it either.)  My mother was sort of circumspect about it, and just didn’t mention it, the way you wouldn’t mention somebody’s obvious physical handicap.  My father, on the other hand, routinely referred to my fellow cheerleaders as the vestal virgins, a phrase I found really embarassing and hoped he’d stop saying in that loud snorting way.   I was pretty sure if anyone I knew heard him using the word virgin (ick) or that whole phrase, my cover as a sort of normal girl would be totally and utterly blown.  I couldn’t talk to either one of them about the uniform, that was quite clear.

Adding to my angst over this uniform problem was that the other girls on the squad were named things like Cindy and Debbie and Tracey and Vicki and Linda and they were perfectly normal girls (not like me with my weird grandmotherly first name) and every single one of them had a mother who happily whipped up a perfect basketball uniform during Christmas vacation.  Still, I didn’t really expect anyone to come to my rescue, because I never even mentioned the problem this presented for me.  I just ignored it until it was almost too late. 

And that is how it happened that the night before the first basketball game of the season, a cold, rainy night in January, after the heat had ben turned off in our house, I stayed up until about three in the morning, like Dr. Frankenstein, piecing together odd bits of this and that, all the while holding my breath and hoping against hope I’d end up with something that sort of looked like a basketball uniform. 

Let me just say that a more misshapen thing was never worn by a Washington Patriots cheerleader before or since.  It was too big in the places where it was supposed to be snug and too snug in the places where it was supposed to be loose.  I kept it together for almost three months, and a series of championship games, using a combination of safety pins,  masking tape, and hope.  And now I’ll close the curtain on that episode in my life.

Which brings me to last night, to the Secret Santas, and to the Christmas on the Prairie. 

At the very nice school one of my older boys goes to, they do Secret Santas during the last week of school before the Christmas holidays  The children pick names out of a hat and then Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of this week, they give their secret friend a gift.  Okay, you’re thinking, no problem.  Five bucks, a few hairclips, or a bunch of chocolate, or a paperback book. 

But nooooooo.   That’s not how it works.  The children, you see, are meant to learn about giving from the heart.  Which means they have to make the damned presents.  Themselves.  Except they don’t really make the presents themselves.  We do.  Apparently, people like my parents no longer exist, and so no child actually has to do this project on their own while their parents are busily balancing the books of the Penney’s at the Tacoma Mall, or sitting in the brown chair in the corner of the living room reading Nietzsche, which is how my parents occupied themselves during the Christmas season.  Or at least I am not capable of being like my parents and ignoring the whole secret santa week and making my son deal with it in his own special way.  (Which would be to give the girl who’s his secret santa old baseball cards.)

My son (aka me) made his secret santa person some brownies the first night.  I thought that was pretty good, and we (me) even put them in a nice cellophane bag with a cute ribbon.  The report on the brownies’ reception was lukewarm, however.  They got crushed, he said, and were only “okay.” 

Instead of thinking, okay’s pretty good, I thought, Jesus, we’re (me) going to have to think of something genuinely charming, handmade, rough hewn and useful.  Something Laura would make for Mary in the Little House books.  (Aha!  A literary allusion.  Whew.) 

We (I) looked around, considered and disgarded hand made stationery (no nice paper in the house), more food (not special enough and besides we’re out of sugar), and came across the Martha Stewart website which is a very bad thing for a person like me, a person with a history of handmade failures, to come across at times like this. 

Too late, we (this time, both of us) saw the Christmas stockings.  Too late, we (both of us) committed to the project.  Too late, the sewing machine happened to be out (for hemming pants, something that doesn’t involve darts).  Too late, too late, too late.

And so, dear reader, we made the stocking you see at the  beginning of this extraordinarily long and rambling post.  Surprisingly, my son did a lot of the stocking.  He sewed the button ornaments on the little felt tree.  He downloaded and printed out the stocking and tree templates.  He cut stuff out.  He admired my erratic sewing.  (Mom, you’re like, so fast with that thing.)  The end result looks like it should:  utterly handmade.  But this time, thirty years later, handmade is really okay.  It’s good, in fact.  I don’t want people thinking I made it, for heaven’s sake! 

The odd thing is that making this stocking was actually a lot of fun.  Maybe it was having my son’s help, and company.  Maybe it was the fact that my son now knows how to sew on a button, something his father can’t do. Whatever it was, this project seems to have exorcised the memory of being alone in my room on a cold January night, hunched over all that red and blue slinky fabric.  I know making a stocking was a hugely inefficient way to spend a Tuesday night.  It messed up our living room, and everyone got to bed half an hour late, and I probably should have let my son have a go at the sewing machine.  (I didn’t let him.  It was too much fun to do it myself.)  But among the many redemptive things about being a parent yourself, is that you get to correct for your children a few of the things that hurt more than they should have when you were young.  Were I to come up for air from this sentimental paragraph, I’d also observe that in so doing you add a few problems of your own — in this case, maybe it would have been better for my son to do more of this for himself.  Still, having said that, I’m okay about it all.  And you know what?  I stayed up another hour after they were in bed and made another Christmas stocking.  For my son.  From his secret santa.  Me. 

A Bunch of Gorgeous Guys

A few days ago, I thought I’d do a little computer housekeeping. You know, erase the 26 episodes of the Daily Show I’ve been hoarding, see if Jon Stewart’s the reason why I keep getting the spinning disco ball whenever I try to do online banking. And while I was at it, I thought I’d put some documents in folders of my own choosing, maybe even answer some emails. That sort of thing.

But what began as a quick cleanup occupied the better part of two days.

That’s because at the same time I was doing my electronic housekeeping, I was also taking care of a flu-stricken 11 year old boy. He seemed to regress every six hours into an even more helpless version of himself. Every time I started to do something that required concentration, he’d shout my name (which is mom, by the way, but pronounced like it’s a three syllable word, like this: maaaaahhhh-ahhhhh-aaaahhhhhmmm). And then, when I’d come running upstairs to see if he needed immediate medical attention, he’d ask me to do something like hand him the glass of water that was on the bedside table inches away from his hand.

Before long, I was muttering dark things about the male sex and their well-known difficulty dealing with illness. Right around then, I got to my iPhoto library. And right around then, any irritation I might have felt about having to take care of a helpless pre-teen was banished. You see, dear reader, what I found on my computer was something that made me look at men and boys in a completely different way. I discovered — right in front of my eyes — six gorgeous, inspiring, amazing 21st century male role models. And I didn’t even know that’s who they were when I took their pictures. It could be that’s because most of them were dressed in Halloween costumes. Still, here they are — the sort of men I wouldn’t mind any of my sons growing up to become, after he gets over the flu, I mean, and starts growing up again:

I’ll start with Farmer Jonah. He’s new at the school. The regular school farmer is named Farmer Ben. But his first baby arrived over the summer and he took a leave. He won’t be back until January. So Farmer Jonah arrived. He’s dressed, in case you’re wondering, as a giant ear of corn. Obviously, he is not bothered by itchy things and he loves the garden. He’s a gentle soul — and very funny.

Oh, here’s Farmer Jasper. He dressed up as an ear of corn for Halloween too. In this picture, though, he’s holding a giant sign he and Farmer Jonah made. It announces the First Annual JackRabbit Juice-A-Thon, in which I assume, things will be liquefied and then drunk. He’s explaining this to a child in the lunchroom. Y ou will also note that he is wearing a sticker. It says I voted. And a good thing too. Thanks to Farmer Jasper and others like him, we now have the first woman House Majority Leader, Nancy Pelosi.

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Farmer Ben came by the school on Halloween. I’m pretty sure he’s dressed as Che Guevara. His daughter’s very cute. As is he. All the farmers at the school have lovely patches of color on their cheeks because they’ve been working hard showing children how to juice things and how to bring in the harvest. Everyone misses Farmer Ben. He could be counted on to play long games of kickball after school. He went to this school when he was a child. The children love that.

This is Damian. He’s the student teacher in my son’s classroom. He plays the congas. He was responsible for the spirited parade around the neighborhood on Halloween.

He’s also a wicked dancer, even when he has a lollipop in his mouth. Here he is with my son’s teacher. What you don’t see is the swirl of little kids all around him, dancing along.

Here’s Luis. He’s one of the fifth grade teachers. He dressed up as a very natty Latino guy. Come to think of it, Luis IS a very natty Latino guy. It’s just he doesn’t usually do his hair like a pop star.

Luis is a fabulous kickball player. He and Farmer Ben are the go-to guys for kickball. But in Farmer Ben’s absence, Peter’s been in charge. Peter works in the afterschool program. It was dusk when I took this picture, but here he is, Peter, a man who loves hanging out with children:

One last note, something I think registers a sea change in what it means to be male. Peter is wearing Ugg boots. The kind of boots Kate Hudson wears.They’re not very practical for kickball. So, when they started getting in his way, he took them off and played in his bare feet. He was very matter of fact about it. He liked those boots. But he didn’t need to try to run in them. Every child out there, including the little girls who’d been wearing those princess shoes that kill your feet earlier in the day, must have been delighted to see Peter take those boots off and run around the playground barefoot. It’s probably not allowed, regulation-wise, but as a model of how to get around your gender get-up, it seemed perfect to me.

And that’s what all these men have in common. They’re very male — but they also mix it up with things you’d think of as female: they dance, they dress up for Halloween as sexy pop stars, they wear impractical shoes, they show little kids how to make juice, they take time off to be with their new baby. And they all play a really fine game of kickball and every single one of them has chosen a job where they look after children and teach them how to grow up in the 21st century, a time when maybe men and women will be allowed to be whoever they want to be.

In Defense of Halloween

 

There’s a funny article in this morning’s New York Times about the British reaction to Halloween. (Unfortunately, it’s behind their subscription firewall so I can’t link to it. It’s by the wonderful Sarah Lyall.) As far as I can tell, our neighbors across the Atlantic don’t at all care for this holiday which, it seems, involves hordes of demanding, poorly behaved British children, howling for candy, and roaming the streets, making ordinary citizens feel a little nervous. In Britain, householders cower in the back of their houses with lights turned out and just wish the whole thing would end.

A.N. Wilson’s grumpy response to Halloween is: “Trick or treat? I don’t know about you, but my answer to this question, if I’m honest, would be unprintable in a family newspaper . . . Let’s say it’s stronger than ‘push off.’ Yet the little beggars will soon be round, banging and ringing at our doors with this irritating refrain.”

Faced with this sort of grousing, I wish to write today in defense of Halloween. One objection to Halloween that got me thinking was the notion that the children aren’t doing enough to justify that candy. One citizen said something like, you’d think they’d at least sing or tell a joke or be charming before you give them the candy.

Good heavens. Has this woman never seen a child prepare for Halloween? Around here, weeks of strategic planning go into the preparation of the costume. It’s as much work as planning a Broadway show, or a wedding. After all, the point of that costume is to entertain or charm or seriously disturb the adult who sees you. When the door is opened and the person standing there clutching their bowl of Snickers bars looks you over, you do NOT want them to say, in a quizzical tone, what are you? That’s bad. You are stifling hot in the ghoul costume you spent a lot of time putting together out of old sheets and a flashlight and that cobwebby stuff that costs almost nothing and the idea is that they will shriek and say, my god, what has happened to children these days!? Or, if you’re the parent of the two year old child you’ve taken great pains to dress up as an M&M you want to hear how adorable before you take that Snickers bar as your reward for sewing the M&M logo on a pair of red sleeper pajamas, something that is not simple in a sleep deprived state. (I did this with twins, so I know what I’m talking about. I ate every one of those Snickers bars with great satisfaction over the course of the next several months.)

This year, in my house, one twin dressed up as his brother, a sort of homage to the skater, athlete, hip kid his brother is. He spent a lot of time figuring out just which items were truly representative of his twin, a process that actually brought the two of them together in a very nice way. The skater brother dressed up as a more extreme version of himself — pink hair goo, a ripped-up t-shirt that took as much work to deconstruct as it did to construct, mandella tattoos strategically placed to have maximum effect, converse all-star hightops, ripped jeans (carefully ripped to look accidental), safety pins through everything (except skin: I drew the line.) And the smallest boy dressed up as…. well, a general. He’s as militaristic as they come, and although it’s a little embarrassing to walk down the street with a small person dressed like a guy in the R.O.T.C., he looked more cute than fierce, because he’s seven and that’s his lot in life. Anyway, I’m used to his choices, which are instinctively transgressive choices for a child who lives in Berkeley.  Last year he was a cop.  Next year, I’m guessing he’ll be Dick Cheney.

The military costume was acquired after much looking around at a huge flea market held — where else? — at a decomissioned naval base. The uniform belonged to a guy named Strickland. He was, apparently, a short fellow because the shirt and jacket pretty much fit a larger than average seven year old boy perfectly.  There was a lot of speculation around here about whether Strickland’s uniform was for sale because he’d died (the uniform was carefully examined for evidence of combat death), or if it was for sale because he became a General. (He started as a corporal, so the latter seems as unlikely as the former.)

As for the candy itself, it doesn’t hurt a child to have a day of excess. In fact, Halloween reminds me of other holidays — European in origin, if I’m not mistaken — where the idea is that it’s good for people if there’s a day when all the normal roles are subverted. And so it is on Halloween. Children get to scare adults. Children get to decide what gets eaten. Children get to be out at night while adults stay home in their beds, afraid of what’s out there in the dark. Children get to wear weird and inappropriate clothing, which is to say they get to dress as adults. I honestly cannot see how anyone could object to that, but possibly it’s because they didn’t start life out dressed as an M&M or a bumble bee, like most American children, and so this wonderful ritual isn’t in their blood the way it is in ours.

Writing About Children

There’s a temptation in writing about and describing childhood and children to forget that both are most interesting when they are least about us — the adults, that is. There’s a reason why so many great children’s books begin with the death of parents. The true life of a child, the one most children want to read about, is the one in which children have free rein to be the weird, obsessive, imaginative, odd and powerful people they both are and would like to be.  Which is to say, people a lot like adults, except the wildness that we’re all capable of flourishes in great children’s literature because, well, because the adults who’d tell you to stop climbing trees or escaping into a different dimension or lifting horses up over your head are all dead.  Or on very long vacations or sea voyages.  Or have left the children with nannies who aren’t really adults but are instead magical people.  Or are away at war. 

The books I most liked as a child had very few adults in them. Books like the Chronicles of Narnia (Aslan wasn’t really an adult was he?) and Pippi Longstocking. You wonder, though, who the adults were who remembered to leave themselves out. So much contemporary children’s fiction fails to do this, because it seems most motivated by a desire to teach children how to become adults. And when that’s your goal, then you end up with an adult-child ratio that’s about even.  Not what you want if you’d like to eat candy for dinner.

And because I have to leave for the dentist in about half an hour and still have to make lunches and get dressed, I have to cut this meditation on writing about and for children short. I just want to say this: Alison Lurie had it right in her book about children’s fiction: the best writing for children is subversive, writing that doesn’t really have anything to teach children except maybe that they should hang onto who they are and not be in such a hurry to be adults.

When you become an adult, after all, and wake up in the morning, you will discover you have to go to the dentist. When you are a child and wake up in the morning, you will lie in bed looking out the window and wonder how it is that the moon can still be up in the sky and what would it be like to go up there some morning instead of going to school. And you don’t hear your mother downstairs in the kitchen getting ready for the adult day because you’re inventing whatever you need to invent to get yourself out the window of your room and into the adventure that is your childhood.

Ten Cents an A

There are lots of things about being a parent that aren’t so great: breaking up brawls, teaching people how to eat with utensils, waking up in the middle of the night multiple times because someone’s teeth hurt, explaining over and over why you can’t call your brother a bastard, that sort of thing. The sheer physical and emotional drudgery of parenting is overwhelming sometimes — who knew you’d spend a decade between your mid-thirties and mid-forties (having chosen to have children late) actually carrying other people around?

But one of the consolations of being a parent is the many chances at redemption it offers you. If your own parents’ chosen method of discipline was humiliating, you can do it differently. If you didn’t like camping in the rain, well, you don’t have to foist that on your own children. The trouble is, though, that sometimes you are guided by instinct and then you miss completely your moment of redemption.

That’s what happened last night when my eleven year old son told me he’d gotten a “C” on a math test. (A C, for those of you who are not American, is for scores in the 70-80% range.) He hadn’t studied, he said, because his smaller brother had wanted his company. This is the first year they’ve ever gotten grades, and they’re still feeling their way. He honestly didn’t know what the “C” might mean in our family.

But I did. And that’s how I came to say something (several times, in fact, because I wanted to make sure I was understood) I wish I hadn’t: I expect each of you to get A’s. Always.  

I knew from the look on their faces, the crestfallen look on the boy who got the C and the look of horror on the face of his twin, who often cannot even FIND his homework, let alone do it perfectly, that I was headed somewhere wrong. It took me a few moments to see it and for that I am grateful, because when you can see yourself heading in the wrong direction, you can sometimes steer clear of the cliff you’re about to throw yourself off.

Let me say that I did get A’s. My entire childhood. I got a dime for each one of them and a lot of parental and teacher approval. I was a younger child and that meant a lot to me. I was quiet and neat and obedient and I watched the adults like a hawk to figure out what would please them.  As a result, I was awash in dimes.

My sons are not like this. They’re wild and messy.  Sometimes they’re pretty clever. Other times you wonder how they can dress themselves in the morning. I have tried to get them to be otherwise, but they resist with so much gusto, that I can’t quite bear to squelch their messiness and noise with the weapons at hand.  (Cutting off food, or access to the computer, for example.)  Also, over time, I have seen that my own pursuit of the A meant I missed out on something that really matters to me now. I didn’t write, the way I’d wanted to when I was a child, because I wanted to succeed in the world: I wanted the adults to give me dimes. They did not give dimes for stories.  I became a lawyer instead, the career that’s designed for people who know how to and need to get A’s (and the dimes that morph into dollars). It took me years to make space to write. I regret that, but not so much that I’m paralyzed by it, or unwilling to try to fix it.

Yesterday, though, I saw where it started — with my parents’ reaction to my grades and my own hunger to make them happy. And I also saw how that could go wrong for a child who isn’t neat and obedient. This is the place where they begin to define themselves as stupid beause they don’t happen to have the skills that make you a success in school (those skills include the ability to focus on things you’re not always interested in, neat handwriting, a body that can take sitting still, and a natural interest in topics that not everyone finds interesting, like the dates when things happened in history.)  I don’t want it to be like that for them. 

And so we crafted a makeshift family policy around grades last night, one that I hope makes room for them to be who they are, but also encourages them to develop discipline, a character trait that will help them in whatever they choose to do. It’s this: You must do your homework and study for tests as well as you are able. If you do your best, that is enough. But, while you do that, you must be on the look out for the thing you love to do. Because that’s your real job as a human being: to find something — maybe even more than one thing — that gives you so much pleasure that when you do it (and if you’re lucky, earn your living at it) it doesn’t feel like work, but like play.

And that’s it. The grade is secondary as long as you have done your best. How’s that? It may seem like a small thing, but it was a moment of redemption that more than made up for the nights of being wakened by small people with toothaches. The hard thing now will be handling my discomfort with grades that are not always perfect, and letting my children choose vocations I’m not so sure about.  I don’t think that’s going to be easy.  I don’t want them to be feckless people, or people who don’t know how to care for themselves or earn a living.  I wonder how I’ll feel when they come to me and say they’ve taken a job in Alaska working on a fishing boat so they have time to write music.  Perhaps this will be a moment of redemption.  That’s my hope, anyway.

(I’d like to add that my own parents’ love of learning and delight in scholary success was also a gift to each of us.    They took us to the library every week and never told us what to read or what not to read.  My father read all the time and was an example of how much you can discover about the world from books.  My mother worked really hard at her jobs with real integrity.  And she is very, very good at math.  The money for the A’s?  I’m sure she thought it would be a good way to teach multiplication.) 

At the Bottom of the Hill

was the ocean. The Mendocino coast is rocky and wild. In places, the rock formations are eerily lunar. You feel like you’re somewhere no one has ever been before.

The road to Gualala winds north through dairies and ranches and then narrows into the redwoods. But every once in a while, you’ll come around a curve and see the ocean out there, to your left, to the west. The ocean smells like earth, and rain and salt.
The children measured the span of a 2,400 year old redwood by making a human chain, with their arms stretched around it. So huge, but still, something an eleven year old boy can touch, while thinking about how the Greeks were at the height of their civilization when the tree began growing. And there were frogs everywhere — one boy spent a lot of time walking around with a frog on his cheek, then his forehead and finally hanging onto his hair. I should mention that these were very small, friendly, sort of cute and not slimy frogs. Their abundance is a sign that all is well in this environment. On the shore, my son found a small pair of antlers bleached white by the Gualala River. They became his talisman and good luck charm.

On Thursday, we kayaked down the river, stopping for science experiments in the rain (there’s a lot of oxygen in the river, which is a good thing) and then lunch in the rain under a tree. At the end of the day, the sun came out and a small group of us (my son and I, the intrepid teacher, another parent and three children) kept going along the river to where it gave out into the ocean. We pulled up on a sandy beach and walked over a sand dune and there was the Pacific, quite wild, a lot of crashing waves and driftwood. I learned that, with good enough rain gear, you can do almost anything. After a childhood of wet feet and hands, being out in the rain and actually having a nice time was redemptive.

Certainly, I never would have guessed that I’d love kayaking in the rain as much as I did. The kayaks were one person boats — very light, they skimmed along the water, even where it was quite shallow. Ahead and above were canopies of trees, green and gold in the mist and the rain. It was more beautiful than I can say.

I’ve got a bit more to go to the end. As many of you guessed, on occasion sleep and my love of hot showers won out over words. Still, it was exciting and fun and productive enough during the evening I did get to write. But I’m considering the great downhill to be at an end. Now it’s just a cruise to the finish today and tomorrow and possibly Monday, with my children away at soccer games and friends’ houses. I’ll be happy to type “the end.” But first, a quick peek to see what what everyone’s been writing and doing in the last week!

W is for ….

I saw this yesterday, while I was lazing around and it seemed to sum up something essential about where I live. Simply put, people around here don’t like George W very much. And they are fine saying so. All the time.

The car sporting this bumper sticker was an old, dusty Volvo, protected by someone’s Triple A membership. It’s okay around here to drive an old car. Volvos go without saying. Let’s not discuss the latte. (I must say, though, that a child at one of my twins’ school said, when he saw my husband’s beat- up old BMW pull into the carpool pick up line, “My playstation cost more than your dad’s car.” He wasn’t from Berkeley.)

Pretty soon the Berkeley City Council is going to offer some kind of referendum about whether or not we should impeach President Bush. It’s the sort of thing people in the rest of the country love to laugh about. And it really can be terribly irritating and holier than thou around here.

But I still love living in Berkeley. There is the most fabulous food to be had right down the street. We live in a garden of Eden, the place where so many lovely fruits and vegetables are grown, quite a few of them organic. Plus, the view from the hill I hike up is stupendous. There are so many great independent bookstores it’s hard to decide where to go to buy a book. It smells like jasmine at night. And the things that grow like weeds in my yard are actually sort of exotic like Meyer Lemons and bougainvillea. There’s windsurfing out our door, for those who windsurf (all males in our family windsurf. I do not.) The mountains are beautiful. Did I mention the food?

Which brings me to my topic today and no, it is not food: where on earth do we get our political ideas? How did I grow up to be the openly liberal person I am, when several, very smart, kind people in my family are not?

Growing up, I always thought my father was an impressively liberal person. By that, I mean he exuded a distrust of authority (probably because of his experiences in the military) and he believed in the power of the written word. You could tell because he spent a lot of time sitting in a comfortable brown chair reading things like Russian grammars and Nietzsche. He shocked us all when he decided he was an atheist. (It was 1970. My mother had always marched all five of us children to church every Sunday without fail. My father sat in the car and read the paper while we went to mass. It was a fine example of religious tolerance.)

I probably read more into my father’s admiration for Rush Limbaugh and dislike of Democrats than I should. Maybe what he doesn’t like about Democrats is that they’ve failed to really follow through on their promises of creating a better society. The Republicans have never made any such promises, so there’s nothing to resent about them. Not everyone in my family is a Republican. My mother doesn’t say a lot about how she votes except to suggest that she sees her role as cancelling out my father’s vote.

No one ever told me how to vote or which political party to join. Because I live in Berkeley now, I get some grief from a few of my siblings for being reflexively, unthoughtfully liberal. It’s true: it’s never occurred to me to be any other way. I think I’ve chosen my political path for the simple reason that I feel happier being a liberal, when that means being generous, trusting, community-oriented, and accepting of differences. I’m well aware that Republicans can share those very same qualities.  Sometimes the differences lie in how those ideals are executed.  It’s also true that I’m embarrassed by the preachiness and stupid ideas, by the elitism, and the cowardice of the Democrats. But those are qualities shared by both parties, which is to say that Democrats don’t have a monopoly on being sheep-like or stupid.

What interests me is how our children will turn out. My own sons don’t like George Bush, the way you don’t like the “other” sports team. But they haven’t at all sorted out what they think. They’re beginning to though. Yesterday, one of my older boys wanted to go into San Francisco to take part in a rally “against America.” That really bothered me. I told him that he’s an American, and he can’t really rally against his own country. The country is not its government. In fact, demonstrating against the government is as American as baseball. Turns out, it was a march designed to protest our government’s refusal to do anything meaningful to stop genocide in Darfur. And it took place during school hours.

The answer: no last minute rallies, and hardly ever when there’s school. I wonder how many other parents in America had to make up a rule like that, on the spot, yesterday afternoon? And that’s the last thing I love about living here: it’s a rich and complicated environment in which to grow up. My kids have to think about homelessness because they know homeless people, they think about race, because we live in a racially mixed environment, they know about wealth and its problems and benefits because there are a lot of wealthy people around here, and they see it butting up against poverty in a way that just calls out for some kind of explanation. It’s an explanation I imagine they’ll have to come up with for themselves. And maybe it won’t be the one I end up with. But they will get to their political views thoughtfully, I hope. And that’s really all you can ask.

Summer’s End

Around here, summer always ends in a blaze of cake baking and party-giving, which is why you haven’t heard a peep out of me for a while. (No, I was not buried under an avalanche of shopping bags or so stunned by my clean office I was rendered paralyzed: I was up to my elbows in cake batter.)

Here’s the cake.  It’s a small round chocolate cake with about eight cupcakes arranged around it. The thing in the middle is a dowel with ribbons tied onto it. My favorite part? The grapefruit fruit slice on the top.  It looks sort of jaunty.

Yesterday, the youngest of the BlogLily boys celebrated his birthday at a family dinner. Earlier, over the weekend, he had a little party with his friends. It all sounds very simple, but honestly, it’s not really possible to celebrate a birthday in the United States of America simply anymore. And that, dear readers, is because of goody bags.

How the tradition of giving gifts to someone other than the celebrant at a child’s birthday party is unclear. My guess is that it came about because of some desire we have to help our children avoid unpleasant experiences, thinking — wrongly as it turns out — that avoiding them is the same as learning to handle them.

The worst and best part of a child’s birthday party, when I was a child, was the moment when the birthday child opened the presents. It was the stuff of which drama is made: would your present be acceptable, would there be something you wanted so badly you could imagine tearing it out of the birthday child’s hands and running away with it? Would the birthday child have a little manners misstep, and how would their mom handle it?

This present opening ritual was generally not very pleasant, despite the potential for an entertaining moment or two. I didn’t go to a lot of children’s birthday parties, not that I remember anyway, but I do remember the time we gave a barely literate girl in my class — the girl who struggled every time she had to read out loud — three books from the book order thing you do at school. I can still remember her look of utter disgust and the way her mother busted me with a mean little laugh, I’ll bet you read those first, she said. Indeed, I had, trying not to bend the pages, not thinking anyone would notice, knowing that it wasn’t the thing to do. It was terribly humiliating.

But I did file away for the future something about how not to treat a child who makes a mistake when a guest in my house. I also learned that it is not a good idea to give someone the very gift you would most like for yourself. Not everyone is like you. It was a vicious way to learn this, and the mother and girl were nasty too. Still, it was an experience that helped shape me as a social person and for the better.

What happens now, at a lot of parties among my children’s school friends, is that the presents are hustled out of the way, into a room out of sight, like they’re shameful. They aren’t heard from again until you get a thank you note. You never see them opened, never find out if anyone else gave a better gift than yours. I’ve done this myself, thinking to avoid any unpleasantness on an important day. The rest of the party goes like this: the children are entertained in some way: bowling, a clown, a craft project, a magician. After a while, a cake comes out, the song is sung and the guests are handed a goody bag, full of candy and little nick-nacks that quite possibly cost as much if not more than the gift the child brought to the party. This is the signal that the party is over.

It occurred to me once that goody bags were like a potlatch — a tradition I learned about when we studied the Indians of the Northwest, during the time I lived in Tacoma, Washington. (By that time, the Indians of the Northwest made a living selling tax free cigarettes from their land in Puyallup, but that is an entirely different story.) Anyway, when a tribe had a potlatch event, they’d load up their canoes with every valuable thing they owned and then they’d row over (paddle over, sorry!) to the neighbor tribe and drop the whole damned load off with their neighbors. And then you know what? The neighbors would have to turn around and give all their stuff away. I remember sitting in the classroom watching the filmstrip about this and wondering what would happen if all the other tribe had to give away were books.

Anyway, the goody bag/birthday present exchange does resemble a potlatch, although it has a different impulse at its core: it’s not so much about a kind of militant generosity (take that: here’s a Mercedes! Well, well…. here’s War and Peace..) but more about something I alluded to in the beginning of this post: goody bags disguise the truth that sometimes other people get the presents. Your turn will come — but you will have to wait for it. Instead, we’re telling children, Yes, that kid got a lot of presents. But you got some too, so it’s okay.

It is very hard to learn that you are not at the center and quite understandable that parents might want to short-circuit coming to terms with that knowledge. Certainly this is a painful truth in our own family of three children, where each boy struggles with the knowledge that there are others who command attention and resources, others who have things to say at dinner and want to use the bathroom or the computer.

But I think that handling this fact of life need not be a stark lesson in self-denial and stiff upper lip. It is also the case that the person who is the center of attention must learn how to make his guests feel welcome and important. And that’s why the things you do at the party matter. One thing I’ve noticed is that the more children who attend, and the more complicated the event or entertainment is, the less fun the party is.

It turns out that the most entertaining parties we’ve had have been the ones we put on in the street in front of our house (we live at the end of the street and no one drives down it). We set up a little carnival, hand out tickets and have prizes for the games. (No goody bags — but then there are the prizes, which are a lot of fun to win, even if all they are is a tootsie roll.)

This year, the youngest brother wanted to have his own carnival, having watched his brothers’ parties for most of his life. Except he didn’t want to have a lot of guests. In fact, he had two. And that made it unlike any other birthday party I’ve ever given or been too. It was just incredibly low key. The carnival was a piece of cake, since we’d made the games years earlier. And the cake, was too because it’s the same one I always make. A few neighbors, the two friends, the BlogLily brothers, my husband and I.

In case you are interested in what the carnival looked like, here it is:

An obstacle course:

A ball toss (our neighbor Pam, for the third year in a row, dressed up as a clown and ran this game, bless her heart):

Toss the football through the hula hoop.

Fishing (a BlogLily older boy crouches down behind the screen and eventually clips something to the clothespin that’s on the fishing pole.)

.

And then when the games had all been played (the children had a little bag with enough tickets to play the games a few times each), the BlogLily boy opened his presents — both of them — in front of everyone. The children who gave the presents explained why they liked them so much and the birthday child said thank you quite genuinely, because the whole idea of being given a gift was as fresh and wonderful as it should be. There is nothing sadder than a child who gets present fatigue after the fourth gift and begins to open packages with the resignation of someone opening a past due bill he can’t possibly pay. And then we all ate chocolate cake, played the games for a while longer without prizes, and went home. Until next year, when we have another carnival party.

Your Toothpaste Is Now, Officially, Dangerous

That, anyway, is what I considered telling my children, before they left this morning for a week with their cousins in New England. Unfortunately (or fortunately) this news would not have had much impact on them. They already believe toothpaste can kill them. That’s why they don’t like to spend much time brushing their teeth.They feel the same way about all other personal grooming products. They understood, long before United Airlines, that shampoo, conditioner and soap, liquid or otherwise, are the instruments of evil. I had to do exactly nothing when I checked their carry-on luggage for forbidden items. None of those things had even been packed. Now, if there was some plot to blow up airlines using action figures, we’d be in a world of hurt.

I thought it would be hard to tell them about the latest plot to blow up airlines using liquid concoctions. But the truth is, when I did give them an executive summary of this news (omitting the stuff about toothpaste and shampoo, lest it lead to further intransigence on the subject of personal grooming), they laughed. Even after they read the story in the New York Times, they still thought it was pretty funny. Perhaps it was because this plot is like something you’d see in a cartoon, where the bad guy is so patently ridiculous that even a French adventure hero like Tintin could deal with him with just a look and a “zoot.” It’s hard to imagine how somebody could blow up a plane with a tube of Crest.

Of course I didn’t like seeing them run up the corded-off ramp toward the security checkpoint. I don’t like it that people want to blow each other up. I don’t like having to tell my children this. But children have innate good sense about this. They already know that people will try to hurt each other. And at least they are able to laugh at adult efforts to do so, even when, under it all, there is something deadly serious going on.

Anyway, to take the pall off the page from all this, I’d like to record here the rules the children came up with for behavior on this trip. Let me say that there are six children on this trip: my three and three of their cousins. They range in age from 13 to 6. There are four boys and two girls. The only adult who will be with them is my husband. He was an Eagle Scout. He loves this kind of thing. The other adults love him and make plans to stay in swanky hotels while their children are gone.

The children would never voluntarily have come up with these rules had I not asked them to talk about the one thing they cared the most about in how people treated them. They would have much preferred to trade burps and talk about why the cheese on their pizza could stretch so far. I want it out there now: I am a bossy, rule making person. I can’t help it. In about three years, my children will be making fun of this quality. But they’ll never forget how important it is to take turns when you talk, which is rule number 1 at our dinner table. (Nobody does it…. not yet. I have hope.)

So, here they are:

  • Cousin number 1 (boy, eleven years old): I like hugs.
  • Cousin number 2 (boy, six years old): No excluding.
  • Cousin numbers 3 and 4 (girls 12 and 13): Kisses. (lots of giggles)
  • Cousin number 4 (girl, 12) Inside voices (cousin no. 2 having just shouted in her ear about the kissing thing)
  • Cousin number 5 (boy, eleven years old): No hitting.
  • Cousin number 6: Positive. Say nice things.
  • Aunt, who is not going: Be helpful to your uncle.

I know it’s been said before. Children should rule the world (with a little adult help making the lunches). Yes, there would be a lot of messy hair and cavities, the occasional Lord of the Flies moment and I do not even want to think about how they’d handle commuting. Even with all that, were they to have more say in how things go, we’d all be having a lot more fun and we’d most likely be much safer than we are today in the nasty, divided, violent world we’ve all gone to so much trouble to make for them.

The Day the T.V. Died

You could say our TV was murdered by Barney, the big purple dinosaur with the unnervingly cheery voice. The one children seem to like in inverse proportion to how disturbing their parents find him.

This is what happened, Dear Reader. One day, about five years ago, a Barney video (the fat chunky kind — this was before DVDs) got stuck in the video slot of our small, crappy television. It seemed like a message from PBS (the public broadcasting system, for those who don’t live in the United States): if you want your three boys to become readers, let the television stay dead. Why PBS would want to say that, I have no idea. Maybe they’d been forced to watch too many episodes of Barney.

And so, we threw away the TV (we did pry the Barney tape out, in case we changed our minds). Mayhem did not ensue. This is what happened, in case you’re interested:

  • Our boys were too young (6, 6 and 1) to effectively fight back. I’m not sure we could do this now when they are 11, 11, and almost 7. They’re starting to band together on issues. Local 1 of the Union of BlogLily Children is on the horizon. Their first demand will most likely have to do with media access.
  • It wasn’t that a calm settled over our house. The words “calm” and “our house” cannot, in fact, be used in the same sentence, except maybe at 2:00 in the morning. But, in the absence of access to Dragon Tales and Arthur and video viewing, they read Magic Treehouse books, books they loved and which gave them a feeling of mastery as readers.
  • They did complain. As they got older, and they realized this was a sort of weird thing we’d done, they complained a lot. We ignored them. The parent, harsh as it might sound, is the one with the bank account. Unless they were going to secretly go out and get a job, nobody was going to buy a television.
  • Phase Two of the media wars: They saw that gameboys and other things of that ilk might be a good television replacement. Alas, Dear Reader, I hope you don’t think less of me to learn that I told them gameboys suck the life out of your brain and they weren’t coming into our house. Ever. It helped that their best friend wasn’t allowed them either. The result? A lot of whining and a lot of reading.
  • Phase Three of the media wars. I love computers. Everyone in my family loves computers. (I’m betting their heads are nodding right now and they’re thinking, yes it’s true but Lily is so LAME with her computer. All she ever does is write. And you’d think when she figured out how to upload pictures that she was the first person on the face of the earth to use a digital camera. But I digress.) So yes, I let them play computer games. Computer games and our failure to control them, are actually a good illustration of why we had to get rid of the television in the first place. We are terrible at setting limits. At first, they played educational games. Their brains were getting sharper. They were solving puzzles with Fripples, hanging out with Liberty’s Kids, occasionally reaching the Pacific Ocean on the Oregon Trail. They were spending a lot of time with someone named Carmen Miranda. (Yikes. A sharp-eyed BlogLily boy has just pointed out that her name is Carmen Sandiego and that I should know that because I bought them that game. Sorry.)
  • Can you hear that hissing in the Garden of Eden? It’s . . . the sound of a sports game spinning around on the dvd drive. In a millisecond, sports games morphed into war reenactment games, games where you can fight full on battles for world domination. Again and again. They’ve fought every known conflict (and quite a few conflicts that haven’t even occurred) in our little breakfast nook. Multiple times. It gets really loud in there. I let it go, because after all, they are the weirdos without a television. (This is what they tell me anyway. I don’t think they’re weird at all. They’re handsome, smart, athletic, violent little boys. What’s not to like about that?)
  • My favorite ploy for re-instituting television? One of my sons snapped at me, after the six millionth discussion about the lack of television, “You’re just doing this because all your friends think it’s so cool.” It was a brilliant moment of psychological insight. The trouble, though, is that my friends don’t actually think this is cool. They think this is crazy. And they know we do it in part because we find it difficult to set limits. If we were more like our friends, they who can set limits, we’d be watching Jon Stewart at night on a really large television while our children are asleep.
  • We do watch movies. We watch them on a laptop, our family crowded around the little screen like ancient peoples huddled around a fire on a cold night. Every once in a while somebody yells at someone else to tilt the screen so they can see what’s going on.

So, that’s where we are five years in. Our six year old is just on the horizon of being a reader. He loves movies. He doesn’t care a lot about episodic television. The older boys are resigned to their fate. They know this is a family tradition. (My own parents didn’t really like television and periodically we didn’t have one. It wasn’t until the 6th grade that a television moved into our house for good. I watched a lot of Star Trek and I Dream of Genie. I loved our TV.)

One thing. Lately, we’ve been thinking about getting a huge big screen television and a king sized bed. We’d like to watch movies in a nicer venue. No cable though. Not until Local 1, BlogLily Children, figures out how to get the cable guy here on the sly.

Boys Just Wanna Read Stories

Here’s the great question Kate asked the other day: why is it that more women than men read novels? One way you can tell it’s a great question is because it’s already spurred an interesting discussion in Litlove’s Reading Room about whether men and women read differently.  (And, just this morning, a wonderful essay by litlove on gender difference.)

My first move? To ask the four men I live with what they like to read. I can’t take a survey. I have to rely on anecdotal information. But that’s okay. It’s a blog, for heaven’s sake.

The BlogLily boys like to read stories and to have stories read to them. They love the Narnia books, Children of the Lamp, Harry Potter, the Moffats, the Fudge stories, and Greek myths. They really like comic books.

And they don’t care that much about whether the main characters are girls or boys. In fact, they don’t really like the kind of books where the characters are only girls or only boys. One boy said he likes his fiction “co-ed” – because it’s more interesting. Another boys pointed out that as long as a book is funny, he doesn’t care who the main character is. The other boy just likes it when there are pictures.

What do I take away from this? I’m inclined to believe that all children love stories – humans are just programmed that way. At this point, though, the question becomes one about whether children of both genders have equal access to the skills you need to read independently. My guess is that there are big swaths of boys, particularly boys in poorer families, who don’t become readers because of the problems they experience being taught how to read in school. And so, right there, some boy readers drop out. And then, I think there’s another big drop off because reading for pleasure isn’t seen as manly in American culture. So, when boys become teenagers, and being manly matters, this is something they might put aside. Some boys will not care about this particular definition of being manly — they just keep right on reading.

And then, say, you get to adulthood, a man who’s maybe been discouraged from reading fiction but still has that same desire to hear a story he’s always had. So what does he do? Here’s my guess: I think he reads stories, but he doesn’t call what he reads a “novel.”

Many men would call the books they read adventure stories, or mysteries, or thrillers, or biographies about people involved in adventures or mysteries or thrilling events. But one thing all these books have in common is that they tell wonderful stories and they fill our need to have someone tell us a tale.

My husband is my evidence for this. He’s an engineer. He’s not a person you’d think reads novels. But he does. (Unlike many other men, though, he knows when he’s reading a novel.) The first writer he remembers reading as a young adult was Alistair MacLean – he of Where Eagles Dare and The Eiger Sanction — adventure stories. He likes stories set in inhospitable places, it turns out. He reads them in the form of biographies, and non-fiction (books like Nansen’s Farthest North and that wonderful book about Lewis and Clark called Undaunted Courage). But he also reads fiction – he loves Patrick O’Brien, not just for the stories of adventure, but for stories of relationships. In none of this reading could he be said to be searching for “ideas” – he reads for what I think is a more common pleasure, the pleasure of a story well told, a story that takes you somewhere you don’t live. And I think many men do that, by seeking out genre fiction, to avoid the stigma of the “novel” and yet to have the pleasure of a story.

The thing I feel badly about, though, is that some boys lose this lovely connection to stories during childhood. These boys get some version of it when they play video games, but something deeper and richer is denied them. In the end, I hope smart people are putting energy into that problem, rather than into telling us that men don’t read novels because novels don’t have anything to say to them.

Short:Sweet (and a little Shakespeare, at the very end)

Today, I’ve been thinking about brevity. Brevity in writing and in speaking. It’s a continuation of yesterday’s thought, the one about how it is more effective to show than to tell. It’s also true that it is sometimes more effective to say something once, and with wit and brevity, than to repeat yourself or twitter on about something you’ve already said. If you want people (here I am referring to readers and to children) to follow you up the steep hill, you have to make it look like an easy hike.

Metaphor Switch, for those who do best when food is invoked: We cannot eat Thanksgiving dinner every night of the year. Nor can we survive on evening meals that consist of nectarines, yogurt and raspberries. We need both sorts of nourishment.

This is today’s:

The container I keep my yogurt in has a little bit of Shakespeare on it (I’ll leave you to guess, along with Edwin, whether the reference to oranges and fruits is Shakespearean or not). But in tiny writing underneath the oranges and fruits, you’ll find this, which is more assuredly Shakespeare:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.

And if you’re curious, here’s the rest of this sonnet:

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Enjoy your day, or your evening, depending on where in the world you are.

Yours,

BL