Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Knees or Buns

This week, I guest-blogged for a friend of mine at The Kitchen Door.

I met Mrs. M when, as a complete stranger, she commented on Big Harmony. A few back and forths later, it was the beginning of a beautiful cyber-friendship. (We finally met a couple of years ago and she is as lovely in person as in print.) A few months ago, she kindly sent me a book called Bittersweet, a series of essays about a young wife and mother coming to terms with becoming a bona fide adult, spiritually. She asked me to choose a chapter and write about it.

At first, I was (ashamedly) quite dismissive of Bittersweet. The author, Shauna Niequist, is in her twenties and details the heartbreak of losing a job and a few pregnancies. Her subsequent realization that God is with us in the dark places, even in the winter of our discontent, would probably have spoken to me more directly 15 years ago. Although her pain and deliverance are astutely woven into her stories, my first inclination was to think, "Been there. Done that. Nothing to learn here." That is to say, I haughtily ignored her story.

I laid the book down for a few weeks and didn't think much about it. As the deadline for this guest-blogging spot came about, I reread the chapter I had chosen to write about, "Knees or Buns".

It finally struck me. What I had dismissed was not only the importance of Ms. Niequist's writing or experiences...but also mine, from the past and the present. The guest blog details what I humbly learned from a woman almost half my age.

I would like to thank the divine Mrs. M for thinking of me when she started this project. (She is also much younger than me. Lately, this seems to be happening more and more. Dang it.) Despite being quite jealous of her abundance of collagen, I am profoundly grateful for her friendship, wisdom and insistence that the story be written. I hope that you will browse through her blog. She has a enviable knack for getting to the heart of a tangled matter and unravelling it, gracefully and insightfully. Happy Reading!

(And, if you would like my copy of Bittersweet, I'll send it to the first person who comments and asks. For the runners-up, a fabulous consolation prize awaits you. No, really. It's amazing.)

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Scientific Method of Raising Teens

Nullius in Verba.
On no man's word.

Motto of the Royal Society

The girls performed well in school this year. In the last semester, we finally found the switch that ignited self-motivation in the youngest to remember to:

a) do the homework
b) turn it in
c) turn it in, in the right box
d) turn it in on time

This news could be disheartening for many parents, but I feel compelled to share the hard-earned wisdom that no amount of friendly cajoling or demonic yelling actually penetrates the preteen mental defensive system protecting its hidden moral core. Imagine, if you will, a scientist logically explaining to the contents of a petri dish how it should progress, or, conversely, screaming at the experiment when it heads in the wrong direction. I have conclusively found that fighting intense frustration with further frustrating tactics leads one to certain insanity. I do not recommend it.

No, one must take into account every conceivable variable with the rigour and perspicacity of a mad scientist following the scientific method. (Because, let's face it, parents completely lose their ever-living minds in the three weeks following the birth of their little experiment. All parents are, sadly and irrevocably, mad.)

First, when implementing the scientific method for raising teens, the question must be formed. For example, "How does one motivate preteens/teens without daily floggings?"

Second, background research must be accomplished. This research includes delving into the immediate and extended family history. Does the subject behave like one of your sibling's spawn? If so, what methods seemed to work with it? Also, one must strive to create an exhaustive mental catalog of all past parenting failures, detailing what almost worked, what didn't work and what was an abysmal failure resulting in buying screw-top wine by the case and locking oneself in a closet after swallowing the key.

Third, construct a hypothesis. This is tricky. One should be extremely careful in the wording, as neither to create more burdens for the scientist nor to offend the subject and cause it to shriek shrilly and slam doors: i.e., "I hypothesize a sack of hammers in the sixth grade would be organized enough to turn its homework into the right box on the right day." (Although counter-intuitive, it is exceedingly difficult to prove that a sack of hammers is smarter than your subject.) Refrain from adding, "Jeesh" or "Good God" to the end of ANY hypothesis.

(A better hypothesis: If I dangle this particular carrot without having to use tedious sticks, this behavior will result.)

Fourth, test your hypothesis by doing an experiment. The experiment should account for as many variables as possible, such as age of subject, temperament, emotional volatility, size of laboratory, weather conditions, etc. (For example, do not start a restrictive experiment in a 900 square foot apartment with a premenstrual female during a blizzard.) Keep in mind that, although you may have one main experiment in mind, that many might be needed in the end. If the mad scientist isn't stubborn enough, this will lead to ultimate failure and, even worse, a condescending smirk on the subject's face. AVOID THE SMIRK by having a plethora of back-up experiments and an evolving knowledge of how to mix carrots and sticks.

Fifth, analyze your data and draw conclusions. This part is easy. Did the subject exhibit desired behavior with nary a word from the mad scientist? Victory! My hypothesis is true. Did the subject lose interest in the experiment and escape the lab? Partial Victory! My hypothesis is inconclusive. Did the subject lose interest and the unwanted behavior returned with a vengeance? Failure. My hypothesis sucked. (Repeat the fourth step ad nauseam until victory is attained OR they create their own little experiments outside of your petri dish. Mock them relentlessly from afar. Encourage your grand-experiments to defy the scientific method.)

Sixth, communicate your results:

Come to find out, the youngest is easily compelled to "excel" with the promise of a $20 ticket to the local amusement park with some BFFs. Cheap, easy and simple. Why had I not thought of this before? Grades came up by at least 10 points--all A's, and strong ones at that. I only had to say, "Hope your grades are good. You know the deal. No A's, No Amusement Park." (I will not list all the failures leading to this victory or I will again suffer the debilitating effects of PPTSD--Parental Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It could trigger the reader's, too.)

In communicating my results, I should also mention some unintended consequences for the scientist in charge: Partial blindness and temporary dumbfoundedness from all the fleshy, dimpled boobs, butts and bellies on view at the amusement/water park. Egad.

No experiment is without its dangers, afterall. It is also important to note that, in the case of parenting, results may not be able to be reproduced in a different lab under the same conditions. And, unfortunately, the same results cannot oftentimes even be reproduced in the same lab with the same subject. Alas, the emotional conditions rarely remain constant or predictable. Parenting a teen may therefore be considered an "art" rather than a "science".

In any case, take no man's word! Go forth, and experiment. Gird your loins. I wish you luck.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Saying So Long to Yes

I thank you God for this most amazing day, for the leaping greenly spirits of trees, and for the blue dream of sky and for everything which is natural, which is infinite, which is yes. ~e.e. cummings

This time, I’ll miss the mountains.

Every time we move, I mourn something. I missed my nutty family when we moved from Oklahoma. Leaving Rhode Island, I was bereft having to say goodbye to my beloved faith community. In Japan, I left behind a group of crazy, loyal friends and a beguiling culture.

We have been in Colorado for barely a year. I have made a few good friends but I will not miss the community…by no fault of its own. I just couldn't fully engage with it this time. The effort seemed too exhausting, too psychically precarious. Sometimes in this vagabond Navy life, I feel like the Greek figure of Sisyphus—struggling to roll the boulder up the mountain each day, finally reaching the summit at nightfall, only to then helplessly watch it tumble inexorably back down to the bottom, all the while sick with the knowledge of having to commence the task again in the morning…at the next duty station.

Of course, unlike Sisyphus, the business of rebuilding one’s life and friendships is not a punishment. I have something positive to show for my efforts in the end. In fact, the friendships I make on the way up the hill greatly alleviate my burden. I do not have to say goodbye to them. Facing the rock in the depressing glare of morning, I am content knowing that my friends are only a button click away in this modern day of Facebook, email, and cell phones. I still feel weary though—weary of lacking them in my daily life, weary of the “no” that seems to replace their physical presence. I miss them.

But, this time, I will mourn the mountains.

Our neighborhood lies on top of a small ridge, affording us a splendid view of the Front Range. In the winter, after dropping the girls at school, as I turn back west and crest the hill, the mountains suddenly appear across the entire horizon—starkly white, rigid and alert in the pale yellow light of morning. In the summer, as the long days come to an end, their outline gradually softens into a purple ombre, coolly contrasting with the fiery orange canvas behind their peaks.

The sight of the Rockies never ceases to amaze me. I oftentimes become cross when they are obscured by gray or hazy weather. I know they are right there but they seem suddenly unknowable, aloof. I can’t stand that.

This weekend, we drove into them for possibly the last visit for a long while. It has been a strange year, weather-wise. Rain turned to snow as we exited Eisenhower Tunnel--the first pass into the mountains from Denver. Most of the ski resorts are still up and running and are expected to be open until at least July 4th. The snow still remains in deep pockets around the trees just off the interstate near the passes. In the valleys, the rivers are swollen past their banks and raging into Class 5 rapids around their rocky bends. Red rafts full of courageous (perhaps, stupid) folk bob haphazardly down the currents like ducklings on crack. (I marvel at the rafters’ chutzpah—ain’t no way, no how I’m risking going head first into that arctic cement mixer.)

Up close, though, the mountains don’t seem the least bit dangerous or imposing as they sometimes do from a distance. Their slopes are decorated with dark swatches of Ponderosa pines, interspersed with patches of slender ivory trunks and the bright bamboo-green of the newly born Aspen leaves. It is still spring in the highlands but summer has finally arrived in the lower places. The valley floor has replaced its stained, stiff white carpet with a new soft grass and wildflower rug. From afar, the mountains communicate impassibility and strict privacy. But once inside, they invite you to put up your feet and get comfortable: Yes, you may stay. As long as you like.

Every time we drive up to Glenwood Springs, I fantasize about being a giant in a tall tale, taking a break in the summer sun, relaxing up against the range—my arm casually extended along the ridge, absent-mindedly brushing my hand across the bristly ridges, watching each tree spring back up. I oftentimes wonder if the sensation would be as pleasurable as when my dad used to slowly rub my small hand against his five-o-clock shadow. It tickled.

The mountains do that to you. Although they make you feel small, they inspire you to dream big.

At another crossroads in life, I guess that I am a little afraid of what may follow in the hustle and bustle of our new home in the big city. Without the view of the infinite from my back porch, will I get trapped by all of life’s finite duties? Will I get too busy and get tricked into living the “no”? Will I feel big but dream small?

Ultimately, I don’t know. Worrying about the boulder falling back down the mountainside probably doesn't make much sense. Perhaps, this view from the summit should just lead me to be thankful for this amazing day.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Semper Gumby

A friend of mine, a Navy wife stationed in Japan where my family lived for the past five years, described the last month as a roller coaster ride. This seems like an accurate analogy except most people have never been on one that doesn't provide a restraint system.

This is the United States military. You jump on and after 20 years of flying upside-down through dark caves, feet dangling in space…you are allowed to get off, i.e. retire. Most military folk and their families love the thrill of adventure and quickly become accustomed to the sharp drops and stomach lurches that accompany a deployment or stressful move across oceans.

When the ride gets scary, though, we Navy people tend to follow the Marine Corp's motto. No, not Semper Fidelis, or Always Faithful. Rather, Semper Gumby. Always Flexible. I met a couple in Japan who told me their story of moving from California to North Carolina. While stopped at a hotel in Mississippi overnight, they received a call that, oops, they were needed in Japan instead. Operation Semper Gumby thus commenced.

Flexibility is crucial for surviving military life. This trait has recently been heavily called upon to get people through the trio of disasters that have literally rocked Japan to its core. Military personnel stationed there have been very lucky. The earthquake only rattled nerves and broke a few dishes. Although heart-broken for the Japanese people, our family was overjoyed to hear that our close circle of Japanese and American friends remained safe.

Then, the ride took a turn into a completely different, not-so-amusing park. Concern started to mount about the extremely likely possibility of a nuclear melt-down. Although roughly 200 miles south of the Daichi reactors, the base could still be affected if the wind shifted. In less than a day, the schools shut down and Navy families were instructed to pack their lives into one bag each, leave all their household items and wait to be transported out of the country. With the active duty member deployed in the relief effort or just remaining behind to do work, this meant that most evacuees would be traveling alone with their children, unsure of where exactly they were going or when they would see their spouse again.

Rumors spread like wildfire, practically a fourth disaster. The base might close forever. People’s households, left behind, might get contaminated. Would they ever see their things again? Would they ever be able to return to Japan? Trying to get their affairs in order in under 24 hours, most people wept at the thought of having to leave without saying goodbye…to their friends, to the country they had come to love, to the life they had built. For many of their children, Japan was the only home they had ever known or remembered.

In the end, the evacuation was voluntary. Most families with children decided to return to family in the states until the nuclear risk had abated. Although military families always enjoy a trip back in the summer to see friends and family (and more importantly, to shop at Target and eat at Chik-Fil-A) this time the mood had changed. Life took on a quasi “refugee” status. Neither here nor there and hauling bags from relative to relative, many lived the vagabond life--with no knowledge of when they would be able to return to Japan, to normalcy.

As I write this at the end of April, the government has allowed family members to travel back to Japan. Many are jubilant. Some are confused. Without any substantive knowledge about how long their exile would last, many parents enrolled their kids in school in the states. Now they face the decision about whether to twist the children’s lives in a knot…again. At this point, no matter what happens, everyone just wants to get off this insane ride.

For those who have returned in the last few days, they have celebrated the best part of military life: the reunion. They are “home”, not just with their spouses but within a country unlike any other. Many Americans prefer to stay in Japan because their Japanese neighbors have been so kind to them. Random Japanese citizens have helped jumpstart our car at IKEA in Tokyo after valiantly searching for jumper cables for thirty minutes. As we have stood bewildered in a station, they have stopped to ask us if we needed help. They oftentimes discontinued their own travels to direct us to the correct train. In broken English, they have complimented my husband on his “nice women” while waiting patiently to take pictures with our girls.

These experiences are almost universal for those military personnel willing to venture beyond the base gates. We have been warmly welcomed into Japanese homes and fed deliciously bizarre foods. (Pickled octopus, anyone?) One friend of mine even gave my husband and me a two-day private tour of Kyoto. She wouldn’t allow us to help pay for the rental car or meals because she was “returning the favor” of Americans having been so kind to her family when her family had lived in the United States many years ago. Twenty years later, that kindness circumnavigated the world and manifested as one of the best weekends of my life. Americans are good folk, too.

In the end, it didn’t surprise me that our Japanese friends politely rejected our invitation to come visit us during this turbulent time. Predictably, they are managing just fine. Due to gas shortages, they don’t mind walking because it’s “healthier”. Lacking their beloved rice, they are “enjoying” pasta and potatoes. Even as their country endures a prolonged mourning, they write to tell me about how they are enjoying the cherry blossoms. In the end, each one thanked our family warmly for our offer but explained that they are content to follow their government and their “destiny”…and that is to make do with what they have, where they are, at this moment.

This attitude gives me hope for them, as their broken country heals…but also for the many American service people who continue to veer haphazardly through space and time, oftentimes with only thin strands of flexibility and commitment holding them fast to their seats. All in all, both situations remind me of a Japanese saying:

“Fall down seven times, rise up eight.”

Semper Gumby, indeed.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Throwing Out the Baby

Once upon a time, a baby was born. He was a typical baby, adorable in every way. His parents were a bit disappointed in him, though. He possessed many endearing qualities but they couldn't keep him from pooping, peeing and puking. So, they washed him in a little tub every so often. Dismayed that the water was always filthy after his soak, they decided the baby was the main problem. He would have to be pitched with the dirty water. But first, they scolded him heavily for having a far too liberal agenda. The end.

Once upon a time, a baby was born. He was a typical baby, adorable in every way. His parents were a bit disappointed in him, though. He possessed many endearing qualities but they couldn’t keep him from pooping, peeing and puking. So, they washed him in a little tub every so often. Dismayed that the water was always filthy after his soak, they decided that the water was the main problem. They cursed the water supplied by rich conservatives and the baby grew up thinking that he could not possibly be responsible for the dirty water he was sitting in. The end.

Once upon a time, a baby was born. He was a typical baby, adorable in every way. Although he was a handful, his parents loved him. He possessed many endearing qualities but he would not stop pooping, peeing and puking. They realized, of course, that shit happens. So they bucked up, washed him in a little tub every so often, disposed of the dirty water, dressed him in clean clothes every night and cheerfully started over the next day. They didn’t blame the rich people in the mega mansion on the other side of town who complained about supplying the water nor did they demonize the poor family one block over who griped about only getting a trickle, mostly because they didn’t know either family very well. Plus, they were moderates and therefore sane. The end.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Little Deaths

For some reason, I haven’t written in my blog for several months. I have written several essays about Japan’s recent suffering and how its essential nature will allow it to eventually triumph. I submitted them to the Denver Post. Much to my delight, I received a phone call on a Thursday asking me to send in my photo because one of the columns would probably run in the Sunday paper, if the editor could “find the space”. She sounded very hopeful.

So was I, of course, because that’s what you are when a dream is about to come true, right? On Sunday morning, I sprinted in my bare feet across the frigid driveway to grab the paper. I spread it out on the kitchen table and looked through the op-ed section. Nothing. How about the regional section? The Arts? The Sports, for crying out loud?

You know the answer. Although the scenario is slightly akin to scurrying downstairs on Christmas morning to find an empty stocking and no presents under the tree, feeling sorry for myself doesn’t seem to matter much. After all, there are people on the other side of the world whose loved ones are still missing beneath a torrent of mud. So, my dream got a little dusty. Big deal.

Here’s the crux of the matter, though: Rejection really sucks. Like, literally. Even life’s little sorrows steal the breath right out of you sometimes. You know that the odds are against you and that failure looms large on the horizon. Somehow, magical thinking overtakes this logic and convinces you that the impossible is quite possible. You take the plunge with nary a thought to the psychic consequences.

It might be a comedy act floundering in front of a tough crowd or a boy getting turned down by his crush or an apology rebuffed…the fact remains that when you put your heart out there, the inevitable squashing of it smarts like hell. Your mind, of course, warned you. Justified, it immediately starts up that old 45 with the skip in it, the one that invariably gets stuck on the annoying refrain: “I Told You So, You Stupid Idiot”.

Poor heart. It dies a little for being so wrong. No one likes death, not even a miniscule amount of one. Deaths, including the petite variety, are scary because our logical brains inform us that the darkness is unknowable and permanent. Faced with this fact, the heart retrenches. It makes perfect sense for the mind to protect its dominion, especially the vulnerable bits.

Apparently, it also makes absolute sense to add more grease to an already raging fire of self-doubt, since I was thinking about this “fact” the other day while running. (“Running” is a loose term for what I do. Realistically, I jog phlegmatically.) I’ve been training for a 10K for the last three months. At this point, I’m running three 17 minute cycles with a minute rest in between which is the longest I’ve ever gone.

A few days ago, two minutes into the third interval, I quickly began to lose my will. My mind, perfectly dressed for the occasion and not the least out of breath, jogged up beside me and commenced its logical tirade, in a polite whisper at first:

“Excuse me, Nancy. It is Nancy, right? Do you remember me? We haven’t talked very often since the girls were born.”

“Uh, huh”, I panted in reply, “What do you want?”

“Um, yeah, I thought I should let you know that this is painful. Why don’t you just cut it out?”

“I know. This is crazy. I’m almost there, though,” I replied, my voice wavering with exhaustion.

Like a dog sizing up a tentative mailman, Brain sensed weakness and fear. His tone got a little more snippy and insistent.

“Nancy, come on now. Really. You are not an athlete. You’re closer to a writer and look where that’s gotten you. Why don’t you just be realistic?”

“I know, right? A 10K does seem like a bit much. I’m thinking 5K is more doable. But I really want to do this.”

Brain sighed deeply. “For Pete’s sake, the old dude walking behind you in the plaid shorts and black knee socks is practically lapping you. Your pace has dropped by a full minute and a half. Just stop and get some water and rest. What are you trying to prove?”

Slowing down further, I considered the reasoning. “You have a point. What will happen on race day? I don’t think I can do this. I’m going to get halfway done and have to walk. That will be beyond embarrassing.”

“Exactly!” exclaimed my brain. “Why don’t you just stop at that water fountain up there and take a long rest?”

I veered off the track and stopped. After a quick drink, I forced myself to start jogging again. Since I was now running practically at a standstill, Brain, who had been left regarding his fingernails at the fountain, caught up and passed me. Then, the little jerk turned around and starting jogging backwards--all the while lecturing me, with his hands on his hips (and not a drop of sweat on his condescending brow).

“Seriously, you gave it your best, kid. Really. You’re barely a jogger and definitely not a runner. You can finish the last 13 minutes some other day. It’s no big deal. Just quit. No one will know, except you and me.”

Beaten down and incredibly weak, I weighed my options. Obviously, it was time for something radical. I looked past the naysayer loping ahead of me, tilted my head to the ceiling and actually…prayed. This is strange because I don’t often feel comfortable petitioning God on my own behalf. I certainly don’t do it while I’m running. But here’s what I said, pleaded even:

“Oh, God. Just let me finish. I just want to finish today. I don’t care about the 10K. I just want to finish, TODAY. Please, God. Help me suffer just 13 more minutes. It’s just 13 stinking minutes of my life. People suffer all the time, for much longer and for much more important reasons. I can slow down even more. I simply can’t quit. I really want to quit. So bad. But I’ve done all this painful work and now I just want to finish these FU#&ING 13 LOUSY MINUTES!! OKAAAY?!”

About a minute later, a lightning bolt hit me. Not a hot smiting one, which would be expected (and, let’s face it, deserved)…but a cold one. My whole body lost warmth and went tingly. I started running faster. I could breathe. My legs felt light. As my mind became quiet, I picked up my pace. By the time I passed the five minute mark, I was running, incredibly, two and a half minutes faster than before.

My heart did a brief happy dance at the finish line…something akin to Elaine’s awkward display on Seinfeld. It was definitely more exuberant than skilled.

Brain might have called this miracle a “runner’s high”. I couldn’t find him, though, to ask what he thought. I have no idea what happened to him. He just faded away. I’ve run this interval set again since then. He popped his head around the corner of the track and yelled, “Hey, you. You suck”, and then wandered off somewhere, probably to get a pina colada protein shake at the juice bar. He loves those things. My guess is, he’ll be back in force when the intervals climb to two 30 minute cycles. Until then, I’m enjoying the peace from the arrogant little bugger.

This mini victory has started me thinking that I need to approach writing like I do running. I can’t quit when that logical voice starts its fire and brimstone sermon: “Nancy, decidedly, your cup does not overfloweth. You can’t even get published in the Denver Post. Therefore, you can’t even think about writing a book. What are you going to write about? Your credentials are an abomination. You didn’t graduate from Princeton or Stanford with a writing degree. There are thousands of real writers out there who can’t get published. Get over thyself!”

Oh, Brain, why don’t you get over yourself? My heart might be a tad timid but I now understand that you can be silenced. It will just take practice…and quite possibly some irreverent prayer. Maybe I will never become a “real” writer, but on account of these seemingly insignificant sufferings, I have learned some important personal “facts”:

Entrenchment is not an option. And, out of these little deaths, I will find life. I just have to keep running towards it.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Invasion

What do you get when you combine--8 pounds of spaghetti, 6 loaves of garlic bread, 8 litres of soda, 2 gallons of milk, 3.5 gallons of homemade pasta sauce with 4 pounds of meat, three cavernous bowls of salad, 80 Toll House cookies, dozens of Little Debbie Treats (and assorted leftover Christmas Candy) and mounds of grapes and apples--with 30 female high school swimmers fresh from a two and a half hour practice?

Nothing. You get nothing. At all. Leftover.

One minute, I surveyed the idyllic domestic scene with satisfaction...pasta gently boiling on the stove, meat sauce bubbling merrily away, whilst the heavenly aroma of warm garlic cheese bread filled the still and quiet air.

Then, in the blink of an eye, all hell broke loose.

A car drove up. Door after door slammed. I heard the shrieking long before the horde descended. I swear, the sun was blotted out from the sky.

They came. They devoured. They giggled without ceasing. An hour and a half later, after beating back wave after wave of them with a wooden spoon, the husband and I wearily looked up from our sweaty post above the steaming pots and pans and timidly regarded what remained of the bleak landscape...several crumbs, a smattering of sauce, a few stray noodles.

We ventured outside the house to check if the wood siding had been compromised.

As we were trying to restore order to the kitchen, their team captain organized her swimmers and had them quickly vote on which girlie game to play. Tim and I took this as a sign. We quickly cleaned up, retreated upstairs, collapsed on the couch and proceeded to eavesdrop without shame.

The planned games rapidly degenerated into socially unacceptable subjects. Each new anecdote about farting in the high school halls, vomiting in friends' cars, period woes, peeing in the well (diving pool) when no one was looking and finding the perfect homecoming formal was met with riotous laughter.

"Girls seriously talk about this kind of stuff in big groups?" Tim asked innocently. "Yes, dear," I responded. "When we get to be adults, we level up the bodily fluid anecdotes to childbirth horror stories. If we don't have children, we recount our dating mishaps. In detail, if you know what I mean."

"They sure are having fun," he replied, looking a bit shell-shocked. "Although I'm not sure how anyone can hear what the other one is saying."

I snickered. Silly, silly boy. We aren't trying to communicate profound insights. Each new story serves the purpose of raising the energy. Soon, the fervor becomes fever pitch--a feeding frenzy of hilarious anecdotal one-upmanships. (At the end of the fun, spent from all the laughter, our sides actually feel as if they will be compromised.)

This is the female tribe in all its glory...momentarily without a care in the world, free from all the world's constraints and expectations. We are ribald, obnoxious and unconcerned about how we "should" be acting. All that matters is laughter. Laughter leads to trust and trust leads to communion--a filling up of the soul, nourishment in its most simple and profound form.

My husband, although exhausted, loved the experience. He was tickled to get a glimpse of the mysterious teen female in her natural environment. "It's much more rude than I would have thought," he remarked, with more than a bit of admiration in his voice.

Me, I was giddy with remembrance; of the sleep-overs in my youth and of the ladies' cocktail hours in my adulthood. In Colorado for just one year, I miss communion with my girlfriends in Japan. (Soon, though, I will be together with them again and we will fill up on all those spiritually fattening conversational carbs that sustain us through the long race. I can't wait.)

As the evening came to a close, the girls slowly trickled out. As they found their shoes and meandered out to their cars, every one of them made sure to thank us for the meal. "It was our pleasure," we called back, waving from the doorstep.

And, it truly was.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

In the Defense of Tiger Moms (And Housecat Moms, Too)

A few days ago, I called both of my kids, "dummies". You don't need to know the gory details. I snapped because they were careless after I had reminded them to be careful about something obvious. Twice.

Voices were raised, doors were slammed...we all went to bed in a huff.

I apologized the next day. In return, the girls verbalized their regret about provoking me by ignoring me. After the dust settled, I decided to retract my application for Mother of the Year from the governing association, Perfect Parents, Perfect Kids. Sigh. Now I have to wait a whole year to reapply without falling into some other boneheaded parenting trap. It's embarrassing. For some reason, 15 years of experience has not kept me from retaliating against my children's childishness by being so completely...childish.

At the same time that the dirty deed was did, the story about Amy Chua, author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, broke wide open in the media. Quite coincidentally, I also became engrossed reading one of my most excellent Christmas gifts: The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival by John Vaillant.

The synchronicity of these three occurrences has inspired me to think deeply about my role as a parent. Whereas many people are up in arms about Ms. Chua's alleged abuse of her children and others are predictably calling for "balance" in parenting, I am unconvinced that either opinion is really helpful in the long run. Let me explain.

Ms. Chua is of Chinese descent and the Amur tigers in Mr. Vaillant's book live in a small, strange biosphere on the Sino-Russian border. A good deal of his narrative speaks to how culture influences the lives of both humans and animals. Both types of animal are fearsome and strong, able to surmount seemingly impossible physical obstacles in the quest for survival. Like that of the tigers, life is still extremely brutish and short for most Chinese and Russian people. While we Americans pontificate about which cell phone app will work out best for us, most of them are wondering where their next meal is coming from. We go to the grocery store. They head to the forest.

For people trying to survive in a wildly unpredictable world, the tiger symbolizes the cunning, virility and grace under fire needed to succeed, i.e. live.* Tigers are considered by many in these cultures to be living gods...beings worthy of veneration and appeasement. The people respect the tigers who survive to adulthood for their hard-earned experience and subsequent wisdom.

This culture deeply informed Ms. Chua's parents' beliefs and, unsurprisingly, her own. For time in memoriam, life has been downright medieval for most Asians. If the offspring do not "listen", if the parents fail to impart their wisdom, by hook or by crook, the children are set up for the ultimate failure: Death.

Isn't that what all parents are trying to avoid? Western parents, for the most part, mercifully no longer have to warn their kids about apex predators. Yet, we still have to scare the bejeezus out of them about "strangers" who are actively plotting their demise.(Not so, in Japan, where 5-year-olds ride the train without an adult.) Maybe we don't have to worry about our cheeky kids mouthing off to some government official and risking dismemberment or death but we do have to guard against them provoking some random psycho with a handgun.

For the parents over-coddling their kids, to the parents calling them "garbage" for disrespecting them, it's all about trying to control the environment for their ultimate safety. If I give my children everything, they will have great self-esteem and thrive. If I ride my kids hard, they will respect me and survive. For some, they come from a culture of "surthrival"...and others, survival. To quote Cloris Leachman in the movie Spanglish, "None of it works."

The fact remains that it is extremely difficult to find balance raising little ones in a continually shape shifting universe. Conditions change and one strategy will succeed. They change again and the same approach will be considered villainous.

The cliche is annoying but true: The best we can do is to do our best. We can try to do no harm, to our own kids or to other parents who are just trying to get their cherished ones to adulthood. Sadly, we will do harm, no matter what our strategy. The affectionate, permissive parents will continue to screw up their kids in ways that are very different, but equally burdensome as the Ways of the Tiger Parents.

After beating myself up about my tiger ways, I think that getting past the "dummy" remarks, for both sides, is difficult but not impossible. Good communication allows for all parties to atone for mistakes and have greater understanding for each other. This is my ultimate Western Parent Wish for my children. One day, if I don't completely bungle my job as a parent AND we are all very lucky, my kids will raise their own imperfect babies...and will come to understand that I loved them just as desperately. The only thing I know to be true about parenting is quite simple: I love them more than life itself.

*(Guess which "enhancement" drug derives its name from the Sanskrit word for tiger, vyaghra?)

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Unspeakable Acts

Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done
She gave her father forty-one.

Do you remember this skip rope song? As an innocent first grader growing up in the seventies, I didn't know who Lizzie Borden was much less the grisly story that inspired this tiny piece of American folklore. The rhyme was tight, easy to jump to and hinted at something terrifying and gruesome. Kids do indeed love implicit violence as long as they feel safe in everyday life.

Now, as an adult who is aware of the Lizzie Borden story, I marvel at how these brutal murders made it into a little recess ditty. This kind of violence must have been so extraordinary, so utterly unthinkable in Victorian times, that it became permanently etched into our nation's psyche and, subsequently, its folklore.

When I reflect on my own childhood, I remember most scary things operating in the same fashion as the Lizzie song...movies and television certainly evoked a sense of violence but it was rarely shown on screen or explicitly discussed. It was, in fact, unspeakable.

After every barbaric act like the one recently committed in Arizona, some public official decries it as an "unspeakable act" of cowardice and violence. I have to wonder though, is it really unspeakable?

Television series trumpet sensational murders and crimes. Movies depict people feeding body parts through wood chippers. Songs glamorize raping women. Video games encourage players to shoot as many of the "enemy" as possible for points, even those begging for their lives. In all forms of entertainment, people, young and old, male and female, are shown being ripped apart, maimed and killed.

Make no mistake about it. We speak violence everyday, boldly and fluently.

Random, raw violence has become so mundane in our society, so horrifyingly graphic in all media, that I have to question whether we have forever lost the ability to use the term "unspeakable" when referring to it.

We continually steep our brains in savage imagery but then, incomprehensibly, are shocked to find that our particular cultural brew of liberal gun laws, graphic entertainment and hostile speech is bitter to the palate. If the saying, "where the mind goes, the body will follow" points to the secret of our self-healing, it can also be turned upside down to speak of our self-destruction. We are violent in our thoughts, words and deeds because we allow our minds to wallow, numbly, in the morass of our most base instincts.

Of course, upon playing some violent video game or watching a Coen brothers' film, most Americans will not run out and mow down their ideological "enemies" in a barrage of gunfire. But, we must stop fooling ourselves. We do become desensitized to the effects of random meanness on our psyches. We, like our childish brains of the past, enjoy the thrill of danger but don't really understand how the violence, once explicitly manifested, eats away at our souls.

I see little evidence that we are better people for all our mindless entertainment. We have become less empathetic of another person's pain. We casually sweep human bloodshed under the table. Five days later, we forget that a nine-year-old was murdered by a maniac. This is the tragedy, the psychic violence, that no one dares speak of...

I don't know about you, but I don't feel comfortable anymore with movie mayhem or even political vitriol. In this every day life, I am simply terrified of how many whacks it will take for this nation to be shocked into civility.