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.