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.