Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Perfect Parenting

When I was a first time mother, I was fairly insane. Looking back on it, the fairly seems a generous modifier. I do remember taking my son to the pediatrician and explaining to the doctor how I had all these books and notes on how to take care of (my then) one week old son. He looked at me, and asked why I had done all that.

I thought that was pretty obvious. "So I don't make a mistake."

He was an elderly man, almost ready to retire. He laughed when I said this. "Honey, you are going to make mistakes every day. Get used to it."

I didn't believe him. I read all the parenting books in the same manner I had once read all of Jane Austen's work - only I took more notes on the parenting books. I had color coded charts on the wall. I rinsed his toys in a bleach solution -- every night, then triple rinsed the bleach off them. I bought air purifiers. I banished the cats.

I didn't view any of those behaviors as mistakes.

I do wonder now if we ever know we're making the mistakes WHEN we're making them, at least as parents. I seem to get it only in retrospect. Of course, I have teens and a younger daughter, so they help me see my mistakes, at least with her.

Yesterday, my daughter came home from school a little upset. She had a substitute in the afternoon, and her regular teacher had left instructions that they write a piece for their writing folders. My daughter is obsessed with fairies, and she wanted to write a story about two fairies who lived inside a walnut shell. The substitute teacher told her, "No, it doesn't say in your teacher's lesson plan that you can write fantasy."

"But that's what I like to write," Emma protested, "and I already started it."

"I'm very sorry," the substitute teacher said, "but you'll have to work on something else."

My daughter leaned over to her friend and said, "You know how they call Dumbo Dumbo because his ears are big? Well, maybe we should call this teacher Dumb-Butt."

Of course this was overheard, and the substitute told Emma she would report this to the classroom teacher. (Emma has never been in the slightest trouble before, and so far, no calls from the classroom teacher)

After school, I listened, and her brothers listened, too.

I responded first by saying "I don't get why you couldn't work on the fantasy story. Did it say that specifically? Emma can't work on her walnut fairy story?"

"It didn't."

"I don't think it's up to the substitute to determine what genre you can work in at all. That's ridiculous. She's not an editor."

Christopher looked at me. "It's like the only part you heard was about her writing. You can't say anything about someone's butt. She's the teacher."

Philip, who is no stranger to school trouble, said, "If that was me, they would have sent me to the office for the rest of the day. Lucky you got away with it."

"But, Philip, she should be able to choose her genre."

Christopher rolled his eyes. "Mom, this isn't about the genre. It's about listening to the teacher."

Emma, looking a little better, said, "I feel like just because they're taller than us they can tell us what to do all the time. They don't have to be right, they just have to be taller."

"I just really disagree with her picking what you should write..."

"Mom! It's not about her writing," Christopher said.

It wasn't?

Christopher looked at his sister. "You can't say stuff like that in school."

"I know, but I was mad. And her butt was gigantic. It plopped over the chair seat."

"It doesn't matter," her oldest brother continued, "you can think it, but you can't say it. You'll get in trouble. Only not with mom. She just wants you to finish your story so she can read it and send a copy to Grandma."

I opened my mouth to protest.

Only he was right.

I missed the parenting book that offered advice on what to do when the kids point out your mistakes.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Shopping, Teens, Jeans and Challenged Lives

The other day, my birthday boy needed pants. Now, if I needed pants, I would put it on the never ending list of things that need to get done like planting bushes, buying a new couch and picking up some pants. But he's a newly minted 15, and he needed pants RIGHT NOW.

I explained to him that I was exhausted, that I haven't had a spare minute since last Friday, and it was already past 8. He wasn't buying. He had to have jeans RIGHT NOW. So I agreed to go, but only if he would listen to me explain how impulsivity was one of the major themes of Romeo and Juliet which he is reading right now. Or rather, that his class is reading and he is learning through the process of auditory osmosis.

Anyway, I drove to the near mall, not the one he likes that's half an hour away. I stopped in front of KMart.

"You're kidding. I'm not getting out of the car. Drive away. I don't even want to be seen in the parking lot."

"They have jeans in there. Or in WalMart."

"Mom, you have completely lost it. They only have jeans like you wear in those stores. Wranglers or whatever."

"What about Kohl's? or..."

"I thought we were going to the real mall. The one with the good stores."

I sighed. I bought milk and cat litter in KMart (which is one of the reasons I like stores like that) Philip slumped in the car, hidden from possible surveillance and resigned to waiting for the weekend.

The last time I shopped with his brother, at a good store, Christopher looked through racks of pants while he kept standing further and further distances from me. He explained, in a kindly tone, that I was wearing "Mom Jeans" - the kind that give you a butt in the back -- and in the front, the kind they sell at KMart. (I bought them in Penneys btw) A lot of teens were in the store so I took the hint and asked him to text me when he had made his selections. He came out almost immediately after.

"What's wrong? You're so pale."

"Let's just go."

I looked back before leaving and I saw the problem: about six or seven little people had entered the store. (I'm pretty sure that's the correct term now)

Now my boys were raised in a diverse environment, but there is something about little people that completely freaks them out. Completely. So a few weeks back, I asked them to watch one of those BBC documentaries on people with challenged lives, and it included little people, people missing limbs, and twins attached at the head.
I thought it would help make them more compassionate.

Philip watched, put a pillow over his face at times, and shouted things like, "Oh my God, why are we watching this? What's wrong with you, Mom? Normal families don't do this!!!"

Christopher, more mature, looked at me at the end.

"See," I said as I stood there sagely in my Mom jeans, "you guys have nothing to complain about. Not a thing. These people have real problems. Don't you think?"

Philip shot from the room. Christopher looked at me and said, "We saw this film in science about this like 150 pound toddler. He lived outside of London."

"Imagine how difficult his life is. You think you learn things from watching about other people's lives who are challenged?"

Christopher nodded. "Yeah. I'm never going to Britain. That's where they all live."

Friday, March 20, 2009

Fifteenth Birthday: March 19, 2009

Happy Fifteenth Birthday to Philip:

So happy to have his picture taken. It gets difficult to come up with ways to celebrate birthdays when the birthday guest is of a certain reluctant age and way too cool for party hats or games.

But we tried. The current color that is cool in Philip's circle is purple, a hot, neon kind of purple that reminds me of the sixties, and not the good part of the sixties. His little sister and I tried to dye the cupcake icing that color:

Philip's guests pronounced them "Goth Vomit Lilac" but still managed to put them away pretty quickly along with a couple of half gallons of ice cream. Here's Philip's response:

The presents he wanted? A large bucket of fried chicken, a Japanese fighting fish, a new set of drumsticks, band posters, clothes and money. He thinks this is a great age: we think he's right. He took this last picture -

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Where You Write From

I am giving some serious thought to the amount of time I get for writing (very, very little) and the place where I write (very, very crowded). It's not like I don't have the same amount of time as everyone else; I just have two part time teaching jobs that require a lot of prep, and my kids were raised NOT to watch tv, so they call me every two minutes to talk to me or show me what weird thing the cats are doing. I probably can't quit one of my jobs unless I get a super juicy contract, but I need to stop writing in a corner of my bedroom where there is no view and where the cats bite the papers that come out of the printer. I also need to stop writing run on sentences. Soon.

My favorite authors have always been the Brontes, and the picture above is of their house. Now, I mean really, talk about atmosphere. That's an amazing place.

And look at how you approach Wordsworth's place:

And the spare beauty of Emily Dickinson's writing room:

I realize, all too well, that I am not exactly in the same league as these folks, but I really need to find a better spot to work in.

Maybe it doesn't matter; but I'm starting to think it does. Where do you guys write? Do you have any rules in your house about the phone or the doorbell or questions? (Like this one I just got while typing this, "MOOOOMMMMM!!! I found a place where they pierce septums. Can we just go look at it? Later? MOOOOOOOOMMMMMMM!!!!!! Why aren't you answering me?") And does your space matter to how well you write? Can you write anywhere? Or do you need to compose in that one spot? And how do you get sustained silence?

Monday, March 9, 2009

Why I Love Talking to Teens

One of my pet peeves about a lot of YA is that the authors don't get the voice right. And time and time again, when I ask teens why they stop reading a particular book, they say: "It doesn't sound like anyone I know. I don't know where these kids are from." The teens assume the kids live somewhere else and since teens are natural narcissists, they really want to see reflections of themselves. They don't think the author got anything wrong, just wrote about kids who live where they don't.

And, of course, the folks who write YA are all artifacts to teens, so it's not easy to conjure authentic teenspeak. I think one of the toughest struggles is that teenspeak is not predictable. Plus, it's a weird mix of little kid inhibition mingled with adult observations.

Last week, my oldest guy took four days of standardized testing. To fill in the time, he had to go to one class each morning. His was health. The teacher, not wanting to tax the kids, showed "the birth film" -- the kind of film with such biological accuracy you have to sign a permission slip to allow your child to view it.

Now Christopher never took health in junior high because he's a band kid and they have trouble fitting in electives. So not only had he suffered through three days of writing and math, on the fourth day he saw the story of human birth. I knew immediately when he walked through the door that something was wrong.

"So I saw that movie today," he said before the door was shut. (This is a kid who normally has to be plied with tacquitos and ice cream before I can even find out if he had a math quiz)

"Mom, did you know that more than the baby comes out?"

"Uhh, yeah, I did. I read that somewhere."

"That was absolutely...I can't eat. Why did you sign that slip? Do you know what I just had to watch? You have no idea."

"I have an idea."

"So does the guy have to stay, like when the wife has the baby? And like watch?"

"I sent Dad home to take care of you when your brother was being born. You had just turned two and..."

"So he doesn't have to stay?"

"I would say that's sort of up to the woman. It's kind of her show."

"But you could like agree before the baby was born that the guy doesn't have to be there, right?"

"Sure. You just check that option off when you're ordering your wife."

"Because I would pass out. I felt really far away when I was watching it. I had to hold onto the desk for a few minutes."

"Your father did pass out. And you were born in spite of him being on a stretcher for about an hour. He actually didn't see anything."

"Maybe I'll do that."

"So how was the test? You had writing today, right?"

"Decent. Why did you leave these pants in my drawer? They're from like middle school or something."

"There are clean pants folded on the dining room table. I just didn't get a chance to put them in your drawer."

He takes a sandwich and looks at me, "Cause these are so tight, I could actually feel my sperm dying."

"I heard that helps you write better."

"Gawd, Mom. It's like you don't hear anything I say."

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The YA Novel I Will Never Write, But You Can

The other day I reminded my oldest that he had a lot of homework to do. Then I turned to my middle guy and reminded him that he had a project to work on. My oldest, Christopher, gave me one of those long, bored sighs, and said, "Gawd, you get so worked up over school. Everything matters to you."

Uh, yeah.

My middle guy knew enough to go into his room and pretend to be working on his project (thanks to Vista, you can now happily keep your myspace page open while putting up the Romeo and Juliet notes when Mom walks by) My youngest followed him and whispered, "Wait for me." These actions left me alone with my oldest.

"It would be nice if you cared about...I don't know. School. Getting a part time job. Saving tigers. Something."

"You know what your problem is, Mom?"

"Oh, I can name three..."

"No, no, it's because you forget about Nibiru all the time."

Nibiru. A club? An Egyptian girlfriend? A drug?

"Who is Nibiru?"

"You are serious. You actually don't know."

"I don't. But I learned how to text. So I'm trainable. Who is Nibiru?"

"It's the planet that will end the world." He gazes at me with a mix or horror and fear exactly like my geometry teacher did once when he looked at my worksheet. "Mom, everyone knows about Nibiru. It's everywhere. How could you not know?"

So I researched it. It took about five minutes. These are my scientific findings based on the kids in my kitchen and YouTube:

1. My husband now thinks I'm nuttier than he once did.

2. It's based on a Sumerian prophecy. I happen to love the Sumerians, and not just for their pottery shards.

3. Middle graders are largely familiar with this idea, but they call it Planet X.

4. My guess is that it's hooey. Slick, sellable hooey, but hooey nonetheless.

5. The History Channel endorses the idea. The History Channel. And I used to take them seriously.

It's spreading like mono among seventh through twelfth graders as it has all the ideas that appeal to teens: doomsday, renewal, apocalyptic imagery, prophecy fulfillment, only a few will survive, boiling seas, the reality of mysticism.

It's not my cup of tea, but when I brought it up in front of a group of teens this weekend, they resoundingly said, "If you wrote about Nibiru, we would read it."

So you YA folks looking for ideas, here's the YouTube link to inspire you. Somebody should write this book.