Thursday, February 25, 2010

"Sono Così Emozionante"

You are very clever, youse.

In our recent guessing game of "Where in the World Will Sabbatical Take Them?," quite a few commenters came very close, or even rightly named, our family's likely port of call for our upcoming travels.

Here's the summary of how we got to our current perch:

1)  Jocelyn was born.  Half an hour later, her mom ate a ham sandwich, thus modeling for the infant life-long behaviors in pork ingestion;
2)  Jocelyn grew up and liked reading books and talking.  When she headed off to college, she thought she'd be a lawyer;
3)  Jocelyn took a political science class in college and quickly realized she just wanted to read novels and not about the structure of the Swedish government;
4)  Jocelyn declared an English major.  Several years later, she graduated and contemplated applying that major to driving a taxi;
5)  A couple years later, after working as a temp in tall buildings and, in much shorter buildings, as a nanny, she realized graduate school might help aim her towards a career that didn't entail filing receipts for bulk flour purchases (as did in her stint temping at Pillsbury) or babysitting a fluffly little marshmallow guy (again, compliments of her stint temping at Pillsbury);
6)  Because she still just wanted to read books but realized that a graduate degree in English literature would still end with her behind the wheel of a taxi--or watching other people's children, perhaps as she gunned towards them from behind the wheel of a taxi--Jocelyn decided to go for a "practical" graduate degree, based in English.  She earned a Master's in Teaching English as a Second Language, a course of study which, to her surprise, entailed a host of linguistics classes that made her shriveled brain ache.  She cried softly during weekly quizzes in Phonology, during which the professor articulated made-up words like "Schwizzlegnaufengleut" and required that students transcribe his sounds into the International Phonetic Alphabet.  When not weeping during quizzes, Jocelyn, as part of her fellowship, taught sections of composition;
7)  Which meant that the only things she could put on her CV after finishing graduate school were "weeping," "transcribing," and "teaching composition";
8)  Which then meant that she was hired at several institutions to teach composition, and occasionally--living the dream here!--literature.  This continued for 19 years, during which time she enjoyed the bounties of her job, with students who became personal friends, students whose lives were changed through education, students who were legendary characters.  On the flip side, she also felt her soul suck away sometimes, with students who were high on meth in the classroom, students who treated her with hostility for having the audacity to assign work, students who lodged complaints about her with the dean for receiving non-passing grades after missing 11 out of 16 weeks of class, and students who died prematurely, tragically;
9)  At some point, the idea of taking a breath sounded appealing.  Right about then, her second sabbatical opportunity came around.  She applied.  She got it.  That evening, she choreographed an inspiring interpretive dance and performed it for unsuspecting onlookers (woe to them for not getting out before she locked the doors);
10)  After taking her bows, Jocelyn signed up with a couple of home exchange Web sites and spent hours trying to take photographs of her home that didn't reveal the dust bunnies, stained counters, and towers of Lego creations.  Doing this required all the limberness she'd warmed up the night before during the interpretive dance, as getting pictures wherein the house looked "clean" and "as though you'd really like to live here!!!" called upon profoundly imaginative camera angles.  Ultimately, she managed to package her home relatively appealingly.  The most difficult challenge of the whole thing was showing the house's windows without actually snapping anything OUTSIDE the windows...'cause it was January out there, and January ain't always pretty, Poodles;
11)  Next, Jocelyn spent hours sending out more than 40 inquiry emails to home exchangers around the world, receiving back, in rapid order, approximately 35 "Nope, won't work for us" responses;
12)  Weeks pass, and Jocelyn's family began to consider Plan B, in which Jocelyn and her husband would divorce, just for a year, and go on the hunt for new, international spouses.  Whoever would score a new partner first would then send for the rest of the family.  Ideally, there would be a compound involved, a place that could house everybody without conflict.  Jocelyn supposed that she could use her red hair to snare a Moroccan man, so long as he was of poor eyesight and hearing, able to ignore the rest of The Accompanying Jocelyn Package.  Right about when she was contemplating joining, an email hit the Inbox;
13)  From a family in Sicily that has done 10 exchanges in the past and is open to exploring the U.S. this time.  Excited communications took place for five hours...before the Sicilian family went a bit silent.  During their silence, an email of interest came in from a family in Hungary.  Then one flew in from a family in Switzerland.  Jocelyn called upon all of her diplomacy and tact (things she first learned back in her political science class in college; something about "the Swedish model," and, trust me, there were no photos of Tiger Woods' wife in that textbook) and kept all the families dangling on the hook, mostly hoping that no option closed before she heard back, with more certainty, from the Sicilians.  Because, honestly, as awesome as Hungary and Switzerland are, they aren't Italy.  (Plus Jocelyn has been to Hungary before and was pretty certain the manifest orderliness of Switzerland would collapse into chaos the first time she annouced to a native, "Actually, I don't wear a watch.  I don't really like to know what time it is.");
14)  Eventually, after several weeks of limited communication, the Sicilian family emailed that it is INNNNNNNN for an exchange.  The hang-up had been the educational situation for their 15-year-old son (they also have 9-year-old twins, for whom a regimented education is less essential) who, if he missed an entire year of high school in Italy, would have to repeat it upon his return.  As a compromise, he will accompany the family for the first six months and then return to Sicily to live with his aunt (next door to where we'll be living; Jocelyn hopes to wave at him through the window as she plays Tetris on the computer in his bedroom).  From that point on, depending on how Teen With Auntie does, everyone will play it by ear.  If he hits the skids, his family will return home sooner rather than later.  But, ideally, if he--as teens often do--thrives without his parents around, the rest of his family will remain in Duluth for two or four more months.  Thus, the exchange could run July-December, July-February, or July-April;
15)  Jocelyn's family is gunning for April;
16)  Because the longer they stay in Sicily, the more of this stuff they'll actually get to see:

Catania, Sicily


Mt. Etna

Coliseum Thing, which is the untranslated Greek term for it

A photo of the house they'll be staying in.

hahahahahahaha.  I often feel fortunate that I enjoy my own humor, as it eludes the masses.

They have beaches there.  It gets hot.  I believe I will do okay with the heat, if I can have gelato and granitas.

Maybe I forgot to mention it, but there are beaches.

Thus, we're super excited, to the point that I'm listening to Italian language CDs in the car and printing out flashcards of the days of the week.  Girlchild memorized counting to 20 in a few minutes flat, so I have hopes for the kids' more absorbent brains to adjust enough that they can help us talk our way out of traffic tickets.

Fellow blogger Lucia, over at Dim Sum, Bagels, and Crawfish (, whom I found through the Magic Google Machine, has already been exceedingly gracious and given us a few insider tips, including "If you want to blend in with the Italians be sure to pack black" and "If you don't already own a GPS system I would recommend bringing one or buying one."  Based on these recommendations, I feel certain of my success as a Sicilian, as I'm nothing if not a gloom-ridden Goth who can't find her way to the rave.

(Not that Goths worth their salt would be found at a rave; I just liked the sound of it, so hesh up, Know-It-All Objector)

As we launch into the logistics of the trip, we're already experiencing a cultural lesson in dealing with Italians since the exchange family is, er, less actively communcative than our goal-driven American personalities would hope for.  At some point, we'll get travel dates ironed out, though.  Until then, we're emailing with the Italian consulate about visas--another cultural lesson in patience, as replies to our questions come back without any of our questions addressed or answered...but with a whole new host of complicating factors laid out before us.  Before we're done, we may have to get fingerprinted (only $12!) and have FBI background checks.

Imagine, in the photo below, that we are the road, and the Italian bureacracy is the lava from Mt. Etna.

Yup, that's how emailing with the consulate makes us feel.

At least, as we wait for the charismatic swarthy man to stamp our documents, we'll have ample time to practice some fundamental phrases:

Dove è il vino?


Riempia prego il mio vetro di vino.


Riempialo alla parte superiore.  Seriamente.

Monday, February 22, 2010

"Deep in the Heart"

Some of y'all might remember that my sister flew me to Denver last October so's I could help her organize her stuff.

Upon my return from that fun weekend, I posted something on Facebook about it...only to have a pal from college reply, "I would totally buy your plane ticket, if you'd come help me organize my house!  Actually, I'm pretty sure my mom would pay for it; she so wants my house to change." Warning her that I take people up on offers like that, she continued, "And I'd pay for a ticket for Groom to come along, too, if he wants to pitch in." Indeed, when College Pal called her mother...just to casually mention the idea that she had some friends who might be able to come help her sort through some of her stuff, she managed to get out the words, "So Jocelyn went and helped her sister get some areas organized and I was thinking..." before her mother broke in and announced, "I will buy that girl's plane ticket, if she'd come down and do the same for you."

Gotta love deep-walleted mothers who fear clutter.

The idea of a trip to Austin, Texas, in mid-February didn't sound half bad. Even better, another college friend, witnessing the Facebook discussion, chimed in, with a, "Hell, for the fun of the hanging out, I'll buy my own ticket."

So that's where I've been the last handful of days: home of the LBJ Library, the largest urban bat population in the U.S., and College Pal's herd of empty shoe boxes that she still keeps just 'cause.

Oh, and, yes, I know you're wondering: we did drive by Lance Armstrong's house. Tragically (luckily?), he and Matthew McConaughey weren't running shirtless outside the compound.

Despite no photo of Lance and Matt, here's a brief pictoral overview of a few things I did see:

Minneapolis and the Mississippi (I said the letters out loud as I typed that last word)

One of college pal's closets; woefully, it was too low down on the priority list to make the cut for our attentions.  Maybe next time...

The crackerjack work team in action.  I feel nothing better sums up the state of College Pal's kitchen than this fact:  she owned three woks but couldn't find even one of them. 

Now, after the Clean Sweep Team came through, she owns one wok and knows exactly where it is.  Sizzle.

Workers need sustenance, of course.  How fortuitious that College Pal's neighborhood features a line of food trailers, all serving up energy-restoring fare.

Here's how Groom (er, I mean "Magnum") looks shortly after excavating three woks.  Because we only took carry-on bags, he didn't bring a razor, so I got to see whiskers emerge over the five days.  Groom's genetics have not predisposed him to be a hairy beast--more newborn mouse is he--and so beard-growing has always been a sport where he fails.  However, I am a supportive spouse.  Therefore, as each whisker popped out, I clapped loudly and bellered, "You're going to be a man one day, Son!"

He didn't think I was very funny, as he was waiting for his chicken-avacado cone.  Generally, Groom finds me more amusing on a full stomach.  Or with a few beers in him.  And maybe a shot of vodka.

Here's my beautymous Other College Pal, she who pitched in like a champion.  You wouldn't even know from her grin that she, like Groom, was waiting on a cone (hers a shrimp-avocado one).  And you really wouldn't know that she'd recently placed into a Goodwill box a pair of metal/welded chicken legs and feet that had been constructed with the purpose of serving as a bowl holder.

I know.  They're nearly indescribable.  Suffice it to say, when Austin College Pal had been given them as a gift, she opened the box, pulled out the chicken-footed contraption, and sobbed a little inside, moaning internally, "This is what you think of me?  You saw this and thought of ME?"

Then the cones and fries arrived, and everyone stopped thinking all together.

Next to The Mighty Cone trailer is this cupcake Airstream. 

I've always wanted to live in an Airstream.

And that was even before I realized I could have cupcakes as roommates.

Best cupcake name offered by these folks?  The Michael Jackson:  chocolate cake with white frosting.

In addition to patronizing the trailer foodstands, we had fun meals in local restaurants, including The Salt Lick, which is a ginormous barbeque joint.  I would've taken pictures there, too, but my hands were too slippery to hold the camera.

So we ate a lot; we talked a billion words; we cleaned out some closets; we took trips to Goodwill.

Now, today, it's back to real life, a place that feels just a little bit softer, a little bit happier, a little bit warmer, thanks to the journey.
Speaking of journeys and in a total change of subject:  I loved all the guesses about where we're going next year, to the point that I don't want to do The Reveal yet.  (insert evil cackle here)

A few more hints, then, based on further information we received today:

We will be taking "flagons to the village pumps" for our drinking water

The best fish is to be had from the fishmonger at the crossroads

There's a large waterpark 20 minutes away

The women don't take their husband's surname upon marriage

Any ideas?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

"Doldrums Antidotes"

1) Antidote #1:  Get a good night’s sleep, which is exactly what I did the night of my previous post; when I woke up nine hours later, cobwebs had cleared, and a song--not a dirge--beat in my heart. This, in turn, meant I had to spend a fair amount of time in the kitchen that afternoon pretending to be a member of George Clinton’s band and/or part of Agnes de Mille’s dance troupe. The two groups actually have significant areas of overlap. Remember, for instance, when Ms. de Mille staged her “Get Up into Yo’ Funk” program shortly before her death? Some still speculate it actually led to her death, what with the steady expansion and contraction of her ribcage in sync with the lyric of “tear the roof off the mother.” Few things will more assuredly bring on a stroke.

2) Antidote #2Appreciate that my daughter and her friends’ favorite activity, during playdates and sleepovers, is to toot and pluck together in raggle-taggle musical ensembles. Since they all attend the local music magnet school, they were able to take up a non-piano instrument this year, in 4th grade.

Girl represents the orchestra, and her pals, seen here, bring on the brass and winds. It is nearly impossible for audience members to remain seated when these girls pull out the stops on their “Good King Wenceslas.” Even better is when I get to wave my lighter in the air during “We Will Rock You.” (sidenote: the school district issued an announcement this week that, starting next fall, the city’s magnet schools will be demagnetized, cutting out music, science, environmental, and language foci at various elementary schools; as part of this, non-neighborhood children whose families have elected to send them to particular magnet schools will no longer be given bussing…all of which means, since we rely on bussing to get our kids to their magnet school, that it’s hella good we’re going away next year; it gives us time to hammer out a new schooling plan for our kids, which may very well be that we start an illegal Quaker/Buddhist class in our basement with a curriculum that emphasizes quiet, peace, and cessation of suffering. Imagine the quiet hum that will constitute “recess.” Anyhow, my point here is that I can only use 4th-graders-who-come-to-our-house-and-play-music as a Doldrum Antidote if I practice active denial of next year’s realities…so keep coming over and firming up your embouchure, and make sure you don’t vote for a Republican governor when you grow up).

3) Antidote #3Go get passport photos taken

(My children are very, very small, aren’t they? Relative to their pin heads, I am a towering figure of authority. Actually, I just can’t be bothered to figure out how to save their pictures as larger files. I mean, I’ve got dance and blunt-rolling classes in the kitchen with Ms. de Mille and Mr. Clinton in five minutes, so it boils down to priorities). What perked me up most in the whole passport photo adventure this week was Paco’s attitude; he gets really annoyed with photographers telling him to smile and, in particular, to show his teeth. The fact that he’s in first grade and already has a pretty vehement stance against making posed situations feel even more artificial pleases me no end. In fact, the more he looks like a model for American Gothic in his photos, the happier I get. My secret hope is that his next passport photo will feature him flipping off the photographer.

Renewing our passports is the first step to upcoming journeys, necessary before we launch into the visa process, which gets pretty entangled when travelers want to go live for a long stretch in a country without seeking employment. It will take some doing to prove to Skeptical Visa People that we don’t want to leech off the economy but, rather, will contribute heftily to their wine and chocolate industry profits. Incidentally, and purposely cryptically, I will say only that we do seem to have something like a plan in place for next year (sort of nailed down; sort of loose), in terms of where we’ll go and who will live in our house…but I’m hoping to have a few more things firmed up before disclosing details. Just for fun, we can play a guessing game, though. It looks—fingers crossed--like we’ll be in a place where English is not the primary language of use, on an island, near an active volcano. Anyone?

4) Antidote #4:  Hop on an airplane to a warmer, sunnier place, which is exactly what Mein Groom and I are doing from Wednesday-Sunday (as in, right now!) of this week. You may recall back in October that my sister flew me to Denver to help her organize her stuff and watch cable tv. Ripping a page out of that FranklinCovey Planner, my college friend Shannon (and her helpful mother) bought both me and Groomy tickets to visit her in Austin, Texas, to do the same. Apparently Shannon still has the dress she wore to our college graduation nearly 21 years ago; it doesn’t fit, nor has she worn it since. A little warning to Shannon: Jocelyn doesn’t think you need that dress anymore; she’s aiming to put some space between you and that dress. Keep the memory. Ditch the dress. Plus, Shannon? Let’s get those Christmas decorations put away—and in a big old labeled tub while we’re at it. Then let’s have margaritas and an entree with the word “carne” in it. Because I’m pretty sure “carne” can cure any case of February blues.

There you go. Thanks to sleep, Agnes and George, musical ensembles, the inherent promise of a passport, and the beautiful gift of a junket,

I’m back.

Monday, February 15, 2010

"Each Day So Long It Feels Like a Month"

"Is the phrase 'Slough of Despond' from Harry Potter or what?" I holler to my husband, who is folding laundry four feet away.

We both half-wonder why I'm hollering, what with him standing right there and all.  But, then again, it's been that kind of day.

A hollaback-at-your-knickers-folding-husband kind of day.
In that moment, I was, actually, as much moaning as hollering.  I was mollering--making wounded noises like a beaver with its foot caught in a trap, considering gnawing off the source of its angst and lurching towards three-legged freedom within the dark cave of a dam.

"I don't even know what you mean when you say these words 'Slough of Despond'," my avowed responded, balling up a pair of socks.  "What are you talking about?"

"There's this phrase 'Slough of Despond' that's running through my head, and I was sure you'd know where it's from.  However, I guess we're lucky you have a handsome mug...because your brain certainly isn't paying the rent.  So 'Slough of Despond' isn't a Harry Potter reference? Like you'd know, pretty boy.  Well, hell.  Who coined it, then, if not La Rowling?" I yodeled over mountain-spring-scented heaps of clothing.

"Why do you even ever act like I'd know what you're talking about? You're hardly the most sensical redhead on the block," the delight of my life tossed back.

"Okay, so it would seem I'm making shit up again.  I've got to hit the Google and input 'Slough of Despond.'  Hand to heaven, I wouldn't know a single thing without the Google these days.  Today alone, I've turned to it to find out how many seasons of Project Runway there have been, how many flavors of lip smackers there are in existence, what the name of that ski-jumping Swiss guy is, what alternative therapies to chemo are, what contingencies my car insurance covers, and which Scandanavian town my family members are named after."  With that, I trotted to the keyboard and input "Slough of Despond." 

Turns out neither the eponymous Harry Potter nor his namesaked Swiss ski jumper had anything to do with it--but, rather, it's a turn of phrase from John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, a tale that moralizes the weight of sins and guilt. 


As usual, Google has spat out head-turning information, but ultimately my cast has gone awry.  You see, when, over a mound of clean underpants, I badgered my husband, I was searching for a phrase that could express how boggy I've felt this past week.  Here I thought I'd been mired down in the Slough of Despond.

However, my issues have little to do with guilt or sin.  My issues are more of a seasonal, desolate, Februarian nature.  They're more about feeling trapped and choking in a brume of quiet despair.   

With the Slough paved over, I have to try elsewhere to find an idea that captures feelings of being backed into a tight corner and ready to start clawing.

Scritch.  Scritch.  Scratch.

Perhaps the sensation is more resonant with Victorian women and hysteria.  That must be why I've been repeatedly recalling, this past week, my first reading of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" back in high school, an experience that took place on the second floor of Billings West High School, a moment when I sat up straighter and thought, "My bangs may not be as pouffy as I'd like today, and the strap of my overalls keeps falling down in only a limp approximation of Come On Eileen, but that's somehow irrelevant in the face of this poor Victorian woman's powerlessness and culturally-induced insanity.  What the hell, poor locked-up protagonist lady:  let me stretch out a quivering fingertip alongside you and trace the winding pattern of the lines in silent communion."

Indeed, something about this late winter month--coupled with the kids having a week off from school, topped by Paco having had a fever (two weeks ago), a double ear infection (last week), and then waking up with another fever yesterday (on his tenth day of a ten-day course of antibiotics)--creates in me a soul-sucking feeling of desperation.  Doldrums, if you will.

Queerly, essential to this cloying sensation of "I beseech thee for just one small sanity-saving grace, my monarch Victoria" is an overlay of "but, truly, even as I struggle to catch a full breath, aren't I lucky?-- for at least I have a corset and some of that new-fangled indoor plumbing"; that is to say, without certainty that my life is somehow profoundly fortunate, I wouldn't have the leisure to wail about every pip of internal strife.

These last few days, laced too tightly, I am gasping for air.  Nothing is wrong, per se, but every hour feels like three.  I'm tired of all of us being in the house all the time, trying to figure out what to have for the next meal, folding yet another damn load of laundry, filling and emptying the dishwasher.  Certainly, I've tried to mix it up.  I've taught Girl to play Mastermind and Chinese Checkers.  We've had friends sleep over.  We've watched Olympics.  Groom has framed some pictures.  I went to Pilates and yoga and then I swam and ran and skiied.  I've played four simultaneous Scrabble games on Facebook (most noteworthy play of the week took place in a three-way game:  I had just the right letters for "menage," and that's just good old-fashioned Midwestern Protestant irony).  I've read 420 messages in online classes, graded 75 activities, and told students how sorry I am that their a) mothers died; b) computers died; c) cars died; d) enthusiasm for the class died.


I feel like I'm swimming through grey fog, staring at my family and thinking, "It's 1 p.m.  Whatever can we do to get to 5 p.m.?"

Yesterday, we enjoyed brief respite from the fog when we dragged the kids to a neighborhood park.  At first, the kids had to sit and stare sullenly into space.  That's why we have kids, right?  So they can give us reflections of ourselves?

Because Girl is a champ, she got out on the ice (first time in two years!) and took some turns.  She only complained every seventeen seconds about her ankles hurting.  But then she'd get back up and go around again.

After shadowing her for about five minutes, I looked up.  Nice clouds.

Then I looked at Paco, who'd gotten over his Crabbies long enough to start mining for ice crystals and burying the plastic bowling pins we'd brought along (even in a funk, I know how to pack for my kid).  Hey, nice clouds above him, too.

Paco excavated a fossil from a previous ice age.

After excavating, every good archaeologist needs to take a moment to peer into The Pin.

He saw deep into the past, far into the future, and his vision told him...

...that it had been February for some time, and it would be February for quite some time yet, and the hours would continue to tick slowly by,

except for this one, which, thanks to skates and clouds and bowling pins,

actually did feel like only one instead of three.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

"Lots of Landmines; No Metal Detector:  Part the Last"

A few years ago, I tuned in to a documentary about life in the Alaskan bush, where there are no roads, no stores, no schools. In particular, I was impressed with a 16-year-old girl who lived in the bush with her parents; in one memorable scene, she loaded up her sled, hitched up her dogs, and waved goodbye to Mom and Dad as she pulled away from their log home, off to check her trapping lines. She'd be back in three weeks, give or take.

The purity and freedom enjoyed by that family no doubt had their costs, but in the moment of watching that girl, I could only marvel, "Wow. Really?"

Then there was the time, probably eight years ago, at a toddler playgroup in a local community center, when I witnessed a fabulous single mother urging her ten-year-old son to help out a woman who'd come in, availed herself of the "free" shelf of donated household items, and scored a mattress; watching the woman try to wrestle the mattress out the door, the single mother advised her semi-disinclined son that he should help the woman carry it out and heave it onto her car "because it's the right thing to do, Tyler." Impressed, I tucked that phrase away for future use (ruefully musing that its future use entailed renaming my toddler daughter “Tyler”).

These are the scenarios that informed my parenting ideals: 1) Teens covet fur; 2) Mattresses can be gotten for free.

Oh, all right. The parenting lessons I took from these scenarios were more along the lines of “be brave enough to let children head towards Capricious World and trust that they won’t fall through the ice” and “children should learn that the best motivation is intrinsic.”

While I still give these ideals total props (as the kids used to say in 2002)--and I’m all about shoving my wee ‘uns out the front door and locking it in the interest of advancing Ideal #1--I have to say Ideal #2 is harder, especially because the culture around us is designed to reward kids extrinsically for every minor achievement (kids who make it through a teeth cleaning at the dentist without pitching a wobbly are given a bag of gifties on the way out; my daughter’s class collected money for the Red Cross in Haiti and, in acknowledgment of their efforts, were then thrown a pizza and rootbeer float party). I don’t excuse myself from this flawed system, mind you. In fact, I fit quite organically into a deeply-flawed culture, what with being that way myself. I use toys and food as payment for good behavior; in fact, within the last year, I’ve stood next to Paco and offered him a quarter to try just one bite of a food not on his Approved List of Vittles. It went really well.

He tried the stir fry, spit it out, announced “I hate it,” and took the quarter up to his money jar.

The idea of paying kids to do what they should is pretty pervasive, in fact. The other week, report cards came out.

Report card day was when I first started on this series of four posts about how letting kids rub shoulders with that wench, World, causes an erosion of ideals (which, for the purposes of retaining any self respect, I’m calling “compromise”).

Here’s how report card day played out:

Having just finished leading a 4th grade book club session, I ran down the hall and picked up Paco from his classroom. As he and I then loitered outside the 4th grade classroom, waiting for Girl to be released, I chatted with another mother, whose 4th grade son was yanking on her arm, pestering her about what exactly on his report card could be called an “A.” Yes, the kids are given letter grades, so it shouldn’t be hard to discern (although if he couldn’t recognize an “A” when he saw it, odds are there wouldn’t be any on his report); however, only core subjects are given letter grades. All other subjects, such as music and physical education (etc.) are given marks like “at grade level,” “above grade level,” “satisfactory,” “needs improvement.” This last grouping of marks was the ground upon which 4th grade Arm Yanker Boy was launching his attack. He negotiated, “At grade level means it’s an ‘A’ because it means I’m just where I should be.” Countering, his mom maintained, “No, an ‘A’ would be more like above grade level.” Tightening down the manipulation, Arm Yanker tried, “But at grade level starts with an ‘A,’ so it would count as an ‘A.’” Sighing exasperatedly, his mom said, “Just wait until tonight, and you and your dad can figure it out.” Then she turned to me and explained, “His dad told him he could have $10 for each ‘A’ he earns.”

The Jocelyn response at this juncture was “BWAAHH??” Calling upon my poker face, I simply replied, “Well, I always got a buck per ‘A’ when I was growing up, so I suppose with changes in the value of the dollar…”

Unrelenting, Arm Yanker kept hammering away at his mother, asking, cajoling, repackaging, until I thought, “Okay, Girl, come on out of your classroom. Mommy isn’t allowed to twist the earlobes of young boys, so she needs to go now.”

Moments later, Girl came out, grabbed her belongings from her locker, and walked out to the parking lot with us, excitedly reporting that she’d just been given her report card and couldn’t wait to open it in the car. When she did, the news was good: straight A’s in all academic subjects, with the small oh-shucks of a B+ in art (as she explained, “That makes sense; I’m not very good at drawing”). Rightly, she was glowing with self pride.

A few hours later, she and I went over to a neighbor’s house to drop something off.

As we stood there, chatting, the subject of report cards came up, for their household that evening was being plagued by—get this—a 4th grade boy (theirs) who was yammering, hammering, negotiating, cajoling, and marketing his report card, trying to sell it as a document containing straight A’s.

…because his dad had offered him $100 for getting straight A's, rationalizing, “Well, that’s what my dad gave me when I was growing up, if I got straight A’s.” And, as Cajoling Boy kept telling his beleaguered mother while dad was off at work, “I really want that $100!”

The rub was that his report card featured letters that come a little later in the alphabet than A. Apparently, his mom was supposed to help will them into A’s before Dad got home. Mostly, Mom was willing herself towards a cocktail before Dad got home.

Standing in their foyer, witnessing the grades drama, our daughter, she of straight A’s (beceptin' Art), looked bemused. Nonplussed. A little taken aback.

A few minutes later, as we walked home, she announced that she couldn’t imagine getting $100 for good grades, wondering, with a delightful lack of imagination, "What would I do with $100?" Simultaneously, she marveled that there are kids who get handed $100 by their parents.

Friends, this was my moment to affirm her thinking. I trotted out a long-shelved phrase and, in agreeing with her that getting good grades** is its own reward, I told her kids should try hard in school because “it’s the right thing to do.”

Lest you think that moment of moral superiority lasted or that I’m going to give you an inspirational tale of How to Raise Children—

remember, I’m a bit of a contradictory piece of work.

Thus, a moment after counseling my daughter that her best effort was inherently its own reward, I also mentioned, “You know, when I was growing up, I got a dollar for every ‘A’.”

Extending that idea—because some part of me felt the impulse to give my daughter something for pleasing her teacher (you can shake hands with My Crazy right about now; be sure to hit the hand sanitizer afterwards, though)—I told Girl, “If we gave you the same, about a dollar per ‘A,’ that would be roughly the cost of a new book, and I will never object to buying you a book, so if you’d feel left out not getting something for your good results, I'll buy you a book.”

Her response indicated that her A’s may have been, in fact, aptly rewarded:

"Or shoes?" she asked.

Unfortunately for the moral of this tale, which has suddenly hit the skids, I'm all about irrational thinking, saying one thing and then doing another, subsequently making my husband splutter ("I never got anything for good grades because I didn't need to get anything for good grades")--oh, and I’m also all about capitalizing on the commonalities that will link my girl and me in the next few years, understanding that she is a year and a half away from middle school, Age of Appearances, and therefore I can make the case that laying a good foundation of shoes is, on some level, setting her up for middle school success, and—oh, yes, this too!--understanding that I'm thirty years away from middle school and still not over the power of shoes to make any bad situation feel just one grunt better, I said, "Yea, shoes would work for me."

Hence, it would seem that trying to do well isn't its own reward in our household, but, rather, trying to do well is best acknowledged by a new pair of fluffy Ugg-type slippers (which is what 4th grade girls at her school are wearing with their jeans).

The truth is that there are about ten more paragraphs to the shoe segment of this story, and if I wrote them out, you'd see me striking a deal with Girl that I will give her $6 towards a pair of the special slippers, but she has to pay the rest…and that she can’t tell her brother, as he is the original negotiator/cajoler for external rewards, but he doesn’t get letter grades yet in 1st grade, and so she just has to tell him she’s buying the slippers for herself…and then she doesn’t keep her mouth shut…and then Paco comes to me and asks what he gets for being above grade level on his report card…and then I tell Girl she’s not getting any money from me now because she blabbed…and then she cries and apologizes…and then two days pass…and then I recant and tell her I’ll pitch in some money after all…and so we go to about ten stores and finally find a pair on clearance for $9…which causes me to think the Girl can just cover such a cheap cost all on her own…and so, as of this writing, she has her slippers and paid for them herself, and since she’s so over the moon about them, it hasn’t occurred to her to say, “Hey, Mom, were you going to pay me back $6 for the slippers, since I got six ‘A’s?”

All of this causes me to note that Sir Walter Scott actually had no idea of how knotted “a tangled web” could get, and he really should just come to my house around report card time if he ever decides, from the grave, to revise “Marmion.”

Ultimately, I admit that I, the parent who started out with ideals, was the Agent of Tangling in this situation. Mostly, though, I'm impressed that we made it through report card week without me presenting my parental talk entitled “And Whenever You Feel Bad in Life, There Is No Solace Like Eating Ice Cream Straight Out of the Carton.”


**As someone who is in the business of awarding grades, I’m well aware of how inaccurate a reflection of skill and ability a letter can be. That, combined with the pressures public schools feel due to No Child Left Behind and other systems of accountability (my sense is that teachers give the lowest possible grade in the fall and give the highest possible grade in the spring, to illustrate improvement), pretty much makes me roll my eyes at grades. Grades are like Paris Hilton: all for show, with not much wrapped up inside.

Friday, February 05, 2010

"Lots of Landmines, No Metal Detector:  Part the Third"

With each successive child, it becomes harder to keep World at bay. The door that cracked open with Child #1 gets shoved even wider with Child #2, Child #3, and so on, until the barrier is blasted off its hinges to expose an entire startled-looking family licking Cheeto gunk off their fingers. The humbling that comes from giving way and giving in due to sheer fatigue and overwhelmage is an excellent lesson for all parents, but especially for crunchy types who may have fallen, unawares, into moral righteousness. More than anything, parenthood demonstrates how little control we actually have. It's also a great lesson in the subtleties of Nature vs. Nurture. Before having kids, I might have argued that nurture can overcome anything innate. I also would have maintained that gender differences are largely culturally imposed.

After having kids, I went back, ripped those pages out of my diary, crumpled them up, and gave them to my peaceably-raised son to use as bombs. Yes, much can be affected through environment--but holy Ted Bundy, some programming is just in us from the get go. That lesson was driven home dramatically for me, indeed, when I gave birth to a male.

The girl child had been a kid of talk and cooperation and playing store. The issue of weapons as toys, which so often distresses pacifistic clog wearers, never even came up.  She just wanted to have tea parties with her dollies. Then Paco hopped out of me and asked for a flame thrower.

It is true that two years after having Paco, we overheard him explaining to his 4-year-old sister what the word "gun" meant. She was baffled. "What do you mean: 'gun'?" Drawing upon a yard full of sticks and lungs full of "bang-bangs," he demonstrated. He even showed her the options for how to fall down after being hit by a blast: injured (which requires moaning) or dead (which requires breath holding and no scratching of the nostrils, no matter how itchy they get).

See, Paco knew about guns because we allowed him to be around other kids, and his brain paid attention to parts of their play to which his sister had remained oblivious.  In another of its clever sideways tactics, Sly World also sidles up through "community," something all Birkenstockers value highly. As it turns out, we have an amazing community in our neighborhood, with sharing of food, music, clothes, and playdates. Having embraced our community, which features 4 boys just older than Paco, we also embraced play that revolves around guns...and two options of how to fall down (Moan or Hold Breath, No Nostrils). Further, having embraced playdates at each others' houses, we also have had to accept that most homes have televisions on all day long; thus, our children go over to play but come home talking of Sponge Bob and Bionicles and commercials and gaming systems. To keep our kids away from screens, from play involving mock violence, would mean isolating ourselves and cutting off potential friendships.  Plus, if something is taboo, it becomes shiny and golden.  To neutralize the long-term appeal that would come from making something off-limits, we just step back and let it blow through.

Willingly, we compromise our values.  Bring it on.  Then we can eventually watch it head for the horizon.

Perhaps the most dramatic illustration of how we can't cook up our own version of World and stick it on a carefully-proofread menu occurred when we--get this--wanted to expose our kids to, cough cough, the world.  Three years ago, we planned a three-week trip to Guatemala, where my sister was living and teaching.  This would be their chance to feel like the minority, to see poverty, to not understand the language, not to mention Mommy and Daddy's chance to bring home a suitcase of gorgeous textiles and huge discs of chocolate.

In preparation for the trip, we had to get passports for the kids, which involved going to a government office, taking a number, and waiting in line for some time.

Guess what government offices do to help "entertain" children in the office?  Hint:  it's on par with the government feeding the nation's children mozzerella sticks as part of a "nutritious" school lunch.

The government office kindly provided a television in the corner for waiting children to watch.

On the television, that day we waited in line for passports,


The Teletubbies.

Upon which,


my children (ages 3.5 and 6) had never before laid their eyes.



kind of had been one of my three remaining points of pride when it came to parenting.

But there they were:  Laa-Laa, Dipsy, Po, and Tinky Winky.  Nonverbal.  Vapid.  Round.  Illogical.  Toddlers on acid, really.

Girl easily ignored the images on the tv, as she's never been keyed visually.  But Paco?

Couldn't believe that it was Christmas and his birthday and Easter and Halloween all at once--because seeing those funny guys there on the screen just about arrested his heart with joy.

Yelping, I scrambled to cover his eyes and throw my coat over the television.  Sure, we could do blue raspberry ICEES.  We could live with the occasional mini-hot dog.  We could engage in games that involved severing limbs with imaginary lasers.

But. this. was. unacceptable.

Scrambling towards kid and tv, I tripped, maimed a granny who had merely hoped to renew her driver's license, jammed my car keys into a teenager's buttocks (best time he had all day), screeched wildly, and failed to reach my son in time.

By the time I'd hurdled the coffee table, Paco was a goner.  His heart belonged to The Tubbies.

For several months afterwards, everything was "Tubby, Tubby, Tubby," which, at first, made me come running, but quickly I learned he was referring to his friends from the passport office.  He wanted Teletubby sheets on his bed.  He wanted a Teletubby plate to eat off of.  He wanted books, puzzles, games of The Tubbies. 

Rather than resist in any outright way, we just made sure The Teletubbies mysteriously never aired on our television.  Once, our neighbor gave him a Teletubby cup she found at a garage sale.  I tripped her on her way out the door.

To Paco's face, we remained neutral, not wanting to spark his interest with resistance.

However, behind his back, as my previously-whip-smart preschooler slowed his motions and turned and clapped in the living room, pretending to be a big yellow doofus named Laa-Laa,

I tended to some overdue business.

Fixing a stink eye on her and baring my claws,

I chopped Bitchy World in the Adam's apple,

roundhoused her behind the knees,

and, leaping on her crumpled form with great alacrity,

pinned her throat to the floor and held her there as I put my mouth to her sweaty ear and muttered sinisterly,

"Not this one, World.  Not. this. time.  This time, I win.  You might think you own him, with your fancy high-fructose corn syrup and your head-turning Xboxes, but I'm here to say you've stepped over the line.  There will be NO TELETUBBIES on my watch."

Then I moved in closer and pulled a Mike Tyson on her deceptively dainty ear lobe,

delighting in turning the tables as I

left my mark on her.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

"Lots of Landmines, No Metal Detector:  Part the Second"

If that bitch, World, isn't open to negotiating with parents and insists on staring down the well-intentioned sleep deprived, hands on its Costco-shopping, NASCAR-jacket-wearing, Miley-Cyrus-twitching hips,

then maybe the compromises have to take place elsewhere. 

Like within the well-intentioned sleep deprived.

Certainly, new parents have a few blissful months--even years--in which their personal values dominate, in which they can shape their child's life into an approximation of an ideal.

For example, after My Unmentionables first squozed out our Girl, we took great care with her diet.  Breastfeeding made that job easy (if plugged ducts and mastitis qualify as "easy"), but then, eventually, she needed solids.  Naturally, we went naturally.  Didn't she love her organic beets?!  Didn't she reach for her pureed spinach and smooshed-up pears?! Didn't she smear locally-grown and home-prepared peas all over her rosy cheeks?!  And didn't we assert our desire for her to get the best-possible start in life by keeping all processed sugar away from her for the first 16 months?

On her first birthday, her cake was sugarless, pineapple, and upside down.  Diabetics asked for the recipe! 

Making careful, informed decisions in the first years would lay down a foundation for lifelong health.  Remembering our own childhoods of frozen Zingers in the freezer and "hot dog casserole" for dinner, we vowed to model better eating behaviors.

Our intention, in fact, was to keep processed sugars (and nearly all processed foods) away from her until, well, The Time of Forever...or  middle school, whichever came first.

But then there was this road trip from Minnesota to California, during which toddler Girl and Groom drove the first stint by themselves, camping along the way, while I remained behind and finished teaching a summer session.  A few days before I was to fly to Denver and meet them midway, Groom called to check in and tell me about their day on the road.

To his credit, he was laughing at himself.

Turns out, western Nebraska gets swelteringly hot in June.  If one is camping, there is little relief from the heat, and if one isn't a fan of air-conditioning in the car, then the hot never abates. 

And when the hot never abates, the soul becomes weak.  It's a Hell issue.

When the soul stops at a gas station in a tiny Nebraskan burg where the asphalt is mushy underfoot from the heat, the soul might spot a Very Special Machine of Delights when it goes inside to pay.  This machine is the home of a hallowed beverage christened ICEE.  The very name cools down a sweating soul at least three degrees. 

That day, Groom's soul marched right up to the ICEE machine and pulled a big ole blue raspberry (a flavor that, um, does TOO exist in nature) slushy for himself.   Girl, in his arms, couldn't believe the magic pouring into the cup.  "Me!  Me! Me dwink!"

Eyeing her damp hair and flushed cheeks, Groom gave an "it's only fair" shrug and pulled Girl her own cup of Soul Coolant.

This situation is called "going from 0 to 120"--from having never had a granule of sugar pass her lips to sucking on a blue raspberry ICEE slushy, all in the space of two minutes.

While that moment, that act, opened the door to sugar ("Why, hello, Sugar," drawled the butler), we did still use restraint and aimed for that elusive thing called "moderation."  However, we were no longer committed to a hasty exit from any situation where a beaming chef carried out a platter of cupcakes.  That ability to shrug and say, "What the heck; it's only a cupcake" allowed us to relax, to enjoy, to remain a part of gatherings.

What we discovered is that it's not so much denial and avoidance of World's temptations that leads to good parenting.  In fact, I get a little annoyed by the idea of "good" parenting; we're all just people, doing what we can.  At our house, we've tried to assuage our hippie instincts by overtly talking about temptations and discussing when they're worth it and when they're not.  We had ample opportunity to practice our skills at this when Girl began school.

Starting kindergarten, Girl was tremendously excited that every child was invited to the cafeteria for a free breakfast.  When you're five, and only when you're five, a cafeteria beckons as something sparkly and glamorous.  Because Girl is reserved, and because she has to eye glamour for a bit before stroking it, she took awhile before trying the free breakfast.  But one day.  One day.  She did.

The experience proved startling, for the first time she got up the courage to head into the cafeteria instead of the classroom, she had to stand for a few minutes, surveying the options, wondering where the real food was.  You see, her only choices, thanks to the crazy corporate machinations that fuel federal sponsorship of school meals, were sugared cereals, which she'd never seen before, and fruit in a heavy-syrup-laden cup; looking for plain Cheerios or even a banana, she was bewildered.  She was--and let's all love her here--disappointed.

So she never again availed herself of the free breakfast buffet offered by Seductive World; mostly, as she's continued through elementary school, she's been aware of the poor food choices in the lunches, too, and has opted to bring her lunch from home.  Lest we do too much of a happy dance, though, 4th grade is signaling a shift in what guides her choices. Nowadays, she wants to eat the provided lunch about half the time; not only has she decided she likes the cafeteria's nachos and chicken patties, but she also knows that she can only sit by her friends, who generally choose hot lunch, if she, too, has hot lunch.  If she brings a lunch from home, she has to stand in line and sit with the other brown baggers.  At any age where friends are everything, she has to decide between eating healthily or hanging out with people who make her feel good.

That's like me having to decide if I want to meet Jon Stewart at the micro-brewery for gossip and an oatmeal stout, or if I want to meet Pat Robinson on a park bench to share a zucchini. 

At some point, it's hard to quantify what's "bad for you" and what's "good for you" because nothing Harpie World trots in front of us is that simple, a fact which, consequently, calls into play entire subsets of values (i.e., I'd rather eat and spew crap with a great person than eat great food with a f***tard, which, apparently, reveals I honor a certain kind of humanity above a strict adherence to purity of eats...and then all that gets stirred up by World even more with her Nasty Stick, and eventually I have to lay down on the couch for awhile and put a dishcloth over my eyes).

Thus, it's all a continuum that ranges from "ideal" to "compromise" to "trade-off," and mostly, if the kids are still breathing at the end of the day, if they've smiled at some point during it, if they've asked even a single question, if they've managed to demonstrate a thought of kindness (even if it's picking up a toddler's dropped McNugget and setting it back into her french fry-festooned high chair tray),

then we parents have satisfied all that matters.

Hell, yea, there's more coming.