Monday, April 30, 2012

The Attraction of Distraction

Here’s Lindsay Lohan at this weekend’s White House Correspondent’s dinner:  

I bet she was talking about something really smart.  

The White House Correspondent’s Association was founded when Woodrow Wilson was president.  President Wilson was the first to consider regularly scheduled press conferences, but was unsure of how to select the correspondents who would cover them.  Rumors swirled among journalists who had regularly covered white house press conferences and events that a special Congressional Committee would be organized to arrange for the hand picking of these correspondents.  The WHCA was established by a handful of journalists determined to protect their turf in response to these unfounded rumors, and lay dormant for six or seven years when they learned that no such committee was forthcoming.  No one likes to look like they did something rash and hysterical, especially newsmen.  Rather than disassemble their organization, they began hosting dinners once a year, and within a couple years, began inviting the president as an honored guest.  I think Cal Coolidge was first.  Figures.  He looks like a partier.  

These dinners have always been somewhat vaudevillian in nature...  jokes, homemade movies, choruses of songs with brandy snifters raised high in the air.  In 1944, the White House Correspondent’s Dinner was the one event President Roosevelt allowed himself to attend.  His one indulgence.  He reportedly sang loudly, laughed loudly and ate duck, an unrationed delicacy during wartime. Actors, entertainers, musicians, politicians and members of the press all exchanging good-old-boy buffoonery into the wee hours.  Women weren’t allowed until the 60s, so I imagine those first forty years were pretty raw.  JFK was first to insist that he would not attend the dinner if they didn't "let some dames in the building, and they'd better be lookers!" (I totally made up that quote.)  I like to imagine these dinners through the 70s.  I like to think that invitations were harder to come by than they are today.  I like to imagine what might have been the topics of conversation during the quieter moments of the evening, in between the sing-a-longs and toasts.  Our leaders and those who report on them, as yet unpurchased by corporations, their heads bending close in quiet, off-the-record conversation amid the gentle clinking of silver on china.  

Sometime in the 80s or 90s, things started to unravel.  They started having comedians host the event.  They call them featured performers, but they are mostly there to keep the event fluid, to do the talking.  Maybe the WHCA wanted to provide more structure for the evening, maybe it seemed inappropriate to have the President of the United States linking one arm with a visiting Austrian concert violinist and holding a cigar in the other hand while they sang along with My Gal Sal.  Maybe it had gotten boring and stale, the same old dudes eating the same old fish and drinking the same old 20 year scotch year after year.  In the last 40 years, the White House Correspondent’s dinner has morphed from this:

To this:

I wish I could airbrush out the split screen here, so it looks like Rosario Dawson is laughing at Lindsay Lohan's pathetic attempt to out-cleavage her, while a defiant Lindsay does her best to not look totally high in the presence of the president. 

Sort of looks like the Washington Press is more concerned with who’s currently who than they are with what’s currently what.  What was once a semi-dignified Washington event, creepy sing-a-longs notwithstanding, is now no different than the roast of Donald Trump on Comedy Central.  I’m all for blowing off steam.  I’m also all for bringing out the girls on a Saturday night.  However, I can’t help but think this level of Hollywood red carpet showiness serves as a spotlight on the state of affairs in American politics and media today.  It also drives home the notion that our leaders are not the sharpest tools in the shed, or they would be able to entertain themselves, instead of hiring Jimmy Kimmel to do it.  

The ménage à trois between celebrity, politics and media has gotten so twisted up in the satin sheets of public perception that we can no longer make out which limbs are attached to what body.  It’s just a big sweaty, fleshy mess.  Add to this the decreased productivity and efficacy of our current legislative branch, and I am thinking a ban on Hollywood is the only answer for Washington D.C. If I was Washington D.C.'s mother, I would forbid any contact with Hollywood until I see a significantly improved report card. You are hanging with the wrong crowd, and they are bringing you down. I would tell Hollywood, I'm sorry, I'm sure you're a real nice kid and all, but D.C. can't see you anymore. Now get the fuck off my porch before I call your mother.  

Of course, you can't stop Hollywood and the media from fondling each other in the back of the school bus. Celebrity reigns supreme in the media, because celebrity reigns supreme among the readership.  Gossip trumps fact in the headlines every day.  And we are all too willing, we consumers of questionable reports, to allow ourselves to be distracted by boobs and sex and scandals.  They can’t really think that any of us feels personally affected by secret service agents banging hookers on their day off in Colombia (where prostitution is, incidentally, legal).  To the journalist who broke this amazing story: I hope that journalism degree was cheap, pal, because this is not even a scandal.  The only thing I thought was noteworthy was that the off-duty agent was unwilling to pay the prostitute. It's hardly scandalous, it's just bad form. A scandal is the government of Michigan firing mayors and other elected city officials, then replacing them with hired city managers that the voting public has no say over.  It’s a dictatorship.  Plain and simple.  And a blatant effort to threaten and undermine locally organized labor unions.  These hired “emergency managers” have total authority, including the authority to veto labor union agreements if it means doing what’s best for the people.  They also preside over every municipal service and agency.  And they work for the governor of Michigan, a venture capitalist.  Maybe his heart is in the right place, I don’t know the man, but what he’s doing is unconstitutional at best, and more likely greedy and evil.  Damn it, someone get some hookers up in there!  Because even though some major news installations have run pieces on this terrifying story, the public has yet to respond with even mild fascination.  

So is this one of those whiny blogs by someone who just points at problems and says: "hey look, there's a problem!"? Certainly not. It has not been and shall never be. I am always looking for a creative solution. Maybe I could hire a clever graphic designer to airbrush my funny pictures of cleavage wars at Washington D.C. functions, and while he's at it, toss together a compilation of Governor Rick Snyder with a gaggle of college aged boys in RuPaul's hot tub. (If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.)  

I don't believe that our generation is so deeply immersed in a coma of distraction that we are incapable of resuscitation, but I do think that our best shot is the next. The up and coming generation is savvy. The great news about them is that they've been exposed to all this shit from birth, so it doesn't even hold their interest. Since I had my first kid almost twelve years ago, the filter has completely come out of the plumbing of media exposure. Nothing's shocking. We can use celebrity and media antics to our advantage, by pointing out that you don't even really have to be special or talented to be famous, so there's no reason to be all that interested in who's on the cover of a magazine. Your own life is much more interesting. Music without video is interesting. Books without illustrations are interesting. Your mind is interesting. The Kardashians are not interesting. Not even when they're sitting at a table in the Washington D.C. Hilton at the White House Correspondent's Dinner.

I've heard more people than not lamenting that all of televisionland is turning into a reality show freak fest. I say good! Reality tv is boring as hell. No one watches for long. When we do, it's only so we can feel superior to the dumbasses who signed up to let a network script their lives and now they have to put on fake eyelashes every morning because who wants to be seen folding the laundry without big, fake eyelashes on? These shows can't hold the attention of your kids! They go outside and ride their bikes or go downstairs and pretend they're a pop star for a while. We've got them exactly where we want them: completely jaded by the age of ten and unaffected by nudity or profanity or violence.  By exposing them to the boring, mundane, entirely ordinary world of today's entertainment, we can work this so that celebrity holds no allure for them. Maybe then, what will be interesting, what will shock them, is everything that happens outside of it... as far away as Michigan.

They are ready to be introduced to the real world, and they are going to want to change it.

Monday, April 23, 2012

On Winning

Some of you know that my kid had an entry in a big state competition this past weekend.  He worked really, really hard on his project.  For months he researched, recorded, interpreted and arranged information.  He gained skills in research.  He gained knowledge in the subject he was researching.  He gained the ability to organize and communicate that knowledge.  He gained confidence in his ability to learn and to teach.  As a result of his research for this project, he can explain the theory of relativity and the chain reaction of split atomic particles.  I thought he was a sure thing.  I really did.  I didn’t tell myself that he would win, but somewhere in the back of my mind, I thought it.

I tried to prepare him for the possibility that he wouldn’t advance to the National Competition.  I told him that it was plenty amazing that he’d taken this sort of thing on outside of his everyday studies.  This is college level research.  He’s eleven.  His shit was tight, too.  But I knew that there was a very slim chance of him advancing.  There are a lot of entries, all by smart, dedicated kids like him.  Many of the entrants come from magnet and private schools.  It seems that those kids have liaisons who are familiar with the regulations and who know how to help them create a winning entry.  All my kid has is his dorky mom hollering “don’t use references from Wikipedia!  Anyone could have written that crap!”  I’m just going to go ahead and say it right here, right now:  public education at the elementary and junior high school levels is fine for what it is, but if what you’re looking for is preparation for life, it requires a great deal of supplementation at home.  There are no standardized tests in life.  There is only the practical application of knowledge.  No one has ever tipped me on my ability to recite steps of service.  Dig?

So I knew going into this thing that I was flying blind when I was coaching him (I never even had a copy of the rules of the contest), and that if all that came from it was this awesome project that he could be really proud of, that would be good enough.  He gained a lot from the process.  Then I could just pat his little head and take him out for dinner and say “Dude, you are amazing!  We’ll get ‘em next year.”  Oh man, my ability to snow myself is astounding.  Astounding.  As the contest drew near, I felt the tightness of anticipation in my stomach.  What is that?  Why the butterflies, mama?  Ohhh, I see.  You think that this could be a turning point in his confidence, because if he wins, it will mean that he gets some affirmation from someone other than you, and that might tint the lens he sees the world through, because the world has not always been kind to this kid.  Is that it?  Yeah.  That’s it.  Please, oh please, oh pleaseohpleaseohpleeeease, let him win...  

Of course I hid this all from him, at least I’m pretty sure I did.  But secretly, I wished and hoped and meditated on the image of his shoulders squaring off in victory.  There is no feeling greater than seeing a kid experience success.  As parents, we’re treated to it often when they’re tiny.  They master about a skill a day from birth to five.  Every day there is a moment of sheer gratification on their face: HAHA!  Now, tricycle, you are my bitch!  Then they spend about fifteen minutes riding it in a circle with this enormous grin before they move on to the pogo stick.  As they get older, though, these moments become less frequent.  They are harder to come by, but the vapor trail is brighter and longer.   

I didn’t realize how worked up I was over this contest until a couple of hours before the awards ceremony, when my stomach began to churn.  He’d already had his interview in his cute little button down and clip-on tie.  The rest of the day was relaxing enough.  Then suddenly my stomach was in knots.  I sat, clammy with cold sweats, next to him in the big room while the winners were announced by a corny local news anchor and then had their picture taken with a convincing-looking Abe Lincoln.  When his category came up, I felt his whole body tense up next to me.  His hands were clenched in his lap.  His name was not called.

His hands unclenched, and began to clap for the winners, but I could feel the mass of his disappointment affecting the gravity around us.  Damn it.  He did not ask to leave, as we’d seen other families do when their category was up.  We sat through the rest of the ceremony.  We applauded the other winners, and tried not to grimace too obviously at the cheesy jokes from the emcee.  

I consoled him in the parking lot.  Well, as much as an 11 year old kid will allow himself to be consoled by his dorky mom.  There is nothing that he could have done differently that would make me any more proud of him than I am.  He worked so hard.  I told him when he grows up, he should not be a small town news anchor, because they must have to go to special school to learn how to bomb jokes in public auditoriums.  He smiled.  A little.  By the time we were halfway home, my husband had him cracking up by singing along with My Humps.  Kids are so resilient.  And husbands are so funny.  I, on the other hand, had to make him pull over on the highway so I could throw up.  No special dinner tonight, kiddo.  Raincheck?  He accepted, knowing that dinner with me might prove more embarrassing than usual if I was throwing up the whole time.

I slept.

The next day I worked.  It was hard to smile.  Really hard.  I didn’t know exactly why.  Then a half hour before closing, I dropped a pint of iced tea, and completely lost it.  The conversation in my head went something like: “Can’t you even carry a glass of tea?  No wonder you couldn’t help your kid win a history contest.  You have two jobs: raise kids and carry iced tea to people, and you’re fucking lousy at both...”  I went out in the alley to cry while my amazing friends sloshed through tea and finished my tables.  It was a short-lived breakdown, but an important one to have.  I had to purge the guilt.  I am a firm believer in slash-and-burn agriculture of the soul.  Have you ever seen how quickly new growth starts on the prairie after a burn?  For you non-Kansans, pretty much as soon as the smoke clears, there are fresh, new, bright green sprouts coming up through the charred earth.  

Before the tea was even dry on the floor, before the tears were dry on my face, I was starting to regenerate my moxie.  My sister, who is the most dedicated, loving and energetic mom ever, once told me that she thought this urge to take inventory of one’s self is what makes a good parent great.  A few deep breaths, and I was ready to turn the corner and lunge, confidently, back into my stride. Sometimes the difference between failure and success is just a few heaving sobs in an alley behind work. You walk out a loser, cry it out, and walk back in a winner to finish mopping up the tea you spilled.

As for Billy and his confidence?  This morning on the way to school, two days after the disappointment of a loss, he excitedly told me the theme for next year’s contest: Turning Points in History.  Yeah, we got this.  

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Now Enrolling: The Buttered Toast Survival School For Girls

Uh oh.  I think I’m about to do it again...

Remember a few weeks ago when I promised I’d only go political for a brief moment, and then return to more whimsical topics that don’t matter much but don’t bring anybody down?  As luck would have it, I’m a girl, so I have that handy old “fickle-minded” typecast to lean on any time I want to.  It’s one of the benefits of having a great rack.  There are others, several of which are under consideration at the legislative level.  

I can’t make sense of why, but in many conservative states (including my beloved Kansas), women’s reproductive rights and even their right to earn equal pay are under assault (that sneaky Scott Walker, Governor of Wisconsin, quietly signed a bill recently that repealed the state’s 2009 Wage Discrimination Act) and several states are considering legislation that makes it legal for insurance companies to refuse coverage of many women’s healthcare services and medications.  I spent a solid hour last night with my husband brainstorming what benefit there is to stripping a woman's reproductive rights while simultaneously making her work for less money and increasing her insurance premiums. What is with this growing network of pasty, hog-jowled (and it's improper for me not to wear a bra, but they're allowed to flap those saggy cheeks all over the nightly news?) men mainlining social power at the expense of the fiscal stability of their own states? It doesn't make sense. I understand that capitalism functions best if you can keep a significant part of the population earning a barely-living wage under the guise of upward mobility, but it doesn't make sense that you would want them to be knocked up all the time, or dying of breast cancer, or just feeling general malaise about the condition of their civil rights. You have to give the people hope, stupid! No hope = decreased productivity = no new companies are going to come to your lame, backwards state and the ones that are already there are probably going to start looking around at a more energetic population. We couldn't come up with a sensible answer to the question: why? Then our brains started to hurt so we drank beer and sang duets by the campfire. Don't worry, I went to bed happy. But I woke with the question still ringing in my ears.

Meanwhile, on the entertainment page, smart women are under constant scrutiny for the lines on their faces, or for not having them, or for what they're wearing and in what size.  If you haven’t yet read Ashley Judd’s clever rebuttal to speculation that she has had work done, please do so.  Her plea to the rest of us to change the conversation is certainly better composed and more heartfelt than anything I could write here.  When you’re done with that, pop over to the entertainment page of any major news site.  This morning on the Huffington Post, there are pictures of an actress mid-bite of a burrito (oh, that’s bad, the cow!), another freshly shellacked with bronzer and posing in a beautiful gown (oh, that’s good, we approve!) and two who are wearing the same dress 14,000 miles apart and in different seasons but we should definitely have a vote on which of them “wore it best” (oh, the one on the left for sure, she is clearly the champion dress-zipper and that other girl would do well to take a cue from her on how to fasten an eye-hook!).  Wait...  “Wore it best?”  It’s a dress.  There’s only one way to wear it.  Ooh! unless it’s one of those snazzy convertible dresses that can be reconfigured into a halter or a strapless or a skirt depending on your mood... those are fancy!  But your standard bodice-sewn-to-skirt-dress can only be worn one way.  There is no “wore it best” unless one of these women tried to tie it on as a cape and missed covering all the parts the dressmaker intended she would.  

I would submit that this so-called War on Women at the legislative level is not a coincidence.  We are tearing each other apart at street level.  The winds are shifting, sisters, and it is no coincidence. Our guard is down, and we are distracted.

Think of all the things you know how to do that someone taught you without you even noticing.  Somewhere along the way, I learned to sew buttons and mend seams.  I don’t remember where or when, but someone, presumably my mother, taught me.  At some point, I learned to brew coffee, to properly scrub a sink, to make paper dolls.  I am relatively certain that a man didn’t teach me.  (Quick shout out to my dad for teaching me to change a tire and how to make the perfect bechamel sauce!)   This homeschooling takes place all the time.  We are constantly imparting tiny bits of wisdom and training our kids in skills they’ll never unlearn.  Once you know how sew a button, you’ll always know.  It’s so empowering to master a new skill.  

I was planning on spending the summer teaching my girls the above basic skills, as well as some others, like how to apply false eyelashes (the trick is to let the glue dry a little and get sort of tacky before you stick them on), how to walk in high heels (never wear cuffed pants unless you like the taste of asphalt and the look of a fat lip), how to make the perfect mixed tape for when you get your heart broken (must include 'I Can Almost Hear You Sigh' from The Stones’ most terrible album you will ever love... Steel Wheels).  Also how to make arrowheads. You know... girl stuff.  

Instead, I guess I’d serve them better to take note of the shift in the wind, and try to prepare them for what they’ll really be dealing with in ten or fifteen years.  Here’s the curriculum I have planned:

Women’s Health:  Since many states are making a case that it’s offensive to teach anything but abstinence as a measure of birth control before and during your marriage to a person of the opposite sex, this class will incorporate the fundamentals of how to perceive sex as distasteful and perverted.  It will also cover the basics of emergency contraception, including such skills as jack-rabbit jumping jacks and the RC Cola morning after douche.

Work Ethic:  Let’s get right to it, girls.  If you’re going to have a bunch of kids, you’re going to have to feed them.  Assume that you will have no legal recourse if your employer decides to pay you 30% less than your male counterparts. You can hence assume that you will have to increase your own productivity by the same proportion.  So, instead of working 40 hours a week/50 weeks a year, you can work 52 hours a week/50 weeks a year. Or you can work 40 hours a week/65 weeks a year.  I know.  You’re going to say that there aren’t that many weeks in a year.  Doesn’t matter.  We’re girls!  Math is someone else’s business.  You just worry about which lipstick shades make your teeth look whitest and let someone else worry about math.

History:  This portion of summer school will be spent watching reruns of The Honeymooners and All In The Family.  Yes, this was a simpler time.  The good old days, when a woman stayed at home in heels and the men went off to work every morning and the kids went to school to learn things like this:


Trash Talk/Art:  If anyone has some old People and In Touch magazines, I'd love to have them for this class.  Otherwise, I guess I'll just steal them from the waiting room at the dentist, as per my usual.  We'll be cutting and pasting collages of all the ugly haircuts and learning the basics of demeaning women and increasing our competitive advantage.  For the final exam, the girls will be expected to give an oral recitation of the problem areas of each of their friends.  Bonus points will be given for making someone cry.

Moms, I have plenty of room in my summer school class, if you and your daughters would like to join us.  Maybe you have a special skill to share, like how to create a Facebook hate page for a classmate without getting caught by the principal?  Or a fun story to tell about when you were in college and how you got that stupid degree in Chemistry and you thought that maybe because you were smart, that meant you'd do your own thinking and make your own decisions, and how happy you are that these girls won't ever have to mess around with that nonsense.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Ridiculous Shoes: Crippling One Generation's Feet and Another's Hope.

TGIF, and happy weekend to you, friends.  Actually, for a waitress, this is the beginning of a long, slow crawl toward Sunday night when I can collapse back into the safety of my own kitchen and make dinner for my adorable family.  Sunday is my favorite night of the week.  I’m always exhausted, usually pretty close to brain dead from too many conversations about food with strangers, and always grateful to be back among those who love me most, tucked away from the vulnerability of working with...The Public.  There’s more good than bad in my relationship with The Public, but the bad can get really, really nasty.  

I feel about Sunday nights what most people feel about Friday nights, except that I am too old and too tired to celebrate them at the Club, if there is a Club in this town that’s open on Sunday nights.  There might be a Club, but I’ve never been and I probably don’t own the proper footwear to pass the door check.  The girls I see on the weekend who look like they’re probably going to The Club are usually wearing shoes that, as near as I can figure, have sharp, hot spikes embedded in the insoles.  Before midnight, they walk with very deliberate, awkward steps, their knees bowed to the sides, their posture tight with discomfort  They take each step toe-heel, toe-heel.  My friend Katy commented that they look a lot like camels walking.  Yes.  Exactly.  Like camels walking in shoes with hot, pointy spikes in the insoles.  Then after midnight, they just carry their shoes while they run to the next Club, all the while complaining that the sidewalk is too cold.  The city should do something about this.  I’ll start a petition for sidewalk warmers just as soon as I’m done with this blog.

Mostly I blame the Kardashian sisters for this phenomenon.  I’ve never watched the show, but I’ve seen enough tabloid magazine covers in the supermarket and clips on The Soup to suspect that they are solely and directly to blame for the future podiatric issues of an entire generation of girls (note to all persons considering a medical career, you are going to be very rich if you go into the foot doctor business), and also for the impossibility of finding a decent mascara that doesn’t make my eyelashes look like I took the black Bichon Frise out of my Louis Vuitton dog purse, cut him in half and glued him to my eyes.  Lucky for me, I still have a stash of my grandmother’s 25 year old Mary Kay mascara.  I’m probably poisoning myself every time I use it, and it smells a little like a cat litter box in the middle of a McDonald’s, but it doesn’t make me look like I have two scary black Amazonian spiders on my face.

I’m sure the Kardashians are really nice girls.  I really wish they didn’t make it so easy to be hard on them.  I should be ashamed of myself.  Maybe later.  

This morning when I joked to my son “It’s Friday, Friday, Gotta Get Down On Friday” he said that he really felt bad for Rebecca Black.  He said everyone makes fun of her, and that he heard she had to drop out of school because the mean kids were so awful to her.  I said I thought the song was really catchy.  He rolled his eyes.  “No, Mom.  The song is really awful, but that’s no reason to hate someone.”  This is a child who truly understands the number one concept I’ve tried to convince him of: everyone is someone to somebody.  We don’t survive infancy unless someone loves us enough to feed us and keep us warm.  

Let’s take a look at this Rebecca Black situation.  She was, in fact, bullied to the point of having to leave school last year.  For these lyrics:  

7am, waking up in the morning
Gotta be fresh, gotta go downstairs
Gotta have my bowl, gotta have cereal
Seein' everything, the time is goin'
Tickin' on and on, everybody's rushin'
Gotta get down to the bus stop
Gotta catch my bus, I see my friends (My friends)
Kickin' in the front seat
Sittin' in the back seat
Gotta make my mind up
Which seat can I take?

Not a very cool account of Friday, I’ll admit.  Pretty damn dorky.  But I would take a lot of comfort as a parent and as the future recipient of the next generation’s social security contribution if it wasn't so not cool that it gets you run off the school grounds.  Wanna hear a cool account of a Friday?  Here ya go... Miss Katy Perry:

There's a stranger in my bed
There's a pounding in my head
Glitter all over the room
Pink flamingos in the pool
I smell like a minibar
DJ's passed out in the yard
Barbie’s on the barbeque
Is this a hickey or a bruise
Pictures of last night
Ended up online
I'm screwed
Oh well
It's a blacked-out blur
But I'm pretty sure it ruled.  Damn.

Ummmmmmm...   Damn is right.  Also...Oh shit.  There is a whole group of short people who think that women’s footwear should cause permanent nerve damage and that if you’re not sure who you wake up with, not to mention if you made out with them or if maybe they hit you in the neck with a pink flamingo and then threw it into the swimming pool to wash off the dna after they raped you with it...the normal response is Oh well.  Later in the song she maxes out her credit card and then proclaims that she’ll do it all again next weekend.  I guess she’s going to get a new credit card.  She is not going to be paying into my social security any time soon.  Oh well.  At least it ruled, right?  Well, probably, anyway.  Damn.

So TGIF, Rebecca Black.  I am postponing my petition to the city for sidewalk warmers in favor of a national movement to declare ‘Friday, Friday Gotta Get Down On Friday’ the new National Anthem.  I want you to sing it at every major sporting event, presidential inaugurations, Academy Awards Ceremony, at my birthday party even if it's on a Tuesday;  I want to see you in your cute little flats and your chunky plastic jewelry on the newest printing of the ten dollar bill.  No, the twenty.  You are a national treasure.  It totally sucks that a whole generation of people idolize you but they are all old and afraid, but there you have it.  You are popular!  We fucking love you.  We would also like to see you and Katy Perry (in her ridiculous shoes) in a footrace followed by a match of Checkers to the death, because we are totally sure you can take her.  Hang in there, sugar, and stay away from pink flamingos.  

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Just Love Him.

This is my kid.

This is him in a rare moment of leaning into me while there’s a camera present, instead of leaning the other way.  For me, this was like winning an Academy Award.  “You like me, you really like me.”  He doesn’t really think I’m cool.  He’s right.  Compared to him, I’m not.

A few important notes about this kid, for those of you who don’t know him:

-He strikes out four out of five times at bat (sometimes five out of five), but when he makes contact he can hit the ball so hard that the people in the bleachers inhale in unison before it occurs to them to cheer.  Also, he still wants to play ball every summer, in spite of the many frustrations it brings him.

-He knows everything about military history from the Byzantine Empire to Afghanistan.  Show him a weapon, a plane, a tank, and he’ll tell you when and where it was made.  The last book he read for leisure was The Art of War by Sun Tzu.  He said he thought the author contradicted himself a lot, but maybe that’s the art part.

-In spite of his fascination with battle, his most dominant quality is his gentle kindness and compassion.  I’ve always said you can tell a lot about a person by how they treat babies and dogs and old people.  That being said, he is a person of truly amazing character.

-He’s awkward around girls, but I once overheard him telling a pretty girl that he likes exotic foods.  (It’s true, he does.)

-He is a genius in the literal meaning of that word.  An actual, bona fide genius.

-He is relentlessly bullied at school.

When he was younger, in second and third grade, he mostly got picked on by the one cool guy in class.  You know the one, the guy who’s good at everything, whose self-confidence radiates like a solar flare of charisma.  That kid couldn’t stand him, and made sure he knew it at every opportunity.  This is when I introduced him to the fallacy behind the idea that bullies secretly feel like crap about themselves and are so insecure that they pick on other kids to try to boost their own egos.  In truth, most bullies feel just fine about themselves.  Their self esteem is miles higher than those of the kids who get picked on.   I told him the best way to fight a bully is to feel fine about yourself, too.  Walk like a lion.

We moved when he was in the fourth grade.  He was a champ about it.  He settled in and caught up quickly on subjects that were further along than he’d been at his old school.  He made a few friends and enjoyed his first year in our new town.  In the fifth grade, alliances shifted, as they do in elementary school, and he was the odd man out.  I listened helplessly as he told me day after day that no one would play with him at recess and that when he sat down at the lunch table with his old friends they rolled their eyes and snickered.  Then I did what every sane mother does when trying to process that information about their kid.  I stalked the playground.  This was a grave error on my part.  I parked up the hill from the school, slunk behind the wheel and watched his class when they came out to recess.  Three days in a row I watched him by himself on the playground.  Nothing will break your heart like seeing a kid alone on a playground.  Any kid.  When it's your own kid, though, driving back home is dangerous. Even if you could see the road through your tears, you'd never see it through the rage. On the third day I watched as a group of boys flanked him from two sides and kicked away the ball he was playing with by himself.  Head down, shoulders slumped, he did not defend himself.  You can imagine, I was not better off for having seen it, and it rendered me helpless to help him.  I spoke with his teachers, his principal, even the mothers of the kids who were picking on him.  Billy, as intuitive and sweet as he is, only felt guilty that I was so upset.

That night we had a talk.  I told him that junior high would be better, that there would be new friends, friends he had stuff in common with, people who really liked to hang out with him.  I told him it would get better, and I believed it.

I lied.  It hasn’t.

What was I thinking?  It’s junior high.  These kids are rough and shrewd and they know how to fly just under the radar.  They have figured out how to psychologically torture a kid with words that can’t get them into trouble.  He never knows when or where it’s coming.  Maybe once a week, maybe more, never less.  Yet every day he wakes up before the rest of us, gets himself ready for school, ties his shoes, and walks bravely into the fire.  What’s more, he consistently achieves near perfect grades.  He’s never asked to stay home from school.  He’s never complained that it’s too hard, that he doesn’t want to do it.  He doesn’t even have a crappy attitude about it.

Imagine for a moment that there are people at your job who, with some regularity and not because of any instigation on your part, go out of their way to hurt your feelings.  Imagine that you have to always expect it, because you never know when it’s coming.  Imagine that they make you feel inferior, like a misfit, like someone who’s not as good as they are.  Imagine that you have to hold your head up and do your best to ignore them because you have a job to do and it doesn’t even occur to you that not doing it is an option. The faces change, but every year there’s someone new, just fucking with you for sport.  It’s just life.  How many of us would have the persistence and tenacity to keep showing up day after day after day?  And if we showed up at all, how many of us would perform on the high end of excellent under that kind of anxiety?

He’s no angel, I’ll be the first to say.  Actually, his sister would be the first to say that, but I’ll back her up.  He’s an 11 year old kid.  He’s got some bad habits, like trying to wear dirty shirts to school, and some obnoxious traits, like sounding eerily like Napoleon Dynamite when he’s irritated.  But I’m telling you, this kid is cool.   Sure, he’s smarter than anyone I know, but he’s also really, really cool.  That’s how I know this is all going to be okay.  Because I know him.

You wouldn’t know it from most photos of us, the ones where I’m clinging to him as he tries furiously to pry himself from my adoring grasp like the cat in Pepe LePew cartoons, but this kid and I have a good thing.  I see him.  I talk to him.  He talks to me.  We get each other.  That is, I see every shining, glorious, perfect cell of his little being, and he gets me well enough to be annoyed by me.  

The bullies run in a pack, whereas there is only one of him, but I’m pretty sure the intellectual tally is about even.  Of course, my instinct is to provide him with a grab bag of insults to disarm his attackers.  Being the queen of the snappy comeback, I’d like to gift him with my most tried and true burns, the ones that will leave them futilely stammering something about rubber and glue.  I’m smart and mean.  He is smarter, but he’s kind.  If I give him the words to say, they won’t be his own.  Inauthenticity will dilute their potency, and might even leave him more vulnerable.  It has to come from him.  I’ve given him my full permission to use whatever language is necessary to extract himself from the web of torment they’re weaving around him.    

When I mentioned all this to a close friend who loves him as much as I do, she immediately reacted with love.  Not spite, not anger, not resentment at the situation.  Love.  She said that she will wrap him in love.  


Listen, I like to think that I’m a pretty good mom, but sometimes the answers are just not inside me.  I would not have come up with this.  Just love him?  Not: beat on every door and fight, fight, fight until you fix it for him.  Not: tell them all to go fuck themselves and when you get called into the Principal’s Office you will not be in trouble with me.  Just love him.  It took a few days for her words to sink in, but last night it hit me.  I guess this is the 'takes a village' part.  His refusal to engage in a psychological war with these kids is the stuff of Ghandi, of Martin Luther King, Jr., of Jesus. He's on the high road. No need for me to drag him down to my snarky way of doing things. Just love him.

It all goes back to what I told him in the second grade: walk like a lion.  Our job, as those who love him, is to build him up and up and up.  It takes about a million atta-boys from your dorky mom to counteract one instance of the mean kids at school calling you names.  Good thing I’ve got nothing but time.