Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Perfect Crime


I spent more than 20 years plagued by guilt about this incident.  I'd like to think that I've made a full recovery, but I'm still gripped with the fear of judgment any time I tell anyone about this. Still, you're only as sick as your secrets.  So I'm going to let the entire internet in on one of my darker ones.
In first grade, I committed plagiary.  
At the time, I was in a play called Peace Child.  It was the story of an American boy and a Russian (Soviet at the time.  Soviet.  Do not call them Russians, our directors drilled into us!) girl who formed a friendship despite the objections of both their parents and their respective countries, ultimately leading to world peace. 
I don’t remember what the assignment was, but I do remember that what I turned in was a scene from Peace Child.  My teacher, Mr. Israel, was blown away and immediately set to work staging it.  He made me writer and director.  I was in too deep to come clean.  I didn’t even know what all the words in the play meant – for example, I made mention of an M16.   I am the daughter of people who put their 7-year-old in a play about ending the nuclear arms race.  I didn't have the foggiest idea what an M16 was.  

For years, I was torn apart by remorse.  Even at 30, I think on some level I truly believed that if people knew what I’d done, I’d be finished.  Sure, sometime between first grade and age 30 I'd learned that Shakespeare was infamous for his plagiary, but it didn't make me feel any better about my own transgressions.  
It might seem that Mr. Israel must have just been giving me enough rope to hang myself, but that would have been a cruel thing to do to a first grader.  He was clueless. He had ridiculously high expectations. But he wasn't mean, just overzealous.  Moreover, I don’t remember being hanged.  I puzzled over the memory – how on earth did this happen, and how did I get away with it?  
I believe my questions were finally answered one fateful day in my early 30s.  Another thing about first grade that I’ve always remembered was that on the first day, there were two girls in my class with long, blond hair.  The next day there was only one.  Ironically, I never forgot the name of the missing girl, Anna, but can’t for the life of me remember who the girl I presumably went to school with all the way through sixth grade was.  I didn’t see Anna again until high school.  We were friendly but not close.  We never discussed first grade – I suspected that she was the girl who had gone missing, but I wasn’t sure.  I barely knew her, but she would later be the key to my unraveling the whole fiasco.  
I had reconnected with another high school friend, and the two of us took our young sons to a coffee shop with a play area for children.  That is where I saw Anna.  
Why had she disappeared after that first day?  For one simple reason – her mother had seen that Mr. Israel knew absolutely nothing about young children.  He had spoken to her after school and told her that he didn’t think her daughter belonged in the gifted program because she’d wanted to color when the class was doing something else.  Shocked and insulted, Anna’s mother pulled her out of the school and enrolled her in a Waldorf program, where she remained until high school.  Understandably, Anna still had some hard feelings toward Mr. Israel, although rumors had reached both of us that he’d died of AIDS some years before.
I can say with some degree of confidence that I have solved the mystery that plagued me for so many years.  I was a smart kid, but I didn’t write the script of a fictional game show satirizing the cold war at seven years old.  Now all I can see is the ludicrous fact that Mr. Israel apparently believed I had.  Maybe that should make me feel guiltier, but I've paid my debt to society a thousand times over.  It's stranger and more hilarious than fiction.  The man had no earthly clue what his first graders should be capable of.  He expected adult work, and he was pleased but not especially surprised when I delivered.  Could that be why I felt I couldn't turn in something I'd done myself?  
Or maybe my teacher knew exactly what he was doing.  If so, I salute him.  He was a worthy opponent.  I know he is looking down on me and feeling as amused yet remorseful as I am.
Despite it all, I still love Mr. Israel in my memory.  Over the years I occasionally received word that he remembered me fondly, too.  But I was relieved to learn that, sometime between my first grade year and the end of his teaching career, he moved on to older kids.  

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Your Moral Outrage Over Kids These Days is Wrong


"The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for 
authority, they show disrespect to their elders.... They no longer 
rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, 
chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their 
legs, and are tyrants over their teachers." 

-Unverifiable quote by Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Cicero, Hesiod, "an old monk", as Assyrian cuneiform table, ancient Egyptian papyrus, or possibly just "some guy"
The disgusting treatment of Karen Huff Klein (I'll take this opportunity to bravely state my opinion on school kids torturing elderly bus aids with cruel, filthy taunts and shocking threats of violence.  I'm against it.) has ignited the latest round of handwringing about how today's awful parents are raising a generation of entitled, violent, predatory supervillains who are incapable of compassion, empathy, respect or even common decency.  Maybe if this didn't trigger my stab reflex so much, I could see the existential beauty in an unbreakable chain of bitter old curmudgeons shaking their heads and repeating this sanctimonious, asinine line from generation to generation.  A lesser line would have lost its relevance long ago, yet this one perseveres, virtually unchanged.  But perhaps it hasn't lost its relevance because it was never relevant in the first place.  
I can't be the only person on earth who read and reread my "Little House on the Prairie" books until they fell apart. Remember the way Laura's students treated her? As a matter of fact, Laura wasn't exactly falling all over herself with respect for her own teacher and future sister-in-law--ooops!  In "Farmer Boy" a bunch of boys at Almanzo's school beat a teacher to death and not only faced no legal consequences, but kept on attending school.  That certainly would not fly now.  Almanzo, the son of upper middle class farmers, attended a school that could rival any impoverished, inner-city American learning institution at present. I understand that these books are somewhat fictionalized, but she wrote those things because they were conceivable to her. 
Mitt Romney's little "prank" would have gotten him expelled and quite possibly arrested if he'd pulled it 30 years later in my high school. He wouldn't have had the luxury of forgetting, because the consequences would have rendered the incident unforgettable.  
Being violent and cruel to our fellow human beings isn't new. While some behavior is tolerated that wouldn't have been in the past, I would argue that the things we let slide in our modern world are comparatively very trivial and perhaps even necessary for creating a better world, which is what we are doing.  There are also things we come down harder on than ever before. It's not "kids these days". We aren't a culture of unprecedented jerks--if anything, we're some of the nicest people there have ever been.  
No, but the past!  In the past, kids weren't allowed to sass their elders!  You may be right--sass appears to have been quite the offense in the good old days.  Sass could get you smacked eight ways to Sunday.  Why can't I live in a Utopia like that instead of this post-apocalyptic hell, with its horrific modern sewer system.  What have we done do to deserve the unspeakable horrors we middle to upper class citizens of the first world are asked to endure on a daily basis?  The civil rights, the coddling of cancer patients with that pansy "chemotherapy", the effective birth control.  It's a nightmare.  But no, I totally love all that stuff!  It's the treating children sort of like human beings that I can't stand.  Let's keep all that other stuff but just go back to knuckle rapping and dunce caps.  Because sure, it's all fun and games now, but mark my words--when these little monsters grow up, we are doomed!  
So sass wouldn't have gone over well 50, 100, 200 years ago.  But riddle me this--while a white child on a plantation in Mississippi in 1850 may have been subject to quite the beating if they were rude to Father, was the standard penalty for being rude to the enslaved adults living in a shack on their property the same?  In 14th century France, did the adults come down hard on gangs of kids tormenting the local hunchback? Welcome to 1943 - can  I offer you some Jim Crow and an iron lung? No, no, don't try to politely refuse. I insist.

Do we have any trouble imagining that rich kids from powerful families acting shamefully toward the lower-class adults in their lives was and is common worldwide, and always has been? If anything, it is less acceptable now than ever. 
There was less tolerance for disrespect toward "people" in the past only because there was a narrower definition of what constituted a person. When you say that children don't respect adults anymore, you're saying "Children don't respect important adults, like me."
People from the past burned witches and watched their neighbors tortured to death in public. They enslaved other human beings and made life much worse for women and gay people than we do now (we have a long way to go, I won't deny that, but we're getting better).  Of course there have been exceptions.  Both individuals and entire cultures have bucked the human tradition of being horrible.  But while I know how much you admire them, there's no easy way to say this.  So I'll put it bluntly.  As a unit, these people sucked.  Yet knowing all that, we still continue to romanticize the past, seeming to assume that 500 years ago we would have been royalty rather than serfs. 
Lest I be too hard on them, people in dire situations have to be harder on their children, both for their children's safety and their own sanity.  There's not a lot of margin for error when there's a real possibility of your child being eaten by a lion, crucified, or lynched if they don't toe the line.  In cultures where there isn't a general expectation that children will live past the age of five, parents have to brace themselves and not get too attached.  
It's not lost on me that life is still brutal for billions of people worldwide.  We have a lot of work to do.  One could also argue that we have simply directed our viciousness at the earth instead of each other.  You have a point, but I suspect that human beings from the past would have been even less able to handle having the technology to destroy an entire planet than we are.  
Perhaps people form the idea that children and parents are out of control "these days" because they are comparing their own memories of their childhoods as they experienced them as a child to what they observe now, through the eyes of an adult.  I am speaking from a very culturally biased place--I know that.  But this way of thinking seems especially absurd now, when many of the adults doing the complaining are from a generation that took place after the cultural shift that made all intelligent and decent people accept that women, racial minorities, gay people and yes, children also merit the illustrious title of "person".  Kids these days know that their teachers will be in trouble if they hit them or severely belittle them.  Guess what?  I knew that, too.  But children are different!  How dare you compare any of those other groups to children?  Yes, they are.  That is why there hasn't been any serious movement to treat children exactly the same way we treat adults.  But they still deserve better treatment than they were given in the past.  
Go ahead.  Make my day.  Tell me that my fellow parents and I are raising an army of coddled sociopaths with our unique blend of being too nice to our kids and treating the rest of the world with utter disregard.  I dare you.  "Kids these days" has been repeated by everyone over the age 15 since the dawn of recorded history. They grow up so fast.  The generation of kids you're railing against now will be saying the same thing before you know it.   Then, and only then, will I want to smack them.  But I won't, because I was raised to believe that smacking other people is not my right.  

Monday, May 21, 2012

Preventative Medicine

Last week, my daughter Bean fell off a neighbor's garbage can (I guess they're fun to climb) and hit the back of her head. She came in crying, and we sat her down to relax for a while. After an hour passed, she swore she wasn't getting better and that she was drowsy and dizzy. S tends to grossly exaggerate injuries or illness, so it's very difficult to tell what's real and what's a performance. But we didn't want to take any chances with a head injury. My husband got ready to take her to the emergency room. It occurred to me that if we didn't have a referral from our on-call pediatrician we would get slapped with a big bill, so I called.

After a chat with the doctor, we decided that she didn't need to go to the emergency room after all. We kept her up for a couple of hours before sending her to bed.

The next morning, my son Jay came in to wake me up.  I greeted him happily, but quickly realized that Bean was still asleep.  Or not asleep, but probably dead from an epidural hematoma.  Brain dead at best.  I asked Jay, "Want to go wake up Bean?" He happily agreed.

I knew it was wrong of me to bring Jay upstairs to watch me find his dead sister.  But I couldn't let go of him--his skinny little monkey body can be such a comfort.  All the way upstairs, I thought "Epidural hematoma.  Epidural hematoma."  I did my best to form a picture in my mind of what it would be like to find Bean white and cold, while still allowing that the reality would be far, far worse than anything I could dream up.

I did not do this because I thought being prepared would make it easier when I found her.  I did it because I believe with every fiber of my being that imagining the worst case scenario in grotesque detail is 100% effective preventative medicine.  The better I am at visualizing what it will be like when I find that my daughter has died during the night, the greater the chance that I will be greeted with a smile, a hug and a giggle.  I don't think I have to tell you what was waiting for me behind that bedroom door.

This home remedy works like a charm.  If my son has a stomach ache, I just assume that his appendix have burst and he's dying of sepsis.  If my husband is out and I can't reach him, it stands to reason that he is living out his final hours in agony on the side of a deserted road somewhere. His injuries aren't necessarily fatal, but by the time someone finds him it will be too late. Every plane my brother flies on is going to crash. I am not a crazy mother, terrifying my children with my superstitions--I keep my macabre fantasies to myself. Although this may be irresponsible of me, when you consider how well it works. I have saved these people's lives more times than I can count, so actively trying to deprive the next generation of my healing powers seems foolish. Maybe even cruel. I don't know why I bother trying to protect them from something that has gotten all of us out of numerous sticky situations. My mom does it. My grandma did it. The fact that our bloodline has survived this long is proof it must go back further than that. Should I let such a valuable family secret die with me?

Of course, having written this, I know I'm asking for it. The tragedy that could result from my acknowledging my wellness plan out loud will strike where I least expect it, so I know what I have to do. Make a mental list of every single person I care about in the least, and dream up every possible misfortune that could befall them. I have a long night of visualizing ahead of me. But tomorrow morning when you wake up safe and sound, you'll know who to thank. The one who put you in peril in the first place.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Ann Romney is Not My Sister

Ann Romney is not my sister. Well, that's a little harsh--we're both earthlings, after all, and I do care for her as a member of my human family. But I feel no kinship with her based on the fact that we are both stay at home moms.

I'm satisfied with our arrangement, and until recently I thought she was, too. As a matter of fact, I suspect that she's even less inclined to bond with me than I am with her. Of course, one of the few things I can afford that she can't is the luxury of saying so.

So imagine my surprise when I recently learned that I was supposed to feel personally insulted when Hilary Rosen made her solid point in a clumsy way by saying that Ann Romney had never worked a day in her life. "Like fun she hasn't!" I'm supposed to cry out in my indignation. "We stay at home moms have the hardest job in the world!" Our president wasn't born yesterday--Obama was politically savvy enough to say that of COURSE all mothers work. Ann Romney works just like Ann Durham did. Another more accurate way of putting it might be that Ann Romney works absolutely nothing like Ann Durham did, but I'm sure it's fair to say that they both put their blood, sweat and tears into raising their children.

Is it the hardest job in the world? I have my doubts about that. I subscribe to the apparently unpopular belief that it is probably not as difficult as, say, coal mining. But there's no denying that it is relentless, and the money is just awful. I could point out that most of us have no outside help, and that despite her fourth-born son Ben's very sweet defense of his mama, you can bet your boots she had domestic help for every one of the many non-childcare related tasks most of us parents do for ourselves. But I won't do that any more than I already have. Do I think what I do is harder than what she did? Yes. But that's just a guess. True, my husband and I do our own laundry, cooking, cleaning and sometimes even mow the lawn in addition to caring for our children. On the other hand, she has more than twice as many children as I have, which isn't for the faint of heart. I know she worked, and getting into a spat about who works harder is silly--it's not quantifiable and it doesn't really matter. The fact is that she has every right and every reason to be proud of raising five happy and healthy sons. They aren't my speed, but they're great if you like that sort of thing. Which Ann Romney probably does.

Still, Rosen's point is valid. Ann Romney has neither the life experience nor the work experience to advise her husband on much of anything. There is no reason to believe that she has any complex understanding of economnics--if Mittens doesn't want to hire someone who actually knows what they're talking about, he might as well do it himself.

While discussing this with a friend, we both acknowledged that even if we're not a part of the 1% like Mrs. Romney is, we are probably part of the 20%. Globally, we're probably doing even better than that. I'm not throwing myself a pity party when I say that I have to worry about a many, many things that Ann Romney never did--that I can't afford to ensure that my children will be able to pursue any path they want is probably the most champagne of my problems. I won't lie--the fact that I know having the mental space to worry about it is a luxury doesn't make it bother me any less. There are also more legitimate worries--I know if the right catastrophe were to hit us at any moment, there's a chance we would not ever recover financially.

Part of the reason Ann Romney's "job" doesn't look like work to me is because the amount of time I spend worrying about money feels like a second job, and I can't imagine what it would be like never to have to think about it again. It's much more exhausting than laundry or childcare, so being able to clear that much mental space sounds like a permanent vacation all by itself. On a good day, when they are at their sweet and delightful best, being a mom to my kids is hard only because I'm fretting about money while I'm doing it. Yesterday, for example, was lovely. I took my daughter, Bean, to dinner and a play. Only she got "dinner"--a six in sub that she was very pleased with. It was the end of my husband's pay period, and that sandwich cost me my last penny (it's okay - I'm not keen on Subway). The play was less enjoyable because I wasn't confident we'd have enough gas to get home, and it kept gnawing at the back of my mind. But whatever. We're still better off than vast the majority of the earth's population, and we'd be doing better still if we weren't financial idiots. I know that.

Why don't I relate to Ann Romney? Because for me, the hardest thing about being a stay at home parent is that it's financially risky. Another thing I have more of than Ann Romney does is company. When I'm lying in bed in middle of the night, eyes wide open, thinking about being 75 years old, living in a cardboard box and eating cat food because I've lost so much time in the work force, there are legions of parents doing the exact same thing. It doesn't matter to me personally if social security is solvent or not--I haven't paid into it in eight years and counting.

All of us, including the Romneys, knew damn well what Hilary Rosen meant. This has nothing to do with the myth that there's a mommy war on and Ann Romney and I are supposed to be on the same side, and everything to do with the fact that she is not qualified to report back to her husband on what the people are concerned about. Ann and Mittens are the adults here, and unlike their five thin-skinned sons, they are perfectly capable of standing up to a little punishment. They aren't fragile, and they know exactly what they're doing. Having her parenting criticized was, according to Mrs. Romney, like an early birthday present. The only way she could prove to me that she has even a hint of a clue would be to admit that she doesn't.