Monday, August 17, 2015

Trembling Before God or Whatever

"Once she was born, I was never not afraid."
-Joan Didion, Blue Nights

When I was a child, my grandma used to sing me "Rock-a-Bye Baby." I must have been very young, and I remember being confused by the content. Not afraid or upset, but perplexed. I understood it was supposed to be soothing. The baby falling seemed to come out of nowhere, and the tone of the song didn't change a bit. But the baby fell. It didn't make any sense.

Recently, I read a possible explanation as to why lullabies are often murder ballads. Lullabies serve a duel purpose. To comfort the child, yes, but also the caretaker. Because loving someone so much is terrifying.

Rock-a-Bye Baby, specifically, may be about confronting the possibility of crib death that lurks in the backs of our minds, just as it did for our parents, and their parents, and theirs. I doubt my grandma was consciously harboring such a fear, but the song makes sense.

"I'm afraid you'll die in your sleep, I'm powerless to stop it, and I need to calm myself down."

The only thing more frightening than loving someone so much is the indifference with which the universe meets that love. Anything could happen, at any time, with no warning. There will be no trial, no appeals process, and above all, no mercy.

One day, a few months ago, my daughter Bean looked up from what she was doing.

"I just realized. 99% of the world doesn't know me, so if I died, it wouldn't matter," she said. She didn't sound disturbed by this. If anything, she sounded intrigued. I think she was just starting to realize not everyone thought she was as important as her parents did.

"Pretty much 100% of the world doesn't know you, and if you died, there would be no world," I corrected her. You know what they say. To the world, you may be one person. But to one person, you may be the world.

"Respect the ocean!" I used to admonish her. My son understood this instinctively, but my daughter, like me, was brave, a swimmer, a daredevil. I loved this about her. Angry at not having grown up to be as brave as I knew I'd been born to be, I wanted more than almost anything to preserve it in her, but not as much as I loved and wanted to preserve her. She paid no more attention than I'd paid when my parents had given me similar advice, and nothing could make her believe me.

Respect the ocean, because it won't respect you. You're nothing to it. "But it's me!" you might say, or try to, as you're sucked down by the undertow. "But that's my baby!" my heart will cry, as I try with all my might to get to you. The ocean may indeed spit you out, but it won't be because of anything either of us said.

More recently, in Baltimore, a mother was filmed beating her son for joining in riots protesting police brutality. White America was delighted with this, which made me uncomfortable for reasons summed up here.

But I sympathized with his mother, a woman up against a greater indifference than I could ever imagine, a system that has proven time and again it sees her son as disposable. There was no way she could make us all understand he was the single most important thing in the world, and that if anything ever happened to him, we might as well just turn off the sun. Take me, for example. My priorities are all screwed up. If you asked me, I'd say my children are the most important thing in the world. Does this start to give you a small idea of what she has to contend with? What could she do, when she was so helpless against the futility of it all? The problem is, even if she succeeds in beating him into perfection, the odds of him dying in some sort of police incident will still be far too high.

A few weeks before Bean was born, I dreamt of my grandparents. In reality, my grandma had been gone for twelve years. My grandpa was still alive; not at his best, but mobile and coherent. In the dream, they were old, very old, older than anyone had ever been. I held them up, one with each arm, and promised I'd hold them up forever.

I knew I wouldn't. Worse, I knew my will would give out before my body did. I would give up. I would fail.

When I woke up, I thought of Bean, momentarily relieved that soon I'd have someone to love who wouldn't grow old on me. Quickly, I realized that would offer no protection. I'd knowingly signed up for the most heart-wrenching mission on earth, and there was no way out.

Years later, I cried more or less from beginning to end while I watched Amelia, a modern day opera about a woman who had never recovered from the death of her father when she was a child. Nine months pregnant with her first child, she fell into a coma. She spent three days in the hospital, arguing with her dead father and weighing the only two options a woman as pregnant as herself had left - motherhood, or death?

Meanwhile, in another part of the hospital, a father whose son has suffered some sort of accident nervously paced.

Ultimately, Amelia chose motherhood, and chose it boldly, waking from her coma and demanding natural childbirth or a new doctor. It's good for the soul. Or is it? On the other side of the stage, a newly sonless father sat slumped in his chair, motionless.

As Brenda from Six Feet Under once pointed out, "If you lose a spouse, you're called a widow or a widower. If you're a child and you lose your parents, than you're an orphan. But what's the word to describe a parent who loses a child? I guess that's just too fucking awful to even have a name."

When my son Jay was a baby, my daughter would often worry he'd stopped breathing when he slept in the car. It was obviously a Freudian expression of her conflicted feelings about her new sibling. Nothing to worry about.

My babies' soft spots scared me badly. Most of the time, it grieved me to see them grow up. This may have been the one issue in regards to which I was not at all ambivalent. I wanted those holes in their heads gone. I was learning, though, that aside from allowing my son to develop an extraordinary human brain in only two years' time, his soft spot was good for checking his pulse while I drove.

A friend advised me to stop doing these pulse checks, to just tell Bean her brother was fine. But once the possibility that his heart had stopped beating had been spoken out loud, I needed it contradicted at least as much as she did. There was no way I could have shrugged it off, not when that pulsating soft spot was right there, ready to give me my life back.

Notice the language I used there. My daughter would worry he'd stopped breathing, and I'd check to make sure his heart hadn't stopped. The implication is clear, but that's not what I meant. That's probably not what my daughter said. I tried to write what I meant, but couldn't. I told myself someone who'd lost a baby could read this. Being so blunt might wound them. I told myself dancing around the truth might also wound them. Either one could do it, and I made my choice. Who was I protecting?

I began to fear my daughter was experiencing a premonition, that my son was doomed to live a short life, and it never really subsided. To this day, I'll find what are either clues or, hopefully, nothing. Things like a habit he has of saying "if I grow up," instead of "when I grow up," that gives me absolute fits. It always sends me back to the car, checking his pulse. But perhaps looking for even that much order in the universe is wishful thinking.

Make it through the first trimester, and you've triumphed over early miscarriage, the most common kind. If you can do that, you might be able to carry it through your entire pregnancy, and give birth to a living baby. After the first year, you no longer have to fear miscarriage, stillbirth or SIDS. Soon, you can be rid of that creepy fontanelle.

But your child is still mortal, and always will be. If your lucky, they'll grow sturdier with age. A relief, in some ways, but it means giving them more independence. You have to hope they'll make good decisions even when you aren't watching. You have to accept that sometimes, they won't, and hope luck will be on their side. Their side, and yours.

It's bad enough to know the universe is random and indifferent. There are earthquakes, disease, lightening, meteorites. Seriously, people, the sky could actually throw a rock at you for no reason at all. It would be nice if this could at least foster kinship among humans. Maybe it does, but not all the time, and that? That is just not good enough, not when we're asking for so little. Don't rape, don't murder, don't kidnap, don't drive recklessly, don't do anything violent. Under any circumstances. Is that so hard?

No. It's not hard. I'm not asking that you do anything, but rather that you refrain from activities that require a fair amount of energy. Most of the parents and other humans of the world and I are quite literally asking nothing of you. Go home, grab a beer, and see what's new on Netflix. I would love to be you right now!

But some of you won't comply with this simple request. This is your fault; not our children's, but we've decided there's no point in trying to reason with you. There may be some truth to this, but we are, for the most part, fooling ourselves when we tell ourselves we can equip children to defend themselves against adults. They can't. We just wish they could.

Teenagers? Eh...maybe, kinda, sorta. I suppose there's an outside chance. Even adults probably don't stand much of a chance when crossing paths with a random psychopath who wishes them harm for no reason.

It's good to encourage a bit of caution in children, especially with people they meet online. After all, none of us know who we're talking to. But we can go too far with that, too.

"What if there were crazy people back here?" Yes, what if? Thank heavens it was just mom and dad, sitting in the back of a van, having formed a curious alliance with some frat boy douchebag who does pranks on the internet. Waiting for their daughter and pretending to be a gang of rapists, as one does. Nobody here but us Sanes! And they're angry at her? Before she can even process what's happened, while the adrenaline is still rushing, they start lecturing and demanding her phone.

When I told my husband about it, he said, "Oh, God, I totally forgot to mention I'd scheduled that for next Wednesday!"

On the other hand, kids are far more likely to be abused by family members than strangers, so lesson learned?

FOR THE LOVE OF GOD. You're afraid, I get it! We're all parents. It's a scary world, and there are people in it who don't give a shit how much you love your daughter. It's awful, and I'm being genuine when I say I'm so, so sorry.

But you suck! If you're so worried about your daughter and online safety, why would you trust some stranger? "Hey, young fella, I see you do pranks on the internet. Sounds legit. Obviously you have a keen interest in child welfare. Here's a picture of my teenage daughter, her birthdate, blood type, route to school, and online information. Thanks for all your help, you're solid gold! I don't want my child to trust just anyone with herself, but I think I'm a pretty good judge of character."

I don't know about this Coby Persin person, and these parents shouldn't have, either. Granted, pranks aren't my kind of humor. I don't think they're funny, and never have. It's possible he's being genuine in his concern here, although even if he is, he's doing it wrong. He is, after all, just a stupid kid, not the middle-aged parent of a half-grown child. This is the only one of his "social experiments" I watched, but I couldn't help but notice that many of them seem to be focused on "helping" two groups of people - parents, and women.

Parents and women. There is a lot of overlap between these groups, and we have a lot in common. Especially when it comes to how much everyone constantly admonishes us to be cautious, cautious, and even more cautious, yet simultaneously tells us we're crazy when we are. Don't be a helicopter parent, but if you ever relax for one second, whatever happens will be entirely your fault.

Or perhaps, by some mistake, we've wandered into a teenage girl's anxiety dream. "Matt Arnold has inexplicably enlisted the help of this 20-year-old male model to help him lecture his daughter." Soon, her teeth will start falling out while she's taking a math test naked.

I realize I'm doing a lot of questioning of other people's parenting here, too. From my point of view, I'm taking issue with something so ridiculous that I'm only being a voice of sanity, but that's just me. I'm many things, but, believe it or not, smug is not one of them. I of all people know how even opinions you're sure you disagree with can chip away at you. Even as I write, I think of all the things I've done wrong - horribly wrong - over my years as a mother, and feel sick to my stomach.

I'm just another voice of judgement. It only adds to the problem. Did these parents question themselves when they were approached by some degenerate about conspiring against their children? I bet they did. How can we know what to do, when self-important bloggers won't just shut the fuck up? So it would be nice if people like Coby Persin, people who, as far as I know, have no children and can be objective, could extend the courtesy of not proposing things that are, if you take a step back, clearly a terrible idea. Yes, I still absolutely think anyone logical and objective would agree with me.

The video implies the girls in question are rebellious and careless. Disobedient kids who don't listen to their parents. But perhaps it's the blind obedience the hand-wringers seem to want to see us teach our young children that's part of the problem. Obedience (they call it respect, but they mean obedience) requires you you to either trust the person you're obeying, ignore your own instincts, or both. It's not a great lesson.

In 2013, the story of Manti Te'o, a football player catfished by his cancer-stricken online girlfriend who, it turned out, had never existed in the first place, broke. No one accused him of being rebellious. Far from it - if Manti Te'o had ever had a rebellious bone in his body, he'd been broken of it years before. Many marveled at his gullibility - he'd missed so many red flags. Some doubted he could have been taken in the way he claimed he had been, but the more the public learned, the clearer it became - he had believed every word.

Some members of his own Hawaiian-Samoan-Mormon family seemed less surprised. They knew the young man they'd raised was not a questioner.

“Our kids are raised to be obedient,” says Ephraim Te’o, Manti’s uncle. “They’re not raised to be skeptical. When you’re asked to do something, there’s very little to discuss.”
Menti Te'o wasn't vulnerable because he was an out of control brat. On the contrary.

These parents in the video, mostly, for whatever reason, dads (although I found myself angriest with the one mother involved. I could not stand her. I can't say why. What do you have to say for yourself, Erin? Nothing. I don't know. Shut up.), understand they're supposed to be especially protective of their children because they're girls. Because they're in the process of handing over their parental duties to their children, this means they're trying to teach their daughter to be especially protective of themselves because they're girls.

They're angry about it, but at the wrong things, the wrong people. Angry at their daughters, instead of the world of male violence and entitlement their daughters are expected to navigate. And their daughters, despite all the stern warnings they'd been given, look at this world, and still want to engage with it. Just as my daughter, warned to go out into the waves only as far as her knees, stretched the definition of that as far as she possibly could. What they don't seem to understand is that their daughters are right to want to live, and the call to adventure isn't any easier to resist just because the person hearing it happens to be a girl.

It's entirely possible one, two or all of these girls are too dependent on male validation. If they are, I'm tempted to say their parents' tearing them down rather than trying to teach them to trust their own judgement may have something to do with that. Kids have to take some risks, but I understand that each of us parents has to decide for ourselves what those risks are going to be, and how far we're willing to let them go. I'll be smug (although not as smug as any of these parents were - I can't be; I'm too superstitious) and say I don't believe my daughter, not very much younger than these girls, would sneak out to meet a stranger she'd met online. Talk to me in a year or two or three, and I may give you a different answer. But I'm cautiously optimistic. She may be able to trust her own judgement when the time comes. I can't expect her to keep on trusting my judgement for much longer.

When I wondered about moving into an iffy neighborhood, a friend told who knew it better told me, "Lock your doors, but don't be too hysterical."

It was good advice, good enough for me to adopt as a metaphor for life in general. Even when the stakes are high. High enough that you were a fool to get involved in the first place. Like loving someone so much the very thought of anything happening to them is unbearable, in a world that refuses to make exceptions for anything, even that. Even then, once you've locked your doors, getting hysterical is too risky. The three girls in the video paid for it, and may continue paying it for years to come. Will they ever learn to believe their own inner voice? Or will it always be drowned out by their parents' screaming? Can their parents hear their own inner voice?

These girls did something stupid. It could have turned out very badly. Why? Because you didn't yelled enough? Because they're spoiled brats? Because they're stupid? Because you yelled too much? Because you didn't spoil them enough? Because you're stupid? Maybe some or all of those things are true, but the unfortunate truth is, above all, they did it because they're kids. Which can be really fucking scary. However, it's not their job to relieve you of that fear. They didn't choose to come into this world as fragile, impermanent beings - that's on you. You're just going to have to hope nothing too awful happens while they're learning some sense, because trial and error is the only way to do it. Even then, some people never get there.

By the way, Mr. and Mrs. Persin? A little help? Considering your child is older now, maybe you have a little perspective. Would you mind encouraging your son not to rile up these young whipper snappers? I know you may not like to criticize - your son is an adult, after all, and free to do as he likes - but you could try to distract him. Offer some guidance in his search for meaning. Invite him to join his dad and brothers for a day in the coal mines (and for God's sake - I know he aggravates you, but be nice to him. It's what his dead mother would want. This is bigger than any one of you). Or help him open up a Center for Kids Who Don't Read Good and Want to Learn to Do Other Stuff Good Too. Something like that.

Expecting them to help shoulder your fear is too much to ask of them, and for what? Tomorrow, even though dad tried moving heaven and earth to cover every base, one of these girls might be killed in a fire. None of his precautions, I might add, will have included social experiments designed to catch his daughter in the act of being careless - allowing, say, 26 people in a room only zoned for 25 - just so her father, accompanied by Kid Gorgeous, can storm in and berate her.

So, you assholes in that video. Even you, Coby Persin, you well-meaning dolt. Or Coby Persin, you disingenuous fame whore, preying on parents' rape-culture fueled fears. Or, you sociopathic child predator who gets a kick out getting parental permission. Or, you repressed, mean-spirited, elderly English Vicar trapped in the body of a recently retired Abercrombie and Fitch model. When the earth shakes or the plague comes or the lion pounces or the airplane crashes or the cancer cells start multiplying, may random chance have mercy on you and yours. But if it doesn't, if it doesn't, it won't be because you and your 12-year-old didn't do enough to stop it.

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