Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Makin' loooove ... out of nothing at all (except fig newtons and peanut butter)

How's this for (a) corny and (b) sappy: This morning, I was trying to get dressed and, as usual, both girls felt an immediate need to be in total physical contact with me. It's one of those things that you're supposed to approach with a Zen attitude, like "oh, my children guide me, I take this moment to be grateful to the universe and whatnot." In reality, sometimes I just want to get my shoes on without someone tugging on me or giving me a stealth nipple-twist.

But then, right when it looked like they were about to start yet another petty battle over a small plastic light-up object, they spontaneously hugged. They do this a lot, they're very loving little puppies, but this was such a real and present hug, and it went on and on. Abby just reached her arms around Penny, and Penny relaxed into the hug, returned it, and they tilted their heads in toward each other. Then they just stood quietly for a long moment, the kind of physical quietness you don't even see in toddlers when they're asleep (thrash, thrash, snore, kick).

There was something so timeless about it. I was reminded of when my grandma's sister came to visit her and I saw their legs, crossed ladylike at the ankles and tucked to the side underneath their chairs, perfectly mirroring each other.

And yes, I took that moment to be so, so grateful to the universe and whatnot. And even more sappy, I thought, "I made that. I grew people inside me and now they're hugging and each of them is getting a rush of oxytocin, and the ripples of that are going out into the world, and they're feeling warm and safe without my even touching them, except I am, because each of them is skin of my skin and blood of my blood, and I made that warmth, and that ripple, and I created love."

I did warn you it was sappy. There are bad days and then there are days when I think, eh, I can't be so terrible. This happened.

I'm not posting this on Facebook so "STFU parents" isn't allowed to make fun of me.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Is French Parenting Better? No, It's Just Frencher.

Posit: Bad manners are good for you. 

Much has been made lately of Pamela Druckerman's recent book, Bringing Up Bebe, a collection of completely subjective and unsubstantiated anecdotes about how placid and polite French children are as compared to the wild hellions of the USA. People have been going nuts over this book. Less nuts than they did for the Tiger Mom's book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, but that's to be expected; the Chinese version of this story enumerates a series of humiliating battles that sound downright abusive to our gentle ears. The French version just scolds us for being crappy. Sorry. Crappé.

The Tiger Mom book I just wrinkled my nose at and moved on. I read The Joy Luck Club. Hell, at my last job I could peek over the top of my cubicle and see my pal Cindy, proud product of Tiger Parenting, who also went to an Ivy League school (a better one than mine, even). There we were, at the same crappé workplace, both avoiding college reunions because we were supposed to be better and brighter by now. I'm okay with not being so tiger-y. Besides, though I've seen the angry responses to Amy Chua's book all over the interwebs, I also live in San Francisco, where every neighborhood has its own Chinatown, and nobody -- nobody -- fawns over my kids like the Chinese grandparents I meet on every walk. So stuff it, Tiger Mom who wasn't even advocating for this approach in the first place.

But the French stuff worried me. I love good manners. One of the first things I noticed about my husband -- after his glorious mess of hair, tree-like height, hilariousness, and that other thing I shouldn't mention on a mommyblog -- was his gentle, unobtrusive Midwestern manners, still in place after twenty years' exile. He didn't even notice that he automatically walked on the correct side of the sidewalk. I swooned. Meanwhile, tell a nine-year-old today that he should "be a gentlemen and let ladies go first," and he'll treat you to a polemic on feminism and the gilded cage of chivalry. Just because they're right doesn't mean they're not annoying. I readjust to explain manners in a non-sexist way; I haven't succeeded yet.

Bottom line, my kids are annoying in restaurants, though I'm pretty good at getting them under control. However, the online world being what it is, I know what many childless people think of even the best-behaved children, and have witnessed the sneering and judgment that goes on constantly even when a kid's meltdown is entirely age-appropriate and developmentally necessary. I know, frig those a-holes, but whatever, I can feel their glares burning into me when my kids do normal kid stuff. Should they be standing still, hands clasped, in two straight lines like Madeline?

Fortunately, I have French friends! At a rare evening out, I leaned across the table and quizzed my favorite one whose daughter spends summers in France and the rest of the year in Marin. It's true, she told me: her daughter eats leeks in France, mac and cheese here in the States. She behaves like a lady in France, like a hellion here in the States.

Why? "Because she can," my friend stated. "It's true, the demands on children in France are greater. Wherever you go, everyone has the same standard, and you stick to it because it's supported at every contact point." She really talks like that. She's a fancy business lady. "Here, it's different, so they are more free to act like themselves."

Oh, wait, what was that? Was she really saying that having worse manners is a good thing?

"Look what you grow up to be," she said. "Would you rather be restricted by society's rules, or bravely striking out to be an individual?"

Well, when you put it that way.

I'm not trying to say one way is better or worse. That's what Druckerman did, and it sold books but is a cynical and idiotic way to look at parenting. I'm saying, when things are different, there might be valid and positive reasons for their differences, and considering those differences in depth is more productive than just crapping on one or the other.

I have another friend who stopped bringing her daughter to rec center classes because she didn't like her being taught to docilely line up and follow a teacher's orders blindly. She hated that rote passivity. Of course, she'll encourage her daughter to behave in school up to a point, but she also recognizes that as adults, as long as we're wearing pants and not punching anyone, our society values and requires brave individual thinking. Not to get rich. But to be a good person.

It all reminds me of when I first moved to the west coast and thought "this whole place was settled by cowboys!" and longed for the stuffiness of my home, which was settled by a bunch of Puritans bent on being holier than everbody else. I had to laugh at myself. I suppose it's the same thing for Europeans: America was settled by a bunch of lunatics, and here we are, 400 years later, still acting out.

So okay. American kids might not have perfect manners, but mine will have the best ones I can muster in the circumstances. And in the meantime they'll benefit from those other imperfections, the ones that make people move here in the first place. I'm okay with that, too. 

And as for eating leeks, my friend said that her mom has an astounding garden, and that eating food that came from the ground is part of her daughter's daily experience. Freshness and earthiness are a pretty stellar combination. And it's true -- when we get our CSA deliveries, the girls will demand broccoli right out of the bag, because they can tell from the almost-spicy, almost sweet crunch that they were picked that morning. (Well, all they can tell is that it tastes good; I fill in that information myself. It'd be better if they could see it for themselves, but in a parallel balancing act of cost and benefit analysis, I elect to stay here in the teeming urban center that is Bernal Heights.)

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Where The Wild Sendak Is

The internet has exploded with Wild Things today, but that's not my family's touchstone. For whatever reason -- either because the fundamental truth of Where The Wild Things Are is that our unmanageable emotions sometimes take us away from those we love most, and it's up to us to tame them and find our way home all alone, or just because it's got monsters in it -- Penny rejected the universal favorite after a brief and intense initial romance.

Instead, the one she requests most is the one where the main character remains safely home throughout his journey, In The Night Kitchen. The more I read it, the more I'm inclined to agree. Of course I will always adore Wild Things. I have faith that when Penny's older, she'll imagine her room sprouting into sylvan splendor, door jambs growing bark and leaves weighing down boughs suddenly spreading across the ceiling until there is no room, only forest, dark and foreign and safely far away. And whether or not she can handle the story, she still loves to sing our Rumpus Song, a chanted rhyme I came up with because there are no words in the wild rumpus section, and we wanted something to do besides yell "Yay! Rumpus! Woo-hoo! The rumpus! Yippee!" for six pages. You're welcome to borrow it. It goes like this:

Rumpus, Rumpus, staring at the moon
Rumpus, Rumpus, don't end too soon (turn page)
Rumpus, Rumpus, swinging in the trees
Rumpus, Rumpus, doing as we please (turn page)
Rumpus, Rumpus, stamping on the ground
Rumpus, Rumpus, Wild Things all around.

I got a video of Penny singing it for you, but missed the first line and didn't have time to re-record before ballet class.

But In The Night Kitchen is even richer, in many ways. I love the way I can pore over each page, reading the names of the products and wondering which are real and which are friends of Sendak's. Imagining the flavor of tas-t-kaks. Finding, with Penelope, the items we recognize from our own kitchen: the whisk, the beaters, the wooden spoon. The beautiful details of a Brooklyn brownstone pictured as Mickey falls through his dream: a chandelier, lace curtains, dark-wood moulding. And oh, the absolute delight when Penny sees a picture of Oliver Hardy out of context and shrieks "Mama! MAMA! The baker from In the Night Kitchen!"

And we didn't have to make up a chant for this book. Rather than letting the images do the talking, Sendak let the words themselves expand to fill entire pages. The first time Penny and I read this at the library, I recited the familiar words: "Milk in the batter, milk in the batter, stir it, scrape it, make it, bake it," and paused, wondering if I was actually hearing the echo of the words back through my own childhood. But no, the sound was coming from the mom a few tables over, who couldn't help joining in the chant even though she was ostensibly reading Thomas the Tank Engine to her son. It's that familiar. It's that addictive. "I'm not the milk and the milk's not me! I'm MICKEY!"

Of course the horrible irony is that Penny is at the age to reject Wild Things out of fear of the feelings she is learning to control, and I am at the age to reject Night Kitchen out of fear of the news Sendak was repressing when he came up with the images. I always felt there was something unsettling and hidden about the yellow star on the box of salt, about the oven, about the Oliver Hardy moustache, and the Sendak exhibit at my beloved Contemporary Jewish Museum confirmed it: the childhood Sendak overheard news of World War II, understanding almost none of it, and Mickey is that childhood self making sense of the images and scraps of information he couldn't comprehend.

None of us can comprehend it. That's why the book holds such power. That's why I can't stop looking through it even as I want to fling it across the room.

I generally wrinkle my nose at public keening over a celebrity death (last week's mourning of MCA of the Beastie Boys notwithstanding). In general, I hold that if someone lived a good long life, and was clearly tired and ready to go as I believe Sendak was, it's churlish of me to demand that they stay here just out of some distant affection and desire to have them on the same earthly plane. But oh, this stings. I harbored the fantasy that Penny and Abby and I would sing the Rumpus song to Sendak one day. That I would get to tell him yes, I agree, the Spike Jonze/Dave Eggers movie of Wild Things is not for children, and it's perfect, and I watch it over and over, without a kid in sight. That I would thank him for the window into my own childhood soul, and the reminder to peer through his books into my kids' souls, so that I don't forget that their fear is real, and that it's okay.

But of course, that old curmudgeon never wanted to hear that from us parents. We pissed him off, he was impatient with us, and who can blame him. He wanted to be left alone and to see his partner Eugene again. And now he's done it, sailed away over a year and a day, and he won't be coming back.

And that's why, thanks to Maurice, we have cake every morning. Shema.