Sunday, January 30, 2011

Evergreen until green no more

For most folks, Christmas is pretty much over in the early days of January.

You unplug the lights, pack away the decorations and tactfully dispose of all those photo cards from family and friends and the end of a year of change and growth is officially over.

Oh ye of sharp efficiency ... weeks ago your Christmas trees sat curbside, having by now received their final mulch. You've dusted your hands and moved onward into the New Year.

I envy you.

I have always had trouble letting go of Christmas' past.

This has to be the earliest I’ve even considered dismantling a tree. Most years, it's Valentine’s Day before I gather up the gumption to toss our bone-dry tree and stow away the ephemera that collects during the jois de’ yule. One year I watched my husband drag out a bare, needle-less stick with branches a few days before St. Patrick’s Day.

I considered that year a personal triumph. Most folks would assume it’s a keen laziness that keeps a person from putting all the pomp back into the shoe boxes in a timely, efficient manner. But I believe it's a softer kind of laziness that supplies the reason for procrastination. Although the enthusiasm for putting away the holiday flair rarely matches the exuberance for putting it out.

It also doesn't help that the kids have named the tree "Firdinand" and were checking daily to see if he'd like a cool beverage.

With the house empty and no one mourning the demise of poor Fird-y, I take the opportunity to snag my clothes on the parched pine needles and collect the pieces of glitter-covered cardboard hanging from its branches in peace. I’ll have to find more boxes to store the ornaments that multiply with each passing year.

Throwing away any piece of the collection doesn’t seem like an option.

There’s a new paper plate angel a reindeer with hand print horns a Santa made of construction paper, Poly-fil and Froot Loops. I pluck from the tree six balsa wood stockings that have been painted in the style of Jackson Pollock and 12 colorful paper orbs scratched from black paint. There’s a mouse made of chocolate kisses, a felt owl and a long paper chain with each link numbered in order. Scattered around here and there I find 17 stars and one wonderfully misspelled solar system — Sun, Murky, Venis, Earth, Marz, Joopeter, Sater, Yernis, Neptude and Paluto — carefully colored in crayon.

How can I slip these holiday creations in with the coffee grounds, sink strainer contents and whatever leftovers became the science project at the back of the fridge? It doesn’t seem right.

As I dropped little "Paluto" into a hastily procured storage box I pictured Ittybit’s face —her knitted brow as she came to me to ask if it was alright to include the little lost planet in her project, her smile when I told her it could orbit our tree. After all, it has been difficult for many of us to come to terms with its universal demotion. It's never easy to lose something familiar.

Eventually, though, we do have to say "goodbye," or at least "farewell for now," and move on.

I know someday the kids will stand around the boxes I’ve filled with stuff and wonder why their mother kept a paper cup with yarn hair and googly eyes, or a smear of paint on a chip of wood. I hope they will turn over each one and find their names in early handwriting.

In the end, though, I hope they do toss these faded bits of paper and mouse-eaten breakfast cereal masterpieces … I just hope it doesn’t happen before they have trees of their own filled with ornaments just like them.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Cat fight

In her Wall Street Journal essay “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” Yale professor and author of “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” Amy Chua poked a sharp stick at her newly acquired nemesis, The Mama Grizzly. In her essay, she pegged the American parenting style as lax and deemed it responsible for producing children who can’t live up to their potential because they aren’t forced to do so.

Her memoir, she says, gives readers a deeper look into the inner workings of a family that raises “stereotypically successful kids.”

She knows what it takes to make musical prodigies and math whizzes, she says, because she’s done it ... with an iron fist. And it takes metal she doesn't see in western parenting methods. For instance, her daughters were never allowed to have play dates, attend sleepovers or select their own extra curricular activities. They were not allowed to play an instrument that wasn't a violin or piano, but they had to play one or the other ... for three hours per day, minimum. They were not allowed to get any grade below an A and they were expected to be the top student in every subject that mattered to her — no excuses.

Reading the essay is gut wrenching. But not because of the presence of stark competition we've systematically tried to erase from our children's childhood experience. Nor is it because of the implied competitiveness we parents have started recording in permanent ink. It's painful because in some way we know none of us — mothers especially — can be sure our children won't resent us regardless of how they were raised.

We all make mistakes.

Chua's are magnified by her candor.

She unapologetically describes calling her children “garbage,” threatening their toys and screaming herself horse as they continue to flub their music lessons … hour after tedious hour. She is jaundiced by her own light even as her daughters get straight As and win prestigious musical competitions.

Parents from all corners of the ethosphere came out swinging.

They called her abusive, surmised she was raising robots who would have no stars to reach in adulthood after playing Carnegie Hall in their teens. They wonder about her husband, and how he could stay married to such a ferocious beast. They predicted the damage she was doing to her family would come full force – or to a deafening silence – when the lessons stopped, bags packed and the return visits never begin.

Nevertheless, her mistakes don’t seem so uncommon.

I pictured myself where her critics picture her: Alone in her advancing years. The difference being that I'll be shunned for saying horrible things in the heat of frustration whilst trying to get my kids to pick up their toys.

One of the most cogent Grizzlies awakened by this Tiger’s memoir, oddly enough, seems to be New York Times Columnist David Brooks, who contends Chua’s Tiger isn’t so much a cultural phenomenon as a class one — and not a new one at that. He says she’s doing everything pushy, over-bearing, upper middle class parents do in trying to give their kids advantages, she’s just more relentless. When he raps her knuckles, he does it by calling her a wimp for protecting her kids from the most demanding of tasks -- understanding where they fit in with the rest of society.

“Where,” he asks, claws extended, “do they learn to detect their own shortcomings?”

I imagine Chua would just smile her pointed tiger teeth and growl at him in response. Why, from her, of course.

It’s a fascinating subject, really.

Here we are in a time when the U.S. seems at the precipice of losing its generations-old grasp of the top of the world food chain; schools are losing education funding left, right and sideways; and jobs are going where wages are cheaper and fear is rampant.

We have precious little control in our lives when it pertains to others, and more ideas about what it is we're supposed to be doing as parents than we have experience actually doing. We tend to raise our kids as we were raised, making changes based upon any number of influences … Chua and Brooks among them.

But we aren't convinced our ways are right either, are we?

I wonder if we’d be so outraged if we didn’t think there was a sliver of truth in what Chua said, despite her grandstanding.

For me, I suppose, the takeaway wasn’t about being relentless in the pursuit of excellence or the acceptance of limitations. It is that self esteem isn't something we can give our kids by protecting them from failure. It's something they take for themselves when they learn from their mistakes. It's the natural outcome of doing something they thought impossible.

I’m know I don't have the killer instinct to be a Tiger Mother or a Mama Grizzly, but I think I can certainly learn from both breeds.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

You never know

He wasn't happy. He didn't want to be in the parking lot of the ski area watching his sister schlep herself and a pair of rented skis across the road to the trail where a group of colorfully clad classmates are waiting.

But the lesson wasn't for him. He was too young to participate.

"Next year buddy," I tried to be reassuring. "Next year you will be old enough to go, too."

Cue waterworks.

So I did the only thing I could think to do; I picked him up, snowshoes and all, and carried him across the road and joined the group.

"We'll just follow along," I said to myself as I set him in the snow.

As the class started to slide awkwardly into the woods he muscled through the snow with ease if not grace.

"They're skis are longer than mine," he started to complain. "They aren't slipping."

His sister -- who was trying diligently to turn around by making "stars in the snow," or keep her skis straight out ahead like "French fries," or shape them into a wedge for controlling her speed -- was having a hard time staying upright.

So when he pitched forward and face planted into a drift of pure white powder I knew it wasn't an accident. He just wanted to do everything the other kids were doing, even falling.

It's funny how you can see their minds turning sometimes. You notice the smile in their eyes when the big ideas come to them. You know it as if you'd thought of it yourself.

When I picked him up and stuck him upright in the snow he was giggling. It's an intoxicating laughter, enough to make you think you know everything about your kids.

Yet, as one kid is muscling through the winter landscape, the other is struggling to stay on top of it. She's doing what the instructor advises, but everything is new and awkward. Her skis cross. She falls. It's hard to get back up. People are watching. Some kids are speeding past her with a combination of co-ordination and fearlessness. She falls again.

I put myself in her place and help her up again. I see the tears and try talking them away with "dust-your-self-off" encouragements.

She just stands there.

I smile painfully at the instructor, whose made the same assessment of the situation: Things are not going well.

Soon the class will be over. I walk, she skis next to me and we don't speak of what has happened.

I assume she's not going to want to return, though I don't want to make it official.

She's getting older, more aware of how things look if not how they seem. I have to be careful not to put things in her mind that weren't there to begin with.

Of course I'm not thinking about any of this as I trudged and she swooshed along the snow-covered path toward the final hill of the day. I'm just thinking about next week and what types of acrobatics it would take to get her out here again. I'm replaying all the variables I know of and imagine "if at first your don't succeed" speech falling victim to the "Because I said so, that's why" edict.

When we reach the rest of the group, I stay silent as she tells the instructor she'd rather walk down the last hill. But I smile when she changes her mind. As she starts downward, It takes every ounce of my flabby self-control not to reach out and catch her as she starts to wobble and lean backward.

She steadies herself and stays upright, and I bend over backwards in overdone praise. Her eyes glaze over.

I know that last bit of hill wasn't enough to erase the hour-long frustration of skiing. I fall silent again.

She schleps the gear back across the road, still sniffling. I'm afraid to ask, yet she volunteers: "That was really fun. I can't wait for next week."

As my children head toward the lodge together I stand in the parking lot with an odd sense of relief, but also an unsettling wisdom: You just never know.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

You can't fail if you don't tell anyone

The war is on.

The new year is upon us and resolutions are whizzing around as if catapulted by slingshot. We're collectively going to exercise 24 hours a day and lose a few trillion pounds. We're going to stop smoking and start living healthier lives. We're going to be different. We're going to be better. We're going to be happy.

It's nothing, really. Just a moment in the wee hours when we promise to make changes, great and small, that we hope will stick.

Hope being the key word and preeminent weapon in this internal war on our interminable human shortcomings.

Of course, not everyone shares the desire to engage in the annual ritual.

Occasionally, however, one of these forward-thinking missiles ricochets off some soft object and hits a hard-boiled cynic, causing them to hoot and holler and dance around swearing a stream of obscenities that would make a sailor blush.

Resolutions, this kitten-hating group thinks, are for the romantic saps who, by January's close, will be outside freezing their fingers off in the designated smoking areas near the dumpsters, bumming cigarettes from their friends who didn't quit buying.

Cynicism, therefore, is for anyone whose ever bought a lottery ticket that didn't pay out. Why bother trying?

I shrug my shoulders. Who am I to judge?

From midnight to midnight on the cusp of any given year I have no idea on which side I'll be standing amid the skirmish.

Will I be taking my last bite of a white-flour-refined-sugar confection or swearing off striving for an iota of improvement?

The side of me that wants to eat more vegetables, get exercise and make choices that lead to fewer regrets is counter balanced by the side that wants to foster a greater acceptance for that which isn't perfect.

Acceptance of ourselves and others seems to be the thing in shortest supply.

Some folks think that's as it should be. Acceptance, after all, is just as easily defined as acquiescence rather than agreement. It is the tarnish instead of the silver. Silver can only be polished with hard work and caustic chemicals.

Who is right? Who is wrong? Who really cares?

Truth be told, I've found agreeing to disagree to be the utmost of challenges.

As I surf through my social network I see the difficulty isn't a growing problem so much as a lingering one. The same old slights and complaints rise in daily status reports. Thumbs Up for hating Mean People. Sure. That's easy. All Nice People hate Mean People. Deciding which is which, though, that's the trick isn't it?

I should stop reading status reports.

Maybe I'll vow to stop searching stat counters and worrying about how many people are following, unfollowing or unfriending me. I wish those terms and others (refutiated) never web crawled their way into my lexicon.

I've tried to be the righter of wrongs. I've repeated mistakes as much as I've learned from them. "Look before you leap," I tell myself. "Don't be so quick to judge." I've spoken in superlatives and jumped on bandwagons that have subsequently overturned.

Balance isn't as easy as it seems.

Maybe that's my mission as this new year opens to a host of possibilities: Whether I resolve or revolve, it matters not. So long as I keep it to myself, I can't fail.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Coming in from the cold

I don't have clear memories of spending hours building giant snow fortresses or populating the front yard with lopsided snow people. I'd always just assumed that's what happened since I clearly remember the results. I'd just figured a substantial chunk of my childhood winters were spent thawing out, just as I'd spent an entire month of every summer submerged under water. My lips would be blue and my teeth chattering and still I'd insist I was fine.

"I don't know where they get the energy," said tired moms over every kitchen table where I sat sipping cocoa and swinging my legs, as my boots stood helter skelter in an ever-expanding puddle of melting snow on the linoleum.

Perhaps I just have the seasons confused. Maybe the puddles were from waterlogged towels.

I certainly remember the sky blue-colored snow suit with the faux fur around the hood. After I'd outgrown it came a royal blue colored replacement with a hook-closure belt and yellow racing stripes along one side. I called it my snowmobile suit, though no one I knew ever zipped around on one.

Things felt different back then.

I remember a world that seemed perpetually white after the Thanksgiving leftovers had been polished off. I remember the excitement of waiting for a big enough dump of snow to bury the school day ... maybe even two.

I remember having popsicle toes. On more than one occasion.

What I don't remember is how long it took to get dressed in the prerequisite layers of thermal duds, the degree of difficulty in getting last year's boots over three layers of socks, or the dilemma of whether to tuck the pants into the boots or put the boots over the pants.

The holy grail was to keep any and all elements from getting through the armor. The smallest amount of precipitation down a boot or the back of a sweater would put the brakes on everything, except perhaps cocoa commotion.

I don't remember searching for matching gloves or a hat that fit. I don't remember getting a scarf wrapped around my entire body like a snake coiling its dinner. I certainly don't remember taking hours to put on all the gear and spending mere minutes in the snow.

I don't remember my mother pretending to be a horse and racing through knee-deep drifts of snow hoping to recreate the feeling of sledding since the grade of our hill was as flat as Florida.

Florida. It's warm there ... although not lately.

Bad example.

I digress.

Back then it never occurred to me I'd be standing in waist-high snow with two kids laying prone on a red toboggan behind me as the wind grinds fine crystals of snow into their cheeks. One pass through a make-shift sled run and the novelty has already worn off.

"I want to go back inside."

I look at my watch. It had taken 45 minutes to turn my children into trussed up turkeys and six minutes for their pop-up thermometers to blast off.

"Yeah, I'm cold, too. My wrists are freezing. I can't feel my nose."

They're too young to remember this, I tell myself as I drag the sled back toward the house. They just stare up at the sky and moan melodramatically ... "We can't even see the house it's so far away."

I tell them we will be home and warm soon but they aren't convinced.

"We'll freeze like ice cubes before we get there. I'm so hungry. I might even starve. It's already been hours."

"No it hasn't," I assure them. "It will just seem that way."