Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Serendipitous Slippage

            A couple of years back, Pip discovered a large coffee table book about the Civil War on our bookshelf. This book was given to me by my parents when I was about eight or ten years old and is filled with interesting pictures and colorful maps depicting many of the war’s important battles. Over the next year or so, Pip would periodically pick it up and start asking questions about where things were and why people were fighting and who was right. Obviously, it’s hard to explain that sort of thing to a six-year-old, especially if you’re trying not to demonize people while touching on some of the reasons why these armies were set to killing each other. Pretty soon Ava and I decided to move these questions in other directions and come back to them when Pip (and Polly) had gotten older.
            This was the right plan, and I should have stuck with it. But, I slipped. Around the same time as we started redirecting the Civil War questions, I was shifting Polly and Pip from taking a bath to taking showers. As it turned out, Pip likes to talk when he’s in the shower and soon he was returning to some of the questions about the Civil War that we had deflected earlier. In effect, he pulled a little divide-and-conquer on Ava and me, and he soon discovered that I was weak. After all, it was my book.
Sometimes I’d still redirect his questions, but other times I would go ahead and try to answer them. Usually I gave in on the simple stuff like which army was blue and which was grey, or was our state a Union or Confederate state, or why did the Union win. After answering these I would then get sucked in and take on some more complicated questions such as why did the South need slaves or why did someone shoot President Lincoln.
            Eventually, Pip tired on the Civil War questions, but other topics that he felt might be sensitive took their place. He’d asked me questions about World War II and why the Nazis were bad. One time he hopped into the shower, dunked his head, and said,

            “Dad, what does ICBM stand for?”

This led to a long, multi-shower conversation about nuclear weapons, the Cold War, and missile submarines.
Warfare and military hardware are not the only topics he likes to talk about during shower time. He’s also told me about the games he plays during his free computer time at school. Recently he’s also been bringing me up to speed on the plot lines of the Percy Jackson books he’s been reading. We even had one conversation about War of the Worlds and the Orson Welles radio-play that freaked out the country in the 1930s.

****

I didn’t really think much about all of this until two months ago when the kids went back to school. Every new school year starts off with its share of rough patches, and this year Pip had to contend with a couple of older kids in his class who wanted to test him. One in particular spent the third day of school, in classic bully fashion, trolling through Pip’s lunch to see if there was anything he liked. Fortunately, he was looking for something sweeter than Pip’s sandwich, cashews, and raisins, and he moved on.
            Because it turned out to be a non-event, I’m not sure Pip would ever have told us about this kid was messing with his lunch. Thought it was clearly on his mind, it was not something big enough to bring up at dinner or take a special moment out after homework. It was just the kind of everyday annoyance that largely gets washed away in the flow of things.
            Except that we had created this space during his shower where it was just Pip and me with a bit of time and only something menial to accomplish. That night while he took his shower Pip let me know what had happened at lunch. He wasn’t looking for me to do anything about it. He was just telling me because it was on his mind. I didn’t overreact. I told him he had handled things well and to let me know if other things happened. Over the next week or so I checked in with him at various times to see how things were going. We didn’t talk about bullying per se; we just talked about handling such moments and knowing when it was okay to ask for help from a teacher. Fortunately after a couple more tests, the older kid apparently decided to leave Pip alone.

****

            I started to tell this story as a way to talk about how Pip has come to feel that the shower is a safe place to unload whatever random stuff is on his mind. It seemed amusing and somewhat bizarre, but as I’ve been writing I’ve come to realize how lucky we are to have stumbled into that. In our daily lives there are few places where Pip or Polly get such regular, predictable, focused attention from one of us. At meals, after homework, on the ride to and from school, there’s always a sibling or another parent around somewhere to jump in and complicate things. The times we do get to have one-on-one talks tend to come outside the course of our regular week, often on the weekend when one child goes to the store and the other stays home. These times are nice, but they tend to be freighted with a specialness that dissuades talking about mundane annoyances. It’s hard to imagine Pip’s lunch time bully coming up during those times.
            And so, as it turns out I’m glad we have the shower. There are many things that I am happy to have off my plate as the kids grow up – diapers are gone, they feed themselves, I don’t have to monitor their bathroom needs anymore – and I thought bathing would eventually be the same. But now, I think I’ll hang on to that for a while longer. There’s no good replacement for that kind of time, and it may be a handy thing to have in our pocket when the next set of challenges come around.


Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Some Made-Up Awards for Books We Read This Summer

            We read a lot as a general rule. Pip and Polly will both settle in for an hour or so at a time with a book, and Pip has recently been devouring the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan. In addition, we read out loud for fifteen or twenty minutes before bed each night and often for half an hour or so before that. But this summer we added another layer to all of this by turning our lunch times into story time. This is something I’d done with Polly while she was home with me, but I had avoided doing it when both kids were home, reasoning we had plenty to talk about. As it turns out those lunchtime conversations tended to devolve into silliness and getting through the meal was becoming a chore. So one day in June I brought out a book to read to them while we ate. This turned out to be very popular. The kids enjoyed having something new to listen to while we ate and it even led them to hang around and eat a bit more than they had before. It also led us to motor through a significant number of books through the last six weeks or so of summer.
            As it has been a slower week here – another average week of school, Polly a bit under the weather over the weekend – and I was interested in shaking things up for a week, I thought I’d look back at some of the books we read over the summer and hand out some made-up awards as a way to talk about them. So without further ado:

The “Daddy, keep reading!” award: The Pirate’s Coin by Marianne Malone

            This award goes to the book I enjoyed reading out loud the most. The Pirate’s Coin is the third book in Marianne Malone’s 68 Rooms Adventure series about Jack and Ruthie, two kids who through various magical discoveries explore the Thorne Rooms – a group of 68 miniature rooms displayed at the Art Institute of Chicago – and travel back in time to the periods each room represents. The first two books in the series are very good as well, but they spend a great deal of time developing the infrastructure of the magical properties and the how and why the two kids are able to manage their explorations. In The Pirate’s Coin Malone strikes boldly out into the worlds beyond the rooms. The kids encounter Jack’s pirate ancestor and accidently change the course of his family’s history. They also make friends with a slave girl whose descendant winds up attending the same school as them. This book was fun to read out loud for two reasons: 1) Malone plays with the implications of their time traveling in a well-crafted and sophisticated way; and 2) you get to do the voice of a pirate.

The “You’re on your own with this one” award: Geronimo Stilton’s Field Trip to Niagara Falls

            This award goes to the book I could not get through. My kids like the Geronimo Stilton series. First of all, all the characters are mice. Second, these mice do silly, slap-stick type things that make them laugh. Third, the books are colorful and full of crazy graphics. I think of them as the literary equivalent to Halloween candy. I read two of them out loud to Pip and Polly before deciding I couldn’t do any more.
I stopped reading them to the kids because I’ve found that underlying the silliness is a tone that is mean-spirited and ugly. There is a fine line between slap-stick/sarcasm and out-right meanness, and I felt like the Geronimo Stilton books crossed that line a few too many times for my comfort. Also, the books are chock full of dubious behavior that I in no way want my children to emulate. For example, in the Niagara Falls book the main action is set in motion when Geronimo gets hot and bothered for his little nephew’s school teacher and attempts to wow her by whisking her away on a trip to Niagara Falls. She thinks he is proposing a class field trip and the plot proceeds from there. It was a touch like reading a porn script gone awry.

The Balloon Rocket Award: Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett

            Pip and Polly love playing with balloons. They like to blow them up and turn them loose to shoot around over the place. Its fun. It’s a touch magical. The balloon goes everywhere – up, down, all around – listening to its own logic, its own spirit. It makes the kids laugh deliriously. Then when the air is all gone, it collapses to the ground, shriveled and dead. The magic seems to have gone all out of it.
            This is how I felt after reading Chasing Vermeer. The book begins with mysterious letters being delivered to three unnamed people. It develops a set of wonderfully imagined characters who have to parse through the realms of coincidence and pattern, gut-feelings and logical analysis, as they try to pinpoint the location of a stolen painting. This build-up leads one to expect that some kind of revelatory wonder will emerge at the end, some kind of idea about the world that, whether it’s true or not, tickles the imagination in the way, for example, The DaVinci Code leads one to imagine that there might actually be a real descendent of Jesus in the world. Unfortunately, then the air runs out of the balloon. Once the kids find the painting and intercept the perpetrator it all turns out to be an ordinary con job. The mysterious letters were a diversion. The coincidences were just that.
As a family we really enjoyed reading this book, and the two subsequent ones featuring the same characters. I just wish Balliett’s resolutions were not so ordinary and mundane. They made what could have been mind-blowing books into just good stories.

The “Chicken again for dinner tonight? Oh, okay.” Award: Soccer on Sunday by Mary Pope Osborne

            We have read all fifty of the Magic Tree House books at least once over the last two years, and several of the volumes have passed our way multiple times. As with any series that long, there are ones you like more than others, but in general the books are reliably consistent in their structure, form, and characterization. The two main characters, Jack and Annie, are kind and adventuresome without being overly dramatic or reckless. They care for each other and approach the world with a bright-eyed sense of wonder. Pip and Polly relate to them and I find them to be decent models for the way I’d like Pip and Polly to make choices. I’ve even used Jack and Annie to help me explain things in a way they understand. Pip and Polly also tend to remember the different places Jack and Annie have traveled in the books and I have used this more than once as a way to create a more intimate connection with a place we are talking about on a map or in the news.
            The soccer book takes Annie and Jack to Mexico City for the 1970 World Cup. Along the way they meet a local kid who is also going to the final and wind up sharing the experience through his eyes. Later, using some magic, all three kids get to play a fantastic and uplifting game of soccer against some other local kids. It’s pretty run of the mill stuff for the series and Pip and Polly did not feel compelled to read it another time through. I’m not sure whether this is a sign of the average quality of the book or that the kids are beginning to grow out of the Magic Tree House series altogether. Either way, that’s okay.

The “Kids, this is literature” award: The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall

            This book earns the literature award for two reasons: First, it is incredibly well-written. As I read the text out loud to the kids, I found myself making mental notes of passages I wanted to go back and read again. Jeanne Birdsall is very skilled at structuring a scene and creating an emotional response through anticipation and well-chosen phrases. Second, this book about a middle class father and his four girls taking their summer vacation in a rental house on the estate of a very wealthy widower comes straight out of the tradition of the great English novels. All the class tensions and questions about family honor and identity feel right at home with the works of the Bronte sisters and Thomas Hardy.
            Most of the action surrounds the relationships that emerge between the son of the widower and the three youngest girls. They’re all too young for amorous tensions so concerns chiefly build around the girls’ bad influence on their new friend’s behavior – he sneaks out his window several times to go play – and how the girls might save the boy from having to go off to military school at the end of the summer. The action is decidedly small-scale and the drama is driven by escaped pet rabbits, a garden club competition gone awry, and kids venturing into places they are not supposed to be. The characters form the real meat of the story, and they were compelling enough that my children really enjoyed the book. I haven’t read the next books in the Penderwick series to them because they’re not old enough – or I’m not ready – to get into the nuances of first loves and parents going on dates. I hope I get the chance before Polly and Pip grow out of listening to me read to them.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

What will they remember?

            This past Thursday and Friday Polly and Pip were out of school for fall break. Taking advantage of these extra days, our family made a short trip south to spend the night at a local state park lodge. It turned out to be a very pleasant experience for us. The kids traveled well. They loved getting out in the woods and playing near the waterfall that was the park’s centerpiece attraction. They reveled in the opportunity to sleep in a hotel bed and eat restaurant food. They happily smiled for pictures in front of various sites.
At five and seven they seem to have entered a sweet spot with regards to these kinds of trips. They’re old enough now to handle the ups and downs of doing new things. They can sufficiently enjoy the moments of excitement and manage the moments of boredom. They gleefully hiked down to the falls and then powered back out of the gorge even though we were pushing up against our usual dinner time. They didn’t get cranky while we waited for our food to come out. Later, they played hide and seek in the room while Ava took a shower.
They also did the little things that smooth out the rough edges of a trip like this. They interacted with the staff at the lodge in a confident and polite way. They read books when we needed to wait for traffic at a construction site. They played merrily on the river bank while Ava and I watched this huge raptor circle high above us, agitating the crows along the cliffline. They didn’t whine about going somewhere else or doing something else. They only wanted to be with us and each other. It was wonderful.
            As we drove home on Friday afternoon with the kids napping peacefully in the backseat, Ava whispered across to me,

“I wonder what they’ll remember about this?”

There were so many nice moments – watching those birds, catching sight of a long, garter snake shuffling through the leaves, visiting the waterfall in the fading evening light with a half-moon glowing above us and nothing else around but the sound of the falls, playing Candyland on the lodge floor the next morning while it rained buckets outside, going back down to the waterfall after the rain passed and seeing the huge boulders on the lower side of the falls, sticking branches in the pools of rain water and stirring up the sand from the bottom, trying to hit some of the boulders with little bits of smoothed coal that were strewn along the river’s edge – it was painful to think about how quickly they would fade in Pip and Polly’s minds. Of course we took some pictures, and Ava and I will talk from time to time about some of the things we enjoyed so much, but it’s likely that only one or two moments from that trip will really get etched in their minds and become symbolic of the trip as a whole.
And we won’t know for six months or so what those are going to be. It may just as well be the weird shower head in the bath room or the hammocks we played on out front or the kitschy gemstone mining setup near the gift shop as any of the things I listed above. Hopefully, whatever it is that sticks, they’ll at least feel a vague sense of joy at the mention of the state park and remember that they went there with their parents and that it was fun. If all that comes to pass, then that will be enough.


This mystery about what things the kids will remember represents one of the greatest psychological challenges of parenthood. So many things good and bad happen in the process of raising children and most of it goes off into the mists of time. The few chunks that stick in their minds are often random and irrational - Pip remembers that his first poop on the toilet happened the day Polly first came home from the hospital; Polly remembers running down the long hallway in the apartment we lived in three years ago - yet they have so much power to shape how the kids think about themselves, their parents, their childhood. It seems unfair. We can influence those memories some with the pictures we take and the stories we tell, but so much of that narrative is beyond our control. Despite all the work we put in to raise our kids in a happy, joyous environment, chance still plays such a huge role in what they remember and consequently what they know. The best we can do is overwhelm them with love and hope that these efforts become a majority of what sticks. 

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Wishes

            I get it now. I get it in a way I’ve never quite gotten it before. I understand why star athletes, prodigal musicians, and the like get lavish treatment regardless of how annoying, demeaning, and generally unlikeable they can sometimes be. I have played on little league and high school sports teams. I have performed in a highly competitive marching band (yes, there is such a thing). I’ve seen kids who can do something just a sliver better than others get extra chances and special treatment. I’ve even been one of those kids for a little while. Through it all I never fully understood why this thing happens, why the talk about rules and values and the team breaks apart so easily in the face of adversity. I am there now. I can see where all the principles break down. I can see where the coaches and managers of a prodigal teammate let garbage slide, cater to their whims, and defend them in irrational and contradictory ways when they do something wrong. I understand this now because we don’t have one.

****

            When Pip signed up to play soccer for the first time this fall, I took a plunge as well by agreeing to help out the team as an assistant coach. I’d never coached before, but it seemed like a reasonable thing to do. I would be taking Pip to practice more often than not, and I like being able to help out with things much more than just sitting around watching. It also seemed like a low-intensity way to have some fun with Pip and to help him get better at the game.
This has largely been true with the exception of one thing.
Pip plays soccer in a local Under 8 league which means most of the kids are six and seven years old. The six-year-olds tend to be small and all over the place. The seven-year-olds tend to be bigger and, with many having played a year of Under 8 already, tend to be more in control of what’s happening on the field. Pip happened to land on a team where eight of the ten players are six-year-olds. Throw in the fact that neither Pip nor the other seven-year-old had played organized soccer before and this makes his team very young and very inexperienced. They don’t have the strength to really kick the ball down the field. They don’t have the speed to get around and through other players consistently. They just are not big enough to muscle the ball through other players and into the goal the way some of the other teams can. Next year, even without major skill improvements, they will be much better. One year’s worth of physical growth at this stage means that much. But right now they don’t have it and that means we lose. Every game.
            The losing isn’t really that bad. Knowing that you’re going in to a game at a deficit, you set your sights accordingly. Good stops, correct throw-ins, nice passes take on an overwhelming significance. As coaches, we make a big deal about small positives and just smile when mistakes happen. We keep telling the kids that they are playing hard and that were proud of them for their efforts. And that’s all true. The kids are playing hard. They’re trying to do what we ask of them, and no one is quitting or hanging their heads. Fortunately, they’re mostly still young enough that they are happy to be playing regardless of the score.
            It’s probably as good a situation as Pip could hope for as well. He gets to learn the game, to try out different positions, and make lots of mistakes without anyone getting frustrated with him. Since he tries hard, he gets to play a lot in the games. Since he is good at following directions and has improved the strength of his kicking, he gets to take goal kicks. He’s not going to light the world on fire, and he doesn’t have the consuming need to win. Right now, he just wants a chance to be out there and with this team he gets it.

****

            But, from the sideline it’s hard to watch all that effort get expended by Pip and his teammates and have so little to show for it. In the middle of games, I’ve found myself shouting for kids to just take the ball and go with it, hoping a little bit of luck will come along to help get that ball through the defense and into the goal. If you have a player who can do that from time to time, it just makes things easier. Because when that kid scores, we can all cheer ‘Hurray’ and we can all say we contributed and somewhere along the way we can all say we scored and we won.
            Human beings are addicts by nature. When something works, we want to do it again and again and again. As long as the good things keep coming, we’ll make deals with ourselves to hold off the rest of the junk until later. And when things happen to disrupt those workings, we find ways to keep them going, even as principles break down and rules get violated. I know this to be true because even in a recreational soccer league where the kids are having fun, we don’t have a star. And for a few minutes each game, I wish we did.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Let's wait on the money

            As you may have heard, a month or so ago someone hacked into the photo archives of a bunch of famous and semi-famous actresses and, after retrieving a large cache of nude photographs and posting them in a publicly accessible place on the web, set off an orgy of downloading and subsequent hand-wringing over public morality and internet privacy. Presumably these two things played out among different groups and each had their own type of fun with it (I guess a few hypocrites might have done a little of both).
            The only article I read about this episode was this one by Molly Lambert, an entertainment writer for the website Grantland.com. Touching on some of the larger themes spinning off from this episode – internet privacy, mob dynamics, women and media – it’s worth a read. The reason I bring it up, and the whole episode more fully, is that I came away from her article thinking about the subtle role money played in all of this. Entertainment companies rely heavily on a few strategies to grab consumers’ attention and convince them to pay for the movies, music, and games they sell. When it comes to selling women (and that is an intentional malapropism), sex appeal is an easy choice. Provocative photo shoots, barely-clothed struts in music videos, sex scenes in movies, even the glamour and glitz of red carpet interviews all are designed to stoke a biological reaction, to prick peoples’ curiosity, and to get them to pay up in order to see more.
           That more doesn’t have to actually be sex or even nudity. The power really lies in the curiosity and the questions that follow: what are this star going to look like in this movie? What about that show? How about at this awards ceremony? How about when they go to the dry-cleaners? With these efforts the entertainment companies are like shark scientists chumming the water to bring out the sharks. The scientists keep throwing out bloody meat to grab the sharks’ attention, trying to manipulate the sharks’ biological reactions to make them go somewhere they might not otherwise go.
            In this analogy, the Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Upton, etc photo hack and subsequent mob download was like having one of these shark scientists fall overboard and get attacked. The sharks weren’t doing anything different than what the scientists had been priming them to do over and over again – come up to the boat and take some bites. The reaction was already pre-programmed into the system.

****
            I wanted to touch on this dynamic between advertising and human reactions as a way to talk about money and kids and how kids are supposed to learn to handle money. A capitalist economy demands that all companies scramble for consumer dollars. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. From a business perspective, competition is a great motivator. It challenges people and companies to do things and do them better: to try new manufacturing processes, to reach out to new markets, to improve their product quality, to lower prices, to explore new ideas.
           From the consumer side though, this constant competition for dollars means we get buried by advertising. Our daily existence now contains an endless assault of images, catch words, manipulations and games that seek to worm their way into our consciousness, play with our emotions, and overwhelm our decision-making processes in an effort to grab some of our money. In the face of this onslaught, it’s hard to say ‘Stop’ and harder still to clear away all the noise and make cogent decisions about what is important or how to spend your money in useful ways.
            Which brings me to kids and money. The conventional idea about learning how to handle money is the one I grew up with. I started getting a small allowance as a five or six year old. I think it was a quarter once a week ostensibly for taking out the trash and doing what other chores were asked of me. The idea was that I would patiently save my quarters to buy something I wanted. For a while this was Matchbox cars. Then it was baseball cards. One summer I think I mostly bought candy. At some point my parents took me to the bank to open a savings account so that I could also learn about how interest works and come to appreciate how saving some of those quarters could increase my overall total over time.
            This was all well and good and I guess I learned how to overcome my immediate impulses to buy something in order to save for something else. But, in an era where every website and app pumps out advertisements by the truckload, book order pamphlets from Scholastic come home twice a month from school, PTA events are sponsored by local real estate agents, and the calendars our school requires every student to buy contains a giant ad for a local orthodontist on the back, I wonder if this kind of early exposure to the capital machine might do more harm than good. Isn’t teaching young kids about money by giving them money akin to teaching interns at the zoo to feed the lions by giving them a meat-sicle and dropping them into the lion enclosure? It feels like they don’t have a chance.
            Or imagine a six-year old faced with the allure of an ice cream truck? How can it make any sense to a kid how to decide whether he should buy an ice cream or not? He knows he wants it. The colorful, happy signs on the side tell him how good the ice cream tastes and how wonderful it will make him feel. The only reason to hold off is that his parents say he shouldn’t – because it will ruin his dinner or some stupid thing like that. That’s a no-win situation for everyone but the person selling the ice cream.
            And, even if the kid has decided to hold on to his quarters to buy something else he wants, he still isn’t getting at the real challenge behind managing money. He’s just holding off on one want for another. Since his parents are covering all the necessities, since he doesn’t have to figure out how he’s going to buy food for the next month or afford the clothes he needs for work or the gas he needs to get around or the rent he has to pay, there’s no larger context in which to learn a productive lesson about making difficult choices and living within his means. It’s just ice cream now or candy later.
            Might it be easier to handle if there was no actual money involved? Can you talk about advertising strategies and how they make you feel with a clearer head if there’s no actual chance to buy the ice cream? Isn’t it easier to see the various games that are being played within the system to attract your attention if you start from outside? Might it be easier to ignore the chum if you’ve had a chance to look at what it is designed to do?
           I don’t know for sure, but in our family we’re giving it a try.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

What's the News?


            For the past five to seven years, I’ve been living in a news bubble, largely avoiding stories and news reports from the world at large. I hadn’t planned to do this. Until Pip could talk I listened to the news on the radio while we snacked or played. However, as he got more capable, this arrangement stopped working. He would start to play with a toy while I was listening to a news story and before I knew it the toy would come flying across the room. It turned out I couldn’t pay attention to both Pip and the news. One thing had to go, and it wasn’t going to be Pip. So, the radio got turned off. The bubble got turned on. Polly’s arrival a year or so later fully cemented this arrangement.

Now that Pip and Polly are in school, I suddenly have time to pay attention to the news again. I read the Washington Post at lunch and browse through the Economist – a gift from Ava – in the evenings. When the first issue of that magazine arrived, I was overwhelmed by all the crazy things that were going on in its pages: Russia has annexed the Crimea and is trying to take over more of eastern Ukraine? Large parts of Syria and Iraq are being controlled by some metastasized terrorist group I’ve never heard of? Police units are rolling out tanks in Ferguson, Missouri? A commercial airliner disappeared over the Indian Ocean and another from the same company was shot out of the sky a couple of weeks later? I wondered if the world had exploded while I was out of touch or if this was just a normal condition that I was no longer used to.

I also began to wonder exactly what it was I was supposed to do with all of this information. When I was in high school and college these kinds of stories thrilled me. They represented history in the making. They were context for understanding the world. They were data that I could use in my future life. The people and places in those stories represented a world that was different from the one I was living in, one that was more important, one that I could strive to join. Even in grad school, I read the news with a purpose. I was studying Islamist politics and geographies of capitalism and globalization. Everything I saw in the news had the potential to show up somewhere else – whether it was in an example in a paper, in a conversation with other students, or in some lecture by a visiting professor. All of this was something to know so that I could be a part of it.

            Now, on the other side of school and kids, none of that feels true anymore. As I have found myself lured more deeply into random on-running news-stories – Scotland is voting to break off from the United Kingdom? – I am coming to realize that in my present life there is little to no difference between reading the news in the Economist and flipping through the pages of US Weekly. In neither case am I reading for any particular reason beyond curiosity and escapism. President Obamas plan to fight the Islamic State has no more immediate bearing on my life than some celebrity’s hemline. Regardless of what I read in the paper, the most pressing questions I need to answer – how are the kids doing at school, when is soccer practice, what issues are cropping up at Ava’s work – are all hyper-local. The world where all these news stories are happening – be they the financial impacts of Brazils presidential election or stolen nudes of famous actresses – feels farther away than ever.

            This idea that the news is just another form of entertainment is not revelatory. One only needs to look on the main page at Yahoo to see Kate Middleton’s wardrobe choices and Kim Kardashians latest shenanigans intermixed with headlines about Russia’s geopolitical strategies and gun control questions in Florida. The headlines on that page target the interests of very different people, but they all appeal to the same instinct – a desire to read about some other world, a desire to step outside your own for a little while.

            What is interesting to me in all of this is what my reaction says about where I am in my life. I guess it reflects something of a mid-life crisis. The dream that I would be a part of these stories, that my world would somehow overlap or interweave with these, has faded away, leaving me unsure about how to relate to things I use to easily understand. I still want to read about the world beyond my doorstep. I’m still interested to learn what’s going on in Beijing and Baghdad and Moscow. But, to my surprise, I no longer want them to come closer. In fact on most days, I’m happy for them all to be just as irrelevant as the latest controversial pop lyrics, to be curiosities that I can read about, enjoy, and then easily put away. We’ve got plenty of challenges to work out within the four walls of our home. I no longer have the time or interest to claw my way into the news world as well.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Chess


Fathers worry about their sons because boys do stupid things. Fathers worry about their daughters for the same reason.

             A couple of weekends ago our family went to a birthday party for one of Pip’s friends. It was held at the friend’s home and, as it was a rainy Sunday afternoon, everyone got boxed up inside. With fifteen or so seven and eight year olds bouncing around and only a few parents about to provide some minimal supervision, things got a bit chaotic.

            In one of the rooms, the hosts, in an attempt to provide some direction, had laid out a bunch of different games for the kids to play. These were largely ignored at first in favor of building sculptures out of marshmallows, grapes, and toothpicks. However, as the party went along various kids began picking among the assembled options for things that interested them. At one point I looked in to see that two kids had set up a chess board on the floor and were attempting to play a game. One of the kids was definitely a less experienced chess player than the other – the latter was walking the former through the moves the various pieces could make with relative, though by no means perfect, accuracy.

About five minutes later I heard a great deal of ruckus coming from the same room. Peeking around the corner I witnessed two additional kids now crouched down beside the board basically yelling at the less experienced kid, competing with each other to tell this kid what they were doing wrong. One of the interloping observers even shouted something to the effect of,

            “You might as well start over. You’re doing it all wrong.”

The less experienced kid definitely appeared overwhelmed and in shock from the hyperactive, sugar fueled onslaught of these two know-it-all observers.

            As I watched all of this through the doorway, I felt caught in a state of hesitant uncertainty. First of all, none of the four kids around the board belonged to me. Second, it wasn’t a physically dangerous interaction. The house was quite loud, and the know-it-alls’ yelling was not in and of itself out of place. Third, the bullying effect of their actions was not apparent to any of the other three kids. They weren’t intentionally ganging up on the fourth. They were caught up in a competition between themselves that led them to gang up on the fourth. It would have been very easy to read the whole interaction as one of hyperactive silliness if I hadn’t seen the fear in the face of that fourth kid. It was this fear that finally prompted me to step in and ask the kids to calm down. They did to some extent, but the effect of their yelling had already been writ. A few moments after I turned away, the less experienced kid quietly pushed down all the pieces on the chessboard and left the room, bringing an end to the game.

            This small drama has stayed in my mind the last couple of weeks for two reasons. First, it was a discomfiting reminder of how violence happens even in ‘safe’ situations. The kids around that chess board were smart, good kids from decent families. They were not looking to exact any kind of violence on someone. But, the chaos of the environment and the competition of the moment overwhelmed their consciousness of what actions are right and respectful and obliterated any awareness they may have possessed regarding the emotions of the person they were ostensibly trying to coach.

Second, there was a gender component to the equation. The less experienced kid in this episode was a girl. The other three were boys. And, they were belittling her over a game of chess, a game whose history skews toward masculine associations. I don’t know that this drama in itself represents anything in particular, but it seemed in alignment with a pattern common in many male-dominated arenas – the girl’s knowledge was deemed unfit, even when her playing partner set up the board wrong and was making his share of mistakes as well.

Both Wired magazine and the Washington Post published commentaries this week talking about how women in the technology sector are systematically overlooked by male supervisors, have their skills routinely questioned, and have their contributions to projects regularly downplayed. These patterns do not result from conscious misogynism. I imagine that there is a general discourse in the technology sector that women and men are equally good at coding, but that women have not tended to get in to the field to start with (I know this thinking was true in my engineering classes two decades ago). But there is a difference in saying the right thing, believing the right thing, and doing the right thing. The last of those three is the hardest to get to as it means not only being aware of the patterns but also reprogramming many of the social cues and unconscious responses that create those patterns. These unthought elements, the ones that pass by unnoticed in day-to-day interactions, the ones that get reproduced accidentally in the pressure of the moment, the ones that get reinscribed in a sugar-fueled competition over which boy is most right about a chess move, are the ones that continue to perpetuate the structural inequalities of the world into which we were born.

I’ve be thinking a lot about Polly since watching that chess game because while Polly wasn’t the girl on the other side of the board that day, one day she will be. I once imagined or hoped that wouldn’t be the case. I thought perhaps enough would change by the time she entered the adult world that she would be able to largely avoid the agony of such ridiculousness. Watching those eight-year old boys enact exactly that ridiculousness has quashed that hope, and I’m not sure what to do about it. I don’t know how Polly should respond to those boys lost in their own particular world. I don’t know how to prepare her to persevere through their stupidity. I’m not sure how to tell her what is to come.

In the face of all that uncertainty there is one hope to which I still cling: that when it is her turn to face it the idiocy – in whatever form it appears - she will enough knowledge and support around her to call it out for the ridiculousness it is.